Sunday, 17 January 2010

Crazy Like Us

Thanks for the great posting on Haiti, Derridata. It got me thinking about the management of disaster capitalism on the micropolitical level, and this line of inquiry brought me to Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche. I don't believe that globalization can be reduced to Americanization, but I feel the book is still useful as a sensitising device to frame how the discipline of psychology functions as a normalizing agent for risk managers. Psychologists are basically just glorified administrative researchers with little reflexive capacity for understanding how their scientism is the handmaiden of instrumental rationality. Sociologists refer to this phenomenon as "psychologism".

There's an eeriness then in how the army of trauma counsellors and NGOs arrive on the scene after the disaster to smooth the way for neocolonialism, as was previously the case with anthropologists. As someone trained in the social sciences, I'm always greatly appreciative of any book that uses a lot of case studies to ground its arguments. Here's the blurb:

"It is well known that American culture is a dominant force at home and abroad; our exportation of everything from our movies to our junk food is a well documented phenomenon. But is it possible America’s most troubling impact on the globalizing world has yet to be accounted for? In Crazy Like Us, Ethan Watters reveals the most devastating consequence of the spread of American culture has not been our golden arches or our bomb craters but our bulldozing of the human psyche itself: We are in the process of homogenizing the way the world goes mad.
America has been the world leader in generating new mental health treatments and modern theories of the human psyche. We export our psychopharmaceuticals packaged with the certainty that our bio-medical knowledge will relieve the suffering and stigma of mental illness. We categorize disorders, defining mental illness and health, and then parade these seemingly scientific certainties in front of the world. The blowback from these efforts is just now coming to light: It turns out that we have not only been changing the way the world talks about and treats mental illness – we have been changing the mental illnesses themselves.
Local beliefs in different cultures have for millennia shaped the experience of mental illness into endless varieties. Crazy Like Us documents how American interventions have discounted and worked to change those indigenous beliefs, often with dizzying speed. Over the last decades, mental illnesses popularized in America have been spreading across the globe with the speed of contagious diseases. Watters travels from China to Tanzania to bring home the unsettling conclusion that the virus is us; as we introduce Americanized ways of treating mental illnesses, we are in fact spreading the diseases themselves.
In post-tsunami Sri Lanka, he reports on the western trauma counselors who, in their rush to help, inadvertently trampled local expressions of grief, suffering and healing. In Hong Kong he retraces the last steps of the teenager whose death sparked an epidemic of the American version of anorexia. He reveals the truth about a multi-million dollar campaign by one of the world’s biggest drug companies to change the Japanese experience of depression – literally marketing the disease along with the drug.
But this book is not just about the damage we’ve caused in far away places. Looking at our impact on the psyches of people in other cultures is a gut check – a way of forcing ourselves to take a fresh look at our own beliefs about mental health and healing. Examining our own assumptions from a farther shore, we can begin to understand how our own culture constantly shapes and sometimes creates the mental illnesses of our time. If we can set aside our role as the world’s therapist, we may come to accept that we have as much to learn from other cultures’ beliefs about the mind as we have to teach".

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