THE WAR ON INTELLECTUALISM
A working definition of the intellectual. Separating intellectuals from look-alikes. Most culture-watchers agree intellectualism has almost disappeared in America, but they disagree on causes. It’s not just a change in fashion; there are real pressures. This essay rejects some of the common explanations (television, the rise of religious fundamentalism, materialism, the rise of conservatism, poor schools) as incomplete, and replaces them with better explanations: sequel to the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, the university, technical specialists, the rise of relativism, the rise of psychotherapy, the resurgence of Social Darwinism, and the rise of trash culture. What’s the loss if we don’t have intellectuals? The revival of intellectualism is both a remote and precious possibility: remedies.
Alright, snap to. This is the big one.
Is there a war on intellectualism? Some people think this is a good discussion topic for dinner parties. Actually, polished people, social chatterers who say witty things about culture, often skirt this one. It can turn your dinner party upside down.
Some excellent and aggravated writers have written on this topic, I’ll be naming them.
An opening note: doing the research for this essay has turned me. For instance I respect less my old colleagues, academics; also technologists and specialists, with their production of acres of facts. And it’s turned me into an appreciator of eccentrics, the “difficult” people not invited to dinner. Intellectuals are a discrete social class made up of brainy people who are a threat. The intellectual was always persona non grata in corporations, but in recent decades they’ve been much more widely excluded by media, by politicians, by administrators – anywhere team work is required. Intellectuals are not just out of fashion. They are, I will argue, suppressed.
Our nation was founded by intellectuals: Washington, Paine, Franklin, and the men who wrote the Constitution. But can you imagine what would happen in a school classroom these days if the teacher goes round, asking the children what they want to be when they grow up, and the kids in turn say, millionaire entertainer, lawyer, basketball player, doctor, and one kid says an intellectual. The room would be reduced to rubble and the teacher would be sniggering loudest.
Something has changed. In a nation that reveres its entertainers, developers and super-salesmen, intellectuals are cartooned as egg-heads, a sofa class with mannerisms, out of place in the mall or on the new car lot because that’s where business is happening. Business is the engine of America. Business is a single-value system, and it runs on confidence. There is more than antipathy towards egg-heads because intellectuals know how, in a few paragraphs, to crack confidence also confidence games. Indeed they can sabotage a whole value system and suggest another to replace it. When this society mocks intellectuals as effeminate layabouts whose work is impractical, that is belied by history. As Madison and Hamilton showed, intellectuals can blueprint a whole nation. We are amused by these cartoon stereotypes, but if this cultural trend continues, our intellectuals may vanish, and with them some protections for our liberties and way of life.
Richard Posner is a known writer on this topic. He has made a list of 607 intellectuals. It is a meager number compared with the national population, and most people on the list are obscure (his book focuses on the top 100). Many intellectuals are middle-aged or elderly – Chomsky, Rushdie, Sachs, Paglia. There’s an absence of young intellectuals. Posner says 87% of American intellectuals are male, 66% are left-leaning, 31% are independent of an institution, and 57% are not Jewish.
What does an intellectual look like when you’ve reeled one in and have it flopping on the dock? They are synthesizers. We’ll find them immersed in public ideas. Their focus is society. They are committed to reason. Many have academic credentials, but that is not a requirement; and advanced literacy is not sufficient as a qualification. They oppose things. Intellectuals are courageous, if obstinate, in pushing their ideas, so sometimes they run against church, public opinion, or government. Intellectuals exist at all points of the political spectrum, but a prototype is a leftist who supports the underdog. At points across the globe you will find intellectuals scorned, or in jail or in exile, and their work banned. Courage is part of the intellectual personality. All that is still a loose collection of qualities, and Rushdie says well, maybe an intellectual is anybody who wears glasses and reads journals. We’d rather have a sharper definition. Following Habermas, and Aronowitz: an intellectual is a person who brings brains to incendiary language.
In a bygone era, the intellectual was an agent of history. He still is, in other cultures. In America, although they still have arresting ideas, and despite their strong communication skills, and despite the need for them, intellectuals are no longer influential.
Next I’ll distinguish three look-alikes who sometimes claim the label. First, academics. Brains yes, but not courage: university folks rarely publish ideas that threaten their job; they are security-minded. Their work is missing the incendiary language. Academics are not independent thinkers. In fact they are better understood as servants of an institution and their habits actually endanger intellectualism. Another look-alike is the conspiracy theorist. This is a thinker who spreads astonishing ideas which always include invisible powers and organized secrecy. Conspiracy theorists are sometimes difficult to distinguish, but where a true intellectual will follow reason to a conclusion, conspiracy theorists begin with a non-negotiable conclusion (e.g. astronauts never actually landed on the moon in 1969, it was only a movie) and go backwards, assembling reasons. But some conspiracy theorists wield awesome political power, so defying them takes unusual courage (e.g. there were secret WMD in Iraq; e.g. if we don’t stop the communists in Vietnam, they will invade America). The third look-alike is the wealthy journalist. Journalists are immersed in public ideas, they sound like synthesizers and they offer analysis of public events. Charismatic, some earn many millions of dollars a year and we find them on television chasing truth-by-roundtable-discussion. They are intelligent and they are coiffed, but television is theatrical and they follow ratings more than reason. They impress rather than enlighten. (Journalists sometimes read what intellectuals write, then use their ideas.)
There’s another distinction between intellectuals and academics or journalists, and it has to do with how the work gets meaning. There’s a history of isolated intellectuals flowering out of poverty or jail, their genius sharpened by life risk (Neitzsche, Hamsung, Rousseau). Habermas says that meaning requires such experience. From a distance, charismatic journalists or professors talk about events, such as the terrible poverty in other continents, and add endless loops of commentary; but this is inauthentic. They are detatched, what they are talking about has little meaning.
Why have intellectuals all but disappeared from America?
I’ll first dispose of the obvious explanations. Each of the following is appealing but incomplete.
Television. Television, they say, is destroying our cognitive skills because it fragments our thought patterns with bombastic flashes of commercial imagery and since the average American watches it for hours every day, he can no longer hold on to a thought for more than a couple of minutes. Television destroys cognitive continuity, the habit of quiet reflection, the ability to construct good counterarguments, and the want to theorize.
We can remove this explanation. True, our culture is being cognitively atomized. But television is not to blame. We are doing it to ourselves. Then television reflects what we have become. Sternheimer has evidence that television is the lagging variable. Don’t, she says, blame umbrellas for the rain. And we are looking for another explanation.
Materialism and the focus on wealth. Has our preoccupation with material wealth pushed intellectualism out? The argument goes that our money culture is so demanding, it elbows rumination aside. Possibly. And it’s going to get worse, says Edouard El-Kharrat: he says the obliteration of the conscience through consumer pleasures looks like it has a rosy future. But we can’t use this as a complete explanation because in some nations, intellectuals exist side by side with a commercial culture and the pursuit of money (Canada, Germany) and in fact, last century, intellectuals thrived in America alongside brash, money-hungry speculators. So this is an incomplete explanation. We are looking for reasons why they don’t co-exist here now.
Our lousy schools. This explanation claims that foreign countries which have intellectuals educate their kids differently, identifying children with talent early and separating them into unequal school streams, so that unconventionally bright kids get special nurturing, and become intellectuals. Contrast the American style, which is more democratic, all kids educated the same, but the practical outcome is that all are equally watered down, and our schools are making no intellectuals.
This is also a weak explanation. American public schools have produced intellectuals in the past (Saroyan, M.L.King, Friedman). Actually, what happens in secondary school is tenuously connected with later intellectual production. True, Freud was always top of his class, but Einstein and Churchill did notoriously badly in their school years. Some American philosophy writers with big audiences never attended school at all (Hoffer) or attended high school in prison (Cleaver). Let’s move on.
(There’s another argument about public schools, however, that by dumbing down our children rather than fine-tuning them academically, they are removing a literate audience for intellectuals. This argument is revisited in the section below on trash culture.)
The rise of conservatism. Being right wing and being an intellectual are not mutually exclusive. Many people have been both. But there’s a theme in conservatism that there is little need for intellectual work because conservative principles are just common sense. For instance free market principles are sometimes described as just ‘natural.’ On the far right, Libertarianism is founded on ‘natural law,’ which is held to be self-evident. Conservative politicians and economists say they are just talking ‘reality,’ so what is there to debate? Sometimes conservatism is fronted as non-ideological.
Actually, conservatism is plenty ideological. One strain is reborn Social Darwinism, with its core axioms that life is a struggle and that competition, inequality and injustice are in the nature of things. This ‘realism’ justifies considerable human abuse. The resulting injustices normally ignite the minds of lefty writers. Our last three decades’ dominant conservatism has in fact produced abundant inequalities and injustices, and there is overflowing material for intellectuals to talk about. So if anything, the rise of conservatism should be accompanied equally by a rise in angry left thinkers. So this explanation is weak, and we will have to keep looking. (However I return below for another shot at the new virulent Social Darwinism.)
Religion. Religions are faith-based, authoritarian systems. They are wrathfully opposed to people who heckle and deconstruct the dogma, which is what intellectuals like to do.
Some blame the stronger religious voice in America for the intellectual retreat. But I believe religion attracts intellectuals because it’s an easy target. Many intellectuals cut their teeth on dismantling religious tracts; illogic fills the Bible, providing useful calisthenics. So the stronger is religion, the stronger should be its dogging force and agnostic lefty intellectuals should be thriving. This explanation won’t work.
In sum, all the above explanations for the demise of intellectualism in America are either wrongheaded, weak, or incomplete.
We need other explanations. I have seven.
I. The cultural upheavals of the late 1960s. America had a good number of intellectuals through the 1960s. They talked a lot about European existentialists. They exposed the anomie and the spiritual desuetude which is the cultural exhaust from America’s huge business engines. It is quite easy to deconstruct a money-and-war driven society, the trick in that era was to avoid the official accusations of spreading communism. Intellectuals in the 1950s were vigorous and clear writers (Mailer, C. Wright Mills, Sydney Hook, Marcuse). But the next decade’s group were a notch less forceful and exciting, and they were the last New York intellectuals of the 1960s, Podhoretz, Goodman, Harrington, Bell. A few were supportive of American customs (Trilling, Kerouac) but the intellectual product of the era was generally critical and supported a modest counterculture movement, the jazz-based Beats, with its foreign existentialist influences (Camus, Genet) and its poets (Ginsberg). The Beats passively protested by ‘dropping out,’ or refusing to participate in society, but that didn’t create any political change (a psychology textbook of the time dismissed them as schizoid).
Fashion changed. Music with politically-confronting lyrics appeared, and a high-octane rock’n’roll engaged America’s massive student population now threatened by the draft (Vietnam War). Hippies appeared; they were less passive than the Beats, more flamboyant, and aided by psychedelic drugs, they preached love and peace, and some moved to communes, but some adopted riskier urban methods from the civil rights movement, running antiwar protests through the city streets and enduring considerable police violence. The violence around these nonviolence movements attracted the media. Charismatics, among them musicians, had a wide catalytic effect (Bob Dylan) for ever riskier demonstrations. Race riots in the 1960s, anti-war marches and political riots, farm workers strikes, feminist demonstrations – a number of leftist causes converged into an anti-draft, anti-conformist, anti-authority, status-quo threatening eruption which strained the entire middle class across its American suburban setting, and it eventually achieved some political change.
It is the usual business of intellectuals to confront the idiocies of the contemporary system in the name of social justice; but this time they had been quite successful. Books and lyrics provided ideas for a variety of active resistance movements. Each of the following followed a path from intellectual beginning, to violence: Goodman, Kerouac, Marcuse to the Students for a Democratic Society to the violent Weathermen; Malcolm X and Cleaver to the Black Panthers, a section of which turned violent; confrontational rock lyrics to student antiwar marches to the days-long street riots at the 1967 Democratic National Convention.
Changes were overdue. The hypocrisy of old civil rights laws needed to be confronted, and a foreign war had to be stopped.
But a historical cycle was playing out, and its pattern goes like this: first there’s seething frustration with a problem that seems complex and amorphous. Next, intellectuals write pamphlets and give speeches to explain the problem and give articulate voice to the victims. This focus helps start the action, and protests, strikes and riots begin. But after those riots have wrung some real improvements, the activists turn round and now disown the intellectuals: you’re not really one of us, get lost. – This has happened repeatedly in the cycles of the labor movement. Intellectuals then step down until the next crisis.
But this time, our intellectuals were stomped. The mainly-left American intellectual movement was kicked to death in the sequel, by left activists. Because there’s another cycle, less frequently described but potent, and it goes like this: countercultures rise in the beginning by weaving themselves around mysticism (which can be musical) and at the start there is genuine creative genius. But the next echelon of the movement, coming up, doesn’t have charisma: it is composed of militants who are literal and authoritarian; militants are not lateral thinkers. It is usual for the militant edge of a new movement to demand loyalty from the original following: if you’re not with us you’re against us. The new edge of activists demand repeated slogans, and public shame for those who get it wrong. It is as if the original idealism runs out and a dogmatic purism creeps in. This spells the death of the creative muse, plus the death of irony, and of paradox, which the original intellectuals loved.
We are decades along in history now, and there are myriad lefty causes (attend a street rally, and you will still see 20 different causes and their banners) each self-censoring, correct, activists treating parallel activists with shows of indifference, sometimes contempt. The left is now atomized by rigidness within.
In sum, American intellectualism was overtaken by left militancy in the 1970s. It never revived beyond sputtering. Jacoby says there is a two-generation vacancy following the New York intellectuals of the 1960s.
An extra note on the new purism. The vegetarian and health movements are also worth indexing. Anyone old enough to recall the 1960s will remember where intellectualism was shaped, in college classrooms, debate rooms, and city cafes and these were murky place in which cigarette smoke congealed down to two feet off the floor, and new ideas writhed through it. A massive reversal of public attitudes towards cigarettes and alcohol has sanitized our thinking places. Aerobics, gym-consciousness, nonsmoking and bottled water were symbols accompanying the following political about-face that occurred with Reagan’s election in 1980s. Reagan’s great optimism was happy-faced, fresh, one-dimensional and literal. Today, thinkers with eccentricities are avoided and thought to belong in therapy groups. Intensely creative people with chemical dependencies (such as musicians, film makers) should first clean up. Jean Genet with his lofty fetishes, or de Sade’s ideology are only tolerated because they are foreign. Today, personal problems can break an intellectual even as the ideas he produces could steer a society. The memory of Norman Mailer as an intellectual is voided because he was a wife beater and because he got a criminal released from prison; William Bennett’s Book of Virtues is an intellectual work, but it is dismissed because of Bennett’s personal gambling habit.
Intellectualism in America has been neutered by purists. It has been aerated to death. What remains is a bleached cautiousness. This saturates our universities.
II. Universities and academia. This explanation for the demise of intellectualism has components. Universities are suppressing intellectualism partly through their agendas, partly because of the people they house.
Information production. Futurist Alvin Toffler was partly right when he announced in Future Shock (1971) that the rate of cultural change was going exponential, and this included an explosive growth of information. (‘Partly,’ because since Toffler’s book appeared, some regions of the world have actually fallen behind. But America seems on track.) Much of this new information is produced at universities, by the humanities, by hard-, natural-, social- and health-scientists, by statisticians and information technologists whose perpetual efforts are to discover, taxonomize and store new facts. All this is done by narrowly trained academic specialists.
We believe in specialization. It is said to advance us.
Culture-watchers Hofstatder, Posner, Michael, Jacoby, and Wood all argue that actually, the more information, the less knowledge. Knowledge does not exist in storage files nor their indexes. It exists in human minds which compare, synthesize, find patterns and sequences, analogize, generalize and predict. Academic specialists don’t do that. Academics have also lost the ability to write in public prose. Technical languages have become so abstruse that they are the new scholastic Latin, largely preventing communication with other departments and with the public (Jacoby).
So, Wood says, this scale of information proliferation is leading to ignorance.
Academic personalities and the social structure. The powers steering colleges are usually preoccupied with buildings, budgets, and new equipment. Administrators place appearances of wealth above depth of debate, and academics moving up the university hierarchy show how sensitive they are about money. Unwrap a college and the inner structure shows professors, support staff, office space and money paths. It is bureaucracy, and this is never upset.
Second, the academic side of the university selects for certain personalities which support the bureaucracy. The result is toxic for intellectualism. When people are hired into academic departments, the ostensible reason is the applicant’s body of published work. All prospective professors are intelligent. But in practice candidates are vetted for collegiality, social style, and entrepreneurship in grant writing.
Collegiality is inversely related to high creativity. True intellectuals are not team players; very creative personalities are often edgy, neurotic, risk takers, and their proclivity for incendiary language is a ‘red flag’ in bureaucratic academia, where funding is destiny.
Academia provides security and money. Professors are often well paid regardless whether or not they produce anything. This affluence dissolves bohemia and its roaming, classless intelligence, and it pays attention to hierarchy, which in turn creates caution. Jacoby cuts it this way: academia is a class system. Professors don’t read new material so much as ask, what is the writer’s institution. Tenure ostensibly creates freedom to be unconventional, but in practice it does the reverse, because what stimulates intellectuals is constraint. The upshot, says Jacoby: no scrappy public thinkers in universities. What’s practiced is deferential and toothless scholarship.
We have intellectual surrender here. Whole departments can be quite boring.
The more professors, it has been said, the fewer intellectuals.
III. Other specialists. Of course, we cannot do without specialists. In 1976 Alvin Gouldner predicted the rise of our technical intelligentsia would be so spectacular that specialists would eventually comprise a social class. It would come out of our middle classes. The new class would be cosmopolitan, secular, highly educated and morally uncommitted. He did not mean programmers and computer technicians exclusively, but that was the group he predicted most successfully. Gouldner said the new class could become so powerful that if it decided its mission was revolution, it would be hard to stop.
This new technical intelligentsia can be identified by a particular type of language which is logical, analytical, specific, critical, cautious, and not motivating, at the same time this language is democratically available to any ordinary person for the training. The specialist class is inseparable from the language. Technical language distances itself from the economic hierarchy, business, law, politics, the elites and corporate culture (comprising the status quo). So anyone who is absorbed by the language is emancipated from the status quo, from convention. Participating in the new language is a political act. And we can expect conflicts. Gouldner adds that the new technical class is not particularly egalitarian. It likes privilege, it likes money – and it has huge markets. Predictably it already has internal contradictions, especially trying to equate its power with goodness (nobody has ever been able to maximize both) and it believes its power is legitimized by solving the world’s problems technologically (actually, the world’s biggest problems are moral conflicts.)
In 1976, Gouldner made the mistake of saying other types of intellectuals (humanistic intellectuals) were part of the rising group. Actually humanistic intellectuals (the subject of this essay) have fallen almost to extinction: one point of this essay is to asserts the rise of the technical intelligentsia has been at the expense of humanistic intellectuals.
How important are specialists?
Well, says Hofstadter, ask this: would you want the country to be led by specialists?
Watch, says Gouldner, if the rising technological intelligentsia decides to place its hands on the wheel of history.
IV. The rise of relativism. As Chomsky says, left wing intellectuals have not been speaking out. For decades. So there’s a vacuum. No new left ideology. What happened?
Other commentators (Posner, John Michael) say actually, intellectuals have not disappeared, they are just paralyzed. They have dropped into a deep uncertainty, and they carry a horrible anxiety.
To sketch this explanation we contrast an earlier era, the 1950s and its ideological cohesion, against the 1970s and its cultural and ideological fragmentation. American intellectuals of an earlier era were a bold lot. They had swagger and abrasive styles, and they wrote slashing opinion. A common theme was to contrast the current state of affairs with important fundamentals: truth, reason, justice, freedom, and then berate how our society was falling apart.
But that stopped. And a new fashion appeared, cultural relativism. It says, among other things that, there’s no universal fundamentals. That there’s all these different communities, and we should allow that what is the truth, and what is good and just and what correct in one community, is not the same in others, so don’t be judgmental, because each community (fundamentalists, gays, primitives, mystics, Mormons, southern blacks, the military) has their own ways, and that is beautiful, and don’t get critical.
This is called multiculturalism. One community is not better, they’re just different. Then the ideal is that all communities nicely cohabit in tolerance and harmony.
Actually this may have started in universities. And not just anthropology departments, but English departments adopting a new principle: literature cannot be judged by a universal standard, each community or historical period does its own writing thing and none is better, they’re just different. Everything’s relative.
At that, intellectuals freeze.
Intellectuals are naturally judgmental. Intellectuals use universal values, and they work by ideological confrontation. Which contrasts with what university academics do – today’s academics think and write cautiously and are nothing if not accommodating.
But in the last few decades, academia has absorbed intellectuals. Intellectuals need jobs too, and in effect, the price of keeping the job is acting like a nice college professor. So intellectuals have caved in. They are not producing their usual good stuff. Nowadays, their published writing is no different from anyone else’s. It’s colored prudent. And that is a big loss to our culture.
Relativism not only affects literary criticism, it has also infected university research, moral standards, whole thinking styles. And another thing: if everything is relative, so are the rules. Under relativism, logic itself, a fundamental rule for chasing down the truth, is negotiable. Some communities use logic, some don’t. Sometimes personal charisma is more important than the rules. And that is beautiful, don’t get critical.
At that, intellectuals freeze.
The hallmark of the public intellectual is his bold use of the rules of logic and reason. Reason is the biggest weapon in his arsenal and sometimes at considerable personal risk she or he uses it against tyrants, governments, religious dogmatics, exploiters, warmongers. A real intellectual hungers for overarching principles and universal standards: the rules of investigation are more important than the endpoint of the debate. If there are no universal rules, logic can be outshouted by any charismatic spokesman: Marxist, feminist, Objectivist, the military.
Relativism says that what is fair play, and what is not, and what is important, and what is not, depends on what community you’re in. (Also how, or whether, things get done.) Under multiculturalism, everything is ok.
Next, hierarchy is out. Because hierarchy means something is unequal. For example, no values are hierarchically better than others, they’re just different.
Being an intellectual opens a person to being despised as an elitist. That comes with the territory, it’s always been a problem especially when intellectuals lend their incendiary language to industrial strikes, human rights protests, draft riots. The intellectual joins the populist, but the populist later thinks he is too well spoken. Historically this has always been a point of tension; but in these days of hierarchy being politically incorrect, it is even more uncertainty.
So ideally in the relativism world, everybody does their thing with tolerance and mutual respect, and all cohabit in diversity, and people of all different kinds and creeds and ways get melted together. On the surface, it looks like all this unbounded multiculturalism offers great flexibility. On a good day this relativism feels like freedom. But on a bad day, it feels like the ground is moving under your feet. Relativism really allows no certainties, everything is shifting seas.
Now back to reality. Actually, universities (like the world outside) are competitive places. University teachers, and people who want to be – the younger ones trying to establish themselves – are working under this corrected atmosphere of no-certainties. Publishing a clear statement is now discouraged, because it involves a value judgment. Diverse or not, academics’ minds are on professional survival, so they don’t take any risks, especially the kind that get you noticed – especially the scandalous places that logic can take you. So their work suffers. Writers are skin-sensitive to community correctness and they watch for peer disapproval.
The aggregate result can be seen in any university library: stacks of journals, shelf upon creaking shelf of cautiously dense writing that nobody ever reads.
Politically, argues Donald Wood, multiculturalism is a step backward. Because in practice the different communities don’t get along harmoniously. In practice, it’s turned into a new tribalism.
So, in all this. After the 1980s, can you name any new left intellectuals? – asks Jacoby. Very few. Academic lefties are caught between the conflicting demands of universal standards vs. relativism, caught between the conflicting demands of different communities promoting their local agendas, concerns not to ruffle academic protocol, worried about being skewered as an elitist.
Caught in the terror of uncertainty. Today’s left intellectuals have simply lost their nerve.
Too bad, remarks Chomsky. Because today, our nation is in a dangerous predicament, being torn up by propagandists on the right.
V. Psychotherapy. There are now estimated to be 400 brands of therapy. America has cognitive therapy, humanistic, slow types and rapid types, individual and group types, mainstream and radical therapies (and the following paragraphs all concern talk therapy, not drug therapy, addressed below).
A general point: psychotherapy is not popular in many other nations where religion or political ideology is dominant. Another general point: despite the annual amounts of money involved (psychotherapy is a business), its effectiveness has only vaguely been supported by research evidence, and after a full century of it, nobody really knows how it works. Some research facts: all the mainstream brands are about equally effective. The three types of practitioners (psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, all doing talk therapy) are also about equally effective. Next, it has been found that trained therapists on college campuses are no more effective than academic professors from diverse fields who counsel their students on personal problems. Indeed, professionals may be no more effective than self-help groups. Or even a very good friend. The research suggests that it’s not the therapy type, but the person doing it, that counts. And what is the active ingredient? One flimsy piece of research suggests what’s fundamental is the therapist acting as an ally for the distressed patient. More research shows that if untreated, most people with mental disorders get better by themselves in about two years. To muddy matters: psychotherapists treat people with mental disorders, but it is has never been clear what mental disorders are. Different societies have quite different ideas. Mental illness, to some extent, is created by a society: Szaz says it may be a myth. Across different cultures, mentally disordered people do not have much in common, only this: they do not fit in, and they are dis-valued.
So you can build a case that psychotherapy is an ill-defined art, running on mystique.
There’s an official list of psychological disorders, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which is used to train clinical practitioners. This book gets bigger and bigger each edition; it is an expanding list of ways a person can be crazy. In it, the number of classifications is growing so fast that psychologists Kessler estimates about 50% of the population could now be given a diagnosis. Hillman and Ventura say one way to see all this is as a business aggressively looking for new clients. (DSM is referred to in the trade as the billing bible.) So one interpretation of this ever fattening book is the profit motive. Another is wry: it looks like the longer psychotherapy is around, the worse we are all getting.
We should go further, because with help from the media, including therapists practicing on radio and television, psychotherapy has saturated American culture. Psychotherapy now commands respect from our intelligentsia.
I am still approaching my main point. Psychotherapy is at odds with intellectualism. By definition, a distressed patient who comes in for therapy is diagnosed as unusual, as abnormal. Therapy’s task is to re-normalize the person. For example if a distressed client comes for help, he is first calmed, then over many talk treatments, gradually re-socialized so as to fit back in with other people, to adapt, to conform again. A necessary step in this process is for the client to begin to see that the problem is inside him, and to change that.
Although therapists say they are non-judgmental, accepting and value-free, they are far from it. They hew closely to standards of average-ness, because that is where normality is. In a sense, the therapist’s job is to create average. The concept of ‘appropriateness’ is related: a particular behavior or way of thinking is inappropriate, is disordered, because it does not fit the norm. Therapists convey to their clients middle class comportment in language and personal style, and this means being clean, risk-free, anger-free. Manageable, low-risk clients are preferred.
Because this is so widely transmitted, psychotherapy has moved from being reactive, a treatment for distressed people, to pro-actively setting standards for everyday behavior. Disseminated every day on television, it is a vast, bland, homogenizing force toward average-ness and appropriateness. Bourgeois.
And it is the opposite of the intellectual’s style. Intellectuals are not average. Their intelligence diverges from normal, they are unusual risk takers, and third they often vividly and vociferously defy the status quo.
A sample of the disputed territory: the intellectual usually argues that if you are upset, the cause is outside you. Perhaps you’ve had to deal with crooked businessmen, wild neighbors, other people’s road rage, a crude boss, predatory creditors, or a slumping economy. Aggregated, those are symptoms of a crumbling society. And, the intellectual will say, it will make you feel better to get involved in changing things. But the therapist will argue the problem is inside you. This difference in attribution, or where you place blame, is not trivial; it has political consequences. Example: a worker, enduring months of coarse treatment by a supervisor, finally shouts at the supervisor and tries to recruit his coworkers into pushing back. So he’s fired, and the company’s explanation around the workplace is that the worker has a personal problem – family difficulties or finances – and he gets referred to a counselor for therapy. In the counseling office, the therapist agrees with the company’s explanation. The therapist will ‘process’ the worker’s feelings, trying to help him see that actually his distress traces back to events in his childhood, or to frustrations in his marriage. Insistently turning clients inward, away from the present situation and onto their inner selves and into their past, has consequences for workplace, family, corporate culture, community, because after successful therapy, one thing is assured: this patient is not going to make any more trouble. Good patients become inwardly turned and outwardly vacuous. They are re-normalized. So workplace problems do not get confronted and fixed. Community dysfunctions likewise. Example: The neighborhood streets are frightening, and a particular resident actively protests the police for not doing their job, she gets persistently loud and gets apprehended, and gets sent to court-ordered therapy. The therapist agrees with the police that she is a trouble-maker and re-normalizes her. So the community does not get fixed. Culture is neglected.
In their thoughtful book We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse, Hillman and Ventura argue society is deteriorating because of therapy’s methods and values. Therapy makes people mediocre and homogenized. With psychotherapy comes the death of heroism. And culture-wide, we now have (Galbraith) pernicious problems, plus the bland are leading the bland. And after decades of this, intelligent people have become, simply, passive.
But democracy itself depends on involved, intensely active citizens who voice-up when they see problems. Clients who become weakly dependent on their shrinks are not fit material for a real democracy. And if an intellectual gets therapized, it kills his vital style.
(Hillman and Ventura, while poking this sacred cow, wonder: what would happen if you used therapy’s language of victimization and being abused, and started new self-help groups made up of people who feel victimized by predatory lenders or abused by corporate culture? With a simple change in attribution, you might turn therapy meetings into political units.)
Prescription psychoactive drugs. Your doctor gives you anti-anxiety pills or antidepressants, and they work. Whatever ghastly mood you’re in, can be temporarily controlled.
Back in 1971 Stanford University clinical psychologist Maurice Rogers stood up and warned about the growing abuse of these mood-altering drugs. Problem was, he said, doctors were starting to prescribe drugs for passing conditions like lack of energy, crying, worry, marital discord, and children’s misbehavior. In so doing, psychiatrists were redefining these as medical problems. Rogers suspected it wasn’t so much medical, that there were commercial pressures. The drug industry was spending three-quarters of a billion dollars each year advertising their products to doctors. Doctors were buying. They were already prescribing to the point that doctors had, Rogers said, become like drug pushers. In 1971 there were more prescriptions written for psychoactive drugs than there were persons in the country.
I am not denying that some people have been enormously helped by medications which prevent psychosis and serious depression. The issue is whether some drugs are overprescribed.
Medical authorities seem to be operating on the premise that the only healthy state for Americans is uninterrupted happiness. Is happiness an American obsession? – Not quite, though happiness is thought to be an integral part of our culture. What comes closer to obsession is the control of happiness (it follows from American pragmatism; making things work). Prescriptions have so proliferated that our culture has now come to accept chemical solutions for shyness, tiredness, loneliness and dissatisfaction. In the last decade the use of these antidepressants has nearly tripled, even as the FDA has increased their warnings about side effects (some of them may cause suicides among children).
There’s well-researched connections between our mood and how we see things and how we think. Our emotions can tilt our perceptions. Not just how we act; mood pills alter reality. Research shows that people who are somewhat depressed actually perceived the world more accurately. The intended benefits of these drugs is to pep people up or to calm them down, to tranquilize and re-establish normal reactions in them. But they also change how we perceive and think.
Society-wide, what happens when so many people are eating chemicals that keep them bland? It leads to something culturally missing. The same point as above: society deteriorates from neglect when for decades mood pills have kept millions of people calm, happy and detached. A mellow mood for pill-munchers, maybe. But a widespread drug-induced satisfaction is not a democracy. And it is not courage. And it is not what intellectuals do.
Rogers raised the issue of these psychotropic medications being used as social control. Is that a stretch? Conspiracy theory? We don’t really begin to see what he’s saying until we get acquainted with the numbers. By 2002, more than one in three visits to the doctor’s office by women involved a prescription for an antidepressant. Millions of dollars are spent each year on research to reinforce the connection between our wellbeing and inner chemicals, and then to advertise this on prime-time television.
In America, psychiatric medications are re-normalizing people, producing neighborhoods full of soothed accommodators.
Next: how long is an original intellectual going to last against this bleached view of mental health? There’s a popular stereotype that genius is a kind of disorder (we think of pictures of a tormented Mozart with the eccentric eyes, pictures of a whacked-out Van Gogh). More recently there is evidence (Jamison) that creative genius is in fact correlated with manic-depression.
If we medicate the mood, will we medicate the originality? This concern is to be added to the cultural effects of psychotherapy.
VI. The new Social Darwinism. In 1859 Charles Darwin’s book Origin of Species proposed to the English a new argument about creation. Darwin was actually hesitant to draw ethical conclusions about humans, but the philosopher Herbert Spencer had already put out Social Statics, a sociology explaining the class system in Britain as the result of natural selection. People compete for survival in a harsh world, some survive and thrive and climb. But some suffer and fall. The survivors were the fit. They were better people. On the other side the losers, the rest, were unfit and Spencer said it was better for the community if they died off, as they diluted the community with their inferior qualities. It was all a natural process (as Malthus said before him) and we should not slow this process down by helping the poor. The overall progress of a society was nothing that could or should be steered by government.
England was largely offended by the comparison of man with lower organisms. But when Spencer and Darwin traveled to America they were received with noisy welcomes. A Professor Sumner folded all this in with American sociology to explain the fierce economic contrasts existing in America in the Gilded Age. Life’s a ruthless competition. Inequality and injustice are in the nature of things. In the process, the rich were taking the country to new heights. America, accustomed to advancing on Red Indian-killing expansion and the brutality of slavery found Darwinism convenient. These theories rationalized social abuse as if it was good for everybody. There was no tolerance for time-wasting debate about ethics.
Critics wondered why the people who love these theories were mainly the aristocracy and the exploiting rich. Critics said: these biological theories are political, and Social Darwinism knits too well with Nietzschean superman ideology, which claimed that what a superman (or supergroup) does is beyond good and evil. The critics won, and in the early 1900s, Social Darwinism was out of favor.
Social Darwinism is a dramatic-sounding philosophy which has physical survival as its central value. That profoundly affects all related concepts. Fine-grained intellectual discussion of rights and values are dropped to a currency with two levels: strong or weak, heroic or useless, fighting or dead. Social Darwinism draws heavy shadows around everything, and it makes heart-stopping fiction. But we would be in trouble if government policy ever followed fiction.
Eerily, Social Darwinism has risen again. Competitive power and wealth was something Americans always understood. The public is ever ready for movies about rugged individualism and myths about ‘making it,’ not about the common good. That is the core ideology in Ayn Rand’s novels, which have sold so well over the decades they earned her a whole movement with cult-like qualities, including in her entourage Allan Greenspan, other economists, business gurus, and many Ph.Ds.
The new version is just as dramatic. Rand’s books are riotously heroic. To survive in a great and dangerous world, all doors are kicked open and slammed shut; all people are either heroes or useless, all conversation is either silence or shouting, and you’re either fighting or dead. Ayn Rand makes selfish individualism just what the world needs. She yearned for a return to the Gilded Age when Darwinism dominated. No mercy turns out to be good for all.
Devoured by average Americans, Rand was contemptuous of everything average. But in the anti-authority counterculture of the 1960s, her appeal to individual choice and convention-busting was addictive. As Nietzsche attacked Christian ethics (in all major religions the highest good is selflessness), so did Rand. It is the new Social Darwinism.
Randian devotees learned not just her arguments, but her tone, which was a cutting scorn. She vitriolically attacked opponents, extolling personal mastery and control, at one point referring to critics as vermin .
How does this affect American intellectualism? Its dogmatism squashes debate. Rand was ruthless; hers is the language of abuse. Any dissent or alternative opinions weakened the agenda and must be extinguished. It certainly does not make room for other geniuses.
Rand’s influence, over six decades, has been massive. Her novels are taught in American schools. Ronald Regan’s economic advisers were largely Randians. One of her biographers estimates that her books and derivatives written by her fellow-traveler Objectivists still sell 400,000 a year worldwide.
This ideology is sociopathic. It manufactures fear, and it is inherently anti-intellectual.
It has saturated the national consciousness.
Social Darwinism is an ideology that flourish where there are predators. Many of these predators wear expensive suits. Corruption is supported by Rand’s values of uninterrupted selfishness, and this has invaded our most trusted institutions (churches, congress, law enforcement, banks). Correlated, a general trust has been waning for decades in America.
We are a social species, and among all social animals, the appearance of predators has the general effect of making individuals flee into the middle, for the safety of the pack. Intellectuals don’t do that. They are outliers. Intimidating or not, Ayn Rand’s work is a choice target for new intellectuals.
VII. Trash culture. America has regional, ethnic, religious and subcultures, generational, class and gender subcultures. (A subculture is a shared pattern of behaviors, symbols and values.) Indeed each decade is a kind of subculture (the 80s, the 60s). Some subcultures are even moving and expanding (the evangelical movement). One that has expanded to the point of overlapping others is popular culture or pop.
Pop is the culture of average Americans and anybody can participate, anytime (not true of all subcultures). Its language and symbols are broadcast in the media—and the public ravenously ingests them. Pop culture is sensational and riddled with images, visual and auditory being the important sense channels. It presses us with its crazes and short-lived diversions: it appears spontaneous, apparently unorganized and unplanned, and it’s about a narrow range of feelings, including excitement, happiness, and temporary drama. Pop culture is crashingly ‘self.’ It is also missing heroes. Its central figure is the celebrity. (Celebrities do not convey risk and difficulty.)
Pop has two natural enemies. On one side it is opposed by fine culture. Fine culture is guarded by a minority which has hoarded an accumulation of the high arts (visual, sound, and intellectual writings) which convey elevated feeling. Fine culture is associated with the upper social classes and the academic elite, and it tends to be backward-looking. Its artifacts were made with painstaking. Fine culture is very slow to change. It is deeply studied by educators and it contains real heroes, and moral codes. Disdaining pop, it ranks itself superior. Pop sometimes loots and dilutes fine culture. In this competition, pop is winning. It is quickly manufactured, and it proliferates, while fine culture is shrinking.
Pop’s other enemy is trash culture. Trash culture is the culture of failure. It is about ignorance, intimidation, racism, crime, tabloid newspapers, semi-literacy and physical rudeness. If you imagine an expansion of jailhouse culture outward, that gives an idea. But trash culture is not loose, nor glib, and it is not vacuous, it is not self-contradictory like pop, and it is not value-free. It does not wake up in the morning superficially easy. It is fashion conscious, cohesive, and sometimes intense, with peer pressures that may be backed by violence. It is reactionary.
Whereas pop culture fears death and violence, trash culture uses those as narratives. Trash culture is not egalitarian, nor democratic. Its currency is risk and coercion.
In the conflict between pop and trash, trash is somewhat smaller, but rapidly expanding and it is winning. Rudeness is rapidly growing; it is rife at the workplace. And vengeance, too (big-screen court t.v. is everywhere).
And in the debate, is America now in the post-modern, post-post-modern, or post-culture age? And the answer is, trash culture (Jerry Springer, meth-hardened crime movies, violent tattoos, and zip codes with short life expectancies) – are all rapidly gaining ground.
Both pop and trash culture hold a growing disdain for education. Through the 1950s schools and colleges were the ladders for upward mobility; school teachers were respected. But public schools are now seen as a waste, not even delivering what they’re funded to produce, which is a literate citizenry. Learning to be literate is derided. Teachers, who are representatives and role models of an educated person in society, take persistent abuse in some schools.
Many high school graduates avoid reading if possible. To keep readers, school textbooks have become graphic carnivals. Magazine articles have become shorter and shorter.
Trash culture is also confrontive. Our ignorant school graduates are now arrogantly so, students who believe the content of books is irrelevant to survival. Many students don’t know the name of our Vice President, or where China is located, and a small percentage of Americans thinks the sun revolves around the earth. Trash culture conveys a smugness about denying general knowledge.
Of course, to the extent these values seep into school curricula, they systematically remove an audience for intellectuals.
Trash culture is a force in the war.
And what if we have no intellectuals?
Donald Wood says we’re already in a post-intellectual era, and it is a critical danger for democracy. He joins other critics (above), saying the world’s information production has increased in volume to the point that it’s doubling every five years, so we are swamped in an information anarchy, and a ‘totalitarian technology’ is the rising power in this wasteland of unfiltered, unorganized data.
Chances are this is not going to get any better. Schools are not preparing young people to deal with this information inundation. Schools either serve students archaic fundamentalist notions, trying to cement in non-change, or they leave children with the tools to access the new information but not the tools to process it. Students are not shown how to distinguish between trivia and really valuable information. The generalist’s skills of synthesis, sustained reason and centered thinking is ignored. Tragically, students have lost the ability, even lost the will, to criticize information. Or to notice glaring disparities: with ever more scientific and medical breakthroughs, we have ever more people in poverty and despair. With ever more choices we are growing morally incoherent. In all this dislocation and disorder and we are happily becoming less self-sufficient, but with ever more fragmentation. The holistic, common good concept has become antique, and in this web-based, riotously center-less growth, there’s little feeling of accountability. So we ditch personal responsibility for how things are going.
Contrast with this the requirements for a functioning democracy. Democracy itself is an intellectual idea. Democracy is not automatic. It takes reasoning, continuity, and well-informed judgment on the part of a knowing populace to construct it, and to keep it working. Wood: we are experiencing a cultural transformation that is reversing 400 years of intellectual evolution. Because of the loss of intellectual underpinnings, it’s a question whether democracy will survive.
Kierkegaard speaks of whole nations that are not profound. They cannot come to themselves, in a deeper sense.
A quick way to sketch our culture is to show its shrinking vocabulary. Whether this is due to television, failing schools, detached teachers, or the new fashion to be ignorant, it is also a general loss of power.
We recall that in George Orwell’s 1984, the government had reduced the population to virtual automatons using police terror, thought control; and a new language, based on English, in which certain old words were absent. Dangerous thoughts were made unthinkable by eliminating the words for them. A society was partly controlled by reducing its language.
A way to keep the public within confines is to give it a reduced vocabulary. Our usage vocabulary has shrunk dramatically. This brushes conspiracy theory (but I have teacher-acquaintances who assert that our secondary school system is deliberately ensuring millions of impotent, low-wage masses for the future). If a materialistic, commercial society runs more powerfully on semi-literacy and if our public schools are turning out tens of millions of semi-literates, this coincidence should be publicly debated.
A second approach to the point about language: Emerson once said, the thought is ancestor to the act.
Lack of particular language results in lack of particular behaviors. Conversely, because certain words are inspiring, they can produce actions. An instance: exploitation is a powerful word. It is almost absent from our everyday media, and rarely heard in our school classrooms. We can wonder, as a game, how much of our culture would change if that word was stirred into television news shows. Hunger is another – and current, since one in six Americans is struggling to feed himself, according to a new government report (the term used in the report is ‘food insecurity.’) Another is censorship; there’s no media discussion why free speech is constitutionally guaranteed for the nation, but roughly suppressed inside our corporations (Ehrenreich).
By delivering vocabulary, intellectuals work in opposition to our educational system. They give audiences the tools to think again. Mill’s On Liberty, Rousseau’s The Social Contract contained lucid, concrete and eloquent language which allowed the layman to think. Each was an intellectual work which helped a whole nation come to itself. And to change.
Well, perhaps it’s not all that bad – perhaps we are in a natural historical pause while intellectuals take a break and regroup?
That’s unlikely. I doubt intellectuals are just taking a break. No more likely than the pace of new information is going to slow down.
Chomsky says we are in an age that cries out for intellectual leadership. Worse, says John Michael: without intellectuals, there can be no politics, progressive or otherwise.
But the revival of intellectualism is remote. Susan Sontag says it would be a Sisyphean task.
What to do?
In this section I avoid remedies like ‘redesign secondary education,’ or ‘reshape the university’s mission.’ Universities are nearly immune to reform.
The death of intellectualism is more like a loss of direction. And a loss of courage, and this is personal. Any new forward movement will involve what individual intellectuals say, and write about.
Several of the writers I’ve mentioned have suggestions.
A modest start: actually, if we accept Posner’s point that America has a tiny population of 607 intellectuals, then just multiplying that number by five, or ten, would make a cultural difference.
Direction. Exponential changes in our culture since the 1970s seem to have had a centrifugal effect. They keep pushing the jig-saw pieces apart. And the changes don’t stop. This is politically convenient for some people in society. It reduces the chance of collective action. It serves a society where the status quo is both social differences and social indifference. So the intellectual’s task is to join the pieces back, to re-connect them. To interpret a whole picture. But when repairing the whole, the writer can expect heavy resistance, because the fragmentation serves somebody’s interest. So piecing things together will take courage.
Against all that specialized complexity, nobody wants to take the risk of looking superficial by making generalizations. But generalization is what’s needed.
John Michael holds the light up for timid intellectuals to stumble their way back in here.
Content. Michael: We’re stuck because intellectuals are now confused over what they are to profess. The multicultural idea that everyone has his say cannot eradicate the following virtues, which are heritage from the Enlightenment and which intellectuals should be defending. First, intellectuals still must make truth, justice and goodness prevail. And in a rhetorical environment where the Right still pounds out its own fundamentalist certainties, these are the certainties which Left writers should press: rationality, respect for facts, justice, humanitarianism, freedom from tyranny, compassion, self-determination, reduction of suffering, democracy, the general will, and progress.
Style. Respect for facts is important. But in practice it has taken away style. What’s missing, continues John Michael, is the grand narrative. Narrative is always more influential than plain facts. The Left’s brightest days were lit by the narrative of progress and salvation. If it was brought back, even at half the insistent pressure television pushes commercials at us, our culture would change.
Facts, of course. But we live in a rhetorical world, says Stanley Fish. To survive, intellectuals should learn the style. High intelligence is everywhere, but luminous language is the hard part. If bandits, airheads, embezzlers, singers, athletes can all get prime-time exposure on television, intellectuals need stronger style to get media exposure. – Incantatory powers, says Jacoby
Courage. An organic society cannot remain vital without disagreement. The intellectual honors his inner disagreeable self, and grows himself a role as issue-finder.
And what if, taking risk, you goof, or offend? Not so bad. Real intellectuals know there is no such thing as bad publicity.
It will take courage. But know that the requisite fire is not found in colleges and universities. If you are trying to be both an academic and an intellectual, consider moving out. Particularly, there’s a shortage of unaffiliated intellectuals, the ones describing themselves with the occupation ‘writer.’
Intellectuals have suffered real prejudice for decades. Intellectualism is under siege. Its revival will involve confrontations putting individuals at significant risk. Cultural risks are also involved.
Real intellectuals do not stop when they encounter resistance. The eventual goal, and the reward, is democracy.
At this point in history, restoring intellectualism means a prolonged campaign, and this will take formidable endurance.
Democracy is the polestar.
The day-to-day fight is the intellectual in pursuit of justice.
Michael urges this long-term, gruelling perspective: justice does not resolve arguments. It is never won. Rather, justice is the name of the field on which future battles are fought.
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