A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness
New York: the Penguin Press, 2011
This has to be the silliest book I have ever read. But I read it cover-to-cover, because it is also highly informative and engaging. Nassir Ghaemi, MD, is an Iranian-born, US-educated professor of psychiatry at Tufts University and a widely published author.
Ghaemi examines the lives of a series of political figures: Abraham Lincoln, William Tecumseh Sherman, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. What do these people have in common? They are not all “liberals,” but they are all icons of the contemporary left because, from the point of view of white racial interests, they have been disasters for us and boons to the rising tide of color. They have another thing in common too: they suffered from severe mental abnormalities or outright mental illnesses, usually bipolar disorder (manic depression).
Confronted with a list of anti-white icons who also happened to be mentally ill, does Ghaemi wonder if there might be something aberrant about their politics as well? If he had such doubts, he keeps them well-hidden. Despite his scientific training and wide-ranging research, Ghaemi interprets everything he encounters within the unshakeable mental and moral dogmas of the multicultural left. Since all of these mentally ill figures struck severe blows against the interests of the white race, and that’s a good thing, Ghaemi concludes that there must be something good about mental illness. The stigma of insanity must, therefore, follow racism, sexism, and other irrational prejudices into the dustbin of history. It is as if the apriori structures of Dr. Ghaemi’s consciousness were determined not by human nature, but by National Public Radio.
Ghaemi argues that mental illness contributes to four positive traits: creativity, realism, empathy, and resilience. Mania, in particular, contributes to creativity. Depression contributes to realism, empathy, and resilience. Ghaemi does not argue that we should be ruled by madmen at all times. He says that sanity works best under normal conditions. But in times of crisis, mentally ill and abnormal leaders often excel. At firebombing cities, for instance.
But what about Hitler? Wasn’t Hitler crazy? But if he was crazy, doesn’t that imply that he was a good leader? And doesn’t that constitute a fatal objection to Ghaemi’s thesis? Since everybody knows that Hitler was the worst leader in history. Even complete moral skeptics and relativists agree that Hitler was evil. Indeed, it is the only moral absolute allowed to enlightened people today.
Ghaemi’s response to this objection is rather interesting. He agrees that Hitler was mentally ill. He diagnoses bipolar disorder based largely on August Kubizek’s memoir The Young Hitler I Knew. He argues that Hitler’s mental illness did indeed contribute to his leadership skills. Hitler’s mental illness only became malignant when he met Dr. Theodor Morell, who in 1937 started giving Hitler opiates to help with his digestive problems, barbiturates to help him sleep, and amphetamines to pep him up. Ghaemi claims that this cocktail, particularly the amphetamines, interacted with Hitler’s underlying bipolar disorder to fatally affect his decision-making processes. But Ghaemi argues that Hitler was never psychotic: he never had a break with reality.
The claim that Morell was injecting Hitler with methamphetamine is based on Leonard L. and Renate Heston’s The Medical Casebook of Adolf Hitler (New York: Stein and Day, 1980). Ghaemi does not cite David Irving’s The Secret Diaries of Hitler’s Doctor (Windsor: Focal Point Publications, 2009, first published in 1983). I have ordered a copy of the Heston book, and I am eagerly awaiting its arrival. But from what Ghaemi says about it, the evidence it presents is dubious and does not correspond to the Irving volume.
Hitler’s valet Heinz Linge reported immediate positive reactions after Morell’s injections, which is consistent with methamphetamine. But this proves nothing. According to Irving’s account, Morell’s injections primarily contained glucose, vitamins, and hormone preparations. Moreover, the doses were so small, and the solutions so diluted, that there was little chance of any purely pharmacological effect, for good or ill, which makes it likely that their effect was primarily psychological. Hitler had a powerful imagination which made him highly susceptible to placebos, which Morell understood quite well. And, since placebos are the best medicine (if you really do get better), Dr. Morell was a very good doctor indeed.
The claim that Morell was dosing Hitler with methamphetamine comes from Dr. Ernst-Günther Schenk, one of Morell’s professional rivals. His criticisms of Morell, like those of another professional rival, Dr. Karl Brandt, were heard and dismissed by Himmler. (The professional arrogance of doctors usually makes them bad liars. Wily policemen tend to see through them easily.) But more on this anon, when the Heston book arrives.
In chapter 15, Ghaemi also goes on to argue that Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, and Tony Blair were overall quite mentally healthy, which made them bad leaders in times of crisis. In the same chapter, he revisits the Nazis and argues that the psychological profiles of the Nuremberg defendants indicated that they were all mentally healthy. Hermann Göring tested with an IQ of 139, and he had only the third highest IQ in the bunch. (One wonders how Himmler and Goebbels would have tested.) Since we all know that Nazis are eeevil, Ghaemi merely treats all this as further evidence of the dubious value of mental health. (These Nuremberg profiles would, of course, be fascinating material for a book.)
A First-Rate Madness is a fascinating book on many levels. First, and foremost, it is chilling to learn just how crazy people like Churchill and Kennedy really were. They also consumed epic quantities of drugs. But the summaries of recent scientific studies are interesting as well. For instance, it turns out that depressive people are more realistic in their assessments of themselves and the world than healthy people. Mentally healthy people, in other words, tend to be unrealistic.
Ghaemi distinguishes between mental abnormality and mental illness. Mental normality and abnormality are defined statistically. To be mentally abnormal means simply “above average” or “below average” along certain dimensions. Ghaemi deals with three kinds of mental abnormality: dysthymia, hyperthymia, and cyclothymia. Translated into ordinary language, dysthymia means a “low-key” temperament, hyperthymia means an “up-beat” temperament, and cyclothymia means being “highly-strung,” i.e., alternating between ups and downs.
It is not clear whether Ghaemi thinks that mental illness is just mental abnormality intensified to the point that one becomes unable to function. Is the difference between illness and abnormality, like the difference between abnormality and normality, merely a matter of degree? But is it illness to be severely depressed about something that really is severely depressing? Is it illness to be giddy about something that really is cause for elation? In such states, of course, one should not make major decisions. But do they constitute illness? Was Hitler bipolar, or was he merely highly-strung?
It seems reasonable that real mental illness requires something beyond mere dysfunctional intensification of mental states. There has to be a breakdown of reason and a departure from reality. But this means that mental health has to be defined in terms of the proper functioning of the mind, not merely in terms of statistical averages.
Furthermore, to determine if there has been a break with reality, one has to know what reality is. And, unfortunately, we live in a society in full flight from reality on all matters connected with race. In the end, I believe that Dr. Ghaemi can look favorably on the psychoses of Lincoln, Churchill, King, etc. because their delusions define what he thinks is real.