September 26, 2006

The Long Fire Of Political Action

Category: Academic,Mad Movement,Politics,Psychiatry — Biella @ 1:59 pm

All the soarings of my mind begin in my blood.
-Rainer Maria Rilke

I have made it back from NYC after a pretty intense few days spent at the Open Minds Conference and Icarus-hosted workshops, “Get Your Freak On.” Both were incredibly interesting and I felt the ambivalent rush of excitement and fear that follows the prospect of working on a new project. While I have spent some time researching critiques of psychiatry, I have not spent all that much time with the people involved, academically and personally, in the various movements. And there is nothing like seeing in the flesh and blood some very passionate political work to get the intellectual excitement brewing.

The first time I went to a survivor conference and protest I was living in San Francisco, deeply involved in my hacker research. I learned about the movement from a civil libertarian John Gilmore, who drew inspiration from psychiatric survivors to develop his free speech arguments for drug legalization. I had never heard of them and was intrigued so I naturally poked around the web. And I was fortunate to find out that their conference was being held the following weekend less than 10 blocks from where I was living at the time. I made time to go and unsurprisingly, it was a powerful event, perhaps the most stunning conference I had ever been to. There was something awfully inspiring about a political movement in which the members had experienced heavy doses of trauma, often through heavy “doses” of “treatment” and yet found the energy, will, and life to engage in political action, and in a society that does most everything to dampen the fire of politics.

This weekend was no less inspirational. Even at the academic conference, the personal stories of trauma, survival, and the complex ethical decisions of “choice” in a landscape dominated by one medical model, erupted frequently. These were important eruptions that sometimes probably for some felt out of place in an academic setting where such outpourings are discouraged, buried deep away never to disturb the “calm” and “rationality” of talks. But without them, the conference would have felt dry, staid, and sterile, which would precisely have been the most disappointing atmosphere to have created for this environment.

All the talks were engaging and illuminating and it was great to see and hear many folks working on these topics and especially working to carve out a different political and somatic reality. For me, the talks by David Oaks and Jackie Orr were the most electric and hopefully I will soon get the videos of them as well as most others (as I (tried) to tape most of the conference) up for those who are interested. In the meantime, David Oaks has already
released his talk, which is worth checking out.

One of the more interesting parts of the conference was that it gave a clear indication of one of the great successes and strengths of the mad movement, which is its staying power, its ability to survive (even if not necessarily known to wider publics) generation after generation, which is more surprising given that the vitality of so many of the political movements of the 1960s and 1970s, vanished or languished. This continuity was marked by David Oaks keynote speech entitled “Unite for a Nonviolent Revolution in the Mental Health System: What 30 Years in the Mad Movement Have Taught Me” and just by the fact that he and Celia Brown were there, both who have been involved for decades.

Beyond that, it was also the new faces, the new groups, that include Icarus, and the
Freedom Center, that attest to the ability for this Mad Movement to thus far escape the cruel ravages of time and its intervention, often causing rifts within and across generations.

Sasha Dubrul who gave a talk during the activist panel and founded Icarus four years ago talked about the deep alienation he felt when he first had encountered the rhetoric of psychiatric survivors and, even despite his deeply critical stance against psychiatry. He wanted to create an organization and a message and a place that “resonates with our actual experiences of “mental illness” rather than trying to fit out lives into a conventional framework.” It is a message that swoops into many territories that includes a stiff, unrelenting critique of psychiatry and the pharma industry all the while admitting that not everyone can survive without pharmaceutical drugs (and being deeply grateful for this), all the while also providing pathways to alternatives. It is not easy territories to navigate, due to the and cracks and crevices between positions but then again, most of life is filled with these bumpy textures and not a smooth plane free contradictions.

If Icarus was born in part because existing organizations did not adequately address existing needs and desires, it did not grow and move away from existing organization but moved closer to them and is now is in alliance with
MindFreedom. And this is key. Difference in a political movement adds vitality, depth, opportunity but this can only be brought into healthy fruition with alliances. Otherwise, deep fragmentation follows, which given the already deeply fragmented nature of our lives, and of the political landscape, can end in political stasis. But so far, the Mad Movement has over years taken “mad anger” to fight a mad system, and given the last 30 years, I am sure will provide many more decadesof mad pride.

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