“Mentally-illing” dissidents is making a comeback
“Nobody has (yet) been incarcerated in a mental institution here, but there are other ways to make citizens feel as though they are enemies of the people.”
There’s a new phrase in town for an old totalitarian tactic, and it does not roll trippingly off the tongue: “mentally-illed.”
Li Tiantian, a pregnant school teacher who taught in a rural part of China’s Hunan province, was recently forced into a psychiatric hospital when she dared challenge official accounts of historic events in an essay that was posted and then speedily erased. We only know of her incarceration because she managed to post a cry for help on social media before they seized her, in which she told the world she was being committed to fix her “mental problems,” and that she was concerned for her unborn baby.
For those of us who were adults in the 1970s, this was déja vu all over again. “Mentally illing” dissidents was then a preferred technique of the Soviets. So the Li Tiantian incident is a chilling reminder of a political strategy that saw heroic individuals committed to psychiatric hospitals for their dissenting views: biologist Zhores A. Medvedev, Nobel-prize winning poet Joseph Brodsky, protesters Valeriya Novodvorskaya and Viktor Fainberg (who later organized and directed the Campaign Against Psychiatric Abuse in the U.K.) and so many other champions of freedom.
Medvedev’s 2018 New York Times obituary notes his particular crime was to expose the pseudo-science of Lysenkoism, named for scientific charlatan Trofim D. Lysenko, whose bogus agricultural theories captivated Stalin, but which, put into practice, were disastrous to the point of causing famine. Open criticism of Lysenkoism was forbidden, but Medvedev defiantly persisted in speaking truth to ruthless power.
The Soviets had their own peculiar logic to guide them in this form of punishment. Karl Marx believed members of the bourgeoisie were mentally defective because they could not understand progressive theories he understood as absolute and final truths. Therefore, anyone who resisted them was clearly insane. His heirs understood that it is a waste of time to argue with the insane. The logical treatment for such unregenerate dissenters standing athwart progress was “treatment” in a secure institution. Torture was routinely employed to hasten a return to “sanity.”
The moral giants of the Soviet era had no technological aids for bruiting their messages of alarm, as Li Tiantian did (without social media, we would not even know of her incarceration). All they had was an underground press known as “samizdat,” which literally means to self-publish. If the police searched one’s house — which, naturally they could do at any time without a warrant — and found copies of material considered subversive, even if written by someone else, the householder and his family could be imprisoned or worse.
In our own age of “velvet totalitarianism,” the samizdat essays, poems, and books of the Soviet-era seem to me to be a kind of Ur-version of today’s conservative online newspapers (like this one), as well as podcasts and substack newsletters, the favoured medium for writers who have either been canceled by legacy media or find the unstated, but very real “laws and regulations” about what they can or cannot say in their mainstream jobs too constraining for principled comfort.
Nobody has (yet) been incarcerated in a mental institution here, but there are other ways to make citizens feel as though they are enemies of the people. Those who express opinions that dissent from the only permitted view of “The Science” with regard to Covid-19, the environment, gender, or “equity” know this. Those who have been de-platformed, mobbed on social media, doxed, harassed by work colleagues, fired, or unpublished for unpopular opinions on the residential schools or immigration policies or Islamism know this.
And especially those in the Freedom Convoy know this. The mainstream media has desperately sought evidence of white supremacy or insurrectionist fever amongst the convoy participants that just isn’t there. They’ve been publicly labeled “anti-social yobs with delusions of grandeur” by a seasoned senior columnist. Worse, for those who are unvaccinated (about 15% of them), they have been openly excoriated by their own prime minister as science deniers, and as “very often” racist and misogynist. Trudeau publicly, alarmingly, mused: “This leads us, as a leader and as a country, to make a choice: Do we tolerate these people?”
Trudeau has on a number of occasions demonstrated a wistful appreciation for the authoritarian style of government, so this comment, in particular, spoke volumes about his creepy mindset. (Since then, he has invoked the Emergencies Act, an act former Newfoundland premier likens to killing a fly with a sledgehammer.)
The Freedom Convoy people will tell you they don’t feel as though they live in a free country anymore. They feel, and rightly so, that politically speaking, as the old saying has it, the inmates are running the asylum. And so say many of their allies.’
Barbara Kay is a senior columnist for the Western Standard.