Lowry’s lovely obit for Thomas Szasz brings back fond memories. Talking to him was an education, and arguing with him a delight. We didn’t get to spend much time together, but I enjoyed every minute.
Tom was utterly clear-headed and completely forthright. His position on drug policy came from such deep principle – that interfering with someone else’s autonomy for that person’s own good is always and everywhere unjustified – that he could frankly acknowledge some of the likely practical disadvantages of the courses of action he endorsed without feeling that he was conceding anything.
And Tom was quite willing to believe that more interventionist policy preferences followed logically if you were willing – as he emphatically was not – to count as a benefit sparing someone the consequences of his own bad habits. (By the same token, Szasz appreciated my willingness to confront, and try to reduce, the costs of prohibition. He once said to me in private that if he thought that drug prohibition could be run on my principles, rather than on drug-warrior principles, he wouldn’t have been so firmly anti-prohibitionist.)
The first time we met was on a TV talk show, the Morton Downey, Jr. Program. I think Szasz knew what he was getting into, but I certainly didn’t. Downey was a reasonably smart and sensible person in the green room, but the character he played on camera was a dime-store Rush Limbaugh. The set-up for our joint appearance – again, unknown to me – was that I was going to be the practical policy guy and Szasz the ridiculous egghead.
So after a little bit of friendly jousting with me, Downey turned to – or, rather, turned on – Szasz. He started out the introduction by deliberately mispronouncing his name, twice, and referring to him as “a shrink – I mean, a psychiatrist – at SUNY Albany.” The goal was clearly to bait Szasz into an intemperate reaction.
It would have worked on me, but Tom had a thicker skin. Mildly, in the Hungarian accent that seemed to make whatever he said both more friendly and more convincing, he replied, “Meester Towney, I am not uf your country or uf your generation, and I cannot match your manners.” Downey was tame for the rest of the broadcast.
Szasz’s impact on psychiatry was far more profound than his impact on drug policy; it’s hard now to remember that when he started to write involuntary commitment, physical confinement, lobotomy, and the brutal form of electro-shock were all accepted practice. Even his denial that there is an illness called schizophrenia – based, again, on his bedrock principle of autonomy, and fear of the consequences of limiting people’s rights due to their departure from consensus reality – seems less absurd when it is recalled that the same diagnostic manual that described schizophrenia also treated homosexuality as a disease.
Acute, honest, fearless, and funny. After they made Tom Szasz,they broke the mold.
Update And in the wish-I’d-said-that department, how about: “Addictive drugs stand in the same relation to
ordinary or non-addictive drugs as holy water stands in relation to ordinary or non-holy water.”
Obviously false, to my eye: it’s simply a fact that very few people complain that they have an amoxicillin habit they can’t break, while many make the analogous complaint about nicotine or oxycodone. Whether you want to call those bad habits “additions” or not, whether y0u think that having one is a “disease” or not, I don’t see how you can pretend that the difference is merely one of convention. (If Szasz had limited himself to drugs people enjoy taking, then it would be true that all have some risk of habituation, but still false that hey all have the same risk.)
But simply considered as a sentence in an argument, I’d give an eye for Szasz’s capacity to come up with such sentences.