Columnist Conversations

As I was going through the columnist section of the opinion section of the New York Times, I found that most columns in the section deal with Trump and his basket of deplorables. The two articles that most easily caught my eye were both written by Gail Collins, who has been working at the Times longer than I’ve been alive. I decided to go with the more colorfully titled article, titled “What if They Don’t Even Make a Sausage?” which Collins co-wrote with fellow Times columnist Bret Stephens.

The title told me nothing about the content of the piece. I started off my skimming through the comments to get a gist of the article was about before diving in; I found that Stephens and Collins have differing political views, and the article is set up as a “conversation” between the two authors. This should make for some interesting reading.

Stephens starts off the conversation with a discussion about the baseball game shooting that injured a Congressman. He says that the shooting promoted three types of reactions from people (who he called the “national commentariat,” which is a bit pompous in my opinion). The three reactions include: the shooter is nuts; the other side of the political divide is nuts; and the country is nuts. In response, Collins calls for a saner gun culture in which it is more difficult to get one’s hands on a semiautomatic rifle. Stephens furthers his statement, defending the Second Amendment (which was written when guns could only shoot once every few minutes).

One of Stephens’ statements irked me. I’ve seen it a lot, and whenever I come across it, it doesn’t sit well with me. Stephens says he wants to “keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people.” This doesn’t sit well with me, particularly because he does not delineate when and where a mental illness deems someone ineligible to wield a weapon. Which mental illnesses make someone ineligible? How severe does the condition have to be? Does this apply to people on the autism spectrum, and if so, where on the autism spectrum does this ineligibility come into play?

Another issue is the perceived violence-enthused nature of mentally ill people. We often perceive mentally ill people as being violent, deranged, and unpredictable. This isn’t necessarily the case. According to Teplin et. al.’s[1] study of crime victimization in adults with severe mental illness, more than a quarter of persons with severe mental illness had been victims of a violent crime in the past year, which is eleven times greater than the general population even after controlling for demographic factors such as socioeconomic status; this study gives concrete evidence that people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violence than to be perpetrators. Much of our perceptions of people with mental illnesses as violent comes from exposure to media that portrays mentally ill people as violent. In their 2008 study of mental disorder stigma in the media, Klin and Lemish determined that the depiction of mental illness in media may be “contributing to the perpetuation of stigmas about mental illness.”[2] According to Heather Stuart, an epidemiologist at Queen’s University[3], the news media reinforces cultural stereotypes by using them to provide the context for the events presented. Stories require the reader to employ negative cultural stereotypes and common-sense understandings of what it means to be mentally ill.

This isn’t to say, of course, that persons with mental illness should be given weaponry. However, our perceptions of mental illness are almost certainly influencing the judgement to restrict access to guns. If someone has a history of violence or the potential to become violent, then their eligibility for firepower must be reconsidered. According to Collins, even though the shooter had a history of anger issues, he would not have been deprived of the right to buy a weapon. This raises a rather strange question for me – I do not have a history of violence or anger issues, but I do have a history of depression, anxiety, and PTSD, all of which are mental illnesses that affect my daily life and have done so for years. If someone with anger problems but no mental illness can get a gun, would I (someone pretty level-headed and nonviolent) be barred from carrying one because of a disease I happen to have? (Not that I want one anyway)

After this, the authors move on to talk about health care. They say something about a sausage factory, but I don’t quite understand it.

Stephens says that he would not support a health care law that would “abruptly and unexpectedly kick people off their insurance.” He wants to give insurance to people with pre-existing conditions, supports HSAs, and says that the government should reasonably tackle small problems one at a time rather than going through a huge overhaul. Collins calls Stephens “utterly unrealistic,” and points out the hyperpartisanship of the US government. She then gives this fun statement that I agree with:

“The reason Obamacare is a mess is because Senate Republicans opted to pull out of negotiation on a bill that included many of their own ideas, and just focus on ruining whatever came down the pike. I doubt Chuck Schumer is going to reward them for that and seven years of political torment by helping them out.”

Stephens acquiesces that the government is likely too partisan to work together, but still hopes for incrementalism. This makes Collins laugh; the conversation now moves on to talk about the Supreme Court agreeing to take a case on the subject of partisan gerrymandering.

This new topic brings a good sentence from Stephens:

“The partisan gerrymander has been the worst thing to happen to our politics in recent years, turning once-purple districts either bright red or deep blue, and accelerating the rise of the fringe and the decline of the center.”

Overall, this was an interesting piece to read. While I was quite distracted by Stephens’ comment about gun control, the format was interesting and the differing political views made for a good piece.

Works Cited

[1] Teplin, L. A., McClelland, G. M., Abram, K. M., & Weiner, D. A. (2005). Crime Victimization in Adults with Severe Mental Illness: Comparison with the National Crime Victimization Survey. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(8), 911–921.

[2] Klin, A., & Lemish, D. (2008). Mental Disorders Stigma in the Media: Review of Studies on Production, Content, and Influences. Journal of Health Communication, 13(5), 434-449. doi:10.1080/10810730802198813

[3] Stuart, H. (2006). Media Portrayal of Mental Illness and its Treatments. CNS Drugs, 20(2), 99-106. doi:10.2165/00023210-200620020-00002

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