Bill Whittle: A Brief History of Mental Illness

In this searing and personal Firewall, Bill Whittle talks about his Brief History of Mental Illness, how he managed to avoid going Full Progressive, the famous author who helped bring him back to sanity, and asks the fundamental question: "What if I'm wrong?"

TRANSCRIPT:

A BRIEF HISTORY OF MENTAL ILLNESS

Hi everybody. I’m Bill Whittle and this is the Firewall.

You know, every now and then you’ll see someone come forward and talk about some affliction they have, or addiction, or something like that, and they speak frankly about it in order to de-mystify things that are often considered shameful in order to make it easier for other people to cope or to seek treatment. So in that vein, I’d like to take a moment to discuss with you my brief history of mental illness. 

I started to notice it right around my senior year in high school, but it wasn’t until I got to the University of Florida as a Theatre Major in 1979 that it really reached full flower. I was insane when I was in college. Looking back on it, I simply do not know how else to describe it. Let me give you a few examples.

In 1980, I was getting ready to go onstage – I’ve only been in two plays during my life; one was the classic comedy, “You Can’t Take It With You,” and the other one wasn’t. 

At about five minutes to eight o’clock on the night of Tuesday, November 4th, 1980, just before we went on, the stage manager came running through the wings shouting, “It’s all over! It’s all over! We’re all going to die!” 

“What do you mean it’s all over? What’s all over? Why are we all going to die?”

“Reagan! He’s won the election!!” 

The stage manager was scared. The other actors were scared. I was scared. I was scared because I was barking-mad crazy.

How bad was it? Well, looking back, I can say that while I didn’t go full progressive – you should never go full progressive! – I did have some whacky ideas. I’d think and say things like:

If a criminal breaks into my apartment and steals my TV set in order to buy himself something to eat, then that’s okay because I’m bright and educated and I can always go get another TV set. Or:

This senile old fool of a President is just a talking head who is too stupid to see how he is destroying the country. Or:

Why do we need guns when we have the police? Or:

If we’d just raise taxes and give poor people money there wouldn’t be any more poverty. 

I was mentally ill. I was mentally ill because I passionately believed in things that I knew nothing about, that’s why. 

One night, someone did come into my student ghetto apartment to steal my TV set. I heard him come through the window, I looked up, and he was a foot from my face. He didn’t come to take my TV set to get a meal or feed his family. He broke into my pathetic apartment to steal the only thing I owned so that he could get high. And If I had walked in on him there’s a fair chance he would have killed me for the 15 dollars he could have gotten for that black and white TV.

And that senile old fool of a President was a man with a philosophy of freedom that he wrote out in his own hand over years of patient study and contemplation while on the road, alone, after a long national speaking tour he did for GE.

And the police never – almost never – actually stop a crime in progress: dashing into the room, guns drawn, seconds before someone was to be murdered or raped. That’s the movies. That doesn’t happen. The police arrive to draw the chalk line around your body, because when seconds count the police are only minutes away.

And the idea of giving endless fish to people who did not know how to fish not only did not teach them how to fish – it destroyed any incentive they might ever have to go fish for themselves like free people instead of seals at an aquarium. 

There were a lot of those moments, and I’m ashamed of all of them now. But the one thing I am most ashamed of is that in 1984, I voted for… I – I actually voted for Walter Mondale, and I did it because he said he was going to raise taxes. 

Some men go ashore at Normandy, or Iwo Jima – some men admit openly they voted for Walter Mondale. The causes are different but the thousand yard stare remains the same. 

But there was some shred of sanity in me, even then. 

When my girlfriend at the time – Let’s call her Kimberly because that was her name – declared that she was a communist, I just laughed. When she insisted, I said, “Kim, you’re not a communist. If you were a communist, you’d take that TV, stereo and jewlry down to a pan shop, sell it, and give the money to poor people. 

That was the end of that relationship. 

It was P.J. O’Rourke brought me back to sanity; P.J. O’Rourke, who, like me, was a former barking-mad long-haired slacker but who furthermore was also a bomb-throwing leftist, until he travelled the world and saw that for all of America’s injustice, stupidity and corruption, everywhere else was worse. Holidays in Hell, Parliament of Whores, Eat the Rich: PJ O’ Rourke taught me that good enough is good enough because perfect doesn’t exist, and those people that say it does will kill you if you disagree.

So when it comes to the big things, while I may not always be right, I am never wrong. I know that sounds arrogant: it is the exact opposite of arrogant. I’m a pilot – a rhetorical pilot – and I take people on journeys. I have an obligation to pre-flight these ideas; to kick the tires and wiggle the flaps and check the pitot tubes for obstructions, and most importantly, to know where the hell we are going. Every day – every single day – I ask myself: what if I’m wrong? What if I’m wrong? What if you can just keep printing money? What if health care really is free? What if a strangers moral comfort is more important than your right to defend yourself? What if dependency and envy are in fact good and kind things? 

Well, they’re not. Capitalism is better than socialism – not because I say so, but because all of the rafts are going from Cuba to America and none of the rafts are going from America to Cuba. Freedom is better than tyranny because no one ever got shot trying to climb a wall to get into East Berlin. Equality of Opportunity is more fair, more humane and more fun than equality of result, because equality of result has to be enforced in places called Gulags.

I’m sane now, because now I actually understand the things that I believe in. And when I’m wrong – I move. I move to where the truth is, or at least where it appears to be. I’d rather be right than consistent. 

The truth is out there – right out there in the grass, visible from behind the bars of our preconceptions and ignorance. It just takes the courage and the desire to go where the truth sits, and sit there too, rather than doing the intellectual and rhetorical somersaults needed to try to get the truth to come to you. The truth doesn’t care about where we sit. It sits where it sits. You have to go to it; it won’t come to you. And think that it will, well -- that’s just nuts. 

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