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?” See the video and transcript below:




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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  • rugger

    You weren’t insane–you were simply a product of American dumbed-down government education. I’ve given up trying to discuss [argue?] politics or economics with the current crop of liberal college educated persons–they argue with slogans and bumper sticker cliches, and lack any ability to actually reason. How else to explain OBama twice being elected [bad enough the first time, but couldn’t they see through the bankrupt rhetoric the second?].

  • namberak

    It’s OK Bill. I was a theater major that voted for McGovern, but I have been in recovery for 40 years now. It can be done! Stay strong!

    • kilfincelt

      Me, too, but the reason was because I didn’t trust Nixon. I thought he was dishonest. However, I have never really been a liberal despite going to one of the more liberal universities in the U.S. (It happens to be the same one from which Bill Ayers and Ann Coulter graduated.)

      At the time that I went you could still get a good liberal education without the professor demonstrating any particular bias. As an example, I took a course about Martin Luther and the Reformation. The professor was Catholic, but he just taught the facts without interjecting any personal bias. I happen to be Lutheran so I would have been aware of any such bias.

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  • Quested

    “I’m free at last, I’m free at last. Thank God almighty I’m free at last.” And when you realize what a scam any form of leftism is, you are truly free. Capitalism and free markets raises all boats.

  • Doc

    If they voted for him twice there to ignorant to hold a conversation with let alone talk about anything of importance . Voting for the less of two evils how’s that working out for you I

    • Lysander Spooner

      Abraham Lincoln was America’s greatest homicidal statist, and the first martyr for the federal religion. He is the Travis Bickle of American presidents, and is a poor authority to reference for any moral position.

      • Doc

        I was not aware of that thank you. In a much wilder time without much of communication system the rope seemed to have a great fear to all crooks even white collar ones may have the same effect on the common thieves in our Government as well as out side if the official realm

    • stringman

      John McCain and Mit Romney were less of an evil compared to the Marxist, Obama.

  • Lysander Spooner

    Mental illness?! Mental illness doesn’t exist.
    Bill Whittle reveled in the blissful ignorance that goes hand in hand with youth and inexperience. Calling it mental illness at this point is inaccurate and is inconsistent with taking moral responsibility.

    See Szasz, Thomas: The Myth of Mental Illness

    • stringman

      Well……If mental illness doesn’t exist then, why did my amazing brother in law (top 1% at engineering college, beautiful wife, wonderful home, sole owner of a profitable start up company, everybody loved him, great guy that would do anything for you) kill himself in the living room where his wife and everyone would find him, on the first day of the annual family outing when it would be most likely to bring everyone’s plans to a horrible, grief racked end. If that isn’t mentally disturbed then, I’m Teddy Roosevelt.

      • Lysander Spooner

        Sorry for your loss.

        Since you asked, perhaps he didn’t like his life and didn’t care about everybody’s plans. Perhaps he spent his life doing what other people thought he should do instead of following his dreams and felt trapped with no way out. Suicidal people have their reasons.

        “Mental illness” is the mix of medicine with morality to the detriment of both. Dr. Szasz more clearly explains it in several eloquent works in which he eloquently presents the case for liberty and human dignity from a principled perspective.

        • stringman

          Thank you for your sympathy. That sounds like everyone’s lives to me. Who among us are really pursuing their true passions? Sounds like psychological popularism. Suicides may have their ‘reasons’ but they are always irrational…. Which is the definition of insanity. Besides he was diagnosed clinically depressed two weeks beforehand. They mishandled his case. He should have been put under observation from what I’ve heard about his behavior. I don’t doubt that humans live lives of quiet desperation. No one I’ve ever known in my 60 years wasn’t looking for more happiness. Few if any got it. Happiness is fleeting at best.

          • Lysander Spooner

            Suicides are rarely irrational. Many people who kill themselves leave notes that clearly articulate exactly why they wanted to end their lives.

            It could be argued that the human condition is more than adequate to cause depression. “Clinical” depression puts the situation into the jurisdiction of the medical and legal professions, where interventions can be pursued with or without the “patient’s” consent. This is at odds with all the principles of liberty. This is why Whittle’s casual reference to his youthful ignorance as “mental illness” is irresponsible.

            Until doctors can do mind transplants, there can be no such thing as mental illness.

          • stringman

            Judging from a brief net search, well under 50% leave a note. The ones I read had a definite rambling quality. So, how would we know what they would feel like after a few days of treatment and observation. If after a reasonable time they still feel the same, well…. It’s a free country.

            An expert told me that my brother in law’s medication was half of what it should have been. He didn’t even bother to tell any of his family that he was unhappy. I’ve known them a very long time. Very close and loving.

            Mind transplants. Interesting: Would that be taking the mind out of the brain? Mind melding? Or are we talking brain transplants? Reading minds?

          • Lysander Spooner

            We’re making a distinction between the brain, which is an organ that can get a condition or disease, and the mind, which is an abstraction to describe what the brain does, and can not, by definition, have an illness.

          • stringman

            So, when brain physiology malfunctions….. The mind has difficulty?

          • Lysander Spooner

            Of course. But it’s important to maintain the distinction, because where there is no brain physiological malfunction detected, it is probable that the person involved was acting according to his or her own moral (or immoral) choices.

            The brain and social behaviors are complex; mental illness offers an easy way to explain away unpleasant behaviors and outcomes, but mental illness can not be a valid or sound scientific explanation for anything.

    • BS77

      Michael Savage says it does exist. Liberalism is a mental disorder.


      Szasz’s Uncertain Legacy

      For Szasz, the extreme induced by his war against psychiatry was both equal and opposite to that of his profession. When psychiatry failed to shut Szasz up, it went about forgetting him. When Szasz failed to persuade his peers, he seemed to devote his career to enraging them. In 1963, shortly after the crisis at SUNY, Szasz wrote: “To maintain that a social institution suffers from certain ‘abuses’ is to imply that it has certain other desirable or good uses…. My thesis is quite different: Simply put, it is that there are, and can be, no abuses of Institutional Psychiatry, because Institutional Psychiatry is, itself, an abuse.” By the 1970s he was comparing psychiatrists to witch hunters. By the 1980s it was slave owners and Nazis. While such extreme rhetoric made Szasz a public figure for a while, his polemical excess eventually ensured his professional obscurity.

      Szasz himself appears to have suffered from mental illness. Witch hunters, slave owners, Nazis? You might reconsider your ideas…

  • Shel Zahav

    That was moving.

  • Liberty_First

    Unfortunately while this article contains many good points, the comparison with mental illness is not fair to those suffering a medical condition.