Thursday, May 25, 2006

"The Jefferson Scandal": How does one of these things fit with the other?

Guest post by Aspazia

I spent most of my afternoon yesterday reading a book that calls into question how the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is framed (Moving Beyond Prozac, DSM, and the New Psychiatry by Bradley Lewis). The book does not argue that psychiatrists should not consider mental disorders to be akin to diseases, but it does stress that the choice to frame mental disorder in this mainstream medical language is something to study. That is, how did the DSM come to be a set of inclusive and excluding criteria for diagnosing mental disorders? The answer lies in a very human story, wherein a few key players, deeply invested in bringing psychiatry in line with other medical specialities and thereby expunging any remnants of its Freudian heritage, reconceive mental disorders as clusters of signs and symptoms. What was taken out of the DSM was any 'theoretical account' of how on might have become depressed, for example and what was left were 'atheoretical descriptions' in the form of checklists. I am leaving a lot out of the story, but this is not the story I am interested in.

Rather, what captivated me about Lewis' book was how skillfully he made use of Michel Foucault's notion of the episteme. One way to clarify what Foucault means by an episteme is to think of it as a frame of reference (hence why I kept using the word 'frame' above). The opening paragraph to Foucault's The Order of Things, does a fantastic job demonstrating what he means by an episteme, and more importantly that how we make sense of the world is bound up with prior concepts and perhaps intutions about our landscapes -- what some philosophers call conceptual schemes -- that help us make sense of information.

This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laugther that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought-our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography-breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame,(d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.

Foucault's last line -- "the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that" -- poetically captures the sense that we make sense of the world through conceptual schemes, through lenses, if you will, that bring into focus certain objects and concepts, while blurring others. Foucault makes clear that these lenses through which we peer into the world are not something hard-wired, or even universal to all onlookers, but they are conditioned through specific historical events, wherein competing "theories" of what is lead to one view eclipsing all others.

Now, many readers out there might want to argue that this epistemological view is deeply flawed, making all knowledge seem radically contingent to historical and political circumstance, thereby making all we know a mere product of 'might makes right.' So be it. I will entertain these arguments. I am not interested in defending Foucault's theory of knowledge here. What I am really interested in is extending Foucault's insight of the episteme to yesterday's news -- you know, the story about
Rep. William Jefferson from Louisiana and the videotape of him taking bribe money.

I had read about this story first over at Shakespeare's Sister. Then, as I was packing up for the day, I heard the NPR coverage, which committed the same sin that annoyed Paul the Spud, namely that Jefferson's corruption would weaken the Democratic strategy to defeat Republicans in the mid-term elections by calling them the party of corruption. I became interested in the pervasiveness of this particular way of presenting the Jefferson scandal. So, I did some digging the other day to look at how various new sources first ran this story. Nearly every story included a paragraph such as the Yahoo story does (the one Paul the Spud takes apart):

Congressman Caught on Tape, Documents Say
Associated Press WriterMon May 22, 7:39 AM ET HEADLINE
( . . .)
The Jefferson investigation has provided some cover for Republicans who have suffered black eyes in the investigations of current and former GOP lawmakers, including Tom DeLay of Texas, the former majority leader.


Now, let's consider a few other news sources, in no particular order:


For Democrats, a Scandal of Their Own
WASHINGTON, May 22 — Democrats' plans to make Republican corruption a theme of their election strategy this year have been complicated by accusations of wrongdoing in their own ranks, leading the party to try on Monday to blunt the political effects of the unfolding case against Representative William J. Jefferson.

The constitutional question aside, some Democrats acknowledged that the headline-grabbing case involving a colleague they know as Jeff had the potential to dilute one of their core political arguments against the Republican majorities in the House and Senate.
( . . .)


Fox News

Documents Allege Rep. Jefferson Caught on Tape Taking Bribe
Monday , May 22, 2006
Associated Press
( . . .)
The Jefferson investigation has provided fodder for Republicans who have suffered black eyes in the investigations of current and former GOP lawmakers, including Tom DeLay and Randy "Duke" Cunningham.


3. CNN

Affidavit: $90,000 found in congressman's freezer
FBI wraps up search of Jefferson's office in bribery probe
( . . .)
With midterm elections in November, Democrats are trying to highlight GOP ties to the influence-peddling investigation surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the indictment of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in a Texas court, and last year's guilty plea of California Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, now serving an eight-year stretch for taking bribes from defense contractors.


4. LATimes:

Lawmaker, Democrats Feel the Chill

A probe notable for its freezer search makes it tougher for the party to use the corruption issue.
By Faye Fiore, Times Staff Writer
May 23, 2006

The idea that a member of Congress may have been caught in a bribery scandal is certainly nothing new. Lawmakers of old were known to walk the marbled halls, their briefcases bulging with cash.

Even the amount isn't particularly extraordinary. After all, Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the disgraced former Republican representative from Rancho Santa Fe, recently was convicted of accepting almost 27 times as much in illegal gifts and graft.

But what stands out about the contents of the freezer belonging to Democratic Rep. William J. Jefferson, as described in an FBI affidavit released Sunday, is the old-style simplicity of what investigators found: bundles of C-notes, wrapped tightly like leftover lasagna.

"Why the freezer? Why not the mattress?" asked Lara Brown, a political scientist at Cal State Channel Islands, who has studied 30 years' worth of modern House ethics scandals. She noted that 2006 was yielding a "bumper crop" of congressional embarrassments.

The fallout from the latest alleged wrongdoing could be politically costly — one more thing to cement voters' low opinion of Congress in an election year.

Democrats have been using the ethics storm swirling around the Republican Party as election-year fodder: Cunningham is now serving eight years for bribery and tax evasion. And the once-powerful and well-connected GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff has pleaded guilty to defrauding clients and conspiring to bribe lawmakers in one of the most sweeping political scandals of modern times.


5. The Guardian Unlimited: (Same AP story as Yahoo)

Congressman Caught on Tape, Documents Say
Monday May 22, 2006 10:01 PM Associated Press Writer
( . . .)
The Jefferson investigation has provided some cover for Republicans who have suffered black eyes in the investigations of current and former GOP lawmakers, including Tom DeLay of Texas, the former majority leader.


Many of the newspapers ran AP writer Matthew Barakat's piece, which included what I am calling the "frame" of the newsarticle. The fact that the story is reported in relation to the upcoming midterm elections and Republican scandals is not in any way material to the "facts" of the story. And yet, most major news outlets included this commentary as a means of informing the public of Jefferson's graft.

This is political story was immediately incorporated into a larger narrative that has been running in the newspapers since the
Abramoff scandal: namely, both parties are corrupt and therefore there is nothing distinctive or important about the K Street Project.

While we can debate the usefulness of Foucault for larger epistemological debates, his insight that some interpretive frameworks are selected at the exclusion of others, and to further the political interests of those promoting such a framework is invaluable for decoding the Jefferson scandal.


Update: Via Majikthise, I discovered this little nugget. A blogger telling you exactly how the think tanks pull this sort of crap off.

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