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The Therapeutic State: Justifying Government at Century's End

James L. Nolan
Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 410
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  • Book Info
    The Therapeutic State
    Book Description:

    The United States has always been profoundly conflicted about the role and utility of its government. Simmering just beneath the surface of heated public discussions over the appropriate scope and size of government are foundational questions about the very purpose of the state, and the basis of its authority. America's changing and diversifying cultural climate makes common agreement about the government's raison d'tre all the more difficult. In The Therapeutic State, James Nolan shows us how these unresolved dilemmas have coalesced at century's end. Today the American state, faced with a steady decline in public confidence, has embraced a therapeutic code of moral understanding to legitimize its very existence. By ranging widely across education, criminal justice, welfare, political rhetoric, and civil law, Nolan convincingly illustrates how the state increasingly turns to the therapeutic ethos as a justification for its programs and policies, a development that will profoundly influence the relationship between government and citizenry. In a tone refreshingly free of polemic, Nolan charts the dialectic relationship between culture and politics and, against the backdrop of striking historical contrasts, gives example after example of the emergence of therapeutic sensibilities in the processes of the American state.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-5928-8
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. List of Tables
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. 1 The Therapeutic Culture
    (pp. 1-21)

    In the city of Washington, D.C., one walks into a federal district court and finds a judge with microphone in hand, roaming the floor of the courtroom rather than sitting behind her bench. Like a therapist or social worker, she asks personal questions of the offenders turned “clients” before her and encourages them in their battles against drug dependency and other criminal behaviors. In the same city, the mayor has publicly aligned city goals with the goals of recovery. Regularly sprinkling his rhetoric with the language of therapy, Marion Barry advocates a citywide “transformation” and “rejuvenation.” After all, Washington’s mayor...

  6. 2 Legitimation of the State
    (pp. 22-45)

    Standing on the floor of the United States House of Representatives on March 21, 1995, Congressman Robert Clement expressed a concern many in America have come to share: a pronounced disquietude about the credibility of the American political order. “Mr. Chairman,” Clement started, “I believe restoring America’s trust in government is the single greatest challenge facing this Congress. The American people are perilously close to losing their faith in this institution and its members’ ability to effectively govern.”¹ Congressman Clement was echoing a theme touched on two years earlier by the first lady of the United States, Hillary Rodham Clinton,...

  7. 3 Civil Case Law
    (pp. 46-76)

    Certain dimensions of civil case law offer an avenue for measuring the extent of the state’s adoption of the therapeutic ethos. As discussed in Chapter 1, an important component of the therapeutic perspective is the emphasis on feelings, where individual subjectivity and emotivism have challenged the modern notions of scientific objectivity and rationalism. If emotivism, as one aspect of the therapeutic ethos, has replaced more rationalized and scientific understandings of “empirical” reality, and if the dialectic between cultural consciousness and societal structures is playing itself out as has been theoretically proposed, then evidence of emotivism should be finding its way...

  8. 4 Criminal Justice
    (pp. 77-127)

    In considering the infusion of the therapeutic ethos into America’s criminal justice system, one is reminded of several highly publicized cases. In January 1994, Lorena Bobbitt was acquitted of maliciously wounding her husband because she was deemed temporarily insane by the jury. A host of psychologists and psychiatrists aided her defense in their arguments that she “suffered from a psychotic episode,” from “depressive disorder, post traumatic stress syndrome and panic disorder,” and that, “flooded by a wave of emotions” and under the influence of an “irresistible impulse,” she struck out at the “instrument of torture” that had caused her anguish....

  9. 5 Public Education
    (pp. 128-181)

    Though education, in the contemporary context, is clearly an important institution in the American state apparatus, this has not always been the case. It was not until after the efforts of nineteenth-century common-school crusaders that universal free education became a reality in the United States. To say that the state was not involved in education prior to that time, however, would be misleading. Even before the widespread institutionalization of compulsory public education, the state governments were involved in varying degrees with supporting and shaping the direction of America’s schools. As David Tyack, Thomas James, and Aaron Benavot explain, “In one...

  10. 6 Welfare Policy
    (pp. 182-225)

    The American welfare state is increasingly made up of a workforce of those trained in the therapeutic approach. In his important work on this topic,The Rise of the Therapeutic State,Andrew Polsky documents the ways in which Americans have historically responded to those in need of some kind of welfare: from the charitable efforts of nineteenth-century philanthropists to the therapeutic efforts of state-sponsored case workers in the latter part of the twentieth century. As was the case in education, non-state-sponsored religious efforts preceded, and for the most part made unnecessary, government involvement in caring for the “marginalized.” This, of...

  11. Excursus: The Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill Hearings
    (pp. 226-234)

    The most visible public focus on congressional discourse in recent memory fell on the much-heralded Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991. The hearings, which raised the matter of sexual harassment to the forefront of public consciousness, have been much analyzed and discussed since they transpired.¹ Though the event has been reconsidered through a number of different prisms (e.g., racial and gender inequality, political and ideological conflict) and by a number of different disciplines (e.g., psychology, literature, and political science)—not to mention the volumes of editorial material offered by political pundits—what is missing from...

  12. 7 Political Rhetoric
    (pp. 235-279)

    Chapter 6 and the Excursus on the Thomas-Hill hearings focused on discussions and policy initiatives in the legislative branch of the U.S. government. This chapter concerns itself instead with the rhetorical content of important national-level debates, primarily presidential. The political rhetoric of the Clinton presidency is prototypically therapeutic in style. The extent to which President Bill Clinton’s oratory reflects a therapeutic approach in justifications for and positions on policy matters invites us to investigate the possibility that an important transformation has come to pass in this area of American political life; that is, does a historical comparative study of national...

  13. 8 The Therapeutic State
    (pp. 280-308)

    In the previous five chapters, we found that the therapeutic cultural ethos has penetrated a number of realms of the American state. From the presence of psychological experts testifying on behalf of emotionally injured victims in civil case law, to the therapeutic treatment of “client/patient” offenders in the criminal justice system, to the feeling, self-esteeming emphasis in contemporary education, to the sentimentalized congressional arguments for state protection of the emotional wellbeing of children, to the use of therapeutic language in presidential rhetoric, the various features of the therapeutic ethos as depicted in Chapter 1 are clearly evident in major institutions...

  14. Appendixes
    (pp. 309-326)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 327-380)
  16. Selected References
    (pp. 381-388)
  17. Index
    (pp. 389-396)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 397-397)