Without doing too much of a review-of-reviews, let’s add a few comments to London Review of Books Michele Pridmore-Brown’s take on “Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna” by Edith Sheffer. There’s something in here for everyone!
In Nazi Germany paediatric psychiatrists served as consultants to youth groups, welfare offices and schools. It was the form their ‘national service’ took. They tracked subjects through childhood, shaped what was considered normal behaviour, and identified and codified what was not. Ernst Illing claimed that he could make a call about a child at the age of three or four – he could spot what he called ‘Gemüt poverty’. Gemüt meant ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’, but also gestured to a person’s capacity for tribal belonging: for feeling and emoting spirit, as in national or school spirit; and for social competence.
For the average reader of the London Review of Books, the depravity and barbarity of the Nazis needs no introduction,1 but even with this drilled-in benchmark, the assessment of 3-4 year-olds for the presence or absence of “soul” must seem uniquely cruel. But is it really ? I just so happen to live with a young boy in this age bracket and so have the priviledge of observing his peer group on a very regular basis, and affinity for one’s own children aside, can we really say that such categorisations would be anything other than painfully obvious to skilled observers ? I’m not saying that we should send the kid with a limp to the death camps, quite the opposite, genetics aren’t everything, but it really is also incredible just how much life force you can feel from something so small and inexperienced. By the age of 1, even, you can tell pretty well whether a kid has balls or gumption or Geist or what have you. By 3-4 ? Most certainly. What you do with that information, now…
None of these meanings was new, but how ‘Gemüt’ came to matter was. Gemüt-poverty was a medico-spiritual diagnosis that could send children to their death at a place like Spiegelgrund, a children’s killing centre in the outskirts of the Vienna Woods, part of the Steinhof mental hospital. Illing was the medical director of Spiegelgrund from 1942 till 1945. One of his predecessors was Erwin Jekelius, who claimed to have an aptitude for spotting teenagers with poor Gemüt. And he was a close associate of Hans Asperger, who developed a new label for classifying children, ‘autistic psychopathy’, which he couched in terms of poor or absent Gemüt (‘a qualitative otherness, a disharmony of feeling’), diagnosing them with ‘unfeeling malice’.
In a time and place before computers, maybe a death camp made a perverse kind of sense for aspies, but today ? In the Information Age ? Those kids have never had more opportunities to productively contribute to society. Their parents will still probably hate them, or maybe not, but either way lots of “normal” kids don’t get enough love either, and that’s hardly grounds for execution.2 So why do we still care so much about DSM-5 ? Why do diagnoses of ADHD, bi-polar disorder, or autism still give parents conniptions that can seemingly only be remedied by pharmacologically neutering their own children ?
Asperger’s work was rediscovered in the English-speaking world in the 1990s, and ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ made its way into contemporary diagnostic manuals as well as colloquial ways of talking about each other. Autism is now believed to involve structural and functional abnormalities in a key brain circuit, which impede the experiencing of pleasure from social interaction; but that is a reading embedded in the fashionable sciences of our own time, brain imaging and neuroscience. Another fashionable science, genomics, has yielded new understanding about causes. ‘Refrigerator mothers’ used to be implicated; now the pesticide DDT is among the culprits.
We’ve talked before on these pages about how the old ideas of socialism (including nazism) never died after WW2 or the fall of the Berlin Wall and merely migrated and integrated with capitalist democracy to give us the hybridised duck-dog3 we have today, but this is as concrete an example as any. What’s old is new again. Nothing’s ever born and nothing ever dies. This is why it’s so bloody important to read history, and of the Edward Gibbon variety rather than the Jared Diamond variety. While our age is certainly enlightened in many ways, the capital “E” Enlightenment was still a logical house of sand that not even Kant and Hume could save. And let’s not pretend that we’re smarter than them, innit ?
Edith Sheffer argues in Asperger’s Children that, regardless of the science, and regardless of whether autism is one condition or several, it remains steeped in the cultural values of its Nazi origins, and in the idea of a model personality: obedient, animated by collective bonds, socially competent, robust in mind and body.
In many ways, these are still the values that we’re instilling in our children today, particularly the obedience, collective bonds, and “social competence” (ie. palatable mediocrity). That being said, it’s not at all clear that we’re raising children to be particularly robust of body and mind. In fact, you might reasonably argue that these attributes and skills have never been under greater attack while they’ve paradoxically also never been more valuable. The unspoken villainy of “you can be whatever you want to be” and “you’re beautiful just the way you are”-ists are that the mind-body connection is just thrown under the bus in the process. No healthy body ? No healthy mind!4 The best thing you can do for your brain isn’t spending more time in the library or watching more “woke” documentaries on Netflix, it’s getting some exercise up to the point where your heart rate is over 170 bpm for a few minutes. Everyone wants to be smart and feel sexy, and last I checked no one wants to be “body shamed,” but there’s far too little cultural emphasis on basic shit like going outside for a walk everyday. You don’t need to tell me that this isn’t always easy, or even always possible – I live in -40°C temperatures for almost half the year! – but for the love of jeebus if you have kids, be active with them. It doesn’t have to be organised sports but it does have to be daily physical activity. Even if you’re trapped indoors in an igloo in the arctic, build a couch fort! And since you’re statistically unlikely to be trapped anywhere near the arctic, go to the local park! Every day!! If you’re older and only looking after yourself now, the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, the second-best time is now. Hire a trainer, join a local cross fit group, take up ballroom dancing, start walking, start moving your body… let’s go people!!!
Her book does not offer a univocal message. It explores the various ways in which, over time, cultural ideals shape ‘scientific’ diagnoses, and vice versa. It’s about the way words like Gemüt create models, and the way these models help create ‘defects’. It’s about conscious and unconscious complicity, in-the-moment improvisation, and the moral grey areas where so much human action takes place. [...] If Asperger was ahead of his time, he was also indisputably of his time. He was shaped by and internalised his environment – he called the German youth groups to which he belonged ‘the noblest blossom of the German Spirit’ – but enacted his complicity through the professional milieu he chose to inhabit. Most Viennese operated in ‘shades of grey’, Sheffer writes. They ‘navigated daily choices … extemporising in their personal and professional spheres. Caught in the swirl of life, one might conform, resist and even commit harm all in one afternoon. The cruelty of the Nazi world was inescapable.’
It takes a sophisticated author to see the shades of grey in a world drowning in black-and-white “dichotomies” – themselves the product of an informational deluge the likes of which the world has never seen, that’s turned all but the most Olympian of swimmers into drowning rats – and Sheffer appears to be exactly that Olympian. At the end of the day, all peoples in all times and in all places operate with “moral” “shades of grey.” There’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so! And there never has been nor ever could be absolute consistency of behaviour across any kind of population, not even those as idealised as Ancient Greece or Feudal Japan. Morality is inherently flexible because we’re inherently flexible, at least up to a certain point/age. We might fancy ourselves 90% rational and only 10% emotional in terms of our decision-making, and therefore capable of logical control and consistency based on a “rock-solid” foundation of timeless principles that’s seemingly unvarying throughout our lives, but the fact of the matter is that these proportions are almost exactly opposite of reality, or should I say “reality.”5 For better or worse, the vast majority of us are more like 90% emotional and 10% rational. Those of us who are super cerebral might be, like, 20 or 30% rational, which is still multiples more than Joe Average, but also still nothing like the homo economicus that readers of The Economist (or most everyone else, tbf) would imagine. We’re still largely emotional and ex-post rationlising organisms built for survival over “thinking” or “higher consciousness” or whatever. Furthermore, we’re deeply prone to the fundamental attribution error, wherein we attribute the behaviour of others to their internal character while we attribute our own behaviour to environmental influences. Between these factors, it’s no wonder that we still believe there’s “science” involved in psychology.
Autism was not a new term, but Asperger gave it new meaning. He identified a spectrum, ranging from the ‘original genius’ through the ‘weird eccentric who lives in a world of his own’ to the ‘contact-disturbed automaton-like’ individual already identified by others. He came to call the spectrum ‘psychopathic’ and emphasised the children’s malice and recalcitrance, Sheffer suggests, in response to Nazi ideals of how to be. Not fitting in was a form of sociopathy.
Go figure that not fitting in is still a form of “sociopathy” in the blood-shot eyes of SJW types. Speaking of those proletariat twats, don’t you think that it should scare these “justice” types silly to know how close they are to embodying the ideals of Nazism ? Seriously, nothing but their schoolbook misunderstandings of “fascism” as something “right-wing” prevents their realisation that the entire breadth of the possible political spectrum in their little heads is distinguished by whether the racist authoritarian regime in power claims to be part of an national movement or an international one, or whether the de facto social hierarchy is composed of “equals,” who are nothing of the sort except in name, or of elites and their lessers, who didn’t bother so much with the names. In practise, where the rubber hits the road, I swear I still struggle to tell them apart! HALP!!
But he also hailed the ‘special abilities’ of those at the higher end of his spectrum at a time when the intellectually gifted were regarded as almost by definition Gemüt-impoverished. Those who had special abilities could fulfil their roles in the national organism ‘better than others’ – a ringing endorsement – as ‘mathematicians, technologists, industrial chemists and high-ranking civil servants’. They might not merge with wider society, but they could be socially useful.
Perfectly noble of Herr Asperger, I’m sure we can all agree, seeing as how excellence makes the world go ’round and all, but also pretty alarming how much of a lone voice in the wilderness H.A. must’ve been. Indeed, the only proper position for those interested in the betterment or even the mere maintenance of a positive and constructive society is to find the best match for the most people, but trying to clip the tails of the distribution and hoping for the best is like trying to clip the peripheral tenths of a sparrow’s wings and imagining that “he’ll be more aerodynamic now.” Not really how it works. The sparrow won’t get off the ground, even if he’s that much more likely to make fighting weight. So keep the wings intact and shuck off the dirt, improve the diet, etc. – that’s what improved performance will look like! To some degree, this is what Hans Asperger saw as well, but of course he could never care about the outcomes of his patients as much as their own parents did – NO SITG! – and he could ultimately only use mental models for “good” and “bad” when there’s really no reason why capitalism (the best system yet devised by man for rewarding extreme behaviour) couldn’t have done the same thing in a more applied and less theoretical way. Who’s to say that one of those marginal failures couldn’t have been a quant for Bridgewater, or at least its 1936 equivalent ?
That was the purpose of the clinic: to teach the educable to pass. The child, he said, should receive ‘uninterrupted reciprocity with his caregiver, constantly building up his response’. [...] Teaching some to pass meant also weeding out those who couldn’t. ‘Paradoxically,’ Sheffer writes, ‘it was Asperger’s eugenicist focus on the “favourable cases” in his thesis that obscured the extent to which he was eugenicist.’ The flipside of curing was killing. Death was a ‘treatment option’. Asperger didn’t get his hands dirty – he didn’t kill children himself – but his diagnoses were essentially death warrants. If he was a hero in saving some, he was a monster in dispatching others.
Teaching those “on the spectrum” to pass for civilised members of society, all the while couching their secret powers, is also a sanely wonderful strategy. It’s essentially what worked for me! Thanks to a mother who helped me shop (public) schools for ones that would best fit my unusual developmental needs, as well as enrolling me in acting lessons and improv classes from three years of age through to high school, an introverted semi-autist6 who couldn’t play team sports for the life of him7 was shaped him into a successful young athlete8 and entrepreneur with a brilliant and beautiful wife, two healthy young boys, and a car collection to make you jelly like Chanukah treats, all of which is as miraculous as oil lasting for eight nights when we consider what square one looked like. Thankfully, all of this was possible in the New World of the 1980’s to present! Less so in Germany of the 1930’s and 40’s.
Populism required individuals who would now be called ‘neurotypical’ – Gemüt-ful in the Nazi context – who could be cued into melding into the Volk and then triggered or choreographed to swarm in one direction. Autism, by contrast, was about being unmoved, solitary in a crowd, impervious to affective communion. The crux of Sheffer’s argument is that autism and Nazism were inverse states. To be ‘cured’ at the clinic was to be brought into Gemüt-ful tribalism. To be asocial or introverted or disobedient or unruly was ‘rubbing against the community’ – which amounted to ‘gemütlosen Psychopathen’.
Indeed, those of us who are anything but extroverted tend to “rub against the community” something fierce. At worst, we get called things like “weirdo,” but at best, we get called things like “contrarian” or “visionary,” in much the same way that rich/crazy people get called “eccentric” while poor/crazy people just get called “crazy.”
Another question the book asks at the very end: why is ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ such a part of our lexicon? Why did its use take off in the mid-1990s? One reason is that Asperger’s thesis was translated into English by Uta Frith in 1991, without its Nazi intellectual frame (the preface); Frith also avoided his term ‘autistic psychopathy’, translating it simply as ‘autism,’ an act of linguistic de-Nazification. But there’s more to it than that. Sheffer is clear: autism in its severe forms is about underlying biology; but what we now call Asperger’s syndrome is a cultural artefact. If the terms ‘autism’ and ‘Asperger’s’ have gained momentum recently, that may be in part because of a rise in environmental triggers, but it’s also because our children’s minds are again under intense scrutiny – though for different reasons. In our era of networking and social media, of ‘ghosting’ and attention-grabbing individuation, we’re anxious about their ability, metaphorically and literally, to get the requisite ‘likes’. We now value a capacity not so much for feeling ‘Gemüt’ – or whatever the quality is that guarantees social inclusion – but for strategically emoting or performing ‘soft skills’. Twenty-first century boys are told they need to get with the programme.
See Alex Honnold for the epic heights of human achievement that are possible in a world that embraces “neurodiversity” or whatever you wanna call it. We should consider ourselves incredibly fortunate that we’ve only adopted the language of the Nazis without also adopting their masochistic attitude towards population hygiene. And even on the language front, don’t be surprised if such “on the spectrum” abilities become viewed as blessings rather than curses within our lifetimes. Thought leaders and tastemakers like Ye9 (not to mention MP and yours truly) are already making the case.
Yet, at the same time, autism in its high-functioning form has also become a somewhat hopeful diagnosis. Self-designated ‘Aspies’ tout their ability to be guided by factors other than fame and fortune; to avoid the biases that muddy ‘neurotypical’ or group thinking; and to tell the forest from the trees. Asperger’s syndrome has been laid to rest in the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (though not yet in the international one), but in the popular imagination it has become the province of awkward boy geniuses who create our digital worlds to be, which we ‘neurotypicals’ (itself a cultural construction) fit ourselves to and swarm within. In this turn of the biocultural screw, autism, deserving of death in 1940-45, has become a ‘neuro-platform’ for ‘disruptive innovation’, a cultural good, and a site of identity politics.
While maybe not quite ready to call myself a full-on “Aspie,” I can attest to the myriad benefits of seeing the world in an atypical way. While the rest of the world sees black and white, opportunities are manifest when you’re crazy enough to challenge orthodoxy.10 Rules are “rules,” y’know ? Traveling the world and learning a couple of different languages only enhances this natural predisposition. So if you find yourself the parent of a “weird” kid, embrace it! Own it! If you don’t, don’t expect anyone else to do it better for you. So show him or her the world and prepare yourself to be a sounding board for a breathtaking variety of perspectives for the next few decades.
Let them take their time – life’s a journey – and a bit of a weird one at that. Until your little ones find the place where hard work doesn’t feel like any work at all, keep going. To close with a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)11
For there is a boundary to looking.
And the world that is looked at so deeply
want to flourish in love.
___ ___ ___
- In defense of the Nazis, because yes, there are two sides to every story and nothing is “10000% ABSOLUTE EVIL” with nothing that can be learned from it, they were one of the very few modernist movements to fully embrace intolerance, even if they mostly used it to cut the throat of their intellectual culture instead of, y’know, something productive in the long-term. But at least they picked up the hammer! That they used it to bash their own toes instead of the nail is another story. [↩]
- “But Pete, aren’t you pro-infanticide?” Not quite, Timmy. Well, not by a long shot, really. I’m in favour of parents making decisions that work for them and their nuclear families, whatever those decisions may be and whether or not you and your top-down “fairness” ilk approves. What I’m unequivocally not in favour of is some bureaucratic weasel, whether sporting a swastika or a maple leaf on the shoulder of his uniform, deciding whether my children live or die. Such decisions cannot be made more locally than at the family level and that’s exactly where they belong from both a moral and practical perspective. Capisce ? [↩]
- It’s a Seuss-ism :
Pretty cute, eh ? [↩]
- This healthy body = healthy mind equation is triply true for those with enhanced sensitivities. If the average kid’s body/mind is a Chevy pick-up truck, the kid with sensitivities and intelligence (aka superpowers) is a Ferrari : high performance is possible but ultra-high maintenance comes with it. Managing every drop of fuel that goes in the tank, every piece of the environment from lighting to sound to layout, and keeping the whole machine in regular use is essential if you plan on extracting maximum performance out of the thing. [↩]
- What “objective reality” pray tell ? [↩]
- Well, “semi,” but really more like 17/25ths-autistic by this seriously unscientific metric. [↩]
- Despite clearly superior physical attributes for athletic endeavours (second-tallest kid in the class and also one of the best physical coordinations), I was regularly picked in the last 3 out of 25 for everything from Chinese baseball (today called “kickball”) to soccer. It was always down to me, the one petite East Indian girl in our class (who went on to become a physician), or the lanky kinda gay kid (who went on to become a successful dealership manager). This, because despite being near the top of the class in terms of physical skill, I was dead fucking last in terms of what you might call “Emotional Intelligence.” I couldn’t begin to understand the way groups of people organised themselves and the way that individuals jockeyed for positions within the hierarchy, specifically why they would even bother in the first place (hadn’t they heard of “blue ocean strategies”?). I’ve gotten better at this over the years, but I’m still fairly miserable at it, especially without the body language cues you get IRL. [↩]
- In individual sports, news at 11. [↩]
- From the track “Yikes” off the 2018 album “Ye” :
You see? You see?
That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout
That’s why I fuck with Ye
See that was my third person
That’s my bipolar shit, nigga what?
That’s my superpower, nigga ain’t no disability
I’m a superhero! I’m a superhero!
- If your kid happens to have extreme behavioural disabilities and there’s virtually nothing you can do to make them productive members of society, at least you don’t have some two-bit bureaucrat ripping them out of your life. [↩]
- Pray tell, where else will you find Rilke, Seuss, and Kanye quoted in the same article ? [↩]