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For a long time, mental handicaps were seen as completely insurmountable, just something that nobody could engage with or do anything about. In the 20th century, though, that began to change. The notion that mental illness was treatable began to become widespread, and mental hospitals because places of treatment rather than mere confinement.
A good example of the changing attitudes is the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, based on Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel of the same title. In it, Randle McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson, is transferred from prison to a mental institution, where he challenges the way the institution is run. Prior to his arrival, the institution is essentially a holding pen, a place where people are kept because society doesn’t want to deal with them. There is no real expectation that anyone ever will, or ever can, leave the institution or be cured of their problems. Indeed, McMurphy initially goes there because he thinks it will be an easier place than prison to serve out the remainder of his sentence, only to discover that one he’s in the institutional system, he can be kept there indefinitely against his will.
However, by engaging with the other patients as human beings, McMurphy challenges the authority of the institutional system....
The 1960s were a fertile time for changing attitudes, and the liberation of McMurphy’s compatriots should be seen in that context. In 1968, the Special Olympics were founded, as parents of mentally disabled children were encouraged for the first time to take pride in their offspring despite their disability. Prior to this era, such parents were frequently told to have their children permanently institutionalized, and tell people they were dead. As another example, three years prior to the release of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, there had been a famous television expose of the Willowbrook State School, a grossly abusive and inadequate institution for mentally disabled children and youths. It led to a public outcry and a series of reforms in how such institutions were run. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in that sense, is chronicling an unfolding cultural narrative about the treatment of mental handicaps; it’s a story about changing attitudes that came out in a time of changing attitudes. There is often an easy narrative applied to the Civil War, one in which evil, racist Confederates are opposed by virtuous, non-racist Union troops. Few would phrase it in exactly that way, but that is the basic structure of the model many people absorb from pop culture and conventional wisdom. Like most such good-vs.-evil narratives, it is a gross oversimplification that misses much of its own point. Reality is, as ever, more complex. At another end of the spectrum, one finds those who insist that the war had nothing to do with slavery, that that was a mere incidental issue. Considering that every state that seceded wrote an elaborate proclamation of their reasons, and that every one of those documents cites slavery as their central ideological issue, the
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