Paranoia

American History, big picture stuff, Bush Administration, conservatism, September 11

The scheduled installment of “Ten Days After: Day Two” probably won’t be up until late this evening. Click here for Day One. Meanwhile —

I’ve been reading Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” an essay written in 1963. I regret that I haven’t found it online except in abridged form that leaves out some of the best stuff, so I’ve keyboarded four paragraphs to bring to your attention. I’m sure I could extract several dozen blog posts out of these four paragraphs alone, but since I’m short on time this morning I’m going to just post the paragraphs for you to think about.

Seems to me these paragraphs fit several groups in the U.S. today — the Right versus militant Islam; the Right versus the “liberal elite”; the Bush Administration’s approach to the “war on terror” (the second paragraph in particular); Dick Cheney and other neocons versus Saddam Hussein; and on the Left, people who are convinced the WTC towers were brought down by controlled detonation.

Have at it.

Let us now abstract the basic elements in the paranoid style. The central image is that of vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life. One may object that there are conspiratorial acts in history and there is nothing paranoid about taking note of them. This is true. All political behavior requires strategy, many strategic acts depend for their effect upon a period of secrecy, and anything that is secret may be described, often with but little exaggeration, as conspiratorial. The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a “vast” or “gigantic” conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade. The paranoid spokesman sees the face of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point: it is now or never in organizing resistance to conspiracy. Time is forever just running out. Like religious millenarians, he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to see a date for the apocalypse. “Time is running out,” said Welch [Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society] in 1951 “Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month in which Stalin will attack.” The apocalypticism of the paranoid style run dangerously near to hopeless pessimism, but usually stops short of it. Apocalyptic warnings arouse passion and militancy, and strike at susceptibility to similar themes in Christianity. Properly expressed, such warnings serve somewhat the same function as a description of the horrible consequences of sin in a revivalist sermon: they portray that which impends but which may still be avoided. They are a secular and demonic version of adventism.

As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, the quality needed is not willingness to compromise but the will to fight things out to the finish. Nothing but complete victory will do. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theater of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for unqualified victories leads to the formulation of hopelessly demanding and unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same sense of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

This enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman: sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of the past, his desires, his limitations. He is a free, active, demonic agent. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history himself, or deflects the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is in this sense distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he directs the public mind through “managed news”; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brain washing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional); he is gaining a stranglehold on the educational system.

The enemy seems to be on many counts a projection of the self: both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. A fundamental paradox of the paranoid style is the imitation of the enemy. The enemy, for example, may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Senator McCarthy, with his heavily documented tracts and his show of information, Mr. Welch with his accumulations of irresistible evidence, John Robison with his laborious study of documents in a language he but poorly used, the anti-Masons with their endlessly painstaking discussions of Masonic ritual – all these offer a kind of implicit compliment to their opponents. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operations through “front” groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various Christian anti-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication, discipline, and strategic ingenuity the Communist cause calls forth.

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Donna in WI  •  Sep 12, 2006 @11:35 am

    Re-read the third paragraph and tell me this doesn’t sound like the way that liberals speak of conservatives in general. I don’t think I’m paranoid because I notice that they manufacture disasters and crisis to enjoy the profits from the misery they have produced. Someone want to explain to me that they haven’t looted Iraq and the US treasury by invading while not providing for either the troops or rebuilding Iraq? You mean they really aren’t underfunding every government program in the US in order to give more money to the wealthiest through tax breaks and corporate welfare and to use it as an excuse that government is inept so we should do away with it, drown it in the bathtub so to speak? 9/11 is a conspiracy, they were warned throughout the summer of ’01 that an attack was coming. Either they are bungling buffoons who ignored the warnings, or they are evil incarnate who let it happen. Either way the product was that they took advantage of the attacks as political opportunities to pass through their authoritarian unconstitutional legislation, gin up a war in Iraq which they wanted before 9/11, and loot our treasury.

    How about the subversion of our electoral process? They didn’t send a bunch of goons down to Florida to stop the recount? They aren’t using unreliable machines to count the vote and possibly manipulate it? They don’t use tactics like sending plenty of voting machines and workers to mostly Republican precincts while not sending enough to Democratic? How about push polling? Or phone jamming?

    My vote is that they are evil, greedy, shortsighted and that their voters are ignorant bigots. If that makes me a paranoid conspiracy theorist, so be it.

  2. jerri  •  Sep 12, 2006 @11:40 am

    I really looked at the people going about their lives this 911. Folks looked calm and prepared to deal with memories. They looked like they are finished with being afraid. People have deferred the need for revenge. They believed bush with his GWOT would get Osama and AQ but, it has been 5 years and nothing has changed. Disappearing nameless faceless brow people to secret torture prisons did not bring the expected satisfaction. Osama and his crew are still making tapes, that 70 ft hole is still in NYC, the enemy is still nameless and faceless men whose identity changes with each speech given by bush, cheney, rummy, or rice, and bush is giving the same speech where he connects those little black dots for us. You think if he lost his little black dots…bush just might shut up???

  3. Tom Hilton  •  Sep 12, 2006 @1:31 pm

    Hofstadter was extraordinarily perceptive, even prescient. The projection thing is very much in evidence on the right these days (I understand Dave Neiwert has a post about that today).

    Buy the book–it’s worth it for the other essays, in particular The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt: 1954, which provides a detailed analysis of what was then an insurgent force, and is now the dominant power, in the Republican party; it’s even more eerily accurate about today’s pseudo-conservatives than Paranoid Style. Here’s a sample quote:

    …[P]seudo-conservatism is, among other things, a disorder in relation to authority, characterized by an inability to find other modes for human relationship than those of more or less complete domination or submission. The pseudo-conservative always imagines himself to be dominated and imposed upon because he feels that he is not dominant, and knows of no other way of interpreting his position.

  4. Donna  •  Sep 12, 2006 @1:55 pm

    Fear is contagious. Ever been around an infant who is over-wrought from fatigue and over-stimulation? The very best response to such an overwrought infant is to let yourself become
    zen-mastery-calm inside, no easy thing when the wailing is acute.
    But, if you can achieve the calmness inside yourself while holding the baby, the baby will pick that up and drop into a blessed quiet, even if the outside stimulations continue [like a gaggle of loud talking relatives in the room].

    Being amongst the paranoid types and their echoed rhetoric just brought that to mind…..the ability to respond with an utterly contrasting inner calm. IMHO, such calm has considerable power in response to the contextual paranoia.

    I may struggle to apply this story to the post about paranoia, but maybe someone will get it. When I read the post , I remembered a lesson I learned back in 1975, a lesson about efforting, skill, and responsiveness. Back then, I was an avid river-runner, often canoeing or kayaking on weekends……and felt rather competent: once my canoe partner Barry and I went over a six foot drop without upsetting the canoe….. sometimes we would head right over a floating log to see if we could stay upright….fun bravado stuff, but stuff that, for sure, demanded balance and skill.
    So, in 1975, I was out west and had a chance to run [alone] a four-mile section of river that had some mild challenges. All I had to use to float the river was an intertube…..not very manueverable, but what the hey…..I got into the intertube and began the float. For some reason [no Swami, no drugs!] I was absolutely at peace and so caught up in the beauty of the western landscape that the part of me that would be normally be busy planning how to navigate riffs and turns and boulders was gone, totally absent. I would watch a turn coming and do nothing to save myself from getting entangled in trees or boulders. It was like I was so fully ‘in the moment’ that no plan-ahead stuff could have a place in my consciousness. What did happen taught me about a perfection-of-response lesson. I would be in a fast flow of water watching myself head to a crash, and at just the perfect but last moment, my hand would drop over the side of the innertube and do the tiniest little paddling action, and voila, no crash. This kept repeating, and each time I observed my tiny perfect responses as they happened rather than know of them ahead of time. It was a glorious realization that my whole self was much more aware and able to respond than just my ‘ think-ahead brain’, which would have held me in a certain anxiety the whole four miles.

    Anyway, it is the sheer exhausting bulk of the political paranoia types and their screeching that prompts me to remember that life can calm and be lovely if, as a great author once said, I can “Lose my mind and come to my senses.”

  5. Iowan  •  Sep 12, 2006 @3:23 pm

    I re-read both Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style and his Anti-Intellectualism in American Life a year or so ago. Both are well-worth reading. The next time I’m at the library I’m going to pick his Social Darwinism in American Thought.

  6. whig  •  Sep 12, 2006 @3:57 pm

    What Donna in WI said is very insightful, the third paragraph is as much true of what we believe in some cases as it is of what the paranoid does. And so it could be said that we are paranoid ourselves, or mirroring paranoia.

    Paranoia is contagious, you know.

    But here is the thing. Where there is an amoral paranoid, all ought to be concerned about what he will do. We cannot help but mirror his thoughts to some degree, but within boundaries, with rules of conduct. We do not murder. We do not deceive. We tell the truth.

    So you can call the two trees identical, and there will be no apparent difference to analyze only the thought patterns themselves, but there is a difference of kind which you can tell by testing the fruit.

  7. moonbat  •  Sep 12, 2006 @5:47 pm

    Agree with Donna in WI, but I don’t believe we who see this are being paranoid at all. If we are, so were the Founders of this country who had firsthand experience with the tyrants/supermen of their day and who devised a Constitution against them, one which the right is trying to destroy (literally, “they hate our freedoms”).

    Tyrants and powerfreaks are very real things, with very real and disastrous consequences, as a look at any of the major wars will tell you. We rightly should be vigilant against this, as were the Founders.