December 23, 2010
Paranoia, Here We Come, Right Back Where We Started From

History repeats itself, no question. And no surprise either. It was formed and deformed back then by human beings; it still is, and by an unimproved species.

There are two ways of looking at this regular reemergence of past follies in almost identical shapes: either we have learned nothing from our mistakes, never will, and are therefore all doomed; or what the hell, we lived through these stupid patches before and so we probably will this time too. Take your pick, bearing in mind that it is Christmas, a season of hope.

Meanwhile, here’s a patch that I lived through as a young man, more or less intact and still bitching. This description of it is by Richard Hofstadter, in a 1963 speech at Oxford which was later published in Harper’s Magazine as “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Read “socialism” for “Communism” and “Obama” for “Roosevelt” and you’ll feel right at home. Professor Beck and Deacon McConnell make their appearances, too, along with many other familiar folks.

But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major statesmen seated at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors discovered foreign conspiracies; the modern radical right finds that conspiracy also embraces betrayal at home…

The basic elements of contemporary right-wing thought can be reduced to three: First, there has been the now familiar sustained conspiracy, running over more than a generation, and reaching its climax in Roosevelt’s New Deal, to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for s0cialism or communism. Details might be open to argument among right-wingers, but many would agree with Frank Chodorov, the author of The Income Tax: The Root of All Evil, that this campaign began with the passage of the income tax amendment to the Constitution in 1913.

The second contention is that top government officialdom has been so infiltrated by Communists that American policy, at least since the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, has been dominated by sinister men who were shrewdly and consistently selling out American national interests.

The final contention is that the country is infused with a network of Communist agents, just as in the old days it was infiltrated by Jesuit agents, so that the whole apparatus of education, religion, the press, and the mass media are engaged in a common effort to paralyze the resistance of loyal Americans…


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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 a willingness to compromise but the will to fight things out to a 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, luxury-loving…

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 (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional); he is gaining a stranglehold on the educational system.

This 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…

One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is precisely the elaborate concern with demonstration it almost invariably shows. One should not be misled by the fantastic conclusions that are so characteristic of this political style into imagining that it is not, so to speak, argued out along factual lines. The very fantastic character of its conclusions leads to heroic strivings for “evidence” to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed…

The singular thing about all this laborious work is that the passion for factual evidence does not, as in most intellectual exchanges, have the effect of putting the paranoid spokesman into effective two-way communication with the world outside his group — least of all with those who doubt his views. He has little real hope that his evidence will convince a hostile world. His effort to amass it has rather the quality of a defensive act which shuts off his receptive apparatus and protects him from having to attend to disturbing considerations that do not fortify his ideas. He has all the evidence he needs; he is not a receiver, he is a transmitter…

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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at December 23, 2010 05:36 PM
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Reminds of the lyrics in an old Bob Dylan acoustic era song, "Talking John Paranoid Blues". "they was even floating in my toilet bowel, shucks, they got away".

Full lyrics here:
http://www.bobdylan.com/#/songs/talkin-john-birch-paranoid-blues

Posted by: Buck on December 24, 2010 1:19 AM

"The Paranoid Style in American Politics" is an essay that will be read by historians, in my opinion, for as long as interest in American society exists. That is a writer! His other stuff is wonderful as well; Anti-Intellectualism in America is a real conversation-starter in a bar, I can tell you; and The American Political Tradition will teach you a lot about the country, good as well as bad. He even has the typically dry academic wit, if you're following his argument.

Combining intellectual depth and perspicacity with the writing of a demigod, he's hard to beat in the race for best American nonfiction writer.

Posted by: Chuck Dupree on December 24, 2010 5:06 AM
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