OVERCOMING THE ‘AMERICAN PARANOID STYLE’: A NEW STAGE IN AMERICAN HISTORY

by mgopin on April 30, 2009 · 5 comments

Rush Limbaugh and others have been quick to associate the President with the swine flu and all other ills, it seems. Apparently this is a convenient way for Obama to get his choice for Director of Health and Human Services quickly appointed. The reality of this hate radio is shocking.

I have been thinking long and hard for many years about Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics“. This is one of the most important essays in American history by one of the most influential and insightful of America’s historians.

Here are some critical quotes:

American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of 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 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, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. 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 theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling 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.

The 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 his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect 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 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 has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).

Hofstader’s essay is brilliant, but I disagree on one important point, namely that this is an especially American problem. This describes the fascist personality since the dawn of time, since the invention of accusations against the amazing Socrates, since the demonization of the Jew throughout European history, since the racism for thousands of years against people of darker skin, people from Africa, indeed a kind of odd desire to humiliate and destroy our African ancestors from whom we all come.

The bizarre nature of this kind of ethics, politics, and construction of the political self cries out for deeper understanding at the psychological level. Hofstadter himself notes this:

It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. 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 operation 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 fundamentalist anti-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.

I think that we have not begun to do enough diagnosis of this perennial scourge of human political organization. We note it, we study it, Hofstadter writes extensively on the anti-intellectual style of American politics. But, again, I think that a basic knowledge of ancient Greece, Chinese history, German history, will leave us breathless with the amazing capacity to suppress reason in favor of bizarre demonizations.

Then I think back to President Obama’s press conference last night, and I thank God for the day that his mother bore him. I thank God for every single time the man defers with humility and respect to ‘science’ and what science will help us understand about the virus, and about so many other complex issues.

I cannot imagine how the unprecedented number of simultaneously occurring crises facing the world would be handled by a less rational president, by someone even somewhat tainted by the “Paranoid Style in American Politics”. Perhaps someone else may be intimating a rounding up of illegal aliens from Mexico at this point of our state of understandable fear of the virus. We as a human species, I believe, dodged a bullet on January 20, 2009.

We Democrats are watching the Republican Party suffer right now, and it is so often the case that we do not address the deeper problems of the American psyche once we have victory at the polls. I applaud the few Republicans left, such as George Will, who are trying to reconstruct a principled, non-extremist core and base of the Republican Party. It is good for a country to have more than one party, I think.

But I have also become convinced that at some point in history we need to go after the paranoid style in politics and its fascist tendencies. Our American educational system is sorely lacking in the deep work necessary to secure a social contract based on shared public values and commitments. This is not beyond our capacity, and I am certain that the world’s security depends upon a powerful United States not slipping into the hands of Rush Limbaugh’s approach to the world.

More progressive thinking needs to go into a permanent shift of the American enlightened citizen, both rich and poor, intellectual AND non-intellectual, away from the politics of hate. We can disagree where disagreements belong, in the murky waters of moral ambiguity, when the use of force is justified or not, when abortion is right or wrong, how and when and how much to help the poor, along with dozens of other complex moral challenges. But we should think about what media, educational and social programs could¬† do to make the rage, anger, and paranoia that fueled so much of the anti-Obama campaign–and that still fills the radio waves–into something as unrespectable as Nazism has become. We have never attempted this as an American civilization. But it is high time.

© Marc Gopin

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