Paranoid Stylings: American Politics in the Twenty-first Century

conspiracy_theorists

    This glimpse across a long span of time emboldens me to make the conjecture—it is no more than that—that a mentality disposed to see the world in this way may be a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population. But certain religious traditions, certain social structures and national inheritances, certain historical catastrophes or frustrations may be conducive to the release of such psychic energies, and to situations in which they can more readily be built into mass movements or political parties. In American experience ethnic and religious conflict have plainly been a major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but class conflicts also can mobilize such energies. Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest—perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands—are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery. A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to developing such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him—and in any case he resists enlightenment.

    – Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics

It seems that everything that happens in America nowadays is part of some sort of conspiracy. A small, but very vocal group of people are now claiming that the Sandy Hook massacre was faked, that it was a “false-flag operation”, carried out so that President Obama can have an excuse to “take away our guns”. One witness to the shootings has received threatening phone calls and e-mails accusing him of being in the pay of the government. There are also conspiracy theories about the Aurora Shootings.

You can laugh (or cry) all you want about this, but is it really any sillier than some of the claims made by the 9/11 “Truth” movement? I don’t know how many times I read somebody on Indymedia or some other website claiming that the “hole” in the Pentagon could not possibly have been made by an airplane, as if this person had spent his life observing planes crashing into buildings. And a surprisingly large number of Americans think that the Apollo moon landing was faked. One wonders why they just don’t go all the way and claim that everything on the news is faked.

In his essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter argued that there is a long history of conspiracist thinking in the U.S. He discusses anti-Masonry and anti-Catholicism in nineteenth century America, and he draws a direct line from them to the anti-Communism of the 1940’s and 1950’s. A common characteristic of these movements is a belief that the U.S. is under threat from secretive forces, usually of foreign in origin. (Think of how birthers try to claim that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S.) Hofstadter sees these movements as being mainly rural in character. This may have been true of earlier movements, but it can’t really be said of the 9/11 “Truth” movement. It seems to me that the paranoid style is beginning to become so pervasive in this country that it is starting to crowd out reasonable critiques of our political and economic system.

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