Saturday, September 26, 2009

Still paranoid

Paranoid Jesus I'm reading last week's issue of Time, the one with Glenn Beck on the cover. I swear, I have to turn the magazine face down, because I can't stand having that mug looking up at me. The article itself wasn't all that substantive (but then, neither is Beck), but what I loved was the editor's opening letter to readers. He referenced a paper written by Richard Hofstadter, who was a historian and history professor at Columbia. The paper, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, was published in 1964, but it is incredibly relevant to today's situation and to our larger history.

I won't tell you that you have to read the full article, because I'm all about you reading what you want to read, but I can tell you that I found it completely fascinating.

Hofstadter's essay is about the prevalence and persistence of conspiracy theories in American politics. They have existed since we, as a country, have existed, going back to the late 1700's, with various campaigns against the Illuminati, the Freemasons, Communism, the UN, even Catholicism. They persist today in vague theories of the threat of the Bilderberg Group, as well as with the Birthers, and most recently, the Deathers. Hofstadter attributes this to a pervasive paranoia among a small segment of society. In reading the article, I've distilled it to several pertinent points and characteristics of this sort of belief system.


Those who are quick to believe that there is some sort of secret society intent on destroying our country feel that their "way of life" is in danger from outside forces. There is a resistance to change, including changes in social mores and societal attitudes; in order to combat this nebulous threat, they find a conspiracy or group of "others" on which to place the blame for what they see as our moral decay.


The government, the "international banks," the media...all are run or influenced by the above subversive agents. It is incredibly difficult for the paranoid to fight such all-encompassing conspiracy, and there is a feeling of futility in getting others to believe him/her.

Red Menace Elimination

There is a sense of absolute good vs. absolute evil. There can be no compromise through normal channels of political discourse, so the enemy must be totally eradicated, either physically or politically.

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, 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 embrace of "renegades"

Those who escape the clutches and tell the secrets of these "hidden societies" are automatically believed. Whether a former Freemason telling tales of discipline or a former nun speaking of widespread sexual abuse at the hands of priests as if it is all an expected aspect of ritual, anyone who reinforces the paranoid's beliefs which are already in place is welcomed and believed. This also serves to show the paranoid that the secret organizations are not omnipotent; they can be overcome, and redemption is possible for those who have been subjected to the group’s evil ways.

Anti-Catholicism Extensive "evidence"

These paranoids will compile lengthy lists of facts that support their theories. This is not necessarily to convince those who disagree—after all, the paranoid is visionary and can see things that others cannot—but to bolster and protect their own beliefs.

Resistance to enlightenment

Because of their extreme views, these people are often left behind and ignored when it is time to make decisions. They create a self-fulfilling prophecy, in effect. With their strongly-held beliefs and unwillingness to listen to opposing views, as well as their denial of irrefutable facts, they place themselves on the periphery of the discussion...and then point to their ostracism as evidence of the wide reach of the group which they oppose.

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.

Hofstadter asserts that such paranoid behavior is not unique to any party, or even to this country. At the time of his article was published, the Communist threat was still very much a part of our lives and our policies as a nation, so it primarily addresses right wing conspiracy theorists. Of course, we've seen it happen on the left as well, with those "Truthers" who believe that 9/11 was a Bush-driven plot to get us into war. I'm sure this happens in other countries, too, but our nation is somewhat unique in its rugged sense of individuality along with its ethnic and religious conflicts. I see this as much riper soil for the rampant growth of conspiracy theories. Hofstadter concludes:

We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.

Paranoid cats I found myself oddly—and you would think paradoxically—comforted by Hofstadter’s essay. I've been very uneasy and quite disturbed by the current tone of the political debate. I find it hateful and counterproductive. This piece showed me that we are experiencing nothing new. This sort of behavior has been a part of American politics since our country has been in existence. I don't agree with it, and I don't understand it, but at least I've recognized it. Despite the turmoil and despite the hatred of a small, vocal few, I believe that we will weather this storm, and I hope we'll come out stronger. We are strengthened by discussion, but diminished by blind opposition and senseless arguments.

This article was published 45 years ago, but speaks truth to power today. I have to what point does healthy skepticism turn to complete distrust? There is a big difference between disagreeing with policies and believing in a secret plot to take over the country...if not the world. Let's stay rooted in reality, and address the problems at hand, rather than trying to banish non-existent bogeymen or quixotically tilt at windmills.


  1. One thing I forgot to address (although this entry was long enough already) was the role of the Internet and constant news updates in the propagation of conspiracy theories. We can get updates 24 hours a day, and we can also find like-minded individuals, no matter what our beliefs. Groups that in the past were considered fringe groups now have websites and are easily available to all who seek them out.

    Anyone who has a bizarre theory or wants to contact others who might buy into it will have no problem finding them on the Net. Although the flow of information is wonderful, it also legitimizes those groups that are outside the boundaries of reasonable behavior.

  2. It is amazing how we, as a country, have the fringe that spout such nonsense as "birthers" and "socialist". There is much misdirection and paranoia out there - we can only hope that they get silenced by the truth.

  3. Must be psychic- your right! I know how this works, firsthand, remember I was raised in a fundamentalist church! {hex guard, should I spit on the ground?)

  4. Scary! Wow.........interesting Post.

  5. Hi Beth, loved this post. Paranoia does seem to take hold of people in need, almost as quickly as fear does. Paranoia seems to spread more quickly. Maybe that is because fear often uses slivers of something that resembles a truth to force itself in?

    I agree with your thoughts on the flow of information online. Too often, people run across something and hold onto it as truth, without ever bothering to verify authenticity or establish corroborative evidence, not to mention factoring in bias or the integrity of the source .

  6. Another thing I've heard a lot about lately is how we all used to get our news from the same places, ie, Newsweek and Time magazines, and the main TV channels. Now with FOX and MSNBC and the Drudge Report, etc., people get their news already slanted in the direction they're leaning, thereby verifying their views. This, of course, feeds the crazies.

    Great article as always, Beth. You continue to amaze me with your intellect and ability to communicate.

  7. I think that political paranoia will continue to exist as long as there is a partisan system. The face and voice of the politically paranoid will only change with the party in power. It is simply the nature of politics. (And that the reason I hate politics.)

    Great post, Beth. Very, very well done. xoxo

  8. An excellent dissection of the role of paranoia in American politics, so informative. I get what you mean about finding it comforting to know that this hyper paranoia is nothing new. It comforts me as well. We've weathered this kind of nonsense before and we'll do so this time as well.

  9. One of the things about the word 'conspiracy' is that in some dictionaries, the word 'harmony' is used in its definition. All of life is a 'conspiracy' as things happen in a respectable order with other things. For instance, why do people who meet the description of a 'Bilderberg
    Group', attempt to meet in a secret location?

    This has nothing to do with the actual EXISTENCE of the Bilderberg Group, as much as it the characteristics of such meetings to resemble 'The Group', occur. That is something that always intrigued me.

    Ike farewell address, warning of the encroaching Military-Industrial complex, is something that I find equally fascinating. Even if you were to seperate it from the time of his warning, to describe what is going on as far as policy in Iraq, I don't think that you can ignore the possiblity of a 'sinister conspiracy'. I mean, from the beginnings as a policy paper in a Washington think tank, to the eventual positioning of people who were major players in it creation finally reaching positions where they can implement there vision, it is hard to completely ignore theories as more paranoia than substance.

    With so much wealth concentrated in so few hands, it is harder for me NOT to think of things working in concert with each other to achieve a specific end. Stereotypes exists as a thumbnail sketch because of dominant traits of behavior. Typing isn't only for minorities, but for any behaviour that is exclusive to a group.

    In one of the dictionaries I have at home, the word 'harmony' is used in the definition for conspiracy. And that is another aspect of conspiracy that gets overlooked. Maybe the harmony of the forces that create the Military-Industrial complex are things that work in 'harmony' with one another. Like the way that Halliburton just happens to benefit so much from the war in Iraq, with Cheney being in the White House, that is another 'harmonic' occurence, right?? Or is it something else???

    If I was stronger in behavioral science, I would have a better handle on the terminology. But we do know that when you move into a new group or class, a person will leave behind the thinking of the old group or class of people. They take on the new group that they are entering and act accordingly.

    Could it be possible that what seems to be 'conspiracy' is the harmony that is born of the collusion of groups behaving in ways to continue the way of life they have created? Another way of expressing the survival of a philosophy??

    Ike's allusion to 'the complex' is a sign that not only crack pots like 'the Unabomber' or 'wish they were smart enough to be a crack pot' like me, are completely wrong. His concern was due to the alignment of certain interests creating situations from which they can maxiumize their profits.

    The concentration of wealth only furthers the grist for the mills. It isn't hard for there to be a 'Bilderberg Group' operating beyond the view of the masses. What does the Council on Foreign Relations do? And with so much going on in spite of its existence, what good IS the UN??

    Political and Social conspiracies remind me of Einstein's quest for the unified field theory ... there is enough around to make a scientist to think it is possible at the same time that it may be impossible to figure it out completely.

    One of the social conspiracies that intrigue me the most, is how people occupy the same class and are beset by similiar problems, yet cannot figure out how to overcome conditions that are related to each other as far as they affect classes inspite of their background.

    Religous conspiracies also fascinate me. There are things that even the most devout followers of a particular faith cannot explain away, yet they choose to follow without any in depth analysis. Unlike the one's that have spawned 'The Birthers' and 'The Truthers', there exist strong evidence of things being deliberately hidden and glossed over to make what is recorded tilt a certain way.

  10. ... but like the kitty in the picture, none of the reasonable assertions made in the article can ease the troubled mind of those who believe in 'conspiracies'. In fact, me and the SFC had a long discussion about such things this afternoon watching the 'Nostradamus Effect' on the History channel today.

    The elements of what gives rise to conspiracy theories have always existed and you have pointed them out. They will always exist, because that is how the 'harmony of life', the balance of everything works. And it has to work in a 'conspiracy' because the existence of these elements are all dependent upon one another. Sort of a 'pop will eat itself' kind of way.

    ... same as it ever was ... same as it ever was ...

  11. and again, i think race plays a role in today's political climate. Add that to the people who THRIVE on conspiracy theories and they all have a full time job. There are a few people that email me that believe in what you just wrote about. They think the government is after them and the end is near. I hit delete. A lot.
    you gotta pick what you believe in and live with that decision. Today's world is scary and getting scarier. I can not believe TIME would put a piece of shit like Beck on the cover.

    lets hope the extreme thinkers stay in their little groups and never get big enough to cause a change in the American way of life.

  12. I love this post. Beth you have such an incredible voice to frame your position on any particular subject. With graphics and all, starting with the paranoid Jesus, there is something quietly provocative and perverse in the way you call attention to this subject. Maybe was just coincidence, but this week I stop going to my political sites because I was getting more and more depressed about the state of affairs. I was starting to look like one of the cats in your illustrations. So I am glad that you have just brought out another take on the political discourse of know a days. I too agree with you “ that we are experiencing nothing new. This sort of behavior has been a part of American politics since our country has been in existence. I don't agree with it, and I don't understand it, but at least I've recognized it. Despite the turmoil and despite the hatred of a small, vocal few, I believe that we will weather this storm, and I hope we'll come out stronger.” And I will be reading the article. Thanks.

  13. Man, great post. I love reading the words of others who can condense everything I'm seeing and feeling into complete picture that I can't seem to put together. Bravo and thanks!


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