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.
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.
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.
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 wonder...at 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.