May 18, 2011

The Paranoid Style in American Commentary -- Are we 1920s Germany?

Richard Hofstadter's 1964 essay/book The Paranoid Style in American Politics offers many examples of its title. I find the quotes fascinating.

The examples ring so familiar, but readers will find them new and interesting.

We hear unflinching voices telling us the real intentions of our previously hidden enemies.

These voices can be strident, confident, passionate, even erudite. If anything, this disease is only made more dangerous by intelligence. Intelligence offers limited immunity to falling into this state of mind. Perhaps it is intellect itself which causes these holes in the ground.

Further, intelligence offers limited protection for the audience when the oracle is sufficiently erudite, as the mental hook is not finally about logical ability, but about something more fundamental.

Today, we see this style everywhere, not only on the "right", but just as much on the "left" -- in fact, it appears to me at this moment that both "right" and "left" are only manifestations of the paranoid style.

After all, each and every one of us is genuinely conservative and liberal, both.

Hofstadter in 1964 was confronted with the virulent paranoia against the ascendant "liberal" government of the day, so he observed much "right" wing paranoia. But the same can be expected from the "left".

This style as a powerful attraction to readers/listeners goes beyond yellow journalism. It is more than only a cynical ploy to garner an audience. In the paranoid style, the bloggers, columnists, talk show hosts, and their followers actually believe what they are saying. And what they are saying is "watch out for these hidden agendas that this person or group is trying to impose on us."

We hear this against Obama constantly. We hear it endlessly against Republicans, Democrats, certain federal agencies, bankers, the Fed, conventional medicine, drug companies, health insurers, planned parenthood, contraception, journalists covering and reporting news on industries or large corporations, bloggers/columnists/talk shows.... If the organization or individuals seems influential or powerful, you can find plenty of conspiracy theory about them.

Because we live in a culture steeped, saturated with the paranoid style, Hofstadter is especially relevant to America now. The paranoid style degrades a nation's social fabric and when ascendent can lead to new forms of discrimination, witch hunts or even worse, such in Germany in the 1930s .

We need to learn about this human tendency, present to some degree in all of us, but into which some fall deeply, and which can be used to logically justify anything.

Some examples from The Paranoid Style...:
How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy... ... What can be made of this unbroken series of decisions and acts contributing to the strategy of defeat? They cannot be attributed to incompetence.... [and they must be intentionally, not accidentally, harmful because:] The laws of probability would dictate that part of...[the] decisions would serve this country's interest." -- Sen. McCarthy, June 1951

The following one really put a smile on my face. It's a whole different time and situation, really does sound so familiar if you change the names and some details:
As early at 1865-66 a conspiracy was entered into between the gold gamblers of Europe and America.... For nearly thirty years these conspirators have kept the people quarreling over less important matters, while they have pursued with unrelenting zeal their one central purpose.... Every device of treachery, every resource of statecraft, and every artifice known to the secret cabals of the international gold ring are being made use of to deal a blow to the prosperity of the people and the financial and commercial independence of the country. -- Populist Party manifesto circa 1895
The next reminds me of the stir about money sent to build mosques in the U.S. for....not for say, religion, but instead for a purpose.
It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions.... The Catholics in the United States receive from abroad more than $200,000 annually for the propagation of their creed.... -- Texas newspaper article, 1855
Whenever a conspiracy is afoot (which is of course all the time now isn't it?), one can be sure that the fellow travelers are just...everywhere, even in our congregations or meeting places:
"...that Jesuits are prowling about all parts of the United States in every possible disguise, expressly to ascertain the advantageous situations and modes to disseminate Popery. A minister of the Gospel from Ohio has informed us that he discovered one carrying on his devices in his congregation [this reminds me of bloggers rooting out "shills" -- those expressing a plausible competing view]; and he says that the western country swarms with them under the names of puppet show men, dancing masters, music teachers, peddlers of images and ornaments, barrel organ players, and similar practitioners." -- Protestant militant of about the same period as above
Hofstadter notes what I think is an especially important analysis by David Brion Davis: "As the nativist searched for participation in a noble cause...he professed a belief in democracy and equal rights. Yet in his very zeal...he curiously assumed many of the characteristics of the imagined enemy...." This is such a key insight: "...By condemning the subversive's {or substitute the enemy of the day here} fanatical allegiance to an ideology, he affirmed a similarly uncritical acceptance of a different ideology; by attacking the subversive's {sometimes asserted} intolerance of dissent, he worked to eliminate dissent and diversity of opinion;..." {My own generalizations in black.}

In short, the paranoid style often projects onto the enemy attributes which the writer/speaker/originator themself displays. In terms of psychology, this is simple 'projection' and is commonplace.

The jaundiced eye sees yellow everywhere. Remove the log from your own eye before the speck from your neighbors. The pot calling the kettle black. Etc. This is old wisdom, though forgotten.

That's worth a post, more, a book in itself, but let's stick to our central topic here.

Typically, we've all seen over and over the dehumanization or demonization of the enemy. They aren't simply breaking a rule or forgetting a principle or lacking some information, but are agents of something more insidious, they are "______" (insert negative label here).

Obama isn't simply making some policy or principle mistake on the stimulus or on health care, but wants to 'expand big brother government' 'into our lives' and lead us into 'Socialism', or just 'hates America' (2009-2011). Conservatives aren't simply failing to see what Government can do well for a nation, but seek to reinforce a greedy, oligarchic elite, or 'kleptocracy' (the real crimes of a few are painted onto a broader group). The contrary viewpoint on the internet or in the comments isn't simply mistaken about a fact or idea, but is a paid employee of some underhanded organization or individual, etc.

Paranoia seems to be in our genes.

And it is convincing stuff. Hofstadter's analysis (in light blue):
"[Another] aspect of the paranoid style is related to that quality 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.... ...there are highbrow, lowbrow, middlebrow paranoids... ...respectable paranoid literature not only starts from certain moral commitments that can be justified to many non-paranoids but also carefully and all but obsessively accumulates "evidence." Paranoid writing begins with certain defensible judgements {correct or principled starting points}....

The typical procedure of the higher paranoid scholarship is to start with such defensible assumptions and with a careful accumulation of facts, or at least of what appear to be facts, and to marshal these facts toward an overwhelming "proof" of the particular conspiracy that is to be established. It is nothing if not coherent--in fact, the paranoid mentality is far more coherent than the real world...
This is part of how the paranoid style is so appealing and winning. It makes you wonder if we can even find the balance to counter it.

These are key insights. See, it isn't information or principles or ideas or even some mistaken 'facts' that lead to the false conclusions, rather it is the marshaled information, the exclusion of the contrary.

The contrary is taken as proof of deception or hidden agendas, or otherwise labeled. It is discounted. It is quietly ignored, or literally tossed out (Brownshirts beat and tossed opponents out of political meetings).

But why does the paranoid style reach such outlandish conclusions? That suggests more is happening than only arguing from one's conclusion (the typical logic mistake of simply selecting evidence to support a preordained conclusion). Why does the style go for broke?
What distinguishes the paranoid style is not, then, the absence of verifiable facts...but rather the curious leap in imagination that is always made at some critical point in the recital of events....

The plausibility the paranoid style has for those who find it plausible lies, in good measure, in this appearance of the most careful, conscientious, and seemingly coherent application to detail, the laborious accumulation of what can be taken as convincing evidence for the most fantastic conclusions....
Yes, this we see so often. This is the style of many blogs, many commentators.

Real facts and true information are used, but then there is a leap, sometimes subtle, sometimes fantastic, a jump without proof, to a conclusion. For instance, the real crimes of some individuals become a boilerplate to quickly process all manner of additional individuals -- they are only more instances of the same, or only a variety within the broad complex of the enemy, invariably. They must be rejected without dialogue.

But something makes the originator reach for that outlandish conclusion to begin with. That's worth thinking on. This isn't cynical melodrama, but true belief.

Most self-defeating to the originator though, in time, is the isolation, the orthodoxy that results. I don't mean the originator necessarily feels isolated on a personal level. They may or may not feel so (though an interesting possibility is they may feel disconnected on some level). They can be very popular and have many followers, and these may give them a feeling of belonging or a feeling of alienation. But the isolation I refer to above is the intellectual insulation resulting from their orthodoxy, which gradually creates widening doctrinal problems for the 'true prophet.' They get more and more divorced from what is really happening. All manner of bystanders or even visitors are mistaken/mislabeled.
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/her] views. He/she has little real hope that his/her evidence will convince a hostile world. His/her effort to amass it has rather the quality of a defensive act which shuts off his receptive apparatus and protects him/her from having to attend to disturbing considerations that do not fortify his/her ideas. He/she has all the evidence he/she needs; he/she is not a receiver [at all], he/she is a transmitter.
This makes you wonder whether any of us can break through this wall of orthodoxy with which the vigilant intellectual surrounds themself. We become only the soldiers of the enemy, after all, as soon as we raise a piece of information that doesn't fit their system. Such contrary information must be fabricated, false, and the communicator a dupe or shill, etc.

The whole state of mind seems akin to a virus that must either be cast off by the immune system over time, or not.

The bigger issue though is to what degree our entire society is susceptible to some instance of the paranoid style. Whatever causes some people to venture far into the paranoid style may also affect all of us, if it is a cultural factor. After all, the passionate paranoid speaker is known to be able to carry audiences into passion (and consider the deep passions of Germans in the 1930s).

We should focus not only on the style itself; rather we need to discover the fundamental causes as they exist in our culture.

Consider these descriptions from Hofstadter:
Since I have drawn...American examples, I would like to emphasize the paranoid style is an international phenomenon. Nor is it confined to modern times. Studying millennial sects of Europe...Norman Cohn finds...a persistent psychological complex that closely resembles [the paranoid style]...a style of...certain marked preoccupations..."a...view of oneself as the Elect...persecuted yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of gigantic...powers to the adversary; the refusal to accept the ineluctable limitations and imperfections of human existence, such as...fallibility whether intellectual or moral;....systematic misinterpretations... ruthlessness directed towards an end which by its very nature cannot be attained at any actual time or in any concrete situation..."

The recurrence of the paranoid style over a long span of time and in different places suggests that a mentality disposed to see the world in the paranoid's way may always be present in some considerable minority of the population. But the fact that movements employing the paranoid style are not constant but come in successive episodic waves suggests that the paranoid disposition is mobilized...chiefly by social conflicts that involve ultimate schemes of values and that bring fundamental fears and hatreds, rather than negotiable interests, into political action. Catastrophe or the fear of catastrophe is most likely to elicit the syndrome of paranoid rhetoric.

Here we see how movements based on this mental state arise when nations face crises, such as the Wiemar Republic's crisis of hyperinflation (and early 30s deflation), which helped spawn and then fire the philosophy that later took over the nation in the 30s. Though current U.S crises are less acute than those of early 1920s Germany, we still have significant crises and thus can expect strong instances of the paranoid style today by Hofstadter's expectation.

Some of this stuff is easily visible, such as some popular media talk show hosts, much of talk radio, or in blogs and their comment sections where one sees endless "evidence" being marshaled like toy soldiers arrayed in increasingly elaborate scenarios.

We face more fundamentally dangerous paranoia than the wackier stuff though. It's the often subtle paranoia that appeals to the general population that is the most corrosive.

For instance, President Obama is a competent executive, who repeatedly has worked in pragmatic, if not perfect, ways in the interests of the nation as a whole, and not only for a subset of the nation. Yet there is endless efforts via the paranoid style to describe Obama as a underhanded/devious or gullible or insincere man who cares little about most Americans or many Americans. It's either Obama the "socialist" or Obama the cynical player ("Team Obama", etc.), etc.

Paranoia harms the social fabric by undermining mutual regard and blocking communication among people of different views.

As the American fabric frays, a way is opened for more dangerous demagogues to progress.

But, at the same time, natural repair of the fabric is ongoing, helped at times by wise words from many, including Obama or anyone recognizing the truths and value in all points of view (instead of attributing other views to be underhanded/deceptive, etc.).

It's become almost total for a President to be separated from the people now, and Congress to be separated from the people, with the internet and media as means for so many commentators to make a living by interposing themselves between what was actually said, and what we end up hearing.

We hear little of what was actually said by Obama for instance, except in soundbites that often cancel the context and thus weaken or lose the meaning.

Invariably, we are offered misinterpretations of what our elected servants think and say, even though the paranoid commenter thinks they are being accurate.

Since so much of our commentary and information is now from paranoid sources, a large part of the U.S. population is now living in a fantasy world.

A paranoid one.

In spite of our strengths as a people, we are being pushed towards the path of 1920s Germany.

When was the last time you heard Obama talk for 10 minutes? A year ago? Two? For many Americans, it was inauguration day, or never.

We get interpretations of what Obama said, very slanted, and rarely hear or read more than a few of his words at a time in average months, unless we personally seek out the real thing.

Obama is central to our time, and one of the most misrepresented people of our time. Here's a recent interview on Sunday's 60 Minutes program on the bin Laden raid where you can hear some of the real thinking of Obama and some of his techniques of decision making.

This isn't the Obama we would know from many blogs and media outlets.


I have much more written in my ongoing book that examines (along with some larger topics) the "Left" and the "Right" and their psychology and truths and myths and illusions. When I find a book as rewarding as Hofstadter's I tend to read slowly and do much thinking, and so there will also be more from The Paranoid Style in American Politics, probably as a continuation of this post (or new post) or perhaps saved for the book.

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