The Paranoid Style in American Politics
The hearts of a million punk rockers were broken today and their screams could be heard across the Internet. Exene Cervenka, poetress and singer for legendary LA Punk band X, has come out as a UCSB truther. She or someone posing has her as posted a series of tweets speculating that the UCSB rampage was a “false flag” operation designed by the government to start a movement to repeal the Second Amendment. Raw Story has the full details.
I must admit that conspiracy theories always perplexed me especially right-wing conspiracy theories. The same people who tell us that the government is filled with incompetent idiots who would be quickly sacked in the private sphere also tell us that all the government does is lie and create hoax and false flag operation after hoax and false flag operation. The State Department was filled with Communists, JFK was not really murdered by Lee Harvey Oswald, The American Government staged the Moon Landing, 9/11 was planned by the government because planes could not have brought down the WTC, Obama’s birth certificate, Sandy Hook was a false flag operation, and now UCSB. I am sure I am forgetting many but it seems like everytime there is a tragic story in the United States, the “truthers” (I prefer to think of them as morons) quickly emerge and flood the internet with conspiracy theories.
The amount of people who would need to be in on all these hoaxes to make them happen is staggering. People are not very good at keeping secrets. It seems logical to me that someone would spill the beans sooner than later on one of these hoaxes. A conspiracy to fake the moon landing seems like it would be much harder than actually landing on the moon especially because we were vying with the Soviet Union to be the first.
I can’t say that conspiracy theories are limited to the poorly educated. I know a woman from law school who attended an Ivy League university for undergrad. She always seemed intelligent and rational until one day she revealed that she is a 9/11 truther. A guy at my coffee shop has stated he believes the Rothchilds control the world economy and seems flabergasted when people tell him he is being anti-Semitic.
There is clearly something in the American Water that makes us prone to conspiracy theories. This is not new. Richard Perlstein does a brilliant historical overview of the various conspiracy theories of the mid 20th century right wing in books like Before the Storm and Nixonland. James B. Utt was an Orange County Congressperson who claimed that “bare footed Africans” were training in Georgia to take over the United States. He made this claim in 1963 when Georgia’s leading senator was the arch-segregationist Richard Russel. J. Everett Hayley was a Texan conservatives who claimed Lyndon Johnson committed murder (via carbon monoxide poisoning) in his deranged work “A Texan Looks at Lyndon: A Study in Illegitimate Power.”
The Paranoid Style goes further back than the post-WWII era. It might have existed since the dawn of the American Republic. The historian Richard Hofstadter argued so in his classic essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter saw the Birchers of the 1960s as inheriting the mantle from former rants and campaigns against the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Jesuits, and others. He would no doubt see the Truthers as being in the same category. Hofstadter described the Paranoid personality as thus:
“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 Paranoiac sees the opposition in equally stark terms.
What no one can say is what is it about the American experience that makes us such prone to extremist conspiracies instead of following a simple Occam’s Razor. Hofstadter noted that the paranoid style can be seen on both the far left and far right. It doesn’t even need to be related directly to actions by the US government. Corporations can be accused of conspiracy just as well in American politics. A few months ago I watched the Jazz documentary by Ken Burns. One episode delved into how Jazz became less mainstream with the rise of rock especially the British Invasion and appearance of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. One singer strongly implied if not outright claimed that the Beatles were a conspiracy to drive Jazz (read: African-American music) off the charts and decimate African-American cultural and slight economic power. There is no doubt that the rise of the Beatles did coincide with the decline of Jazz as the dominant form of popular music but it seems to be a bridge too far to claim that this was purposeful by record executives and other powers that be. The rise of rock was simply because it is what the Boomers wanted to here in their youth and they were starting to be a market to be taken seriously.
The paranoid style might have always been present in US Politics but it seems to be picking up steam thanks to the Internet. The Internet allows every crackpot to amplify their soapbox oratory and reach more and more people. In other news, the CDC has announced 288 cases of Measles in the US this year. Measles was declared eliminated 14 years ago.
We have a media that thinks or knows it can make more money by giving conspiracy theorists equal standing with the rational and fact-based. What I think conspiracy theories do is offer psychological solace to the holder. The world is confusing, hard, random, chaotic, and can often make people feel powerless and current malaise and downtrodden feelings will last forever. I’ve certainly felt anxiety and despair about being a perma-temp and freelancer forever because the random of luck of graduating law school at the height of the market crash. A conspiracy theory allows for a grand thought about how things are not your fault or there is a real reason beyond a suck situation besides random and chaotic luck.
What surprises is me is that the United States has not collapsed and broken despite the constant history of conspiracy theorists.