03 October 2010

The Paranoid Style--Redux

"the spokesman of the paranoid style finds [the hostile and conspiratorial world] directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others." -- Richard Hofstadter
In The National Journal, Paul Starobin explores the re-emergence of an arch-conservatism akin to The John Birch Society (famously, the leader of that group asserted that Dwight D. Eisenhower was "a dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy"). Conspiracy theories about an imminent Communist coup-from-within provided the bedrock of that nativist association. Similarly, The question of "who is an American" has run throughout our political discourse recently. Conservative luminaries, including Newt Gingrich, have roused suspicions against President Obama by identifying him as "Kenyan," and opportunists (both political and commercial) take full advantage of people's anxieties by reciting unconfirmed claims (beheadings in the Arizona desert), amplifying far-fetched "what if" scenarios (sharia law replacing our current legal system), and insinuations that Caucasians' rights are floundering under the presidency of a bi-racial man. Certainly, a national paranoia seemed to reach a boiling point over the summer with the accusations of varying degrees of anti-Americanism targeting supporters of the Park51 development, legal and non-legal immigrants (and their children), and so on.

Starobin's argument about the contemporary "nativist agenda" certainly rings true. Triggered by 9/11 and the financial meltdown, people have grown paranoid. People clamor that they "want their country back" without defining what that might be. Yet these groups, Starobin suggests, will be met by a re-emergent Radical Left, similarly energized by recent events . . . and then? Who knows. Of course passions will ease, suspicions will recede, but we will have changed. Anyway, I recommend highly Starobin's "The Radical Right Returns," for a solid, and dispassionate, historical overview and analysis of "the paranoid style" in contemporary political discourse.

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