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America’s Paranoid History

From the Muslim witch hunt to Hollywood's "The Watch," the paranoid style still infects our culture.


To work in the media and read comments and emails written by strangers all day long is to be reminded of the continuing relevance of Richard Hofstadter’s  “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” That essay, published 48 years ago in Harper’s Magazine — and based on a lecture Hofstadter had delivered at Oxford University in the month that John F. Kennedy was assassinated — remains arguably the most trenchant observation of the American character written by anyone not named Alexis de Tocqueville or Mark Twain. Nothing that I say about my personal mailbag is likely to surprise you, but it all serves to illustrate the tendency toward apocalyptic and conspiratorial thinking that Hofstadter describes. In the past few days, I’ve received several emails that explain the shootings in Aurora, Colo., from various perspectives, including by way of the literal truth of the Bible (which also, apparently, informs us that global warming is a left-wing myth) or as a false-flag operation mounted by shadowy forces aimed at discrediting gun ownership and seizing Americans’ firearms.

In the essay, Hofstadter makes clear that he’s neither qualified nor inclined to offer a psychiatric diagnosis of those who craft nutty conspiracy theories about Masons or Catholics or Communists (or, in our own time, about Muslims or the events of 9/11 or the Kenyan socialist secret agent who occupies the White House). “It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant,” he writes. I’m tempted to suggest that American public life has left the realm of the “more or less normal” far behind in the decades since 1964, but that’s probably unfair (and might, indeed, be an example of the paranoid style in action). It’s perhaps more accurate to say that where Hofstadter was primarily concerned with political discourse, the cognitive dissonance of the paranoid style has spread far and wide in American society, including into many areas of so-called private life.

We live in a country, after all, where significant pluralities of the population refuse to accept the worldwide scientific consensus on climate change and fervently continue to believe in the superiority of a piecemeal, private-sector health care system despite ample evidence that Americans spend more for medical care, and have poorer outcomes, than people in any other major Western nation. The cultural and geographic isolation of the United States has a lot to do with this, as do the failures of our education system, but those explanations aren’t quite sufficient. One aspect of the paranoid worldview is a sense of immense self-importance: The CIA has chosen you for secret experiments, or you and your Internet friends are the only people who can see that the Obama birth certificate seen and touched by independent experts is an obvious fraud. In the United States, we cling to this sense of specialness on a manic, nationwide, tautological scale; the way we do things in America is clearly superior because we know we live in the greatest country in the world.

This week brings us a new Hollywood comedy currently called  “The Watch.” It’s a mildly amusing study in American paranoia that has had the misfortune to be twice undercut by tragedy. Originally titled “Neighborhood Watch,” this suburban ensemble farce directed by longtime “Saturday Night Live” writer Akiva Schaffer was delayed and retitled after the  Trayvon Martin shooting in February in which an especially zealous, self-appointed neighborhood guardian in Sanford, Fla., named George Zimmerman killed an unarmed teenager. We don’t really know what factors drove Zimmerman’s behavior, but it seems highly plausible that he followed a train of paranoid reasoning involving young black men and their outerwear fashions to conclude that Martin was more likely to be a dangerous criminal than a kid on his way home from 7-Eleven.

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