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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.

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As Hofstadter notes, people who employ paranoid reasoning are often reacting to a real stimulus, distorted though it may become. There were definitely some Communist agents within the U.S. government in Joe McCarthy’s time, and we shouldn’t let Michele Bachmann’s hysterical Muslim hunt obscure the fact that there are real-life Islamic terrorist groups. Much of the discomfort surrounding the Trayvon Martin case stems from the fact that young black men appear to commit a disproportionate number of crimes, or at least to be charged with and convicted of crimes at a disproportionate rate. It’s also true that they are vastly more likely to be stopped and frisked by police for no particular reason, and vastly more likely to be unemployed, than their peers of other races. It’s how you perceive the relationship between those facts that determines your attitude about the case.

You can see why the studio releasing “The Watch” chose to hold off: The film features a tightly wound, gun-toting character (played by Jonah Hill) who’s obsessed with law enforcement but was rejected by the local police department after “failing the written exam. And the physical exam. And the mental-health exam, whatever that is.” Hill’s character yearns to turn the neighborhood watch into a violent vigilante unit, despite the assurances of Costco manager Ben Stiller and party boy Vince Vaughn that that’s not what they have in mind. Whether or not that’s what George Zimmerman is really like, that’s how many of us imagine him. And now that “The Watch” has been repackaged and more or less separated from the Martin case, it’s being released in the immediate wake of the Aurora shootings on what many expect to be the weakest box-office weekend of the summer. Maybe it’s nothing more than superstition that will convince many people to stick with dinner and skip the multiplex this weekend, but you really can’t blame them.

I’m not making any grand claims for “The Watch,” which is a miscellaneous collection of raunchy, guy-oriented gags strung out along a plot that seems borrowed wholesale from the British indie hit  “Attack the Block,” but without any of its juicy social context. (I realize that may count as a spoiler, but this isn’t much of a movie review, and there’s precious little to spoil.) Schaffer and his writers (Jared Stern, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) assiduously avoid any troublesome racial or ethnic issues. The murder victim who inspires Stiller to form the neighborhood watch is a Latino security guard at his Costco store, and comic Richard Ayoade is on hand to supply a double dose of otherness by being simultaneously black and British. As so often happens, the tremendous Rosemarie DeWitt steals every scene she’s in as Stiller’s wife, although the script gives her little to do.

But what I most appreciate about this rather silly movie is that it accidentally makes the claim that Americans are paranoid about the wrong things, which is precisely true. Stiller’s character says that the purpose of the neighborhood watch is to monitor “any and all suspicious activity and generally get to the bottom of things,” and his suspicions extend to the crazy old coot with a shotgun (noted Obama-hater R. Lee Ermey), the possibly gay guy across the street who keeps checking him out, and the town’s mustachioed, incompetent cops. But since the social fabric of Glenview is being undermined not by criminals or gays or vengeful homeowners or corrupt officers of the law but rather by a full-fledged alien invasion, the paranoia gets kicked up to a galactic scale. One of the basic tenets of the paranoid worldview is that there’s a grand scheme underlying history that connects apparently unrelated events, with a nearly infallible master intelligence behind it all: the Jewish bankers, the Bush family, the New World Order elite. One of the neat things about an alien-invasion scenario is that it offers a screen on which to project these fantasies without seeming unhinged.

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