Victor Davis Hanson compares the heyday of the John Birch Society in the 50s and 60s to the extreme American left of today in this essay entitled The Crazed Fringe. While he was growing up on a farm in California, I was dong the same in New Hampshire. We didn’t get the pamphlets that his family got claiming that Lucille Ball and Ricky Nelson were communists, but we did get the Manchester Union Leader – a newspaper then under the control outspoken conservative William Loeb. I don’t recall Lucy or Ricky being fingered as communists, but President Eisenhower sure copped his fair share. Hanson contends that the Democratic party has to rid itself of this element just as the conservative movement did their radical fringe:

I don’t think the Democratic Party will ever govern successfully until it does to its crazed extreme Left what the Republicans once did to the wacko far right. Collate what Sens. Boxer, Durban, Kennedy, Reid, or Howard Dean, or the Hollywood elite have said since 9/11 and you can see the practical problem in contemporary liberalism: anywhere, at any time, a Democratic liberal is apt to slur the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, declare a war lost even as it is being fought, praise a dictator, travel to a police state to conduct freelance diplomacy, or—Jimmy Carter like—compliment terrorists and killers.

I couldn’t agree more and I am forcibly reminded of a well known essay by Richard Hofstadter from 1964 called The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Hofstadter was at Columbia when I was there and so popular that it was impossible to get into his classes unless you were a poli sci or history major. I know because I tried. In his essay Hofstadter defines exactly what he means by the paranoid style:

American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.

Hofstadter then homes in on precisely why he wants to apply a psychological concept to politics – that is, he wants to make us aware of a political style he finds socially and politically destructive.

Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. But nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content. I am interested here in getting at our political psychology through our political rhetoric. The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.

He goes on to cite the populist ‘gold conspiracy’ from the turn of the century, the ‘infiltration’ of Jesuits in the 1850′s and the campaigns against the Illuminati and Freemasons in the late 18th and early 19th century. Hofstadter’s essay is well worth a read not just for the history but because all that material is now on the Internet recycled by the conspiracy minded of both left and right to suit their current purposes.

For me, the problem lies in the exaggeration and the selection and/or creation of facts to suit the emotional needs of the believer. Hofstadter is certainly correct when he identifies anger as a key emotion. I would add that fear often lies behind anger, and the common thread I see in the paranoid style is fear of change. I haven’t lived through the earlier examples cited by Hofstadter but I have seen both the right wing excesses in the middle of the 20th century and the current antics of the left at the beginning of the 21st. The two world wars and the depression irrevocably changed the America the right wing extremists wanted to return to. I believe the success of regulated capitalism or market economies and the rise of Islamic radicalism have also irrevocably changed the post WWII world many of us grew so comfortable with materially and intellectually.

Part of the left has tried to accommodate the critique offered by the right since it reformed itself by moving to the centre. The Clintons, Tony Blair – the right of the Australian Labor Party come to mind. To my knowledge the most progress toward defining a new left has come out of the UK in the form of the Euston Manifesto. The fringe has gone into denial. Among the most given to this reaction are those mentioned by Hanson above and around the world by a left still seeing the world through a lens of cultural Marxism and ready to believe anything that keeps that belief system intact. At times since 9/11 over 40% of Germans and sadly a fair few here in Australia were convinced that Bush has brought down the Twin Towers. I have an acquaintance who has sent me endless series of web pages arguing such conspiracy theories as well as assertions that the Bali bomb was an Israeli mini-nuke, and even that Bush used a nuclear device to cause the tsunami. Denial, delusion, paranoia – they are all at play trying to explain the changing world in terms of an obsolete belief system.

But enough of that. I want to introduce a slightly different approach to seeing this destructive political tendency based on more recent brain science. Canadian science fiction writer Karl Schroeder talks here about a concept called ‘hot and cold cognition’ that would seem to inform the issues raised by Hofstadter’s essay:

The idea is simply that the brain uses two cognitive systems when analyzing, say, political assertions or arguments: a hot cognitive system which is highly emotional, and a cold cognitive system that focuses on facts and truths. Partisan thinkers turn their hot cognitive way up when engaged in thinking about political matters; some commentators have taken this to mean that partisans don’t reason at all about their politics, but….. this is not true. It does seem, however, that the cold cognition part of the brain can be turned way down in emotionally charged political arguments.

This view brings into relief a reason we all are subject to falling into Hofstadter’s paranoid style at times. I know I get as angry and afraid as the next person and often fall into ‘hot cognition’, but I constantly strive to find ‘cold cognition’. In my experience, failing to seek a cooler approach leads to indulging one’s emotions and inviting in denial, delusion and paranoia. If taken far enough it leads to fanaticism. I am not dismissing emotions. They alert us to what we find good and bad, but the error the paranoid style succumbs to is that it puts the intellect too exclusively at the service of emotional reactions.

One Response to “The Paranoid Style”  

  1. 1 Augean Stables » BBC and Arab Media Promote anti-American Conspiracy Theory

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