Not Saussure

October 15, 2006

The Paranoid Style

Filed under: Blogroll, Panic, Politics — notsaussure @ 8:15 pm

Rachel writes at some length about her (completely justified, to my mind) frustration and anger with the ‘conspiraloons’ who insist that 9/11 and 7/7 were got up by the US and the UK governments; she says,

I find it extremely difficult to deal with all these posts about me on their messageboards and blogs, where I have been accused in the past of being a counter-intelligence professional, ( or even a team of M15 agents) in the employ of a corrupt Government, that I tell lies, that I am fake, a ”shill”, a racist, and so on. Well, of course I am going to be angry if complete strangers post up personally abusive rubbish about me, anyone would be. But there is something frightening about their relentless proselytising that affects me more deeply than just this personal abuse nonsense; and it is the allegations that the bombers were innocent, that there is no such thing as Islamist terrorism, that the bombs were not made and planted by 4 young British extremists but by the State. The way they carry on reminds me of a cult, and I think that it is sinister.

and quite right, too. I was reminded of a classic essay by Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. He published it back in 1964, so his contemporary examples — drawn from the American far right and the John Birch Society in particular — are a bit unfamiliar, but one of his main points is that this manner of thought and mode of political discourse goes back a long way. Only the baddies change.

He quotes Senator McCarthy, in 1951:

How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, which it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men.…What can be made of this unbroken series of decisions and acts contributing to the strategy of defeat? They cannot be attributed to incompetence.…The laws of probability would dictate that part of…[the] decisions would serve the country’s interest.

Then, a manifesto of the Populist Party in 1895:

As early as 1865-66 a conspiracy was entered into between the gold gamblers of Europe and America.…For nearly thirty years these conspirators have kept the people quarrelling over less important matters while they have pursued with unrelenting zeal their one central purpose.…Every device of treachery, every resource of statecraft, and every artifice known to the secret cabals of the international gold ring are being used to deal a blow to the prosperity of the people and the financial and commercial independence of the country.

And then, in 1855, a Texas newspaper article:

It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions. We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber, and that our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism.…The Pope has recently sent his ambassador of state to this country on a secret commission, the effect of which is an extraordinary boldness of the Catholic church throughout the United States.…These minions of the Pope are boldly insulting our Senators; reprimanding our Statesmen; propagating the adulterous union of Church and State; abusing with foul calumny all governments but Catholic, and spewing out the bitterest execrations on all Protestantism. The Catholics in the United States receive from abroad more than $200,000 annually for the propagation of their creed. Add to this the vast revenues collected here.…

Such concerns go even further back; Hofstadter documents the panic about Illuminism and Masonry caused when America first learned, in an 1797 treatise by John Robinson, of (in the words of the book’s snappy title) Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, Carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies. And, if you Google for that title, as I’ve just done to find the link, you’ll see it’s still very much in discussion on umpteen craziod sites.

The themes, as I think can be seen from Hofstadter’s quotes, are still very much with us; the only problem is that we’ve now got two broad schools of conspiracy, basically of the left and of the right. The Texan anti-Catholics’ fears, in which you just have to substitute Jesuits for Masons, seem pretty similar to more contemporary fears of militant Islam. The Jews (Zionists, if you’re on the left, of course) have always had something to do with most conspiracies, of course, and notoriously run the world economy, along with the ‘gold gamblers’, who have reincarnated themselves as the Bilderberg Group, Enron and various other financial operators.

And while Joe McCarthy’s enemies — the international communist conspiracy — have become the international Islamic jihad, his diagnosis of whatever was upsetting him at the time could just as well come from Rachel’s conspiraloons, for whom 9/11 and 7/7

must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, which it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men.…What can be made of this unbroken series of decisions and acts contributing to the strategy of defeat? They cannot be attributed to incompetence

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that such modes of thought commend themselves to both the left and the right; as Hofstadter says, it’s

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.

Indeed, it goes back a very long way indeed:

The paranoid style is not confined to our own country and time; it is an international phenomenon. Studying the millennial sects of Europe from the eleventh to the sixteenth century, Norman Cohn believed he found a persistent psychic complex that corresponds broadly with what I have been considering—a style made up of certain preoccupations and fantasies: “the megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary; the refusal to accept the ineluctable limitations and imperfections of human existence, such as transience, dissention, conflict, fallibility whether intellectual or moral; the obsession with inerrable prophecies…systematized misinterpretations, always gross and often grotesque.”

Hofstadter suggests that one of the causes for the popularity of such modes of thought is a feeling of helplessness; he writes,

Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest—perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands—are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed.

Certainly, American politics — and, to a lesser extent, our own — are conducive to a feeling of being shut out of the political process, and the confrontation of opposed interests we see in the Middle-East look pretty irreconcilable.

I think, too, there must be the attraction of feeling yourself part of an intellectual avant-guard that can see the elements of the conspiracy which to masses are too dumb or too brainwashed to recognise — sort of being in a real-life Matrix movie. Rachel suggests, too, that

Perhaps, in an uncertain and secular age, this was nothing more than an attempt to impose a stable structure on a frightening and chaotic world

and I think there’s a great deal of truth in that. In some perverse ways, it must be, if not exactly comforting, maybe reassuring to think that we live in a world where things like 9/11 and 7/7 shouldn’t happen; that rather than having to cope with the fact that there are crazies about who want to murder large numbers of people at random and it’s very difficult to stop them from so doing, we live in one where there’s an identifiable group of baddies — in government — who orchestrate this for their sinister ends.

Horrifying though that thought must be, at least it lets you believe that, if only we could get rid of the baddies, the world would be the safe place we want it to be. To my mind, that’s a delusory solution to a real psychic problem, though; it just makes you feel worse in the end. As Hofstadter concludes his essay,

A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to developing such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him—and in any case he resists enlightenment.

We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.

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  1. that was a great piece. Thank you for writing it and for directing my attention to it. Duly linked, and you do not known how much better I feel having read it.

    Comment by Rachel — October 16, 2006 @ 1:38 am

  2. […] One of the comments to Rachel’s piece on "Anger. Yes, its another conspiracy theory vent.", about which I wrote yesterday asks […]

    Pingback by Not Saussure — October 16, 2006 @ 6:07 pm

  3. Interesting theory, the ‘paranoid’ version of history, where I assume the only people who are conspiring are those with which we don’t agree. (Paranoia can also be a finely-tuned sense of self-preservation btw).

    Some of us are characterised as Conspiracy Theorists, a useful psychological term known as ‘splitting’ where the brain is conditioned to shut off at the mention of it, when in fact, some of us are challenging Conspiracy Theory. In the case of 7/7, the Official CT that 4 young men conspired to cause explosions unbeknownst to anyone else. The Official Conspiracy Theory has not been supported by compelling and conclusive evidence, which imo should be of great concern to all of us.

    On the contrary, the Official CT as outlined in the Official Report has been proven inaccurate,in that the train we are told the accused boarded at Luton was cancelled. A fact that John Reid has aknowledged to Parliament, no explanation for this error to date. Yet we were told that CCTV exists of them boarding that train.

    This may seem a minor point, but in Ian Blair’s “largest criminal inquiry in English history”, without this correct information how did the police then interview commuters and travellers to ascertain witnesses? Did they not need the train time to go to Luton station the following week and ask if anyone travelled on that particular train? Wouldn’t this be crucial to any major criminal inquiry? The correct time had to have been known and if it wan’t then we need to ask why not. Ask yourself, why should there be ANY inaccuracy in a report that the government has claimed will substitute for an fully Independent Public Inquiry? Do the victims, their families and the survivors at the very least, not deserve an accurate robust report that contains no discrepancies?

    It isn’t paranoid to ask questions, and demand answers. It is a right and one that must be exercised to ensure justice and protect liberty. In fact I would go as far as to say it is our duty to ensure that the official conspiracy therory is shown to be conspiracy fact.

    July 7th had catastrophic consequences not just for the victims and survivors, but the whole Muslim community and ultimately for all of us. Should those consequences rely on an Official CT for which there is to date no compelling evidence in the public domain? If your answer is yes, that we should just trust the State, then I believe we are on a road leading to a State that has the green-light not to expect rigorous scrutiny from the public.

    We do need to learn from history, I agree, and ensure that we understand how the history that did happen, first as tragedy, does not repeat as farce.

    Comment by Bridget Dunne — October 17, 2006 @ 11:51 am

  4. I agree it’s not particularly impressive that they got the train time wrong at some point during the preparation of the report and no one spotted this until after pubication, but, given the Home Office’s track record with, for example, fouling up its accounts on a monumental scale and with losing track of foreign prisoners, why do you assume that this represents anything other than a careless oversight in the typing-up and sloppy proof-reading?

    Comment by notsaussure — October 17, 2006 @ 12:10 pm

  5. You ask: “why do you assume that this represents anything other than a careless oversight in the typing-up and sloppy proof-reading?”

    Why do you assume careless oversight & sloppy proof-reading? I make no such assumptions, I have no idea why the Official Report is so riddled with anomalies and inconsitencies.

    The consequences of 7th July are too grave to be based on any assumptions, we need facts and evidence to ensure that justice is served.

    Tony Blair said
    “I do accept that people, of course, want to know exactly what happened and we will make sure that they do.
    We will bring together all the evidence that we have and we will publish it so that people, the victims and others, can see exactly what happened.”

    We have yet to know what exactly happened.

    It appears that some of the anger that is being expressed towards those of us who demand an accurate consistent account could be directed towards a State that believes the Official Conspiracy Theory suffices for what we as a people deserve as evidence of these events.

    Comment by Bridget Dunne — October 17, 2006 @ 1:06 pm

  6. Correct link to Tony Blair said:

    Tony Blair – No Need for a Public Inquiry

    Comment by Bridget Dunne — October 17, 2006 @ 1:08 pm

  7. Would you please provide a link to my recent post on your blog please, thankyou.

    Comment by fjl — October 17, 2006 @ 4:32 pm

  8. Sorry, fjl, but no. I’ve just had a look at the post in your blog to which you refer me. It makes what appear to be potentially libellous and certainly damaging allegations about named individuals. Since I have no way of knowing the truth or otherwise of your allegations, I do not wish to associate myself with them by providing a link.

    Comment by notsaussure — October 17, 2006 @ 5:59 pm

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