Monday, November 02, 2009

The Paranoid Center


Reason Magazine
The Paranoid Style in Center-Left Politics

This isn't the first time the establishment has been overrun with paranoia about paranoiacs. The classic account of American conspiratology is Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," a 1964 survey of political fear from the founding generation through the Cold War. A flawed and uneven essay, Hofstadter's article nonetheless includes several perceptive passages. The most astute one might be this:

"It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through 'front' groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy."

Hofstadter didn't acknowledge it, but his argument applied to much of his audience as well. His article begins with a reference to "extreme right-wingers," a lead that reflected the times. In the early 1960s, America was experiencing a wave of alarm about the radical right. This had been building throughout the Kennedy years and then exploded after the president's assassination, which many people either blamed directly on the far right or attributed to an atmosphere of fear and division fed by right-wing rhetoric. By the time Hofstadter's essay appeared, the "projection of the self" he described was in full effect. Just as anti-communists had mimicked the communists, anti-anti-communists were emulating the red hunters.

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