Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Paranoid Style Meets The Issue of Race In American Politics

Richard Hofstadter's seminal article "The Paranoid Style In American Politics" portrayed, for the first time with widespread impact, the insular and delusional suspiciousness that characterizes much of the "critique", if it can be called that, of the far right and, at times, of the extreme left.

Standing just one notch away from pure delusion--and often not even hewing that distance--and embracing those whose functionality--such as it may be--is supported by and compels the repetition of these fantasies, we see this style in every electoral cycle, manifesting itself, remarkably anew, in new minds, with the same characteristic conspiratorial thinking--the grasping of an ambiguous, or equally likely, unresearched but conspiratorial-sounding detail or name--into a grand plan, foggy in specifics but surely--as it has assumed its premise--secretly lurching towards an all powerful hegemony.

As always, they give people too much credit. As always, they are among the bitter powerless, whose manifest lack of explanation for that lack of power turns itself into a bitter projection--if they can't have it, their secret masters must, and so on. It gives them a path to power through projection--they see the secret truth, and gain power through it's proclamation--thus "None Dare Call It Conspiracy", thus the "Clinton Chronicles", thus "9/11 Truth", etc.

Each election cycle, the impulse forces itself to burgeon anew, straining to fit facts to its preexisting need, straining to grow into the dark.

Now--it becomes interesting.

Here--we have a candidate whose power combines with the fact that he is the first of a long oppressed minority to rise to this position. How, we might ask, will this impulse find a way to strain itself upwards towards conspiratorial theories of all embracing power? A challenge to the force of the delusional impulse.

In the last few weeks, we have been seeing the development of this narrative.

Touch him with the brush of radicalism--despite the fact that Obama's adult life story has been one of consensus-building and unifying--a clear and deliberate move towards the shared need, and away from the radical fringe. The key has been to forge the conspiratorial, paranoid impulse with racial fears, to create the combined message: You don't know who he really is.

As in: "Who really is Barack Obama?"

This lights the torch to the paranoid style in full force, turning it upon ill-formed objects--Bill Ayers, ACORN, that by their mere sound and invocation, can be whipped by this eternal historical force into a storm of hatred. To those prone to such thinking, these become absolute evidence, touchstones, the words they have been waiting for.

For the conspiratorialist, the obvious and central characteristic of Obama's personality--the move to unify, which is inherent in his speech, actions and development, is--as is so often the case in this style--evidence of its opposite. Of course, if he were in fact a radically divisive figure, this would also serve as evidence of the same "radical" characteristic. That's the paranoid style--either it's there, or it's masterfully hidden: Heads I win, tails you lose (at least until medicated).

You likely have seen this kind of thinking developing on the outer edges of the message boards and twittering over recent months.

However, it was only with the cementing of the McCain-Palin team that the style has begun to grow into its fuller portrayal. Each of the two essential elements of the admixture is used to reinforce the other--"Radicalism"--Bill Ayers, ACORN--provides license, justification and cover to those who experience a deeper prejudice, and that very prejudice leads those who experience it to draw in unexamined, tangential "evidence" to prove to themselves or others his inauthenticity or "radicalism."

McCain, and to a greater extent Palin, have used this admixture at rallies to attempt to create some form of enthusiasm in the electorate. It has proven to be a volatile mixture, this new alloy of the paranoid style, and, in their efforts to provide some spark to a moribund campaign, they have been unable to keep this lightning in the bottle.

The remarkable and horrifying shouts we have heard over the past weeks did not originate with this campaign--but they were liberated by it, allowing this raw and stark version of the paranoid style to be unleashed by and feed off of these insinuations. We have seen this kind of visceral unleashing of the paranoid style, driven by fear and the impulsive, momentary, compensatory power of stereotypic hatred before, in other nations. Not here, and not in this way.

There are limits to winning--and losing--ugly. And there are ways to fan and contain the paranoid style. I suspect that Plain believes that she is speaking the plain truth to these audiences--and that there is a plain truth to be spoken, and that she already knows what it is--and no more.

It is John McCain's responsibility to put this darker manifestation of a dangerous and unnecessary dybbuk back in the bottle. I can see he understands what has been released--and perhaps would wish to retain just those parts that could meet his ambitions, without its consequent furies.

Just as you would rather lose an election than lose a war, John--I believe that you would rather lose an election than to unleash, justify, imprint and allow this distorted vision on this society. It was not you, it is not you, and it should not be you or us. Consider it your newest, and your best, call to courage.