Monday, September 7, 2009

Paranoia

Talidan here. Happy Labor Day! Happy ND shutout weekend! Happy short work week! Happy film watching Michigan, you'll have your work cut out for you!

One of the reasons I love reading about history, is that it helps me cope with today's society. History teaches us what has gone wrong, or what was done right; it is a rough blue print for today's problem solvers. It also is comforting to know that what we face today is not new. It has been going on since the beginning of time. People (98% of us) are always suspicious of power (2% of us). Without history, I would feel somewhat hopeless today. I would look at the Beck/Limbaugh/Palin/Bachmann followers, the death panels, Tea Party movement, The Secessionists, the nazi/fascist/communist/anarchist comparisons made about our democratically elected President, the tenthers, the birthers, the 'How dare the President speak to our school children even though plenty of Rethug Presidents have done the same'; and I would probably lose my mind. I would feel as though we are getting dumber, or more malicious, or that we are becoming so Partisan as to threaten our Union's existence. However, wingnuttery and bat shit crazy is nothing new. In fact it is a perfectly sane reaction by people who fear that the world as they know it is changing.

I stumbled across two lengthy papers that were eye opening. One is The Paranoid Style written by Richard Hofstadter for Harper's Magazine in 1964. The other is The Clash of Civilizations? written by Samuel Huntington for Foreign Affairs magazine in 1993. Huntington's thesis is that the world is moving away from a world of wars between nations, and one of a world where cultural differences lead to conflict. Indeed, one could think of the Al-Qaeda movement within Islam as one born out of the fear that their version of Islam was being Westernized. Some reasons, according to Huntington:

"First, differences among civilizations are not only real; they are basic. Civilizations are differentiated from each other by history, language, culture, tradition and, most important, religion. The people of different civilizations have different views on the relations between God and man, the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, parents and children, husband and wife, as well as differing views of the relative importance of rights and responsibilities, liberty and authority, equality and hierarchy. These differences are the product of centuries.

Second, the world is becoming a smaller place. The interactions between peoples of different civilizations are increasings; these increasing interactions intensify civilization consciousness and awareness of differences between civilizations and commonalities within civilizations.

Third, the processes of economic modernization and social change throughout the world are separating people from longstanding local identities. They also weaken the nation state as a source of identity. In much of the world religion has moved in to fill this gap, often in the form of movements that are labeled "fundamentalist." Such movements are found in Western Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as in Islam."

In conclusion:
"In the longer term other measures would be called for. Western civilization is both Western and modern. Non-Western civilizations have attempted to become modern without becoming Western. To date only Japan has fully succeeded in this quest. Non-Western civilization will continue to attempt to acquire the wealth, technology, skills, machines and weapons that are part of being modern. They will also attempt to reconcile this modernity with their traditional culture and values. Their economic and military strength relative to the West will increase. Hence the West will increasingly have to accommodate these non-Western modern civilizations whose power approaches that of the West but whose values and interests differ significantly from those of the West."

Although Huntington is focused on the role of the Western world and a clash of global civilizations, it is easy to see how this could relate to cultures within the United States as well. As the world becomes ever complex, lurching forward in various speeds of progress, those feeling that they are losing a cultural battle will fight. The old path is comfortable, the new is uncertain.

Which leads me to Hofstadter's article. Using McCarthyism as a backdrop, he sheds some historical perspective on the Radical Right. From the Anti-Freemasons, anti-Catholics, to the Communists, the fundamentalists have always had a target to blame.

To quote some of the ideas (again 50 years ago):
"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.

If, after our historically discontinuous examples of the paranoid style, we now take the long jump to the contemporary right wing, we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still established way of life. But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.
Important changes may also be traced to the effects of the mass media. The villains of the modern right are much more vivid than those of their paranoid predecessors, much better known to the public; the literature of the paranoid style is by the same token richer and more circumstantial in personal description and personal invective. For the vaguely delineated villains of the anti-Masons, for the obscure and disguised Jesuit agents, the little-known papal delegates of the anti-Catholics, for the shadowy international bankers of the monetary conspiracies, we may now substitute eminent public figures like Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower., secretaries of State like Marshall, Acheson, and Dulles, Justices of the Supreme Court like Frankfurter and Warren, and the whole battery of lesser but still famous and vivid alleged conspirators headed by Alger Hiss.

A final characteristic of the paranoid style is related to the quality of its pedantry. One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows. It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed. Of course, there are highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow paranoids, as there are likely to be in any political tendency. But respectable paranoid literature not only starts from certain moral commitments that can indeed be justified but also carefully and all but obsessively accumulates :evidence.” The difference between this “evidence” and that commonly employed by others is that it seems less a means of entering into normal political controversy than a means of warding off the profane intrusion of the secular political world. The paranoid seems to have little expectation of actually convincing a hostile world, but he can accumulate evidence in order to protect his cherished convictions from it."

So thank goodness we are not getting crazier, dumber, or more obstinate. Thank goodness we have been here before. And survived. Arm yourself with facts, dispute the outlandish with their own hypocrisy. In the end however, accept that they may never be convinced. Hope that the majority agrees with your stance on issues, attempt to convince the best you can. In the end,
do not despair that progress is unreachable. Just make sure that the way we progress is in a sane, humane, and beneficial way for society. Remember Kennedy: change is not driven by those in comfort, in fact it may be resisted. Thank goodness history repeats itself, or I may just lose my marbles.




1 comment:

  1. I think this was the most intelligent thing ever written on this site.  Well done and well said!

    ReplyDelete