Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Richard Hofstadter would have a field day

Some of you I would hope would remember Hofstadter for his essay on the paranoid style in American politics. I would consider this essay a must-read at any time, but especially as Silly Season reaches its crescendo. Although much of the topical material is dated, the basic underlying principles are quite sound and very applicable to today's political scene. Here's just a portion of what Hofstadter wrote back in the early 1960s:
The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date fort the apocalypse. (“Time is running out,” said Welch in 1951. “Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month when Stalin will attack.”)

As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).

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.* Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.

On the other hand, the sexual freedom often attributed to the enemy, his lack of moral inhibition, his possession of especially effective techniques for fulfilling his desires, give exponents of the paranoid style an opportunity to project and express unacknowledgeable aspects of their own psychological concerns. Catholics and Mormons—later, Negroes and Jews—have lent themselves to a preoccupation with illicit sex. Very often the fantasies of true believers reveal strong sadomasochistic outlets, vividly expressed, for example, in the delight of anti-Masons with the cruelty of Masonic punishments.
Now let's look at some of the contemporary exemplars. Sarah Posner captures some of the phenomenon quite aptly:

With polls showing Barack Obama pulling ahead of John McCain in the US presidential race, the Republican party's hard-right evangelical allies are starting to panic. As the political elites in the movement freak out, they're sowing the seeds of grassroots anxiety that God will punish America for electing Obama.

Theodicy lies at the heart of the evangelical right's political strategy: Christians must perpetually engage in spiritual warfare with Satan, and take dominion over governmental and legal institutions. God will be pleased then; but if these Christian soldiers fail to vanquish Satan, God won't be happy at all. Chaos ensues: socialism, Bible burning, abortions in public schools, boy scouts forced into homosexuality!

Religious-right honchos are girding the troops for political apocalypse. Townhall magazine, owned by Salem Communications, one of the largest Christian broadcasters in the country, ran a September feature, "Obamageddon: Could We Survive a Barack Presidency?" This month evangelical publishing giant Stephen Strang, whose magazine Charisma endorsed McCain, predicted that "life as we know it will end if Obama is elected." Last week, the political arm of James Dobson's Focus on the Family sent out a "Letter from 2012 in Obama's America", a 16-page (pdf) parade of horribles, and talk radio show host Janet Porter imagined that Christians will be imprisoned with Obama in the Oval Office.

Christian right activist and McCain supporter Gary Bauer openly worried to televangelist Rod Parsley that an Obama presidency could mean that "God could take his hand of protection off of America." Further economic woes? A national security or military crisis? Don't blame the morally bankrupt party that the religious right has enabled for the past three decades. Blame Obamageddon.

Fundamentalist Christians are perpetually eager for The End, with daily contemplations on television, radio, blogs and other media about whether the legalization of gay marriage, the financial meltdown, or the possibility of an Antichrist president are "signs of the times" – clues that the cultural chaos that will precede Christ's showdown with Satan at Armageddon is finally at hand.

Yet how could you get the foot soldiers marching on election day if they would happily stay home waiting for the Rapture? That's why the leadership is promising God's punishment for failing to resist Satan's temptations. God won't be happy if America doesn't elect his "chosen" candidate, Sarah Palin, whose supporters believe is a modern-day Queen Esther. God will punish the country who reversed course on his carefully laid-out plan and elects the Muslim-socialist-terrorist instead.

If McCain somehow pulls it off in the end the religious right will no doubt claim that its support – and God's hand – were indispensable for a come-from-behind victory. But if the polls are right and Obama wins, the fundamentalists are already poised to pounce on any new crisis, be it on economic, national security, or another front, as the latest divine cause célèbre.

Victoria Jackson (yes, the former SNL star) also springs to mind:

Well, she apparently thinks that Obama may literally be the devil.

And no, it’s not a joke

I don’t want a political label, but Obama bears traits that resemble the anti- Christ and I’m scared to death that un- educated people will ignorantly vote him into office.

You see, what bothers me most, besides being a Communist, and a racist (Obama writes in his book, From Dreams of My Father, “I found a solace in nursing a pervasive sense of grievance and and animosity against my (white) mother’s race.”) (Obama’s “religion” of the last 20 years is Black Liberation Theology. What is that? “It is simply Marxism dressed up in Christian rhetoric. But unlike traditional Marxism, Black Liberation Theology emphasizes race rather than class. It’s leading theorist is James Cone who says Jesus was black, African-Americans are the chosen people, and whites are the devil. Cone says, “What we need is the destruction of whiteness, which is the source of human misery in the world.” The McAlvany Intelligence Advisor), is that he is a LIAR. He pretends to be a Christian and he incriminates himself everytime he speaks about Christianity. To lie about being a believer in Christ is very dangerous. Lightning could strike him at any minute! But seriously, he doesn’t have a clue what the Bible says and yet he pretends to be a church- going Christian to win votes. That is sooooo evil.

Some of the leaders of various Protestant denominations have taken their paranoia into their sermons. James Dobson of Focus on the Family notoriety has been having a field day. After earlier dissing McCain as unworthy of the evangelical vote, he's had a very dramatic change of heart.

They tried branding Obama the anti-Christ. They tried linking him with Islamic terrorists. They've implied that unknown powers bought his allegiance by financing his education at Ivy League universities. They've used their pulpits to endorse McCain, hoping to spur a fight with the I.R.S. that would rouse their troops.

None of these tactics has brought their errant minions under control.

So using God like a hired gun to terrorize the town's people, the evangelical Christian mullahs are declaring that Obamageddon is at hand, using that very word and asking as the Religious Right/Republican Townhall magazine did in a September headline, "Could We Survive a Barack Presidency?"

Evangelical publisher James Strang answers the survival question by warning his readers that people who hate Christianity will take over the country once Obama is elected.

In fact, "life as we know it will end," Strang writes.

Last week Focus on the Family's James Dobson added his own doomsday predictions with a 16-page rant about evils that will befall the United States by 2012 if Obama is elected. A British commentator dubbed Dobson's list of a parade of horrors.

As a warm up Dobson blames misguided young evangelicals for putting Obama in office. It's them he's hoping to scare most.

[snip]

Now Dobson sees McCain as God's man. It's Obama who's the devil. And under God's direction, as he always is, Dobson is speaking out again. But this time he is no longer dealing in truth.

As he notes in the letter's preface, Dobson is now imagining things, things that could happen if Christians don't unite behind McCain and give that adulterous, profane, violent, scandal-tainted, bought-out-by-the-homsexuals drinker and gambler the most powerful elective office in the world.

In the letter Dobson imagines Boy Scouts disbanding rather than allowing gay scout leaders the complete license they will get if Obama is elected. He imagines the Pledge of Allegiance being banned in schools. He imagines Communism gaining new power. He imagines doctors killing children just minutes before birth. He imagines Americans forbidden to own guns. He imagines television and radio stations forbidden to preach the Bible. He imagines ministers, lawyers, doctors, social workers all being punished for following their consciences.

Dobson may have gotten his letter idea from Christian radio's Janet Porter who wrote an imaginary "Letter from a Future Prisoner" last year. She was fear mongering over the idea the Hillary might be elected. If that happened "thought crimes" would be instituted. Christian books would be banned. Christian speech would be called hate speech.

Porter, an even bigger drama queen than Dobson, imagined herself in prison doing hard labor merely for defending her faith. And who does she imagine in the cell next to her?

No, no. Not Jesus. Don't be ridiculous.

It's a home-schooling mother weeping inconsolably because her innocent children have been put in foster care.

All because they loved Jesus.

All because that adulterous, profane, violent, scandal-tainted, bought-out-by-the-homosexuals drinker and gambler didn't win the presidential election.

Now whatever happened to that commandment against bearing false witness? Apparently, there are some "exceptions" that apply whenever one's partisan politician of choice is involved. Not to worry, even Joe the Plumber - who continues to milk his Fifteen Minutes - gets in on the act, and even the Great McCain himself seems to be caught up in paranoia fever. Apparently, the sheer lunacy is enough to disturb even a Faux News anchor. That, as my dad would say, takes talent.

In all fairness, Hofstadter does admonish that the paranoid style is not a uniquely right-wing phenomenon. However, it does seem that those on the far right are most susceptible to it. One could speculate as to why that is, although I suspect that Bob Altemeyer's analysis of right-wing authoritarianism would get us a reasonably close approximation of the truth - in particular the traits of conventionalism and authoritarian obedience (dutiful followers or in the case of those with a high social dominance orientation, strict rulers) would seem to implicated. There is also a rigid cognitive style that characterizes right-wing authoritarians - one that might be best characterized as Manichean. Being prone to obedience, conformism, and holding a Manichean outlook in which one is part of a grand battle between good and evil, one can easily imagine the leaps of faith taken with regard to those perceived to be "different." Those of us who are "different" end up being viewed with a fair amount of suspicion or outright terror. We've certainly seen quite a bit of that come to the fore in the current electoral cycle - perhaps to a greater degree than I've experienced in my lifetime.

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