Monday, February 22, 2010

"Fun with Dick and Jane: Proper tablemanners at the Tea Party"

The recent news about Joe Stack's terrorist rampage, got me thinking about a classic essay by Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Although written and published nearly a half century ago, Hofstadter's words continue to ring true. Hell, even some of the organizations that Hofstadter refers to, such as the John Birch Society, are still rearing their ugly heads - including co-sponsoring events such as CPAC (the conference in which Birch sympathizer Ron Paul won their presidential straw poll). But I digress.

I tend to like to mention Hofstadter's classic essay because it provides a framework for understanding some real problems with the state of our current political discourse. At a blog called the defeatists, one can see a bit of what I'm trying to convey:
The overall strangeness of this thought aside, consider the timing. An angry man had just smashed his airplane into an I.R.S. office in Austin, Tex., killing one federal employee, injuring others and breaking quite a few windows. Does this seem like the very best time to be encouraging people to assault government property? Pawlenty’s defenders will undoubtedly say that he did not want his listeners to literally grab a golf club and hit something. But it is my experience that many Americans do not totally understand the concept of a metaphor. Gail Collins, 2/20/2010
One of the reasons that domestic terrorism is such a problem lies from whence domestic terrorism springs. Far be it from the AXE to condemn another man's sense of grievance -- without that sense of grievance, less fun -- but whether it's the Freemen or the Hayden Lake Racists in Idaho plotting the assassination of a Senator who's been a strong advocate for workers and veterans, or the Ku Klux Klan and their other furry fans, American domestic terrorists are less Stalin and Mao and more Symbionese Liberation Army and generally twits. The Tea Party movement is hard to take seriously; it's like the folks who advocate secession which a leftie-socialist-communist-pinko-fag guy like Antonin Scalia has indicated is totally whack. So, when idiots like Scott Brown and idiot-wannabes like Tim Pawlenty start talking about 9 Irons to the rear windows of government (T-Paw) or between pimping their daughters while saying the latest nutcase was frustrated by lack of openness and just another guy who doesn't like paying taxes (P.diddle.Brown), the AXE is moved to headshaking. Now, I'd like to shake their heads off their silly ass necks, but that would be wrong. Not as wrong as flying a fucking airplane into an office building, but wrong. Brown, speaking in complete ignorance of anything can not be labeled an appeaser to domestic terrorism; to steal a bit from Dana Carvey channeling Bush 41, Brown might not have been "prudent" in his response to this dumbass Khalid Sheik Mohamed wannabe Texan twit, but his heart was obviously in the right place.
Of course you can read the rest of Gail Collins' column here. If you read that along with the blog post I just quoted, a picture should emerge of political figures who have practically gone out of their way to create a paranoid political mindset and who have invited the sorts of violence that folks like Joe Stack are only too happy to deliver. If you read through Stack's rant, no matter how you slice it, there is plenty of conspiratorial diatribe to wade through. As Collins summed it aptly:
Let’s think this through. Andrew Joseph Stack III, the pilot, was a man with multiple hatreds, from Catholicism to unions, whose rage at the I.R.S. apparently began when the agency refused to allow him to declare his house a church for the purpose of avoiding taxes. And the end of the story is that he crashed a plane into a building, killing and injuring innocent people. Plus, he burned down his house. Where his wife and her daughter lived.
Class act. I wonder how many more are out there. I'm guessing too many for comfort. That's not to say that the guy didn't have some legitimate grievances - as has been noted elsewhere, members of his particular profession have been shafted for years, and even more so now in an economy struggling to recover from the worst economic downturn experienced in the US in decades. Certainly there are many of us who have legitimate grievances of one sort or another. What distinguishes Stack, and many of those sponsoring and attending the recent CPAC, the "Tea Parties", etc., from the rest of us is a mindset. As Hofstadter said 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.
What is said has consequences. That should go without saying. We are witnessing a period in which there is plenty of paranoid, hateful rhetoric to be found, exacerbated by a lousy economy, a once-dominant ethnic group losing some of its status, and a relative decline in the capacity or willingness of many to engage in critical thinking. What Hofstadter and others remind us is that what we're seeing is not necessarily "new" - One can go back as far as the McCarthyite and Birchers of Hofstadter's day, back to the Populists of the late 19th century or the "Know Nothings" of the mid 19th century, if wish to limit ourselves to the industrial and post-industrial periods. We certainly saw enough of the phenomenon in the early years of the last sorry decade. What we need to do is call conspiracy-mongering what it is - paranoid (not in the clinical sense, of course), and to combat it with evidence. Those who perpetrate such nonsense should be called out and shamed publicly early and often. For those who are true believers, facts won't matter much, but for those who might be swayed by the fear-mongers and conspiracy-mongers among us, facts might still have some power. In our current era, that may well be a tall order.

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