State of the Union

The Paranoid Style in Liberal Politics

As a shrewd cultural critic, Alan Wolfe is always worth reading. Recently though, he made an unfortunate diversion into the realm of necromancy, raising the shades of  unwanted and unneeded dead theories. In a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Wolfe discussed how far Richard Hofstadter’s theory of the Paranoid Style could be applied to contemporary US politics. It would be sad if Wolfe’s imprimatur inspired any revival of a fatally flawed, but long influential, theory.

Richard Hofstadter was a Columbia University historian, whose best-known books were Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965). The title essay in this latter book originally appeared in Harper’s at the time of the 1964 election. A classic JFK liberal, he used his historical skills to analyze what he saw as the political menaces of his day. He described the beliefs and rhetoric of Barry Goldwater and what he termed the radical Right with about as much balance and intuitive sympathy as an al-Qaeda spokesman expounding US policy in the Middle East. Hofstadter located contemporary Right-wing views in a deep-rooted and ugly tradition of hatred, xenophobia, Nativism, and racism, traceable to colonial times. (He always spoke of the Right: conservatism might in theory be acceptable, but America, in his view, had no “true” conservatives).

Hofstadter saw no point in trying to comprehend Rightism as a system of rational political beliefs. Rather, it was based on paranoid fantasies—delusions of persecution, visions of conspiracy, and messianic dreams of absolute victory in a future that would vindicate all present excesses. Only the word “paranoia” “adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” All these views, ultimately, were grounded in irrational fears, of projections of the troubled self. Drawing on the faddish therapeutic creeds of the time, Hofstadter presented Rightism as a pathological disorder. “Paranoia,” in his usage, was not just a rhetorical label, but a certifiable personality disorder.

For Hofstadter, America’s political choice in 1964 could be summarized readily: we are liberal; you are mentally ill. Read More…

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How a Shopping Mall Becomes a Killing Zone

This really is frightening.

Terrorist incidents tell us nothing new about human nature. We already knew that people are capable of horrendous violence, especially when they have come to regard some other subset of human beings as unworthy of full human status. It’s not surprising, then, to see the terrorists of Somalia’s loathsome al-Shabaab movement violating all laws of humanity by slaughtering innocent victims of all ages. People can become monsters, and they did in the Nairobi mall attack that began on September 21.

What really is alarming, though, is to see terrorists create a radical new tactic against which there is no obvious response or defense. There was nothing surprising, for instance, in the idea that terrorists might hijack airliners, but only in 2001 did we realize that hijackers might use them for suicide attacks, turning those aircraft into deadly missiles. Nairobi has just shown us another horrible innovation. It might be that we won’t realize how effective this could be against the U.S. until we face yet another day when we are counting the dead in their hundreds. We have to confront this issue immediately.

Think about it. How would one attack a shopping mall, whether in Nairobi or Minneapolis? Presumably a number of pickup trucks draw up in the parking lot, and 20 or so armed men and women get out, carrying their weapons and ammunition. Then they enter the mall and begin killing until they can do no more harm. They are strictly limited by the number of bullets and grenades they can carry. When police and military forces arrive, the terrorists might hold out for an hour or two before being eliminated.

That’s one way to do it, but it’s clearly not what happened in Nairobi, where firefights were still in progress several days after the initial assault. Even more amazing, terrorists were still putting up resistance against strong Kenyan forces, reputedly trained and assisted by British and Israeli special forces.

How on earth did the terrorists do it? Why, they rented a store. Read More…

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Three Martyrs

Please join with me in commemorating a group of three British Muslim martyrs. Seriously.

Haroon Jahan, Abdul Nasir, and Shazad Ali died Tuesday night in Birmingham’s impoverished Winson Green area. After two days of rioting, looting, and casual arson, mainly by black gangs, the local community despaired of seeking help from a police force that was not making the slightest effort to intervene to defend them. As the small businessmen and shopkeepers of the area, the local South Asian community had most to lose. Organizing from the local mosque, they dispatched groups of young volunteers to patrol the area. A speeding car hit a group of these community defenders, killing three. (The driver is charged with murder). The victims were classic hard-working immigrants, one a mechanic, another ran a car wash. In the words of one observer, “They lost their lives for other people, doing the job of the police. They weren’t standing outside a mosque, a temple, a synagogue or a church – they were standing outside shops where everybody goes. They were protecting the community as a whole.”

If you have been following media coverage of the British riots, you have seen a great many explanations of the violence, including such classic theories as urban deprivation, youth unemployment, and anger at police racism, and all have some substance. What has been fascinating this time round is to see how even the most mainstream liberal outlets – even the New York Times – have focused on the vicious hooliganism and criminality driving the mobs, how they are driven not by an inchoate rage against injustice but by strictly rational desires for high-class consumer goods. Some even remark on the growth of “feral” gangs of white people, black and white. Read More…

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