Here’s a superb Ross Douthat column on what the Mueller affair means for US politics. In it, he talks about the “paranoid center,” and draws an interesting parallel:

This pattern points to the essential difference between paranoias of the fringes and what Reason’s Jesse Walker once called “the paranoid center.” Because the center believes in the basic goodness of American and Western institutions, the basic wisdom and patriotism of their personnel, its threat matrix is always attuned to Great Enemies outside and radicals within, and its greatest fears tend to involve the two groups working together — whether that means Middle Eastern dictators and Islamist sleeper cells after Sept. 11 or the grand alliance of Putinists and homegrown white nationalists that’s blamed for Donald Trump.

Meanwhile the extremes, in different but sometimes overlapping ways, are much more skeptical about American institutions, much more “unpatriotic” in the way that David Frum once dismissed right-wing critics of the Iraq war, and thus much more likely to be skeptical of any narrative that asks you to simply trust the wisdom and good intentions of, say, figures like James Comey and John Brennan.

This gives both the far left and the far right an advantage when it comes to seeing through the paranoias of the center — even as both are tempted toward paranoias that locate all the evils of the world within the establishment, in the interlocking directorates of Washington and Wall Street or the military-industrial complex or the Brussels-Berlin axis.

Neither form of paranoia is necessarily worse or better than the other — and neither, it should be stressed, is always wrong. The paranoid center tends to take real threats and then inflate them, rather than inventing them ex nihilo; the paranoid fringes tend to identify real establishment failures and corruptions but then over-imagine conspiracies and puppet masters.

But the paranoid center generally has a power that the fringes lack — both the formal power of institutions and the cultural power to set narratives and declare the boundaries of legitimate debate. And this can make centrist paranoia more dangerous and more easily disguised.

Read the whole thing. Especially that last paragraph.

I didn’t embrace either Russiagate narrative, because I didn’t feel enough of a personal investment in the Mueller investigation to get into the weeds. However, I assumed that there probably was collusion with Russia, given how shady Paul Manafort is, and his longstanding, deep ties to people there, and given how morally lax Donald Trump always has been. But I didn’t know that there was Russia collusion, and — this is key — I didn’t want it to be true. Nor, I should say, did I feel strongly that I wanted it to be false. I didn’t have strong feelings one way or the other, which is why you didn’t see me writing about it much here.

Again, I will confess that I assumed it was probably true. I am happy to learn that it was not true, as every American should be. If you find that you are the sort of person who is disappointed to learn that your president did not collude with agents of a hostile foreign power to win the election, then something is wrong with you.

I remember well being caught up in the paranoid center back in 2002, during the march to war with Iraq. I’ve written about that here recently, and only repeat a bit of it here because lots of people come to these blog entries via social media, and don’t have the running narrative that regular readers do. I believed the Iraq-has-WMD story because I wanted it to be true, to justify a war of vengeance against the Muslim world for 9/11. I believed the Iraq-has-WMD story because it was being told to me by establishment figures I trusted — especially Colin Powell. I believed that story because everybody around me in the conservative Establishment believed it was true. The only reason you disbelieved it, and didn’t want to go to war, was that you were either a fool or a coward.

If you weren’t in the middle of all that then — I was a New York-based writer for National Review — it is very hard to imagine what it was like to be smack in the center of a universe where a lie was widely taken as truth. It may also be hard for you to imagine the courage it took for Pat Buchanan, Scott McConnell, and others involved in the founding of this magazine to do so in the face of overwhelming contempt from the conservative Establishment.

I’ve admired conservative journalist Mollie Hemingway’s bulldog resistance to the collusion narrative, but it must have been so much harder for left-wing journalists like Glenn Greenwald to have resisted it, because so many people among their tribe wanted it to be true. If the past re: the Iraq War is any guide, Greenwald and his left-wing dissenters will not profit from having been correct on Russiagate, and those who are most prominent in Sohrab Ahmari’s funny Mueller Madness bracket will continue to rise, as if this had never happened.

(As for Hemingway, she deserves her own interview show on Fox. I’m serious. She’s a friend, and man, is she ever smart and funny and nobody’s fool. The term “dame” was invented with women like her in mind.)

Anyway, Douthat is so very, very right about the paranoia of the center. I’m going to repeat his paragraph:

But the paranoid center generally has a power that the fringes lack — both the formal power of institutions and the cultural power to set narratives and declare the boundaries of legitimate debate. And this can make centrist paranoia more dangerous and more easily disguised.

Having been on the inside of the boundary-setters on some issues, and on the outside of the boundary-setters on others, let me assure you that this is TRUE. For example, just think about how the transgender narrative colonized all the institutions and the cultural elites. If you disagree, you’re a bona fide bigot. Motivated reasoning  — that is, looking for evidence to confirm what you want to believe — is a problem for all of us, but when those with power engage in motivated reasoning, look out, because some bad stuff is about to go down.

One reason that all the establishment talk about “diversity” and “inclusivity” is so infuriating is because the people who are most enamored of it are the most rigid progressive dogmatists you can imagine. They don’t want to know what they don’t know, and don’t want to hear from people who would contradict their narrative. If you really do believe that the American news media really cares about diversity in terms of viewpoints, you are living in a fantasy world. Their interest in “diversity” and “inclusivity” is motivated reasoning, all the way down, toward the goal of permanently excluding disfavored groups.

One more thing. I’ll repeat Douthat here:

Because the center believes in the basic goodness of American and Western institutions, the basic wisdom and patriotism of their personnel, its threat matrix is always attuned to Great Enemies outside and radicals within…

That was me, prior to the Iraq War, and prior to the Catholic abuse scandal. I believed in the basic goodness of American institutions, of the Catholic Church, and of their personnel. I don’t anymore, or at least not in the same way. It’s not that I believe that America and its institutions are bad — I do not believe that — nor do I believe that the Catholic Church is bad. It’s that I no longer take their goodness and trustworthiness for granted (or, if I’m honest, the goodness and trustworthiness of any institution, including the Orthodox Church, of which I am a communicant).

It’s a crappy headspace to live in, because we all want to be able to rest in trust. There’s a reason why Dante put traitors in the lowest pit of his Inferno: because those who rob the ability of the people to trust each other implicitly take away the most basic thing necessary for civilized life. You never really know whether the threat is coming from within, or without. Trying to find the sane and livable middle ground between wise skepticism and paranoia is difficult. It’s so much easier to believe your own tribe, and refuse any information that doesn’t confirm the narrative the tribe has embraced.

Questions for the room: How do you personally work to challenge your own biases when trying to discern the truth of a news event? What is your internal b.s. detector? How does it work? What’s an event on which you were quite wrong, that caused you to doubt your own judgment going forward?

Advertisement