Richard Hofstadter, in his well-known essay on the paranoid style in American politics--first delivered as a lecture at Oxford in November, 1963-- presented numerous examples which clearly demonstrated that the conservative right wing of the political spectrum were the dominant users of the paranoid style. From the John Birch Society; to Joseph McCarthy; to the conspiracy theories related to fluoridation of water and other irrationally held beliefs of the time; the conservative right engaged in frankly paranoid thinking.
But Hofstadter noted even then, that conservatives and the right could not claim exclusive title to the paranoid style. In fact, American history was littered with examples of both sides utilizing the paranoid style in order to cope with painful truths about errors in ideology; and the consequent loss of political power and influence.
I submit that at this point in history it is now the liberal left that has willingly passed through the world of reality and entered the twilight realm of paranoia. They made this transition in order to hold onto some cherished beliefs that they were convinced had become unchangeable historical "facts"; "facts" that had been and still are essential to their very identity as a political party; but which hide essential flaws in their thinking.
In the 60's the liberal left and the Democratic Party became the champions of civil rights --a cause with which they were NOT historically associated, actually; but events of the time conspired to make them the standard-bearers of racial equality--an unaddressed social issue in this country that plagued and highlighted some of the hypocrisy in its high-minded and lofty values from the very beginning. It was definitely time to make the American promise that so clearly burned in the minds of the Founding Fathers real for all Americans.
Championing this cause was so successful for the Democrats as a political party, that they quite naturally took up the causes of other identified "victim" groups (women, the disabled; homosexuals, etc.); successfully leveraging their heroic stand on civil rights as proof of their concern for the oppressed and "the little guy".
Along the way, the Democrats picked up a few holy mantras ("Roe v Wade" and the whole abortion rights movement ; "Make Love Not War" and the entire antiwar crowd; etc.) and, about this time, they became very seriously infected with the Marxist virus that had already spread throughout Europe, despite being the cause of human misery as well as millions of deaths around the world.
Hence, the liberal left failed to notice that the American people rose to the challenge of equal rights and that society changed under the irrefutable logic of human freedom and equal opportunity for all. The promise of liberty was, after all, the founding principle of our nation.
But Democrats and the liberal left could only be threatened by the succes of their attempt to change American society. Blacks; women; and even Gays were making incredible progress in assimilation into society -- and could now move on to say and think what they pleased. They might even choose to become Republican; or disagree with some entitlement program; or challenge directly the ideology beneath the Democratic Party and the left ! Horrors!
Thus it is not so hard to understand that those who once championed the oppressed and encouraged them to be free and partake of all aspects of American society; now have become the most potent enablers of the victimhood cults that sprang up in each of these groups.
As I have pointed out elsewhere, those whose identity is tied-up inextricably with being the champions the oppressed, must be sure to maintain an oppressed class--constantly seeking new victims to heroically stand for; otherwise what or who will they champion?
Most Americans who are not indoctrinated into the Marxist worldview and obsessed with victimhood can clearly see the real progress of Blacks and women--indeed all minority groups-- in all aspects of society. They can appreciate individuals from those groups who forged into previously restricted areas and broke barrier after barrier, even if they are not Democrats or subscribers to leftist theories.
Not only did the liberal left exhibit almost complete blindness and fail to celebrate its greatest success , but they became more and more strident in their demands and denunciations of American society as a whole. This entire process coincided with their increasing irrelevance and loss of political power. In response, the left is trying to change the playing field to insure that they remain relevant by switching from demands for "equal opportunity" to an insistance on "equal outcome". Since it is impossible to achieve the latter--except in a totalitarian society, where everyone is made equally miserable; or in death itself--the left hopes to achieve new power and influence over a neverending victim class that they will have created through their policies. The paranoid style conveniently defends those policies and effortlessly maintains their defective worldview.
Of course, calling someone "paranoid", or insinuating that they have a "paranoid style" is definitely pejorative. Being paranoid has, as Hofstadter notes, "a greater affinity for bad causes than good ones." This is primaril because the paranoid--even when their cause has some merit--is actually trying to delude himself about some inner reality at the expense of, or detriment to, the cause. Their motivation is no longer about the cause anymore; it is about protecting themselves from an unpleasant reality that is making them question their foundations.
Any who oppose the "equality of outcome" logic are descibed as "racist". Those who disagree with them are "trying to shut down free speech" (watch and see whose behavior actually physically attempts to silence others). Those who point out the errors in their thinking are "evil". American society--arguably the freest and most tolerant in the world--becomes the source of all oppression and evil. This growing attitude condensed itself into an insane and irrational hatred for one man who came to symbolize their worst fear -- that their image of themselves was no longer true, but had become a well-loved and cultivated delusion. I mean, if GW Bush could be elected President (not once, but TWICE); and be considered the liberator of literally millions of people--what were they? Chopped liver?
Let me use an example that Hofstadter uses in his essay:
Again it is common knowledge that the movement against the fluoridation of municipal water supplies has been catnip for cranks of all kinds, especially for those who have obsessive fear of poisoning. It is conceivable that at some time scientists may turn up conclusive evidence that this practice is, on balance, harmful; and such a discovery would prove the antifluoridationists quite right on the substance of their position. But it could hardly, at the same time, validate the contentions of those among them who, in characteristic paranoid fashion have charged that fluoridation was an attempt to advance socialism under the guise of public health or to rot out the brains of the community by introducing chemicals in the water supply in order to make people more vulnerable to socialist or communist schemes.
A distorted style is, then, a possible signal that may alert us to a distorted judgment, just as in art an ugly style is a cue to fundamental defects of taste. What interests me here is the possibility of using political rhetoric to get a political pathology. One of the most impressive facts about the paranoid style, in this connection, is that it represents an old and recurrent mode of expression in our public life which has frequently been linked with movements of suspicious discontent and whose content remains much the same even when it is adopted by men of distinctly different purposes.
In the example of fluoridation, which was a major focus of paranoia in the 50's and 60's; science never confirmed that it was harmful and it is still used today all over the country. Nevertheless, it was not unreasonable to bring up concerns about the long-term safety of a public program that would impact almost every citizen in the country.
What was inappropriate and irrational, as well as an extreme example of "connecting the dots" to regain political power, was the use of the relevant scientific question as a basis for developing a rather bizarre conspiracy theory that connected it with another realistic concern at the time--the rise of communism and its easy acceptance and penetration into American culture.
In this case, "connecting the dots" was not the product of a rational thought process, but of a paranoia on the right; who in their political impotence came to emotionally conflate two important concerns with some degree of merit into one conspiracy theory that was totally off the wall. In the end, it completely discredited them in the minds of reasonable people.
The bizarre conspiracy theories that condensed around fluoridation are not dissimilar to the ones we hear over and over again concerning President Bush and his rationale for the war in Iraq and the war on terror in general.
Even if, hypothetically, every single justification for the war would be eventually proven not to have any basis ( and this is already demonstrably impossible); it would still not validate the absurd claims on the part of the left who, in characteristic paranoid fashion, have come up with all sorts of conspiracy theories and paranoid fantasies that connect dots in a much more irrational and delusional manner than what they accuse the President of doing.
The President simply acted on facts that were accepted at the time (even by the people now accusing him of lying); and responded appropriately to a real threat that had materialized on his watch and resulted in the murder of 3000 American citizens. The paranoia of the left can be seen in their attempts to undermine his actions by resorting to ridiculous connections that simply don't compute-- just as fluoridation being a plot of the communists didn't resonate with reality; neither does Michael Moore's fictional documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, make the paranoid case for some underlying conspiracy.
While there is merit in debating how best to go about achieving our objectives in the war in Iraq and the GWOT; believing that terrorism is a conspiracy cooked up by Bush and Co. to consolidate power and institute (take your pick) a fascist state; a theocracy; or both; is simply a paranoid fantasy that consoles those of the liberal left who cannot cope with their loss of power and influence.
The hallmark of the paranoid individual and the paranoid style is constant anticipation or expectation of either attack or personal betrayal. Paranoia finds causal connections everywhere and in everything; for them, nothing is coincidental. They can develop complicated conspiracies about innocuous behaviors and seemingly irrelevant events. Their paranoia makes them constantly on guard, searching for hidden motives and meanings in everyone else's behavior. (Just go check out the Democratic Underground, where these fantasies on every action or inaction on the part of the Bush administration are immediately converted into conspiracies and plots). The tragic death of a reporter -- Bush et al had him killed because he knew too much. Osama's most recent tape -- a Rovian plot to show how frightened we should be. And so on.
Paranoia can be conceptualized as "rationality in the service of the irrational." Once fixed on a particular idea or explanation -- no matter how bizarre or irrational; the paranoid person looks for evidence to validate their prejudices. It is almost impossible to change their minds. Their entire concept of themselves is tied up with the paranoid idea or conspiracy. If it did not exist, or was proven to be untrue or false-- then they would need to question their underlying assumptions and ideas--and those are what usually form the foundation of who they believe themselves to be.
For example, a belief that one is important enough to be the subject of a determined (and often vague) FBI or CIA plot may be frightening, but is likely to be vastly superior to accepting that you have a severe and lifelong psychiatric disorder.
It is far easier to disregard reality; and/or to simply incorporate the person who tries to disabuse you of your idea or conspiracy into the complex paranoid fantasy itself, rather than deal with the trauma of a disintegrating self.
When setbacks occur, or when something goes wrong in the life of the paranoid, they will prefer to believe that another person or group is to blame, rather than accept any personal responsibility.
In Part II, I will discuss how paranoia can originate from both biological and psychological causes; and how the current political paranoia and rhetoric of the left have profound implications for our society. It has led to severe breaks in the social fabric that bind us together as a nation. I hope that these can, with time, be mended. But the worse effect of this paranoid style is that it seriously impedes those who express it from being able to appropriately face and respond to reality.
Thus, those who adopt the paranoid style in their rhetoric and their behavior not only are unable to help the rest of us deal with the very real threats we face in the 21st century; they actively undermine our efforts and enable our enemies.
I will begin this second part of the discussion by quoting Richard Hofstadter again, from his essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics":
What distinguishes the paranoid style is not, then, the absence of verifiable facts (though it is occasionally true that in his extravagaant passion for facts the paranoid occasionally manufactures them), but rather the curious leap in imagination that is always made at some critical point in the recital of events....
The plausability the paranoid style for those who find it plausible lies, in good measure, in this appearance of the more careful, conscientious and seemingly coherent application to detail, the laborious accumulation of what can be taken as convincing evidence for the most fantastic conclusions, the careful preparation for the big lep from the undeniable to the unbelievable.
The singular thing about all this laborious work is that the passion for factual evidence does not, as in most intellectual exchanges have the effect of putting the paranoid spokesman into effective two-way communication with the world outside his group--least of all with those who doubt his views. He has little real hope that his evidence will convince a hostile world. His effort to amass it has rather the quality of a defensive act which shuts off his receptive apparatus and protects him from haavaing to attend to disturbing considerations that do not fortify his ideas. He has all the evidence he needs; he is not a receiver, he is a transmitter.
What is missing from the paranoid style is not facts, but sensible judgment. And how can judgments be made--let alone be sensible--when the postmodern constraints on thinking (discussed here and here) demand moral relativity and decree that all truth is subjective anyway. Postmodernism practically celebrates paranoia, projection, denial and distortion as undeniable and fundamental truth.
Paranoid symptoms and the paranoid style may arise from biological or emotional (psychological) causes.
In my line of work I see many people who have an underlying physiological abnormality in the brain that predisposes them to develop psychotic symptoms, including paranoia. Some of the psychiatric disorders where paranoia can be seen include from schizophrenia, psychotic depression, mania and substance abuse. Paranoia may also be a symptom of medical disorders, and the list of them is quite long, but includes almost all medical problems that may affect the brain (e.g. infectious, neoplastic endocrine, nutritional etc.).
One patient I remember vividly was a young man in his 30's who came to the emergency room with careful documentation (literally hundreds of pages) of his fluid intake and urine output; (with careful descriptions of the color and consistency of the urine as well as several recent samples) for the last 3 years. This compilation of data was offered to me as the "proof" that someone had been slowly poisoning him. Recently, he had begun to realize, he told me, that the persons behind this were likely from some planet astronomers had not yet discovered.
Most of the medical and psychiatric disorders that lead to paranoia involve a disruption of normal brain physiology, which then leads to misperceptions and distorted thinking processes. In such cases, paranoia develops as the broken brain tries to make sense of a world that one's senses are saying has gone mad. In other words, the brain tries to use its rational faculty to develop a coherent explanation of the false or distorted perceptions that are brought about by the abnormal physiology.
I am not suggesting that all people who use projection or paranoia have a medical or psychiatric illness. Most non-clinical instances of paranoia stop abruptly at the point where the totally bizarre begins. The patient above had wandered into the bizarre with his inclusion of aliens into the paranoid mix and he suffered from a pathological disorder. The particular content of the paranoia--even in clinical disorders--may take on some of the psychological issues with which the individual is dealing at the time. For example, one high-functioning PhD level microbiologist that I treated in the past believed that there were "sub"microscopic organisms on his skin that jumped from him to other people and where the reason why he could not get andy dates with women.
One of the daunting aspects of political paranoia is that it is not entirely out of the realm of the possible; it is just unbelievable in its breathtaking scope to most reasonable people. In order to believe it, a person would have to accept some pretty far-fetched underlying assumptions - many of them fairly contradictory.
It simply boggles the mind to contemplate all the conspiracy theories constructed about George W. Bush and/or Karl Rove's evil genius. They are blamed even for the sad foolishness of some Democrats' behaviors. Recall, as just one example, the proposed theory that Karl Rove was the originator of the "fake but accurate" Dan Rather/Mary Mapes memo. The idea of this theory was that Rove did it to make Democrats look foolish since it was so obviously a forgery; and that they were "entrapped" into believing it to be real. Except, of course, that the same people who say that piece of nonsense are also unwilling to admit that the forgery is fake and believe there is some "underlying truth" to its contents. Go figure. But as Hofstadter has said, this is the hallmark of the paranoid style.
Science has shown that many purely psychological factors can also have a dramatic effect on brain physiology and alter perceptions.
Many conversion disorders (such as this classic case of hysteria I discussed in an earlier post) have no objective medical pathology, but are brought about by a traumatic psychological event in a person's life. Sometimes non-psychiatric physicians speak of of such symptoms in a belittling manner, calling them "all in your head" or "supratentorial" (suggesting that the person is making them up). But the truth is that psychological factors and how we react to the world have an enormous impact on our brain.
That is, after all, on of the main functions of the brain -- to perceive and respond to the external environment. When that environment or the real world overwhelms us psychologically, sometimes even a normal brain can malfunction. And sometime an otherwise normal brain may be used to filter out the unacceptable or the reality that overloads it.
All of the psychological defenses--including paranoia, denial, distortion and projection -- undoubtedly have a biological basis. We are only now just coming to understand some of the physiology that may be involved; and it is hardly surprising that it is the same physiology that underlies the analogous medical conditions. (See here, for example).
Clearly some people are more prone to develop extreme paranoid ideas that are completely out of the realm of possibility than others, but the only difference between paranoia from a medical or psychiatric etiology and paranoia from a psychological (or political) etiology is how one treats it.
In the former case, the underlying medical or psychiatric problem is diagnosed and treated. Most often, the paranoia will diminish, though not always as it is a very difficult symptom to entirely remove.
In the latter case, one must also treat the underlying problem, but in this case, it is not medication or other physical treatments that will do the job. The treatment for political paranoia is insight and self-awareness.
As recently as yesterday, some new studies were reported on that demonstrated how political bias affects brain activity. The key word is "bias". Or, to put it another way, deeply held political beliefs effect brain activity and can interfere with both judgment and perception. Most certainly, this is not unique to either Democratic or Republican brains.
All human brains have the potential to be biased, prejudiced, irrational, and, with reference to our topic--paranoid. The only psychological prerequisite to slip into this kind of deluded thinking is a perceived threat to one's sense of self; or any of the ideas or relationships one's sense of self is based on.
When faced with some extremely unpleasant aspect of reality, the individual mind immediately take steps to preserve its integrity. A common example of this is the situation where someone is told of a loved one's unexpected death. Such traumatic information cannot be processed instantaneously as it puts a person's whole world out of frame. It is too sudden to be fully digested.
So, the first and most normal response is the reflexive response to such news: "NO! That can't be true!" (denial) ; or even the more paranoid response: "No! You're lying to me! Why would you lie to me!"
Again, we are all capable of having paranoid ideas at times because paranoia is the extreme of the human mind's attempts to find connections; assign meanings; and develop rational explanations for events, thoughts and/or feelings.
In other words, the tendency to mistake coincidences for causes; or to blame other people rather than one's self for one's circumstances is a universal trait; but it is hardly a psychologically healthy one.
Here is the way that paranoia and projection work:
-You consider yourself a "peaceful" and non-violent person. Yet you feel violently angry at someone or some situation. This does not fit in with your image of yourself. With projection, you deny your own rage and insist that it is the other person who is going to attack you or has angry feelings towards you. PSYCHOLOGICAL RESULT: you don't have to acknowledge your own angry feelings which are unacceptable to you; and instead can attribute them to someone else.
-You are a successful person. But deep down you feel unworthy of your success or guilty of your talent or wealth. Instead of acknowledging this and trying to understand and deal with the origins of such painful self-recrimination (did you cheat others to obtain your wealth? Are you faking talent? Have poor self-esteem?); you begin to think that others are criticizing you and trying to impede your success. Or, alternately you engage in self-defeating or self-destructive behavior that you blame on someone else. Or, you take the position that wealth is evil or all talent is undeserved and extol mediocrity or poverty as morally superior in order to compensate for your guilt. PSYCHOLOGICAL RESULT: you don't have to deal with the reason behind your guilt and unworthiness; and can attribute such critical attacks on you to someone else or denouncing others with talent and wealth makes you feel worthy. For examples of this you can pretty much pick all of the Hollywood elite or many successful businessmen (George Soros comes to mind).
-You are an unsuccessful person or feel a failure in life. You have some shame and/or humiliation about your situation. Instead of dealing with what you are doing that makes you unsuccessful, you attribute your lack of success to the actions of some individual or group who is acting against you. PSYCHOLOGICAL RESULT: you don't have to take responsibility for your situation or acknowledge that your own actions brought you to it. It is not your fault, but someone else's. This is the mechanism behind most racist, sexist, homophobic and/or antisemitic behavior the world over. Islam, in particular, seems to specialize in this type of thinking about the Jews onto whom they project all their own inadequacies.
There is a reason that human beings experience suspicion, distrust and hyper- vigilance. That reason is because there is REAL danger in the world. Our ancestors in the caves knew this to be true. They lived with continual danger just to survive every minute of every day. Being able to logically "connect the dots" and extract meaning from the evidence of one's senses is a necessity for survival. Those who did not have this psychological capacity surely died out long ago.
The tools of the paranoid individual and the paranoid style that one can see dramatised in much political discourse these days are denial, distortion, and projection. These psychological defenses are almost always pathological when used by an adult to cope with the real world.
Those individuals who use these three primitive psychological defenses rearrange external reality (so that actual reality may be avoided); for an observer, the users of these mechanisms frequently appear crazy or insane. These are known as the "psychotic" defenses, common in overt psychosis, in dreams, and throughout childhood.
Denial is a refusal to accept external reality because it is too threatening. There are examples of denial being adaptive (for example, it might be adaptive for a person who has a terminal illness to use some degree of denial). But for the most part, denial is only useful as a short-term strategy, to permit a person to come to terms with reality. As a long-term strategy to protect self-identity, it is potentially lethal--since the person or group that uses it extensively is blinded to the real danger that might be out there.
Distortion is a gross reshaping of external reality to meet internal needs. The ongoing and bizarre accusations against the evil genius Karl Rove are typical of the distortion of the paranoid style. The most recent example is the accusation by the denizens of the Democratic Underground that the Osama tape was masterminded by Rove to justify the President's authorization of the NSA to intercept terrorist communications.
In a free society, it is reasonable to raise concerns about the trade-offs during a war of increased security and decreased freedom in some areas; and how far is it appropriate or necessary to go--balancing risks and benefits. But the paranoid left will not allow a rational discussion of this issue and insist that free speech is being taken away and that the President is mad with power. It is more to the point to say that they are mad with impotence.
It is my observation that most of the liberal left are so obsessed with controlling the speech of those who disagree with them (they refer to such speech as "hate" speech and generally accuse you of being "hate-filled"); that they are unable to recognize, let alone take responsibility for the hatred and anger that they are experiencing. Attributing their own feeling to others is much more acceptable since it allows them to continue to believe that they are champions of free speech; calm and rational ("reality-based"); when the greatest threats to free speech originate in their own policies which they demand be forced onto others; and the greatest threat to peace is in their own unacknowledged rage.
Granted that the conservative right--especially sometimes the religious right--suffer from the same paranoid style at times and can be equally obnoxious with wanting to force their policies and beliefs onto others. That this is so, does not take the liberal left off the hook for their unbelievably childish and incredibly foolish paranoid attempts to manipulate political rhetoric in a time of war; in a manner that enables our enemies to exploit exposed faultlines in American politics--and to do it solely for their own personal political gain.
When you try to engage them in discussion, the paranoid person will simply emote and vent his rage because he feels dispossessed, impotent and irrelevant. Two-way communication is impossible, as Hofstadter notes. Eventually, the paranoid will develop a conspiracy theory to explain away their feelings of rage and impotence and seek to punish the person or group they blame for their situation. You can see this in almost every thread at the Democratic Underground if you are so inclined to read them. You can see it in the inflammatory and over-the-top rhetoric about Judge Alito, an able and mainstream conservative jurist; whose detractors paint "end-of-the-world" scenarios if he were to be confirmed to the Supreme Court. "Women will die" and children will be sexually abused; you will lose all your personal liberties; and we will return to the days of the caveman; and so on.
It is easy to see how all these psychological manipulations work together to keep a person or a group insulated from reality. We witness such behavior all around us these days. It has a mindless quality that is indifferent to the societal damage that it wreaks.
The actual numbers of those on the liberal left who have fully embraced the paranoid style is actually relatively low. The damage they do; the deaths they must certainly take responsibility for are totally out of proportion to the actual size. Yet they have leveraged their power in the media and academic institutions well, and have come to dominate almost all of the programs of the liberal left.
So, what is the solution to this dilemma posed by the liberal left's paranoid style? They behave the way they do because they believe (falsely, I think) that it will gain them back their position of power and influence.
When--and if--the paranoid style fails to bring them back to the hall of political power in Washington and elsewhere, the left will have a motivation to change--just as the conservative right managed to look at itself in the 70's and 80's and curtail the paranoia that threatened to keep them powerless and keep the valuable ideas they had to contribute to American society out of the mainstream.
If the conservative right were able to develop a sense of insight and terminate the paranoid streak that ran through all its thinking in the 50's and 60's; then so too can the liberal left.
What is so dangerous at this particular time in history, is that the left seems to be escalating their paranoia instead of containing it. The entire world is in th midst of a potentially deadly crisis, brought on by a dangerous and lethal strain of Islamism that the paranoid liberal left refuses to acknowledge. They are only able to see the conservative right as the enemies they have to deal with, and are blind to the real danger.
This is worse than delusional. This is potentially life-threatening for American society. It must stop.
To regain health--both political and psychological--the liberal left must begin to take responsibility for their thoughts, feelings, rhetoric and behaviors that are enabling and appeasing Islamofascist murderers. Even if this is a painful process for the left (or a financially painful process), they must change their mindless opposition to everything that the conservative right proposes --especially in the area of national security. They must exert control over inappropriate behaviors that derives from their anger and resentment at having lost the last two elections to someone they despise. They do not have to love George Bush or Republicans, but they have to grow up and work with them for the sake of America. If they have alternatives that are consistent with national security and national interests, let them propose them instead of simply saying NO to everything that is proposed. Even if they hate the direction things are going, it was only a little over a year ago that the American people--the one's they say they serve--voted to go in Bush's direction. There is a job to get done, and they must do it together with their political opponents for the good of us all.
Paranoia, projection, denial and distortion are banished though the development of insight and self awareness. When these defense mechanisms are being used, some inner reality is distorting outer reality. It is the inner reality that has to be understood before a person can have control over their bias, prejudices and histrionic and rageful tendencies; which are the major stumbling blocks to a full grasp of reality. Only be taking down such impediments will the liberal left and the conservative right--working together-- optimally deal with dangerous world of the 21st century.
The conservative right wing of American politics may once have been the predominant users of the paranoid style in the 60's. But what we see today clearly demonstrates the severe paranoia of the liberal left wing as they try to come to grips with their own growing irrelevancy and confining worldview that keeps them anchored in the past and deeply afraid of the future.
Today, conservatives are actually more representative of true "progressive" thought; and will continue to be as long as the rhetoric and behavior of the liberal left is mired in the paranoid style.