Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The paranoid style: it's all, like, totally interconnected

Reading Belgravia's response to yesterday's post was really quite amusing. He got some philosopher he knows to ventriloquize a response for him, and the guy fell back into the usual right-wing response to a lack of argument, namely to resort to name calling -- in this case, yours truly got labelled with the relatively mild term "blowhard." (No! Not a "blowhard"!!? Boo-hoo, I want my maahhhmmy!)

More interesting, however, is the way Greg didn't bother to address the fundamental point I was making, which was to question the typical rightwing habit of asserting "guilt-by-free-association" -- e.g. "A is somehow connected to be, is somehow connected to C, is somehow connected to D, and since we know A is bad, then so must D be, and even if I can't quite specify how, I know it's so, and so do you all, and anyone who doubts us is some kind of shinola-head liberal elitist pantywaist."

Rereading Greg's piece, and also his response to it, I'm reminded of this amusing little passage that appeared a year back in John & Belle's blog, which starts with a quote from neocon David Frum's Dead Right:

"Conservative rhetoric can sound a little overbroad, if not positively bats, to nonconservative ears. Conservatives, however, see the things they dislike in the contemporary world -- abortion, the slippage of educational standards, foreign policy weakness, federal aid to handicapped schoolchildren -- as all connected, as expressions of a single creed, a creed of which liberalism is just one manifestation."

This passage cracked me up. (Belle was moved to inquire solicitiously: "Are you OK, honey?") It is, of course, precisely because some conservatives see all these things as connected that some people think some conservatives are bats. (If it thinks like a moonbat, and it talks like a moonbat, and if it comes right out and says it's a moonbat, it's a moonbat.) Seriously, here's a cautionary lesson taught by the 1960's (you'd think conservatives could learn such things): just because you feel that everything is, like, so connected in a mysterious way, doesn't make it so. And for damn sure you don't have the right to bother other people with constant reports of your weird but strong intuitions of, like, total interconnectedness.

The claim that everything out there is in some ineffable (but intuitively certain) way connected to everything else was, of course, a hippy hallmark. What pop neocons do is take the same intellectual style and apply it to everything they dislike.

In both cases, it's a sign of intellectual laziness, an unwillingness to parse how things are interconnected. Greg's philosopher buddy has the same lazy habit, trying to defend Greg by suggesting it's obvious that lefties have been "influenced in one way or another by" critical theory.

But that's the whole question isn't it? Have they been influenced in one way, or have they been influenced in another? Which is it? Of course, to address that would require Greg and his professor buddy to make an effort to understand people who disagree with them, and why these people disagree with them. Name calling is so much less of an effort.

Intellectual laziness, of course, is something you find across the political spectrum, from hippies feeling the love, to right-wingers feeling the hate. (On a related note, the rhetoric of "moral clarity" is probably best understood as a way to make a virtue of our President's intellectually laziness. Incidentally, people are wrong when they say Bush is stupid. Given his grasp on power, he's clearly not stupid. What he is, however, is extremely intellectually lazy.)

Which brings me to one further point. When I used the phrase "irritable mental gesture" yesterday, I figured the reference would be transparent. But apparently it wasn't. Even if my more progressive readers didn't catch it, however, I suspect most of the right-wingers hitting the blog recognized it immediately, since it's an allusion to one of the most famous put-downs of American conservatives ever penned. It comes from the preface to Lionel Trilling's The Liberal Imagination (1950). What Trilling said there was:
In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.
What Trilling meant by "seeking to resemble ideas" is exactly what we see in the vast majority of American conservatives' writings about "liberals" or "lefties." The guilt-by-free-association rant (what Thomas Frank calls the Plen-T-Plaint) never represents a systematic effort to understand the thing the rant refers to; rather, they are expressions of irritation at something the speaker cannot (or in Greg's case, is too lazy to) engage thoughtfully. It's meant to rally partisans to cause, rather than to convince anyone of anything or to further an actual logical understanding of the interrelatedness of various complex things.

Finally, if you want to know a little more about this form of mental pathology that passes for thinking, I highly recommend you check out Richard Hofstadter's famous essay from Harper's 1964, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." This essay opened with the famous observation:

American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wind. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression "paranoid style" I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.

Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. But nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content. I am interested here in getting at our political psychology through our political rhetoric. The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.

Hofstadter then went on to quote various men and movements: Populism, anti-Illuminism, McCarthy, anti-Masonism, Anti-Catholicism. Hofstadter might have noted that connecting these otherwise discontinuous examples of the paranoid style was the prefix "anti" -- an opposition to some perceived status quote, a desire to yell "stop" (perhaps grandiloquently imagining that the bellow came with both legs straddling something called "History"). Hofstadter then reflected on what all this meant:

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....

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; he has a special technique for seduction....

A final characteristic of the paranoid style is related to the quality of its pedantry. One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows. It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed. Of course, there are highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow paranoids, as there are likely to be in any political tendency. But respectable paranoid literature not only starts from certain moral commitments that can indeed be justified but also carefully and all but obsessively accumulates "evidence." The difference between this "evidence" and that commonly employed by others is that it seems less a means of entering into normal political controversy than a means of warding off the profane intrusion of the secular political world. The paranoid seems to have little expectation of actually convincing a hostile world, but he can accumulate evidence in order to protect his cherished convictions from it.

The only thing Hofstadter didn't get right was his sense that this style would never affect more than "a modest minority of the population." In fact, what we have seen over the last twenty years, culminating with the rise of Bushism and the parallel rise of Islamist militarism is the ascendency and even dominance of this way of regarding the world. The death of secular meliorism is no doubt largely to blame.

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