Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Tale of Two Articles

In the November 1964 edition of Harper's Magazine Richard Hofstadter's article The Paranoid Style in American Politics explored a mindset that was prevalent in his time, but that he traced throughout American history.  He referred to the "paranoid style" as a negative force in politics that is problematic primarily because it is employed by more or less normal people.  The people who fall into the trap are not certifiably disturbed, but average citizens and members of the public service, and the "style" they employ, whether conscious or not, create it's impact on how the ideas are perceived rather than the inherent value, or even validity, of the content of the message.

He begins his article by moving backward through time to present three quotations: one from the infamous Joseph McCarthy in 1951, the next from a 1895 manifesto of the Populist party, and the final one from a 1855 Texas newspaper.  Despite the passing of 96 years the language used and the manner of writing bear striking similarities.  Remove the context and it would be difficult to determine when the words were written.  Hofstadter then begins to move forward through history to outline specific movements and the style they used to convey their thoughts.  He outlines Illuminism and Masonry, then the perceived Jesuit threat of a Catholic plot to undermine American values, before moving to the contemporary right wing (note: I use the term right wing because it's the word Hofstadter employs.  My own thought is that these identifiers, right and left, do more to blur the ideas, issues and participants more than they do to clarify and that we would be better off without thinking along those lines).

Hofstadter spends much of the rest of the article on this contemporary manifestation because, he writes, it demonstrates some differences from the past.  He indicates that the former paranoid outbursts were directed toward protecting an established way of American life.  He feels that the new version is more extreme in that the spokespeople of these movements feel that that established way of life is hanging on by a last thread and they are preventing the final destruction.  The damage has been done and the final threat looms close.  Rather than vague forces, such as the Jesuits, specific parties are named.  Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower, for example, are clearly identified as conspirators.  These people are seen to be developing the power to end entire systems, not just throw them into temporary disarray.  Hofstadter notes that the criticisms often have a justifiable point, but that this valid critique is elaborated in such a manner, has so much dross heaped upon it, that it flies into the fantastical.  He ends the article with a one sentence paragraph that I feel I must quote in it's entirety: "We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is the double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well."

Now I don't have the tools or the time to sift through history to be able to determine of Hofstadter cherry-picked his examples and find for myself if the perceived problem was not as prevalent as he described in 1964.  What I do feel confident in saying is that what he outlines is an accurate representation of far too much discourse today, which is why I lend credence to what he wrote.  Far too often I see a person dismissed simply because they vocally align themselves with a specific trend of thought.  The recently televised Delaware senate candidacy debate between the so-called Tea Party (Republican) candidate, Christine O'Donnell, and the Democratic nominee, Christopher Coons.  All it took for O'Donnell to smirk and shake her head was for Coons to open his mouth.  What he was going to say was already wrong before he even said it.  But this is an aside.  The point is that this "paranoid style" still exists and is not a solely American affair, if it ever was.  The next article I discuss speaks to this.

In the current (October 2010) issue of Commentary Magazine the article The Other Existential Threat by Daniel Gordis gets the front cover treatment.  I have never read Commentary before but it was the bullhorn-like layout of the cover that prompted me to read part of this issue.  The essence of the article is that if Iran develops nuclear weapons the entire existence of Israel is undermined, not by Iran using the bomb but by the mere possession of it.  The sovereignty of Israel is eliminated because its existence no longer depends on choices made within the country but on forces acting on it from without, specifically by their enemies and the choices they may make.

Gordis's writing is impassioned.  It is a statement of national pride, of identity, and the fear of undermined effort.  However, on a reasonable level the article breaks down and it is this disconnect between the passion and sober thought that make it fall into the paranoid style.  In my criticisms keep in mind that I firmly believe that Iran with a nuclear weapon is a terrible thing, but I think any new country with such a weapon regardless of their political or cultural affinity to my home territory is a terrible thing.  Would a nuclear Iran truly mean the End of Times for Israel?

Gordis creates a contradiction when he writes that Iran with a bomb "would instantly restore Jews to the status quo ante before Jewish sovereignty," yet speaks with pride about the Six-Day War that solidified the fledgling nation.  He seems to imply that one real conflict made the nation stronger but another potential one would utterly destroy it.  He writes with pride of the "Israeli national affect" as an expression of the collective relief that Jews no longer live and die at the whims of others, yet later says that the willingness to serve would "lose all meaning" if Iran had this new threat.  Yes, he is correct when he states that in a nuclear assault the security of knowing that they could beat conventional land forces is meaningless, but he almost dismisses Israel's nuclear capacity.  He writes of second strike capabilities alone and ignores the deterrent effects of their own weapon possession.  The greatest inconsistency is perhaps the most impassioned.  After an article focusing on Israeli sovereignty in all its forms he closes the piece by asking the Obama administration to understand the need of the Jewish people to avoid a second act of mass murder in a single century, and calls upon "this president to do what must be done" to support them, with the implication being that they participate in a removal of Iran's burgeoning nuclear capacity.

Hofstadter's Paranoid Style remains active in the world today but it has gained new importance as the means of stamping an explanation point on a belief become stronger.  Part of my admiration of the Jewish people is due to their overcoming overwhelming adversity, not only in this century but over several millennium.  I feel that this adversity has has been a contributing factor in developing the lasting intellectual contributions from individuals of the Jewish faith.  My hope that Gordis's view is not the dominant one in his country and that the long tradition of reason will prevail in this case as well.

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