The defects of Hofstadter’s paranoid style
From 1950 to 1954 the Cold War exacerbated resulting in persecution of alleged communists and socialists in the US. This period is referenced as McCarthyism. Senator McCarthy headed the infamous hearings conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which compiled an index of one million suspects. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) under Director J. Edgar Hoover, who was one of the most fervent anti-communists, led the investigations.
The number imprisoned was in the hundreds, and some ten or twelve thousand lost their jobs. In the film industry, over 300 actors, authors and directors were denied work in the U.S. through the unofficial Hollywood blacklist. Charlie Chaplin was one of them. Blacklists were at work throughout the entertainment industry, in universities and schools at all levels, in the legal profession, and in many other fields.
“Guilt by association was the watchword, as loyalty oaths, blacklists, registration requirements, and congressional inquiries sought to identify and penalize those who were sympathetic to or associated with the Communist Party, irrespective of their involvement in any otherwise illegal activity.” (David Cole, 2002, p. 997)
When in 1964, the year after JFK’s assassination, the American historian Richard J. Hofstadter published his article about conspiracy theories ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ in Harper’s Magazine this was for a great deal a reaction to the excesses of the McCarthyite anticommunist witch-hunts of the 1950s. (Peter Knight, 2003, p. 19)
After explaining why he uses a clinical, psychiatric term “paranoid” to describe a political personality and practice Hofstadter quotes a speech of McCarthy in June 1951 as an example. But then he leaps back in history to 1885, 1855 and 1778 to explain the paranoid style:
“These quotations give the keynote of the style. In the history of the United States one find it, for example, in the anti-Masonic movement, the nativist and anti-Catholic movement, in certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, in many alarmists about the Mormons, in some Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers, in the exposure of a munitions makers’ conspiracy of World War I, in the popular left-wing press, in the contemporary American right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today, among White Citizens’ Councils and Black Muslims.”
Ballinger summarizes ‘the paranoid style’ in six characteristics:
- The conspiracy has a universal, historical scope.
- The paranoid spokesman has an apocalyptic worldview.
- The theory has a tone of urgency and activism.
- There is an emphasis on the omnipotence of the conspiratorial agents.
- There is a pedantic emphasis on ‘evidence’.
- There is a seemingly ‘logical’ premise that allows for excessive interpretations.
(Ballinger, 2011, p. 11-13)
Compared with Bale’s typing (see my first article), I miss a crucial important aspect. Conspiracy theorists perceive the conspiratorial group as both monolithic and unerring in the pursuit of its goals. This group is directed from a single conspiratorial centre, acting as a sort of general staff, which plans and coordinates all of its activities down to the last detail. (Bale, 2007, p 51-53)
Though Hofstadter’s essay is regarded as a seminal text for subsequent scholarship in the subject of conspiracy theory (Ballinger, 2011, p. 11) it also partly denies the social and political context of its emergence. Conspiracism gains a mass following in times of social, cultural, economic, or political stress. So it is remarkable that he starts the extended version of his essay in 1966 by saying:
“Although American political life has rarely been touched by the most acute varieties of class conflict, it has served again and again as an arena of uncommonly angry minds.” (Hofstadter, 1966, p. 3)
Why not leaping from McCarthyism, also known as the second “red scare”, to the first “red scare” from 1919 to 1921 developing in a period of harsh class conflict? The first Red Scare began following the Bolshevik Russian Revolution of 1917 as anarchist and left-wing social agitation aggravated national, social, and political tensions.
Moreover, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) backed several labour strikes in 1916 and 1917, these were portrayed by the press as radical threats to American society, inspired by left-wing, foreign agents provocateur. Thus, newspapers stigmatized legitimate labour strikes as “crimes against society”, “conspiracies against the government”, and “Plots to establish Communism”.
On May 1, 1919, a parade in Cleveland, Ohio, protesting the imprisonment of Eugene Debs, one of the founding members of the IWW, erupted into the violent May Day Riots. The “Red Scare” was “a nation-wide anti-radical hysteria provoked by a mounting fear and anxiety that a Bolshevik revolution in America was imminent. Newspapers exacerbated those political fears into xenophobia.
In April 1919, authorities discovered a real plot for mailing 36 bombs to prominent members of the U.S. political and economic establishment. On June 2, 1919, in eight cities, eight bombs simultaneously exploded. One target was the Washington, D.C., house of U.S. Attorney General Palmer.
“In response, the federal government began a series of dragnet raids directed at deporting radical aliens, under the guidance of the Justice Departments alien radical division, headed by a young J. Edgar Hoover.177 The government relied heavily on confessions, extracted without lawyers present, to provide a factual basis for the deportations. (…)
Prisoners were beaten, interrogated incommunicado, and detained for months.
The more familiar McCarthy era of the 1940s and 1950s essentially replicated the abuses of this first red scare…”(David Cole, 2002, p. 996)
There seems to be an empty space in Hofstadter’s historical line up. Though his essay merits to be mentioned not at least for delineating conspiracy theories for the first time in an academic text, its weakness is that it shifts political phenomena to pathological phenomena.
Chip Berlet points to their difference:
“But there is a vital difference between the paranoid spokesman in politics and the clinical paranoiac: although they both tend to be overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression, the clinical paranoid sees the hostile and conspiratorial world in which he feels himself to be living as directed specifically against him; whereas the spokesman of the paranoid style finds it directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others” (Chip Berlet, 2009, p. 14)
The major problem with the pathological perspective is that it reinforces a reductionist view of conspiracy theories as forms of political paranoia, a perspective which generally fails to expose its social origin and context. It is also weak in explaining and countering the conspiracist agenda. Ballinger notes:
“Such arguments have the ironic effect of making pathological scholars appear as apocalyptic and paranoid as those of the conspiracy theorists they are warning against.” (Ballinger, 211, p. 26)
Of course when leaving such an empty space, sooner or later it is filled. For example, one interpretation of the antisocialist “red scares” of 1919–1920 by left-leaning historians is that they were not so much a spontaneous outburst of popular paranoia about an imagined threat to U.S. sovereignty as a convenient excuse that was seized upon by the authorities to bring in anti-labour legislation that would have otherwise been deemed too repressive. (Peter Knight, 2003, p.20)
Though the statement might bare some truth, generalizing this theory of the “moral panic” states that sometimes people at the very centre of power might create (or perhaps just cynically promote) a popular outburst of demonology in order to create an epidemic mass hysteria. This kind of discourse although might be very useful in the hands of conspiracy theorist themselves.
Some have adapted them in their allegations that events such as the Oklahoma City bombing and even the attacks of September 11 were in fact carried out by agents of the government in order to soften up the public into accepting antiterrorist measures that these rightwing groups see as curbing individual liberty. (Peter Knight, 2003, p. 21)
After all, if Hofstadter had used another word for ‘paranoid style’ for instance ‘demagogic populism’, ‘apocalyptic demagoguery’, ‘deceptive demonisation’, or something alike, his essay gives a fairly good description of right-wing politics at the time. He summarizes right-wing policies:
“The basic elements of contemporary right-wing thought can be reduced to three: First, there has been the now-familiar sustained conspiracy, running over more than a generation, and reaching its climax in Roosevelt’s New Deal, to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism or communism. A great many right-wingers would agree with Frank Chodorov, the author of The Income Tax: The Root of All Evil, that this campaign began with the passage of the income-tax amendment to the Constitution in 1913.
The second contention is that top government officialdom has been so infiltrated by Communists that American policy, at least since the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, has been dominated by men who were shrewdly and consistently selling out American national interests.
Finally, the country is infused with a network of Communist agents, just as in the old days it was infiltrated by Jesuit agents, so that the whole apparatus of education, religion, the press, and the mass media is engaged in a common effort to paralyze the resistance of loyal Americans.” (Hofstadter, 1996, p. 25-26)
This could as well be a description of tea-party discourse today. Of course there are no Communist agents any longer, so they are called socialists nowadays. By using a pathological term, the deceptive style of right-wing policy is marginalized while it is not at all exceptional in American politics.
In the actual political combat, the spreading of rumours is far more a common practice then in Europe. Recent examples are conspiracy theories about the citizenship of Barack Obama and the ‘death panels’ of ‘Obamacare’.
The term was first used in August 2009 by former Republican Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin when she charged that the proposed legislation would create a “death panel” of bureaucrats who would decide whether Americans were worthy of medical care. Palin’s claim, however, was debunked, and it has been referred to as the “death panel” myth.
These rumours started with statements made by former New York Lieutenant Governor Betsy McCaughey, but quickly spread to the conservative media, Fox News and so. A number of prominent Republican politicians added to the chorus, including Sarah Palin and Senator Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Finance Committee. (Brendan Nyhan, 2010, p. 8-11)
Anyway, a poll showed that after it spread, about 85% of Americans were familiar with the charge and of those who were familiar with it; about 30% thought it was true, with another 20 percent unsure of the veracity of the statement.
This kind of rumours is spread by active politicians in the US. Conspiracy theorists deceptions might be indeed a little bit more marginal, but at the bottom line, their deceptive content is not different from conspiracy theories. Replacing the word ‘paranoid’ with a political term, Hofstadter’s essay would become only more significant.
Deception of Bush government was a catalyst in growing distrust about 9/11
Compared to other much discussed recent events such as the death of Princess Diana, conspiracy theories about 9/11 emerged quite slowly within the United States. Outside the US the suggestion for a government conspiracy came up much sooner. Probably the first researchers to push the idea that 9/11 was an “inside job” were Jared Israel and Illarion Bykov on “The Emperor’s New Clothes” website (aimed mainly at challenging mainstream media reports on Yugoslavia), http://www.tenc.net. In 2002 in Canada Michel Chossudovsky published his book ‘War on Terrorism’ where he supposedly uncovers a military-intelligence ploy behind the September 11 attacks, and the cover-up and complicity of key members of the Bush Administration.
By 2004 conspiracy theories had begun to gain ground in the US as existing research became much more widely publicized, with the mainstream media finally taking note of the increasing popularity of the theories in a number of articles published around the fifth anniversary of the attacks.
North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is a joint organization of Canada and the United States that provides aerospace warning, air sovereignty, and defence for the two countries. Though the Cold War ended in 1989, this organisation was still organised to intercept air strikes coming from outside, not from inside. So it failed to notice and intercept the plains flying into the WTC towers and the Pentagon.
But at first NORAD claimed that fighters were notified that Flight 77 was hijacked, and that the fighters were scrambled toward Washington in what should have been enough time to intercept the third plane before it struck the Pentagon. Eventually, using subpoena power, the 9/11 Commission was able to piece together the actual timeline of events that day, which demonstrated that contrary to previous claims, the military had not been aware of any of the hijackings before it was much too late. They lied about it.
The seed of one key 9/11 conspiracy theory, “Letting it Happen on Purpose”, was based on a government-propagated falsehood. Further government deception around the ‘war on terror’ would greatly contribute to their popularity. In May 2002, with Bush’s approval rating still well over 70 percent, fewer than one in 10 Americans in a CBS News poll said that the Bush administration was lying about what it knew regarding possible terror attacks prior to 9/11.
By April 2004, 16 percent of respondents in a CBS Newspoll said that the Bush administration was “mostly lying” about what it knew about possible terrorist attacks against the United States prior to 9/11, while 56 percent said it was telling the truth but hiding something and 24 percent said it was telling the entire truth. By the five-year anniversary of the attacks, one in three Americans would tell pollsters that it was likely that the government either had a hand in the attacks of 9/11 or allowed them to happen in order to go to war in the Middle East.
Bush lying over ‘mass destruction weapons’ in Iraq created the necessary wave of distrust for conspiracy theories to emerge. Fuelled in part by anger over the deceptions of the war, the lack of accountability or disclosure on the part of the Bush administration with respect to the 9/11 Commission, and civil liberties abuses in the aftermath of the attacks, the popularity of conspiracy theories was steadily growing in 2003 and 2004.
See statistics about the trust in Government
Then, in the summer of 2004, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 was released, earning more than $100 million to become the top-grossing documentary of all time. While Fahrenheit 9/11 does not allege any sort of Bush-led conspiracy concerning 9/11, the film does depict a government hell-bent on covering up how much it knew prior to 9/11 and using the attacks as a false pretext for a war with Iraq.
A grain of deception drowned in general distrust to the government has lead to the foundational mythology of the 9/11 conspiracy movement: In order to suppress civil liberties and benefit their allies in the oil and gas industry, hawkish neoconservatives in the Bush administration – along with their partners in the CIA and FBI, of course – orchestrated a massive terror attack that killed 2,977 innocent civilians and mobilized the American populace behind otherwise unsupportable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The controlled demolition theory remains the one great unifying dogma of 9/11 “truthers,” as they call themselves, the “making it happen on purpose” theory.
The paranoid style revisited
When comparing the ideology behind the ‘official Bush’ version and the ‘unofficial’ version of the conspiracy theorist one notices that their style quite resembles.
The American Truth Movement poses a radical political challenge to the official version. They express an embittered scepticism about the cynical corruptness of American leaders, nevertheless they often maintain an abiding faith in American innocence and de fundamental soundness of the system of government. They cherish American exceptionalism. The Truth movement has been keen to portray themselves as the only real patriots remaining, calling up ideas of dissent as a properly American tradition.
“It is therefore fitting that the Truthers are keen to draw attention to the attacks of September 11, 2001 as a false-flag conspiracy that parallels Pearl Harbor, because it leads implicitly to the same conclusion that even if the initial provocation for the war was unjust (in the conspiracy version of Pearl Harbor), then the overall thrust of the “war on terrorism” is still justified. The Bush administration has likewise been only too keen to compare 9/11 with Pearl Harbor (albeit with a very different reading of that event) in an attempt to evoke comparisons with a war still widely perceived as just.” (Peter Knight, 2007, p. 10)
The patriotism of the Thruters is shown clearly on the website called ‘Patriots Question 9/11’. The site is given as an important source at the largest (central) conspiracy site wearerechange.org. But the patriotic view is also visible on other traditional conspiracy websites and is often quoted in the comments. I list up some articles about patriotism here: Alex Jones’ infowars.com, rense.com, propagandamatrix.com, rawstory.com, etc.
Bush, on the other hand insists that any view that doesn’t take a black-and-white view of blame is beyond discussion. Bush’s world is divided up into the totally innocent and the irremediably guilty, with no shades of grey in between. “You’re either with us, or against us”, this the kind of false dilemmas also posed by conspiracy theorists. Peter Knight states:
“It is even arguable that the official rhetorical construction of al Qaeda as a vast, highly organized conspiracy, as opposed to a loose decentred network, is not merely the result of a vague ideological disposition towards understanding causality and responsibility in terms of pure intentional agency but a concerted effort to construct an image of the enemy as a centralized conspiracy that would more easily dovetail with political and military strategy.” (Peter Knight, 2007, p. 13)
On September 11, Bush stated that “Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature”; in subsequent texts, he frequently refers to terrorists as “the evil ones,” and “evildoers.”
The interpretation of the September 11 attacks as the work of an enemy that is the personification of evil is a construction that arises out of and gels with a particular ideological outlook that was already well established.
“However, it turned out that this idea of a vast, conspiratorial terror network was the product of a CIA disinformation campaign that then was taken for reality by a journalist and then Reagan.” (Peter Knight, 2007, p. 14)
The Bush administration quickly started to promote the idea of a ‘decisive intervention’ as the appropriate response to the attacks. In his State of the Union Address on January 29, 2002, Bush sought to connect Al Qaeda with a clear bellicose and illusionary construct, the Axis of evil, describing governments that he accused of helping terrorism and seeking weapons of mass destruction. Bush labeled Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the axis of evil. Bush stated:
“States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred.” (quoted in Richard Jackson, 2005, p. 159)
Some of the key phrases, demonizing the terrorists were repeated over and over again. The attack on WTC was “an act of war”, a “threat to civilization,” a “threat to the very essence of what you do,” a “threat to our way of life,”and a threat to “the peace of the world”, “Al Qaeda is to terrorism what the mafia is to crime”, “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”, “just like Pearl Harbor”, calling the terrorists “the new barbarians”. The attacks of “9–11,” as administration officials constructed them, drew a line between the “the civil and the savage,” between civilized people and the terrorists that “live on the hunted margins of mankind,” (all documented in Richard Jackson, 2005)
John David Ashcroft who served as United States Attorney General, from 2001 until 2005, appointed by Bush calls them terrorist aliens, they are not human:
“Today I’m announcing several steps that we’re taking to enhance our ability to protect the United States from the threat of terrorist aliens. [ . . . ] The Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force that Mr. McCraw will lead will ensure that federal agencies coordinate their efforts to bar from the United States all aliens who meet any of the following criteria: aliens who are representatives, members or supporters of terrorist organizations; aliens who are suspected of engaging in terrorist activity; or aliens who provide material support to terrorist activity.” (quoted in Richard Jackson, 2005, p. 154)
As to Bush the September 11 attacks were not only an act wanting kill “all Americans”, it was also directed against the whole world. In his speech to the CEO Summit in Shanghai, emboldened by his proximity to the Great Wall of China (built to keep barbarians at bay), Bush states:
“The stakes of this fight for all nations are high—our lives, our way of life, and our economic future. By attacking two great economic symbols, the terrorists tried to shatter confidence in the world economic system. [ . . . ] Terrorists want to turn the openness of the global economy against itself. We must not let them.” (quoted in Richard Jackson, 2005, p. 152)
Instead of reassuring the nation that the attacks were an exceptional and a unique event in a long line of terrorist attacks against America (that have thus far failed to overthrow freedom), the Bush administration chose instead to construct them as the start of a whole new age of terror—the start of a deadly new form of violence directed at Americans, civilized people all over the world, freedom, and democracy. This discourse justifying Bush’s war on terror is enacting a major change in human history:
“The mainstream discourse used to explain 9/11 and justify the need for a “war on terror” is marked out by a tendency towards apocalypticism and a heated exaggeration; a sense of urgent crisis and imminent threat to a specifically American way of life from an all-pervasive hidden enemy; the portrayal of America as an exceptional victim; the reassertion of traditional American values and a call to national unity in response; a Manichean insistence on dividing the world into Them and Us; the demand that America leads an epic to-the-death fight against the plotters; the casting of all blame onto the enemy; and the portrayal of the enemy as completely alien, inhuman, all powerful and, above all, evil.” (Peter Knight, 2007, p. 15)
The above list coincides almost point for point with Richard Hofstadter’s classical description of the rhetorical features of the paranoid style in American politics. Hofstadter argued that American politics has been beset by waves of paranoid fears, but these were enacted far from the centre of power. This is obviously not the case with 9/11 and the ‘war on terror’. The discourse of countersubsersive demonology is instead often promoted to serve the all too real vested interests of those in positions of power.
“According to this counter argument, popular fears about terrorism have their origin not in the delusional and idiosyncratic paranoid psychology of the masses as Hofstadter argues, but in the deliberate rhetorical constructions promoted by the élite that serve their existing vested political and economic interests.” (Peter Knight, 2007, p. 16)
Some authors that granted a critical account to conspiratorial narratives (Ballinger, 2011, p. 17) about 9/11 because they question officialdom, do not seem to grab the underlying ideologies. See for instance Jack Z. Bratich’s Conspiracy panics, Clare Birchall’s Knowledge Goes Pop and John Fiske’s Media matters : everyday culture and political change. The conspiratorial versions of 9/11 in the US are merely proxies of the official version, since they share many of the same ideological underpinnings about causality, blame and American exceptionalism that prop up the orthodox account. In a bizarre way conspiracy theories about 9/11 are supportive to the power system instead of threatening it. Their subversive potential is a myth.
Hofstadters ‘paranoid style’ being applicable on Bush and Cheney’s reactions as well doesn’t suffice any longer in typing conspiracy theories. The definition given by Jeffrey Bale, see our first article, was far more accurate.
Whether conspiracist claims are circulated by angry populists or anxious government officials, the dynamics generated by conspiracy theories are toxic to democracy.
(1) Ironically, as dissident conspiracy theorists succeed in gaining a mass base for their claims, they create a public audience trained in accepting conspiracism as an analytical model. This audience is more easily swayed by government countersubversive campaigns that insist political repression targeting dissidents is justified to secure public safety. Conspiracists unwittingly lay the foundation for government repression.
(2) Even when conspiracist theories do not center on Jews, homosexuals, people of color, immigrants or other scapegoated groups, they still create an environment where racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice, bigotry, and oppression can flourish.
(3) Conspiracism also serves to distract society and its would-be agents of change away from ongoing, structural causes of social and economic injustices. We do not need conspiracism to challenge social injustice. With conspiracism, progressive analysis of race, class, and gender are almost always shoved aside. Political and economic policies are framed as controlled by a handful of powerful and wealthy secret elites manipulating elections, foreign and domestic policy, and the media.
(Chip Berlet, 2009, p. 47-48)
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