Richard Hofstadter began his 1964 essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, “American politics have often been an arena for angry minds.” Hofstadter erred in attributing this to Barry Goldwater, missing as most people did the nascent strain of American conservatism in Goldwater’s campaign. But he did acknowledge that “the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” was not limited to one side of the political spectrum.
Hofstadter traced the Paranoid Style back through Joe McCarthy, the populists of the late 1800s, and the anti-Masonic and Jesuit movements. Fear that some other group of others is out to get us is timeless and widespread.
I’m not sure the Paranoid Style is any stronger today than it has been in New Hampshire politics, but with many of the right and left firmly in its grip, now is as good as time as any to debunk some of the paranoid populist theories.
Last year, a group of Republican Representatives pushed a bill to prevent local schools from subjugating themselves to “the governance of a foreign body or organization.” The threat to that sovereignty allegedly came from Bedford High School’s adoption of the International Baccalaureate Program. A group of diplomats founded IB in 1968 as a common curriculum for their children. It’s similar to the Advanced Placement Program in its level of academic rigor, but places more focus on writing, including a 4,000 word independently researched essay.
Critics don’t like that the IB was founded mostly by European socialists, that it has ties to the U.N, or that the IB Organization signed onto the Earth Charter, which could generously be described as a loose collection of leftist do-gooder gobbledygook.
I come neither to praise IB nor to bury it, though I do think our educational system would benefit from both academic rigor and a focus on writing and research. But I don’t live there and Bedford’s curriculum should be up to Bedford voters. Adopting IB would not subject Bedford students to international governance or brainwash them in socialist dogma. So why do otherwise reasonably people fear just such a problem?
Michael Shermer has written much over the years for Scientific American on why conspiracy theories are so attractive, and so hard to refute. Our brains are wired to see patterns in the noise. The suspicious hunter-gatherer survives whether that bump in the river is a log or a crocodile. His optimistic counterpart lives to pass on his genes less often. The wary and militant village wipes out the naïve and trusting one. For most of human history it made sense to connect the dots, even when the dots were random.
The John Birch Society is holding a series of seminars around New Hampshire in opposition to Agenda 21. The Birchers have as much credibility as 9/11 Truthers and Donald Trump and deserve a similar place in our national dialogue. But their opposition doesn’t automatically make something a good idea. Agenda 21 is a non-binding sustainable development plan backed the United Nations, based on the same flawed premises and lousy data that made Al Gore rich. It’s a big bag of bad ideas. But it is not a U.N. conspiracy to take over local zoning boards.
Glenn Back is trying to sell books on that idea, and he’s very good at selling books. He’s tapping into one of the powerful principles Shermer outlines, confirmation bias. We tend to believe the worst about people we don’t like. So instead of opposing Agenda 21 on its merits, Beck and the Birchers puff it up to a full-blown conspiracy.
The United Nations would have trouble organizing a two-car parade, much less a systematic takeover of U.S. property rights. Most elaborate conspiracies theories fall because the institutions at the heart of the conspiracy aren’t nearly competent enough to pull off such plans in perfect secrecy.
That’s why my favorite documentary of the last decade was “Not Evil, Just Wrong”, Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer’s brilliant rebuttal to “The Inconvenient Truth”. It refuted the bad science fueling global warming hysteria without resorting to conspiracy or demagoguery. As much as I disagree with the left’s desire to grow government in response to every problem, I don’t believe they are out to destroy America. They’re just wrong.
Political debates need to be based on ideas, even if you’re opposing someone else’s. It’s not enough to argue They are out to get us, no matter who They are today. Tell me why they’re wrong.
Even as Hofstadter was trying to discredit Goldwater, he admitted that the Paranoid Style flourished independent of ideology. Next week, we’ll examine the raving lunacy that unites much of the modern left; a paranoid obsession with the Koch Brothers and evil corporations.