“Paranoid about paranoia”

When New York Times editorial writer, Ross Douthat entitled a column “Paranoid about paranoia in America” , I recognized myself almost immediately. That’s me. All those right-wing paranoid world-beaters, sure that Obama was born a Muslim in Kenya and is just waiting to impose Shariah law on the United States, all those crazies who swear that the health care bill sponsors death panels and that global warming is a conspiracy to advance world government — all of them have made me terribly paranoid. My fear for the future of truth begins there, in an overwhelming paranoia. 

Since the article was about me, I read it immediately. The author, however, begins with a worry other than my own: are some mentally troubled persons persuaded to violence by these kinds of stories? He cites James Lee, who invaded the Discovery Channel with explosives strapped to his body and took three hostages at gunpoint, then waited for his demands to be met. 

The extremes at both left and right have posited paranoid ideas, he points out. For example, a third of Democrats as recently as 2007 believed that the Bush White House knew that 9/11 was to happen. 25 percent of African-Americans believed, not that many years ago, that AIDS was created in a government lab. 

Of course, Douthat is correct. My political views make me paranoid about the paranoia of the right, and not the left. But both left and right tell outrageous lies. 

Douthat cites libertarian writer, Julian Sanchez’s suggestion that all these untruths should be taken “with a substantial grain of salt.” 

For all but the hardest core conspiracy theorizers, they may express what Sanchez calls “symbolic beliefs.” These are “propositions you profess publicly” but would never follow through on, because they’re adopted as a kind of political and cultural statement rather than out of deep conviction. 

….Tuning in to Glenn Beck of joining your local Tea Party seems like a woefully insufficient response to the possibility that Obama is a Manchurian candidate, groomed from birth to undermine democracy and impose Shariah law. But if we understand those paranoias to be symbolic beliefs, rather than real convictions — an attention grabbing way of saying, “I consider Obama phony, dishonest and un-American” — then conservative behavior makes a lot more sense. 

As luck would have it, Douthat’s point was given greater weight when that same evening a high school student of our acquaintance asked for help on a homework assignment about the meaning of certain common symbols used by cartoonists in U.S. history. We weren’t much help, but pouring through a book chock-a-block full of past political cartoons, I realized all over again how many lies have been told and believed. 

William Jennings Bryan was nominated for the presidency by the Democrats in 1896. The nomination scared the conservatives of the time. They screamed that he was a traitor, a faker, a “wretched, rattle-pated boy… posing in vapid vanity and mouthing resounding rottenness… apt… at lies and forgeries and blasphemies.” A new York City clergyman charged from his pulpit that Bryan was “a mouthing, slobbering demagogue whose patriotism is all in his jawbone.” The editor of Harper’s Weekly wrote that the election was a duel to the death between “the dreams and fantasies of Karl Marx” and the “true Americanism” of the Republican party. 

In his acceptance speech, Bryan, a populist who believed in the silver standard, used a religious image and was not to be forgiven for it by his enemies. "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold," he said.

 

Maybe all we’re talking about is “symbolic beliefs,” maybe that’s all it’s ever been and truth isn’t being threatened? These particular lies aren’t that important. I find Douthat’s argument convincing, but at the same time I wonder if it isn’t too easy and too vague. Have I been cured of my paranoia — or not? 

I wonder what cartoonists, who are, after all, artists of another stripe, would say — that they’re lampooning politicians, that there is truth in every drawing they produce? I think I’ll look at some old political cartoonists for one of my next posts. 

 

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