September 01, 2009

Paranoia's pedigree

Political paranoia 1800s style: an anti-Catholic cartoon from 1876.

El Cabrero is thinking about political paranoia this week. I'm inspired both by the current political climate and by a classic essay on the topic by historian Richard Hofstadter titled "The Paranoid Style in American Politics."

For what it's worth, this isn't anything new.

In the 1990s, we saw the paranoid style in the form of militia-related movements aimed at countering a United Nations takeover of American. Before that, there were groups like the John Birch Society, which imagined a communist conspiracy that included such noted Soviet agents as Republican President Dwight Eisenhower. Then there was Senator Joseph McCarthy, who accused the U.S. Army of being a hotbed of subversion.

One can find the paranoid style recurring from the early days of the republic, when pamphlets appeared in the late 1700s regarding the evil conspiracies of the Freemasons and the dreaded Bavarian Illuminati, a group that some people still think is really pulling the strings.

In the 1800s, some were alarmed by an alleged conspiracy involving a traditional enemy of the Masons, i.e. Roman Catholicism, especially the dreaded Jesuits. One such writer claimed that “Jesuits are prowling about all parts of the United States in every possible disguise, expressly to ascertain the advantageous situations and modes to disseminate Popery.”

(In a great one liner, Hofstadter called anti-Catholicism "the pornography of the Puritan.")

In 1855, a Texas newspaper reported that “…It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions. We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber, and that our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism.…”

Substitute a few words and this could have been shouted out at a health care town hall meeting this summer.

More to come...

A PERSONAL NOTE. I attended a health care town hall meeting in Huntington, WV yesterday led by Congressman Nick Rahall. The moon was howled at. And, while the howlers were in the minority, they were probably loudest and packed the microphone line. It reminded me both of Hofstadter's essay and of Yeats' line about the best lacking all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

WHILE WE'RE AT IT, here's more on health care paranoia. And here's an op-ed by a friend of mine on the problems of private health insurance and a news item on the politics of reform in WV.

CIVIL RIGHTS. The Obama administration is planning a stronger approach to civil rights enforcement.

THIS COULD EXPLAIN A LOT. El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia is the most medicated state in the US.

THIS IS NOT NECESSARILY RELATED, but a crocodile (or was it an alligator?) was found in a WV creek.


No comments: