CBS News’ Dick Meyer thinks historian Richard Hofstadter was prescient when he wrote an essay in 1963 called The Paranoid Style in American Politics:
Although Hofstadter had studied Joseph McCarthy’s use of television and radio, he could not have foreseen how the mass media would fertilize the paranoid style — as both a tool and an object of paranoia. The Internet in particular offers fellow travelers a powerful tool: instant — if virtual — community, instant access to great libraries and databases for the precise, exhaustive research that almost always accompanies the paranoid thesis and an instant megaphone made of Web sites, blogs and e-mail. And in politics, consultants and media specialists use the techniques of modern marketing to merchandise paranoid politics.
The media has become of the great Rorschach’s of the paranoid style, left and right. Each side is morally convinced the other side controls the media, which is then hopelessly biased. The media at the beginning of the 21st century is the fluoride of the 1950s — the great, invisible brainwasher.
What Hofstadter did foresee, what he saw in history, were the conditions that could incite great spasms of the paranoid. “Catastrophe or the fear of catastrophe,” he wrote, “is the most likely to elicit the syndrome of paranoid rhetoric.” In these times, 9/11 may be that catastrophe.
In the shadow of catastrophe, past and future, there will be increased “ethnic and religious conflicts” (which Hofstadter felt were much more important in America than class conflicts). The “paranoid tendency is aroused” when there comes a clash of interests that are “totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political process of bargain and compromise.” These interests are, essentially, a way of life, a system of values. In the paranoid climate, what people fear is that The Enemy wants to take away your way of life.
Today we call that culture war. Or Red America vs. Blue America.
Meyers raises a lot of interesting points. The right has 9/11 and needs to be careful in managing that threat in such a way that it does not risk becoming a boy who cried wolf. The Left’s cudgel of the day seems to be a creeping environmentalism that is itching to find something it can pin it’s hopes on, something that will galvanize it and propel in to the front of the mind of people who would not normally give earth day a second look. If they succeed it will not be on Katrina, although they’re learning from that one.
The internet certainly has the potential for linking people who share fantasies about how the world is and how it ought to be. It’s a problem, however, if we only read and and listen to those who already share most of our views. Then it becomes easier to demonize others and to suggest that they are in it against you. In reading on the web and conversing with people via this blog I think I’ve actually increased my appreciation of the simple humanity of the people who p*** me off. I’m not really an angry or confrontational sort, and when anger does raise its head and then quickly leave, what I’m left with mostly is a sense of pity. Pity for them that they don’t have all the facts, or that they don’t know some theory that I’m fond of, and also pity for my own dependence on such thin reeds.