Discourse with the doomedWritten by Don Burnard | | email@example.com
I’ve been discussing the level of discourse on various topics of great importance in my past few columns and have seen the bristling of many readers who, for various reasons, seem to believe that there is some vast left wing socialist conspiracy in play with virtually everything that this administration is trying to accomplish.
This is nothing new. A friend of mine in Buffalo, N.Y. who follows my scribbling sent me an article from 1964 that, with some name changes, could be as relevant today. I wish I could reproduce the entire article here, but I have a limited amount of space.
In the article, the author, Richard Hofstadter, a Dewitt Clinton professor of American History at Columbia University, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book “Anti-Intellectualism in America,” cited similar behavior dating from 1797 and throughout our political history to 1964. The targets of the animosities changed with the times, but the basic reactions of the dissenters were remarkably consistent. The article, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” was published in the November 1964 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
He states, “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years, we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right wingers, who have demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.
“But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and is not necessarily right wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind … The idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.
“Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. But nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content … The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.”
After offering examples throughout our history (Joseph McCarthy, e.g.), Hofstadter ends with this statement: “We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted by not only the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”
This article was written 45 years ago, but is every bit as relevant today. It could help to explain the thought processes of many of the right wing spokespeople who profess that the world is ending as we know it. This Chicken Little outlook on life is nothing new; we’ve been here before, and undoubtedly, will be again in the future. There will always be Joe McCarthys and Glenn Becks to peddle fear and lies to a gullible public.
The important thing is to not let them drown out the voices of reason who want to actually try to do something to try to make our lives better. Coming up with all the old name calling for anything that was around when FDR was in a similar position does not add to the debate. Recycling slogans from the past century isn’t going to get us anywhere.
We’re going to have to get down to business and solve our problems the good old-fashioned American way, with the hard work and ingenuity we’ve used since this country was founded. We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again. Is it going to be easy? Uh-uh. Is it going to be painless? No way. Can it be done? Hell, yeah. This is the land of opportunity and we have an opportunity to come out of this better than ever before, but slogans aren’t going to do it.
We need to ignore the Chicken Littles and get down to business. Because whether it’s health care, global warming, the insane wars were in, or the economy, we’re running out of time. All those old sayings we all heard growing up seem truer today than in my youth: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Hmm.
E-mail columnist Don Burnard at firstname.lastname@example.org.