Monday, February 11, 2013

Paranoid State of the Union

The President will promise progress, GOP and Tea Party rebuttals will predict doom, but a provocative report on America’s state of mind is already available online in sniper Christopher Dorner’s manifesto, a mélange of over-the-top paranoia gripping California with fear and hero-worship, a rogue society-trained killer out of the Bourne movies meets Charlie Sheen in media land.

Exactly 50 years ago, on the eve of JFK's assassination, historian Richard Hofstadter delivered a lecture that morphed into a classic book, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” predicting the escalation of madness in which we live today, in Washington, Hollywood and elsewhere.

The prototypical figure, he wrote, “traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization... he does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.”

As the President tries to marshal the forces of reason on gun control and other issues, a paranoid opposition is still obsessed with Benghazi and blocking his cabinet nominees. Do their rhetorical rants make any more sense than those of Dorner, who kills innocents to satisfy his grievances against those remotely related to his imagined oppressors?

“Since the enemy,” Hofstadter wrote, “is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.”

This all-or-nothing state of mind dominates the culture beyond politics and crime. Netflix comes along this week with its first self-made series, a brain-dead version of “The West Wing” in which everyone in Washington is evil, outdoing even “Homeland” in its award-winning sourness about the mentality of those who govern America.

Whatever politicians tell us about the state of the union, beyond and beneath the speeches is a nation wallowing in paranoia and resisting reason in favor of rising madness.

Dorner may be captured or killed, but his spirit will live on.

No comments: