Sunday, November 25, 2007

9/11 and Other American Plots

When fire breaks out in a mental hospital, the paranoids are the first to respond--they always expect someone to do terrible things.

That bit of apocryphal folklore comes to mind with news today that almost two-thirds of Americans think federal officials knew in advance of 9/11 but chose to ignore the warnings.

A similar survey last year showed one out of three thinks our government assisted in the attacks or took no action to stop them so the US could go to war in the Middle East.

These conspiracy beliefs come, not from residents of a mental hospital, but a study of Americans normal enough to answer their own phones.

In 1964, historian Richard Hofstadter wrote "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," a book widely read because its thesis was then so new and startling: that a "sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy" was spreading from the lunatic fringes into the mainstream of our national life.

The political paranoid, he wrote, "does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician...Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated."

From then on, starting with President Kennedy's assassination, more and more Americans believed everything that happened had to be part of some evil design, rather than the result of human randomness. No one could be trusted and, during its tenure, the Bush Administration has provided much evidence to support such suspicions.

But, in large part, distrust goes back to changes in perception as well as politics. Before TV, news was what people in power said it was, and there was no way to see behind the official version of truth. But with events coming into our living rooms, we could start to make our own judgments about what was really going on.

Now, with 24/7 news everywhere, everyone is "in the know," and there is no reason to accept the official version of anything. As any blogger can tell you, the more devious the explanation for events, the more attention and, for some, credence it receives.

We are now free from getting only a whitewashed picture of the world, but are we closer to any truths by getting a flood of blackwashed analyses of everyone's actions and motives? Little wonder that some Americans now see everything as a conspiracy,

No comments: