I got this little wake up call from José Márquez' blog, although he may not have intended it this way. Without comment, he linked to a 1964 essay by Richard Hofstadter from Harper's magazine called "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" in which Hofstadter compares 19th Century paranoid political movements--such as the anti-Mason, or anti-Jesuit movements--to mid-20th Century right wing paranoid movements such as McCarthyism and the John Birch Society. According to Hofstadter, the main difference is that 19th Century paranoiacs were defending moral and political territory that they still possessed; mid-20th Century paranoiacs were trying to bring back moral and political territory that they felt they had already lost.
Hello. I had to sit up at this. For in the intervening half century, the positions of the right wing and the left wing relative to the centers of power have reversed. After decades of Roosevelt and New Deal Democrats (in their view) setting the tone and national agenda, by mid-century the farther right wing felt entirely dismissed, ignored, and disempowered. This position has been gradually reversed since the election of Nixon in 1968. Since then, the left has felt increasingly that the tenor of national politics and the national agenda has come to be controlled--directly or indirectly--by the right. Although left-wing conspiracy theory talk as such is still not a popular mode of discourse, purple-faced agit prop, scurrilous and ad hominem attacks, and--most importantly--a transformation of the respected adversary into the demon enemy have characterized the left's style of political contention for at least the last four years.
This recent radical partisanship was something I had been blaming on the right, with its simplistic terror-tactics, sound bites, and cheerful consignment to the devil of everyone who wasn't with them. But I have to admit that the right has been doing this for as long as I've been sentient and literate. They can't force us to lose control of our reason. We did it to ourselves. We are doing it to ourselves. Just look at the style and content of this article from the New York Times. I have no doubt that the right has (more than one) powerful conclave that plans the downfall of its perceived enemies. But you could say the same about any Moveon.org stakeholder's meeting. And the most sobering thing to me about these collected Arab views of Bush is that they are so close to American left-wing views. Aljazeera.com actually has a page titled "Conspiracy Theories". Check it out, do any of these sound unreasonable to you?
Nowadays, the left routinely finds its ideological and cultural allies in Europe and the more liberal thinkers in the Third World. Does anyone else see a problem with this? Why is it easier for me to identify with strangers of a somewhat-to-radically different cultural background than with the people around me with whom I grew up? Is it all their fault? Is it because they pushed me away? Have I no responsibility to attempt to see their point of view, or to cast myself as Americans'--any American's--cultural and political neighbor? I recently got into an e-argument with a friend who sent out an email calling (somewhat blithely, I felt) for unity in the US behind Bush. I won't unite behind Bush, but is unity totally out of the question? Is the neocon agenda "evil" by my lights, or is it better described as "not in the best interests of the majority of the American people"? Is Bush "the devil", or is he "a flawed politician with a radical disconnect from the true interests of his constituency"? Which is it? It's not just semantics, folks.
The obscuring woods of victimization are, in many ways, a much more attractive and comfortable place for us to be than the cold, hard plain of fellowship and respectful contention with our ideological opponents. But, as is the point of our magazine, we are all Americans and we all have a lot of work to do. Let's get back to work.