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Revisiting the Paranoid Style in the Dark

In November 1965, all electric power in an 80,000-square-mile area of the northeastern United States and Canada failed. Like the most recent failure, the breakdown was a total surprise and attributable to a single plant failure. In 1965, the electric grid was supposed to shift power from areas with excess generating capacity to other areas in the network experiencing a drain, but instead of counteracting the local failure, it spread out of control leaving the whole system and dozens of cities in the dark. It wasn’t supposed to happen then. It certainly wasn’t supposed to happen now. In 1965, pundits presented the dilemma as a question of humans versus machines, and concluded that people must control machines. It struck at the very heart of the fallacy that we were in control of the rise of technology after World War II, and that that “progress” was unequivocally good.

So, too, with the more recent failure. But rather than assessing our technological progress (and maybe we should), the bigger question is how we should assess progress in our efforts to ensure national security. Do we feel safer at home in our war against terrorism?

The enduring images on the evening news showed New Yorkers fearing that the blackout had been the result of a terrorist attack. While we might thankfully acknowledge that it was not the work of enemies to the United States, it would behoove us to carefully think about our psyche and our faith in such protective measures as the Patriot Act, Homeland Security Act, and pre-emptive strikes. It would appear, rather, that Americans are entering a new generation of what the great American historian Richard Hofstadter once aptly called the “paranoid style,” that sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that defined much of the Cold War.

Hofstadter did not introduce the paranoid style as a clinical term, but rather as a force in politics, and its impact on the modes of expression that influenced the way in which ideas were popularly received. In sum, it was an effective form of political rhetoric. In Hofstadter’s able hands, the paranoid style aptly demonstrated how much political leverage could be squeezed out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. Its new variation presents a far more ominous iteration, as it is a resounding majority who appears willing to submit to the threats.

The terrorist threats are very real. I don’t mean to suggest that the potential for attacks on American soil is a figment of our collective imagination. But the fear threatens to consume our collective imagination. Something has to give. Heightened security has come at the expense of American freedoms. We are told that such security measures are essential to ensure our safety, and yet we continue to quake at the prospect of an imminent attack.

It doesn’t add up that we should continually strive for more security-at considerable expense financial, political, and psychological-and still not feel any the safer. Americanism as conceived by the liberties upon which this country was founded is under attack, but only a portion of that danger is from an external force. Our new paranoid style is racing to inhibit our freedoms in order to protect them. The irony is palpable. And all for security from things that go bump in the dark.

MICHAEL EGAN teaches in the Department of History at Washington State University. He can be reached at: michaele@wsu.edu

 

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