Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Paranoia still runs through U.S. politics
May 26, 2012
Like wrinkles on a weathered face, paranoia lines American history’s profile.
It carves deep ruts of suspicion in the minds of otherwise level-headed citizens.
Rhetoric stinging with paranoia surfaces when speakers lash out, using diatribes against political opponents. Conspiratorial fantasies grow like dandelions.
Those who spread paranoia aren’t clinically delusional. But gnawing fears drive them to suspicion, believing their political enemies are turning our republic into a socialist state.
Those who crucified Jesus showed a paranoid streak. They joked that he wasn’t more than an itinerant preacher.
Still, did Jesus possess raw political might that his gentle demeanor camouflaged? Jesus’ tormentors, covering their fear of him with mockery, tacked a sign to the cross with an inscription tainted by paranoia. It read: “The King of the Jews” (Mark 15:26).
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Richard Hofstadter, the late Columbia University historian, describes how “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” has permeated our nation’s history since its birth (Harper’s Magazine, November 1964, pp. 77-86).
Hofstadter opens his celebrated essay, observing how “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”
During the presidential campaign of 1800 conservative Christians feared Thomas Jefferson.
They also despised the French Revolution “as a libertine anti-Christian movement, given to corruption of women, the cultivation of sensual pleasures, and the violation of property rights. Its members had plans for making a tea that caused abortion, a secret substance that ‘blinds or kills when spurted in the face,’ and a device that sounds like a stench bomb, a ‘method for filling a bedchamber with pestilential vapors.”
Who did conservative Christians blame for this bestiality, atheism and odorous anti-American spirit? Thomas Jefferson. He supposedly belonged to a clandestine organization called the Bavarian Illuminati that thrived in France when Jefferson served as our nation’s ambassador there.
After the French Revolution, Yale’s president, Congregationalist Timothy Dwight, alerted New England pulpits to dangers Jefferson’s presidency raised.
In a Fourth of July discourse on the “Duty of Americans in the Present Crisis,” Dwight accused Jefferson of a stealth attack on our dear land. He stirred listeners into a patriotic frenzy, shouting that the Anti-Christ (who looked a lot like Jefferson) led the Illuminati. What paranoia!
Today, paranoia flares up in minds of otherwise sane folk like tinder in a dry forest.
Former presidential aspirant Donald Trump surged in Republican polls a year ago when he dispatched an investigative team to Hawaii. In late-breaking news concocted from pure fantasy, the Donald reported he had uncovered evidence to question President Obama’s birth certificate.
When Rick Santorum swept primaries in the Deep South, many Christians raised the specter that President Obama is really a closet Muslim who lies to the American public when he confesses repeatedly that “Jesus Christ is his Lord and Savior.”
Mitt Romney verbally fence straddles, giving the impression that if the Dream Act gains traction, Mexicans will flow across our borders like the Mississippi River cresting after a devastating flood.
The Dream Act promises citizenship to illegal immigrants’ children when they join our nation’s military or graduate from college.
This policy seems fair, balanced and sane — unless paranoia sets in.
Even pundit George Will, who seldom sounds like a lunatic, skids on rails of far-fetched suspicion. What’s the real reason President Obama wants to build faster, more efficient trains to ease congestion along the Boston-Washington, D.C., corridor?
Will writes that the president’s passion is to cut American individualism off at the knees. He envisions Americans traveling on swift trains, thereby copying France’s socialist-democratic state ,which features efficient rail lines.
Before calling off his presidential bid, Rick Santorum spread paranoia about know-it-all Ivy League socialists.
He dismissed our universities as “indoctrination mills” that “represent a harm (sic) to our country.”
Santorum also lambasted Barack Obama for advocating the value of higher education. He huffed, “What a snob!” All because our president “wants everyone in America to go to college.” Does Rick like it that Mitt Romney beats Obama in the number of Harvard degrees: two to one?
Tea party favorite Allen West (R-Florida) fired a round of salvos laced with paranoia. He sees a socialist seed under every congressional leaf. Shadow communists like Barack Obama hover within Washington’s corridors of power.
Asked how many members of Congress are “card-carrying Marxists or International Socialists,” West responded, “I believe there’s (sic) about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party who are members of the Communist Party. It’s called ‘the Congressional Progressive Caucus.'”
Today’s high-pitched rhetoric against President Obama furthers paranoia’s perverse legacy. Such charges sound crazy, but paranoia junkies gorge on a steady diet of this stuff.
Hearing such fearful chatter, paranoia adds wrinkles to the Statue of Liberty’s face and weakens our republic’s spirit.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.