Feb/Mar 2010

Fear Factor

Making sense of the paranoid mind

Robert A. Goldberg


Few would dispute that we live in perilous times. Simply to review the signal events of the past half century is to summon forth a sense of siege: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Three Mile Island, 9/11, the Great Recession of 2008, and H1N1 are milestones of a recent history of crisis. The twentieth century's world wars posed threats to the very existence of nations, but nuclear annihilation, climate change, and pandemics jeopardize multinational social systems and even global survival. Our posture of chronic preparedness highlights our fragility, sharpening apprehension and a sense that events are out of our control. Some will recall CBS News anchorman Dan Rather, who closed his broadcasts with the word courage.

How do we make sense of the ruptures of history? What impact does the stress of vulnerability have on us and our sense of community? Or to put things in the terms most recognizable to the temper of the times: Who can be trusted? Answering these questions opens out onto other dilemmas, having to do with how common fears are presented in the public sphere. What are the mechanisms of authority? How are crises scripted? And who is to blame? The books under review here promise answers, finding them in the experts of peril, plots, and paranoia. In building a culture of fear, these purveyors have found many willing accomplices.

In Be Very Afraid, Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow argues that the most significant byproduct of our mood of peril and apprehension is the intense social noise it produces. Wuthnow contends that Americans, when shocked by an event like Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, or 9/11, respond by acting. Rather than lapsing into denial or whistling past the graveyard, citizens have trusted institutional authority to define problems and determine courses of action. Meanwhile, scripting a narrative of crisis, government officials have cooperated with communications experts to manage the news and mobilize mass support. Wuthnow describes this process as the "institutionalization of peril," the creation of "whole systems" of organizations designed to "prepare us for danger and protect us from it."

Wuthnow's description of America's response to the prospect of nuclear annihilation is a potent case in point. In 1945, Hiroshima changed the dynamic of global war, spurring a need for new military policies and strategies of protection. So federal authorities joined forces with scientists in the first days of the cold war to stockpile nuclear weapons and develop a missile and bomber response capable of destroying the world a dozen times over. Journalists showcased policy makers and championed their defense initiatives.

Nor, as Wuthnow notes, were ordinary men and women consigned to fatalism. "The idea," he writes, is that "atomic power posed too great a challenge to be left entirely in the hands of scientists and government officials. If the tide was to be turned from evil to good, the average, common citizen would need to be active." People responded, reading news-paper articles and novels about the dawn of the nuclear age and discussing the meaning of the new nuclear order with their neighbors. They trusted federal official to confront the menace even as their tax dollars underwrote the arsenal. Hunkering down, they figured out their reaction calculus. They incorporated the strange rituals of nuclear preparedness into daily life, practicing duck-and-cover drills, creating survival kits with essential supplies, even building backyard fallout shelters. They made sense of the unthinkable by delegating responsibility to authority yet found personal ways to sustain dignity and hope.

This, Wuthnow argues, is the pattern that has shaped the many threat environments that have come in the bomb's wake. Be it H1N1, the avian flu, terrorism, or nuclear proliferation, officials have orchestrated responses to real danger that in turn have helped Americans believe that experts are the appropriate authorities to find answers and secure the future. A massive infrastructure of agencies has come into being to prepare and protect: the Atomic Energy Commission (later the Nuclear Regulatory Commission), National Security Council, Department of Homeland Security, Environmental Protection Agency, World Health Organization, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among many others. Self-perpetuating, primed to seek technological solutions, and occasionally tainted by self-interest, government elites have institutionalized peril.

The tacit consensus on how to comprehend and manage threats to public order stands in sharp contrast, as Wuthnow notes, to behavior in still-unsettled policy arenas, such as the threat of climate change. Scientific authorities have repeatedly sounded the alarm. But other elites are divided, with concerns over costs and even skepticism about the reliability of scientific opinion. Corporations facing high costs from climate-change regulation have trumpeted alternatives while deflecting attention from their carbon footprints. The absence of a galvanizing event has left the public's mind and energy unfocused. This, combined with the current economic crisis, could well steer public opinion back to the antiregulatory status quo. Citizens can repeat the mantra that a technological fix will emerge at the eleventh hour. For Wuthnow, this is not evidence of denial of danger, but "an exemplary instance of people responding to fear by engaging in problem solving."

He deftly combines sober scientific surveys and alarmist blog posts to deliver a convincing portrait of the many players who craft and promulgate mass fear. But his analysis entails important omissions; by focusing on institutional response and individual trust, he gives little space to the citizens who have expressed misgivings about the peril industry: antinuclear activists focused on the horrors both of war and of accidents, civil libertarians concerned about interrogation practices in the wake of the war on terror, opponents of the invasion of Iraq. The so-called 9/11 Truth movement, which has alleged that the terrorist attacks actually sprang from a government plot to provoke war in the Middle East, only gets passing mention. Such theories are disturbing reflections of a burgeoning distrust of federal authorities and disaffection with national institutions—and for that reason, they require more than cursory treatment.

In the past decade, students of latter-day conspiratorial thought have found that conspiracy advocates choke information networks with all manner of theories, with furors over everything from the birth certificate of Barack Obama to the alleged governmental origins of the crack and AIDS epidemics having moved into the mainstream. Conspiracy theories help their adherents to impose order on seeming chaos, to find purpose in tragedy and clarity in ambiguity—they can lift the despair of vulnerability and fortify believers with the knowledge to understand and defeat the perceived enemy.

If conspiracy theorists act as counterauthorities, they do not operate in isolation. Their charges resonate with the words and deeds of those who shape opinion in the broader society. Filmmakers, novelists, and television producers entertain us with conspiracism, and governments repeatedly play the conspiracy card to trump opponents, deflect scrutiny, and mobilize support. However, these structural interpretations don't allow for much in the way of satiric sport. So as has been the case with many armchair students of the American character, in two new books British journalists David Aaronovitch and Francis Wheen take their cues about conspiracy theorists from a November 1963 lecture that historian Richard Hofstadter delivered at Oxford University—and later published as the landmark Harper's essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." Focusing on the "distorted style" of "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy," Hofstadter donned the white coat of the clinician to argue that the conspiracists of his day were marginal men and women whose personality disorders caused them to project their status grievances and wounds into public affairs. Such paranoia became contagious in times of anxiety occasioned by war, rapid growth, or economic depression. And, he concluded, once the crisis passed, the fever would break and conspiracy thinking revert to the extremist fringes.

Aaronovitch, a columnist with the London Times, is an avowed conspiracy skeptic who initially decided to write Voodoo Histories as a primer for confronting the conspiracy minded. He says he has adopted "the lighthearted aim of providing a useful resource to the millions of men and women who have found themselves on the wrong side of a bar or dinner-party conversation that begins, 'I'll tell you the real reason . . .'" The uninitiated, he explains, can detect conspiracy theories by their shared characteristics: Conspiracists cite historical precedents, have a populist tone, conjure up expert testimony, adopt the air of academic scholarship, and are flexible with the facts. If the theories are fanciful, he warns, they have baleful consequences: Adherents of conspiracy theory, by manipulating history, enable dangerous decisions, undercut authorities and institutions, and demonize opponents.

Aaronovitch sets out to support this analysis with a breakdown of one of the foundational myths of the modern conspiratorial mind: the alleged Jewish world conspiracy. His fulcrum is the well-known forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which won the endorsements of Adolf Hitler and Henry Ford. He revisits the ways the Stalinist Soviet regime employed conspiracy and a mood of mass fear to consolidate state power and deny responsibility for failure, then identifies a signal figure of American anti-Jewish conspiracy mongering in the conservative political activist John Flynn. Flynn found common cause with the resistance to Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, anti-Semitism, the America First Committee and opposition to America's entrance into World War II, Pearl Harbor conspiracy theories, the Holocaust "myth," and Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist crusade of the 1950s.

But then the book takes an odd turn. Aaronovitch provides a wealth of plot-driven (and lightly sourced) accounts of the deaths of JFK, Marilyn Monroe, and Princess Diana. From there, he hopscotches to a detailed account of the strange death of Hilda Murrell, England's version of the mysteriously killed US nuclear-power whistleblower Karen Silkwood. Then come chapters on Clifford Irving's fake Howard Hughes biography and other hoaxes, the 9/11 Commission, a conspiracy theory about the death of British Ministry of Defense employee David Kelly, and, finally, Obama's birth certificate and the death of White House counsel Vince Foster, a suicide that conspiratorial Clinton haters tried to pawn off as murder.

In lieu of any rationale for the book's erratic and heavily anecdotal design, Aaronovitch wraps up his survey with an appeal to the authority of Hofstadter. Conspiracy theories are "history for losers," he contends; they are "formulated by the politically defeated and taken up by the socially defeated." But a more rigorous examination of the material in Voodoo Histories might have furnished a more complicated and interesting tale. More than consoling alternate histories, conspiracy theories are weapons in a fight for influence and authority. Plot makers stand both on the balcony of power and along the barricades. And media opinion makers, who hew to their own agendas, are critical to the credibility of conspiratorial ideas. Ordinary men and women respond to conspiracy authorities not because they are repressed or victims of "hysteria," as Aaronovitch says; rather, they have been taught by their leaders to believe in a hidden hand guiding economic and political affairs, while, contradictorily, their trust in the powerful has ebbed.

Wheen's Strange Days Indeed promises a "romp" through the 1970s, when the world was "on the edge of a nervous breakdown" and "the paranoid style became almost the default mode of thinking." Infected with the virus were Richard Nixon and his Watergate co-conspirators; the 10 Downing Street crowd around Harold Wilson; Uganda dictator Idi Amin; Mao Zedong; the radical left's Weather Underground, Baader-Meinhof Gang, and Symbionese Liberation Army; psychic Uri Geller; and UFO seeker Erich von Däniken. Nearly all the rich and famous figures of the era make cameo appearances. Seemingly anyone who ever mouthed or wrote the word paranoia is honored by inclusion.

Wheen's tour of woolly speculations makes for an enjoyable ride. As in his 2004 arch-rationalist tract How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, he breaks down systems of delusive thought with evident glee. Although he is a British cultural critic, Wheen shows a remarkable feel for things American, making the book an entertaining and provocative read—if a slightly hyperbolic one. During the '70s, he writes, "the ruling class was in a state of such teetering instability that anything seemed possible." In regard to US congressional investigations into intelligence abuses, he declares: "Hundreds of mangy corpses cascaded from the cupboard as politicians and reporters started rummaging in the dark recesses of their democracy."

But like Aaronovitch, Wheen lets his polemical style swamp the substance of his arguments. The piling on of personalities and events courts the fallacy of argument ad nauseam—a thesis sustained not by reasoned proof but by repetition. Historians are always anxious when popular writers pull the past out of context and present a monocausal explanation for events, and usually that suspicion is well founded. Strange Days Indeed shows why—it ignores a long history of world conspiracism in pleading for the '70s to be regarded a high-water mark of conspiratorial thinking. How does the decade compare with the 1930s, when Hitler and Joseph Stalin plied conspiracy as a rationale for world war and the murder of millions?

By insisting that the '70s were "a pungent mélange of apocalyptic dread and conspiratorial fever," Wheen conspicuously bypasses the decade's distinctly rational movements, such as second-wave feminism, environmentalism, détente, and the passing of the bipolar cold-war order. Viewed in this broader compass, and with the departure of Wilson and Nixon from the world stage at the halfway point of the '70s, paranoia does not even encompass the entire decade. What's more, if paranoia were so rampant and so entrenched, how did the West recover from it so quickly? Lamely, Wheen contends that the forces of reason reemerged while ordinary people muddled through. Such an argument suggests that the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were the restoration of good sense and the salvation of democratic institutions. The "crazies" apparently no longer ran the shop.

Taken together, Aaronovitch and Wheen make a useful, instructive point: We are, indeed, too afraid. We have given paranoid leaders and conspiracy theorists too much authority to revise history with impunity. But the plot finders do not operate in a vacuum. They learned their craft well by mimicking authorities who long ago mastered the arts of conspiracism. If the peril industry is charged to protect us, Wuthnow also reminds us of its tremendous power to stoke mass insecurities and fix us in a perpetual defensive crouch. This is especially true with post-9/11 warnings of omnipresent security breaches and of sinister ideologies seeking to provoke mass terror. We have lost our bearings in this culture of fear. The masters of the peril industry have prompted us to doubt our own instincts and deny our own judgment as engaged citizens. To counter this dynamic, the public needs to meet claims of omniscience with principled skepticism and informed vigilance. The key, it seems, is to strike a delicate balance, permitting us to repose trust in public institutions and experts when they have demonstrated that such trust is warranted, while retaining confidence to question and even resist. This is our birthright. We cannot hide while others steal it.

Robert A. Goldberg is professor of history at the University of Utah and author of Barry Goldwater (1975) and Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America (2001), both published by Yale University Press.

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