Making sense of the paranoid mind
Robert A. Goldberg
Strange Days Indeed:
The 1970s: The Golden Days of Paranoia
by Francis Wheen
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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,