Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Paranoid Style in American Politics

“With each new attack on a mosque, each new anti-Muslim slur by a prominent politician or pundit, each new poll showing that large swaths of Americans think President Obama is lying about his faith, it becomes clearer that we are in the midst of a national psychosis: the worst spasm of paranoia and bigotry of the post-Cold War age.  . . .

“It’s an ancient idea, the scapegoat, onto which the nation transfers its burdens and sins. Now we Americans have a new one, the American Muslim, and a new set of sins for which we will, I pray, one day atone.”
Those three sentences come to us (with my emphasis) courtesy of Peter Beinart. The first one introduces an essay purporting to explain the current outbreak of “paranoia and bigotry” targeting Muslims. Beinart’s thesis is that it’s an understandable, but inexcusable, expression of popular weariness at the prosecution of the War on Terror. As such, it has at least two historical precedents: the Palmer raids and McCarthyism were substantially similar expressions of popular exhaustion after the First and Second World Wars. The second two sentences are Beinart—an Old Testament Dr. Phil—concluding the essay by reminding us to be ashamed of ourselves for surrendering to such an atavistic impulse.

I’m less interested in Beinart’s explanatory thesis than in his undefended premise that there’s a wave of “national psychosis” crashing upon us that demands an explanation. Having always regarded Beinart as a pretty sensible guy, I’m surprised to finding myself asking: who’s being paranoid here?

Here’s a Wiki entry to remind you that the Palmer raids encompassed the arrest of thousands, and the deportation of hundreds, of Americans in defiance even of the lax due process standards in force early in the last century. I presume that you don’t need to be reminded of the number of individual rights violated and lives shattered by McCarthyism. Beinart doesn’t mention a single right violated or life shattered by opposition to the Ground Zero Mosque or popular anxiety about Obama’s religion because, as far as I know, there aren’t any. That doesn’t mean Beinart’s wrong to deplore these social developments. But it shows pretty conclusively that his comparison of them to the Palmer raids and McCarthyism is crazy talk.

Suppose we applied to Beinart the same arm chair psychology that he applies to his political opponents. Who’s more likely to be surrendering to a rationality-inhibiting psychological defense mechanism?

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