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In Dispraise of Paranoia



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Let me dissent a bit from Charles Cooke’s article today, “In Praise of Paranoia.” I understand what he’s saying and I agree with it in spirit. A dogmatic fear of tyranny is pretty much the only thing that reliably keeps tyranny at bay. I made a similar point with regard to Edmund Burke in the Corner last week. But I think he’s making some rather significant mistakes. 

Let’s start with the word “paranoid.” My computer’s dictionary has two definitions of paranoia. The first is clinical:

a mental condition characterized by delusions of persecution, unwarranted jealousy, or exaggerated self-importance, typically elaborated into an organized system. It may be an aspect of chronic personality disorder, of drug abuse, or of a serious condition such as schizophrenia in which the person loses touch with reality.

I’m pretty sure this isn’t what Charlie had in mind. The second definition is closer:

suspicion and mistrust of people or their actions without evidence or justification: the global paranoia about hackers and viruses.

But you can still see the problem. Paranoia is the word we use to describe irrational and unjustified fears. If we’re going to claim paranoia as a good thing, that will leave us without a perfectly good word for a bad thing, i.e. irrational and unjustified fear.

The whole point Charles is trying to make, I think,  is that the conservative fear of tyranny is neither irrational nor unjustified. Rather, it is rational, justified and deeply informed by the lessons of history. I agree entirely. I always tell people I do not have an irrational fear of sharks, I have a perfectly rational fear of sharks because they eat people. I have a healthy fear of my daughter getting hurt, kidnapped, whatever but I try to keep an unhealthy fear of such things at bay because I want her to grow up a healthy, well-adjusted person. I think conservatives can apply a similar balancing test when it comes to politics.

Yes it’s true that paranoid fears are sometimes “justified,” but that doesn’t justify paranoia per se.

This brings us to a second point I’d like to make. One of my longstanding beats is the Left’s ancient practice of trying to medicalize politics. I’ve been writing about it for years around here and it’s a significant theme of both of my books. The whole claim that conservatives are paranoid comes from Richard Hofstadter (who cribbed it from Theodore Adorno who lifted it from Marx), and is now one of these things that liberals think has been proven because they repeat it so often. In fact, there’s a renaissance in left-wing phrenology these days, casting conservatism as a kind of congenital brain disorder

Given this, conceding that conservatives are paranoid doesn’t seem to me a useful way to go for Charles or conservatives generally. Particularly when fear of tyranny, healthy and unhealthy, are American traits, not right-wing ones.

Which brings me to another of my longstanding peeves: The ludicrous notion that conservatives are somehow uniquely prone to paranoia (it’s an obvious outgrowth of the aforementioned idiocy about right-wingers’ having abnormal brains). The truth of the matter is that fear of tyranny — irrational and rational — runs through the American heart. Under Bush, for instance, many on the left went absolutely nuts. Not everyone was a truther, but truthers got a remarkably polite hearing from liberals. Indeed, bat-guano-crazy stuff came out of establishment liberal mouths with regularity, but rarely was any of that stuff identified as the paranoid style.   

Similarly, there’s a perfectly rational fear of tyranny on the left as well. It tends to be of the ACLU variety, focusing on police powers and the like. It can sometimes be wrong or go overboard (again, as I wrote last week), but I am glad it exists nonetheless.

I would argue that the difference between the American Left and Right isn’t that we conservatives are opposed to tyranny and the Left isn’t. Rather, we have different views of what constitutes tyranny and thus are watchful for different things. In other words we have different dogmas. What I like about conservatism (and libertarianism) is that a) our dogma is better and b) we know where it comes comes from (and Charles offers a nice little history of that). Knowing where your dogma comes from makes it much easier to distinguish between a rational fear and an irrational one. If you know in your gut something is wrong, but you lack the ability to distinguish your emotions and instincts from facts and reason, it is all the more likely you’ll succumb to paranoia — and that’s a bad thing.

Charles ends with a great quote from Chesterton to illustrate his point, so maybe I should as well: “There are two kinds of people in the world, the conscious dogmatists and the unconscious dogmatists. I have always found myself that the unconscious dogmatists were by far the most dogmatic.” 



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