The Corner

Re: In Dispraise of Paranoia

Jonah — I thought a lot about the word “paranoia” and its implications before I wrote the piece, and you make the great points that I was worried someone would make.

Having said that, I would say this. You write:

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

Not usually, they don’t. Most of the time sharks don’t do anything of the sort. In truth, the chances of your being eaten by a shark are minuscule, not just because you’re rarely in a situation where a shark might hurt you but because sharks normally leave people alone. Still, it’s best to presume that every single shark you meet is going to eat you. My view is that, because a shark can eat you, and has eaten people in the past, you should have, as per the definition that you provided, ”suspicion and mistrust of people or their actions without evidence or justification” — or, rather, of sharks and their actions . . . As Locke argues regarding the slave ports of Algiers, evaluation of the available evidence will only get you so far.

The word “skepticism” isn’t quite strong enough for me because one can be convinced from a position of skepticism, ”Look, we’re not doing anything bad. How about it?” As a general rule, I want people far more afraid of the government than that would allow. I want people saying, “I don’t care how safe you say it is, I’m just not doing it. Ever.” There is never going to be a government or a society in which “tyranny is not just around the corner,” to borrow a phrase from the president. Never, ever. And there are never going to be people who can be trusted to rule. Perhaps your phrase, “a dogmatic fear of tyranny,” is better here. The bottom line is that we should treat government as we should sharks: As George Washington is supposed to have said, “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” Even he couldn’t have imagined how dangerous and fearful governments could become.

My problem is that I’m not sure that the alternative to paranoia is reason. Is the way in which most people trust “reasonable”? No, not in the slightest. If people are going to be unreasonable — and they certainly are – it’s better that they’re unreasonably scared; better that they extrapolate a general learned principle and apply it where it doesn’t belong than that they’re unreasonably trusting. Your point about the Left’s paranoia is spot on. As you say, “fear of tyranny, healthy and unhealthy, are American traits, not right-wing ones.” But I think that this bipartisanship is just great. Odd as it might sound, having a sizeable portion of the population reflexively take the view that the government would hurt them if it could is, I think, a good thing. There are no black helicopters and there may never be any black helicopters. But isn’t it positive that people are worried about them?

If I had my way, everyone would be reasonably and dogmatically afraid of tyranny. As I don’t, I’m happy to praise those who go that little bit further.


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