The Corner

Re: ‘Why We Are Paranoid’

Some good emails. Matt Franck writes:

Rich,

 I do think you use “paranoia” too loosely.  And I think there is some soft ground underfoot when one relies on Bernard Bailyn.  Renowned though he is, I think he fails in the first duty of a historian, which is to understand actors in history as they understood themselves.  With his account of “ideology” in the American Revolution, he essentially treated our forebears as irrational — as “paranoid” in a not-at-all-loose sense, meaning fairly unhinged in their perception of the crisis of British rule.  For an excellent corrective of the Bailyn thesis, see Robert H. Webking, The American Revolution and the Politics of Liberty.

You are right that we should seek to preserve “a bristling skepticism of government and a keen vigilance about our liberties,” and that that is quite different from a “literal paranoia.”  Does our skepticism sometimes shade over into the irrational, more than what’s seen in other countries?  I really haven’t noticed that it does.  The Germans — not known for having a bristly libertarian streak — are prone to believe the most outlandish things about 9/11, for instance.  But maybe it’s easier for them to believe such things about us Americans!

James Bennett writes:

[Regarding your] article on conspiratorialism in American history today:  I don’t know if you’ve read Kevin Phillips’ The Cousins’ Wars but he has a good discussion of it, going back to the original settlement.  Really, it’s pretty continuous back to the English Reformation, at least.  That was a tumultuous time, with changes of power back and forth, and much interference by foreign intelligence agencies.  There were real conspiracies (e.g., Gunpowder Plot), with real consequences, and people weren’t very sure how to handle them.  Then there were imagined conspiracies (the “Popish Plot”) exploited by cynical politicians.  If you look at them, you can see that we’ve been running the same scripts ever since.  When you read about Guy Fawkes – confused young guy, discharged veteran, latching on to oppositional ideologies, distrusted by his own fellow radicals — he sounds a lot like Timothy McVeigh, or Johnny Jihad. Wills has a very good book on this, Witches and Jesuits.

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