06 June 2011

From conspiracy theory to 'paranoid style' -- and back again?

By a historiographic coincidence, the "republican synthesis" of American revolutionary history, which emphasized, against the materialist skepticism of the previous generation of historians, that the Founders sincerely believed and were motivated by their own propaganda about a British conspiracy to "enslave" the Colonies, came to public notice at the same time that Richard Hofstadter popularized the notion that modern-day conspiracy theorists -- for him that meant the McCarthyites, Birchers and so forth of the 1950s and 1960s -- expressed a "paranoid style" that had less to do with rational analysis of political trends than with irrational anxieties about their own status in a rapidly changing society. Since Hofstadter's work had appeared first, and had proved popular with the general public, "republican" historians of the Revolution like Bernard Bailyn and Gordon S. Wood faced an implicit question: did the Founders themselves practice the "paranoid style?"

Since few objective historians believed that the British were any more out to "enslave" the Colonies than anyone in America was out to enslave the country in the Fifties and Sixties, Wood, in particular, felt compelled to defend the Founders from the charge that they had reacted to British policies irrationally. In his 1970s essay, "Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style," Wood drew several distinctions between the Founders and the "paranoid" subjects of Hofstadter's analysis. While I've often identified conspiracy theory as a kind of religious thinking, given its desire to see conscious will behind all events, Wood offered an opposite interpretation for the Founding era. The Founders' conspiracy theories, he argued, were an excessive expression of the Enlightenment's spirit of scientific inquiry, reflecting the era's confidence that answers could be found to all questions, and causes found for all phenomena. Instead of pseudo-religion, Founding conspiracy theory was a kind of pseudo-science that also reflected a specific 18th century anxiety about the advent of etiquette and its ability to disguise a courtier's true intentions. The Founders were inclined to believe that George III's courtiers were concealing an agenda to grind the Colonies under their heels. Since they saw the new taxes and regulations that followed the French & Indian War as harmful to their interests, they presumed an intent to harm on the part of Parliament and its leaders, since they believed, perhaps with lingering superstition, that bad consequences must come from bad motives.

In time, Wood writes, most Americans' thinking grew more sophisticated as the idea of unintended consequences gained greater currency and social science made more clear how both the political and economic order actually worked -- often without a single guiding hand. In closing, Wood put as much distance as he could between the Founders and twentieth-century conspiracymongers.

By our own time, dominated as it is by professional social science, conspiratorial interpretations have become so out of place that, as we have seen, they can be accounted for only as mental aberrations, as a paranoid style symptomatic of psychological disturbance. In our postindustrial, scientifically saturated society, those who continue to attribute combinations of events to deliberate human design may well be peculiar sorts of persons -- marginal people, perhaps, removed from the centers of power, unable to grasp the conceptions of complicated causal linkages offered by sophisticated social scientists, and unwilling to abandon the desire to make simple and clear moral judgments of events.

He adds at the very close:

But people with such conspiratorial beliefs have not always been either marginal or irrational. Living in this complicated modern world, where the very notion of causality is in doubt, should not prevent us from seeing that at another time and in another culture most enlightened people accounted for events in just this particular way.

The implication is that people in the late 20th century have no excuse for believing in conspiracies to enslave apart from "mental aberration." In this way, Wood seems to endorse Hofstadter's implication that political paranoids are sick, not simply stupid. Regrettably, in his new afterword to the essay, in his collection The Idea of America, Wood doesn't address whether changes over the decades since he and Hofstadter published would oblige him to revise his analysis. If the John Birch Society is gaining in popularity today -- if its ideas have wider circulation now than at any point since William F. Buckley anathematized them in the 1960s -- does that mean that more Americans are going mad? Or should we expect that as still more people feel themselves "removed from the centers of power," more will look for the bad intentions behind bad developments, whether they find them in the right places or not? The real question for historical inquiry may be whether surges in conspiracymongering signal, not something wrong with certain people, but something wrong with society, whether it's what the "paranoids" think it is or not.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While I don't necessarily disagree that bad intentions are behind bad developments, I question the notion of a single group or entity with nothing but bad intentions. For example, a bank that bundles bad loans as collateral has the intention of raising their stock value, but the bad consequence of undermining their capital. A corporation that lays off a large number of employees to outsource those jobs at a lower pay rate has the intention of increasing their profit margin.

Although in both cases, there is a bad intention - to knowingly cause harm to others in order to increase profit, there is no desire to "enslave the human race" or to "rule the world."

It is my instinct that there is, at any given time, any number of conspiracies by an number of groups of people. But the idea that there is one, overwhelming group behind everything is laughable.