WEIRDLAND: The Paranoid Style in American Politics, JFK

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Paranoid Style in American Politics, JFK

In The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948), historian Richard Hofstadter argues that, sectionalist conflicts aside, American politics has been characterized by a 'shared belief in the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, and the value of competition' that runs across the political spectrum. The Library of America is now ensuring that Hofstadter's legacy at least will be preserved by collecting his work from the mid-1940s to 1970 in a three-volume series edited by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz. The first of these surveys Hofstader's middle period, from 1956 to 1965, during which he published some of his most famous work and was at the height of his reputation as a public intellectual along with the likes of Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, and Daniel Bell. The book presents two complete works, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964), along with a decade's worth of previously uncollected essays, including several appearing for the first time. It is a volume that is timely in tracing the history of ideas and cultural currents that continue to be alive and well in American society today. Published in 1963, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life seeks to trace the hostility toward the intellect and intellectuals in American culture dating back to its roots. It is conceived as what Michel Foucault would term 'a history of the present', a genealogy of the ideas that explains current circumstances. Hofstadter writes: 'Men and women living under conditions of poverty and exacting toil, facing the hazards of Indian raids, fevers, and agues, and raised on whiskey and brawling, could not afford education and culture; and they found it easier to reject what they could not have than to admit the lack of it as a deficiency in themselves.'

Similarly to the early Puritans, the generation that founded the American republic were learned men who formed a patrician elite. And as Hofstadter wryly notes: 'It is ironic that the United States should have been founded by intellectuals; for throughout most of our political history, the intellectual has been for the most part either an outsider, a servant, or a scapegoat.' But the patrician elite soon fell out among one another, opening the door for factionalism. The first victim of attempted political assassination was Thomas Jefferson at the hands of the Federalists. He was attacked for being a 'philosopher' given to 'abstract theories' who lacked the character to lead; worse, he was a Francophile and a Deist. Anti-intellectualism became firmly embedded in American politics with the rise of Andrew Jackson in the 1820s, which twice pitted the 'natural genius' of 'Old Hickory' against the patrician intellectualism of John Quincy Adams. Jackson won a plurality of votes in 1824, but not enough electoral votes to secure the Presidency. Jackson had appealed by proposing a series of national initiatives for educational and scientific improvement that even his own Cabinet at times would not support. 

Four years later, Andrew Jackson beat Adams in a landslide with his supporters founding the modern Democratic Party in the process. As president, Jackson sought to advance the rights of the "common man" against a "corrupt aristocracy" and to preserve the Union. Born in the colonial Carolinas to a Scotch-Irish family in the decade before the American Revolutionary War, Jackson became a frontier lawyer. In 1816, the Second Bank of the United States was chartered by President James Madison to restore the United States economy devastated by the War of 1812. Jackson believed that the Bank was a fundamentally corrupt monopoly. Its stock was mostly held by foreigners, he insisted, and it exerted an unfair amount of control over the political system. Jackson used the issue to promote his democratic values, believing the Bank was being run exclusively for the wealthy. Jackson stated the Bank made "the rich richer and the potent more powerful." He accused it of making loans with the intent of influencing elections. In his address to Congress in 1830, Jackson called for a substitute for the Bank that would have no private stockholders and no ability to lend or purchase land. Its only power would be to issue bills of exchange.The address touched off fiery debate in the Senate. On July 4, 1832, Jackson declared, "The Bank, Mr. Van Buren, is trying to kill me. But I will kill it." A clear purveyor of anti-intellectualism has been the business class, whose proprietary interests in property and profit have facilitated consensus in American politics going back to the Founding Fathers, as Hofstadter argued in The American Political Tradition. 

Through what Hofstadter terms 'the practical culture', the business class, particularly since the onset of the industrial age, has bent the intellect toward strictly technological, materialistic, and above all utilitarian ends. The need for technical training becomes more pronounced toward the end of the 19th century with the rise of large-scale bureaucracies, which resulted in the creation of business schools to instruct in the principles of management, finance, and other aspects of the commercial enterprise. Alongside it, interestingly, grew the whole field of self-help to promulgate development of personal characteristics necessary for success, a secularization of the evangelical spirit epitomized in the exhortations of Norman Vincent Peale. Rather than serve as a bulwark against this trend, American higher education has participated in the leveling down of the intellectualism. Part of the dilemma has been the need to balance unencumbered intellectual inquiry with access to the knowledge necessary to sustain a functioning democracy. The democratization of higher education has been well-suited to the anti-intellectual and utilitarian impulses within American culture. However, here Hofstadter is not arguing against the democratization of education so much as attempting to open it up to the embrace of more 'playfulness', as he terms it in the book's introduction, in the sense of being amenable to 'the quest for new uncertainties' and equipped with the ability and the desire to turn 'answers into questions'. 

The anti-intellectualism of American culture provides the fertile ground in which the subject of Hofstadter's follow-up book has taken root and flourished. The Paranoid Style in American Politics is a collection of essays, written over a 14-year period, once again in the shadow of McCarthyism but this time imbued with a new sense of urgency in response to the rise of the far right in American politics as embodied by the ascension of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater to the Presidential candidacy of the Republican Party in 1964. The collection is divided into two parts, the first dealing with the American right and the second with other considerations of the modern era. Part I still reads as a Foucauldian history of the present. The title essay started out as a lecture given at Oxford University in November 1963, the day before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and it was published in abridged form in that month's issue of Harper's Magazine. As if he were writing of the present moment, Hofstadter begins by observing that: 'Although American political life has rarely been touched by the most acute varieties of class conflict, it has served as an arena for uncommonly angry minds. Today this fact is most evident on the extreme right wing, which has shown how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.' It must be noted that the paranoid style is not necessarily a function of the right or the left—as Hofstadter notes, the Moscow Trials of the Great Purge of 1938-1939 under Joseph Stalin were steeped in the paranoid style of an abstruse ideological construct.

Among the early purveyors of the paranoid style was Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, whose 1835 screed Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States railed against 'the popes and the despots'. Hofstadter began mapping out the paranoid style in the mid-1950s, represented in the collection by the 1954 essay 'The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt'. Hofstadter picks up the term 'pseudo-conservative' from the 1950 book The Authoritarian Personality (1950) by Frankfurt School critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno and his associates written while he was living in exile in California after the Second World War. Hofstader's argument is that pseudo-conservatism is a product of the rootlessness and heterogeneity of modern life and the striving for status and identity that it engenders. Like the members of the Tea Party surveyed in sociologist Arlie Russell Hocschild's 2016 book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, 'The pseudo-conservative always imagines himself to be dominated and imposed upon because he feels that he is not really dominant, and knows of no other way of interpreting his position.' Pseudo-conservatism gets updated in the 1965 essay 'Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited', the writing of which was prompted in large part by the Goldwater Presidential campaign. Here Hofstadter notes that the far right has grown in organization and influence, a statement that resonates today. The conclusion Hofstadter makes is that the success of Goldwater and the pseudo-conservatism he represents is not an accidental effect of moderate Republican ineptitude, but the result of an organized effort within the party. 

And as if speaking of President Donald Trump, Hofstadter observes of Barry Goldwater: 'How are we to explain the character of a 'conservative' whose whole political life has been spent urging a sharp break with the past, whose great moment as a party leader was marked by a repudiation of our traditional political ways, whose followers were so notable for their destructive and divisive energies, and whose public reputation was marked not by standpattism or excessive caution but with wayward impulse and recklessness?' From an electoral campaign perspective, the plan didn't work. Goldwater lost to Lyndon B. Johnson, carrying only five states in the Deep South and his own state of Arizona, in the largest landslide since James Monroe defeated John Quincy Adams in 1820. But as Hofstadter notes, the Goldwater faithful and their pseudo-conservative fellow travelers were apparently satisfied in having established themselves as a force to be reckoned within American politics in their ability to attain leadership of the party from a minority position. As Hofstadter predicted, the far right, in its obstructionism, creating 'a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible'. In his collection of essays in 1965, Hofstadter cites the sociologist C. Wright Mills who defined the power elite 'throwing its preponderant weight on the side of responsibility'. Hofstadter closes the essay with a charge to the 'moderates' of the Republican Party to regain the political center in order to establish a position within the broader consensus of the American public. Hofstadter died of leukemia in 1970 at the age of 54 and did not live long enough to see that the pseudo-conservatism continued to gain force in American politics despite its minority position. Rather than move toward the center, the Republican Party has doubled down on pseudo-conservatism, using racial politics, gerrymandering, and the unequal representation of the Electoral College to win elections, with the last two Republicans attaining the Presidency doing so while losing the popular vote.

Hofstadter greatly appreciated the French aristocrat Tocqueville of whom it is said wrote the best book on democracy, which is also the best book about America. The final essay, written around 1962 and previously unpublished, is a personal note of Hofstadter's on his origins and evolution as an historian and a thinker, and makes the case for history as a literary practice and not just a recitation of facts. And indeed, Hofstadter is a master stylist. The entire volume from the Library of America is assiduously annotated by Robert Sean Wilentz, a formidable historian in his own right, with notes on persons, events, and references that may not be well known to contemporary readers. In the 50 years since his premature death, Hofstadter has come in for criticism from the right and the left. It can be argued that his notions of the American body politic didn't acknowledge what we now call 'intersectionality', or that some of his interpretations of the facts don't hold up to present-day scrutiny. But in the main, Hofstadter's contribution to our understanding of America's past and its relevance to the present still command attention. The current volume from the Library of America is a testament to its power. The subsequent volumes in development, one of which will include the full text of The American Political Tradition, promise to reaffirm his enduring legacy. Source: www.popmatters.com     

Oliver Stone should have won an Oscar for Best Director for JFK (1991). It's superior to that of the others nominated that year, earning his cinematic stripes with his truly epic examination of the Kennedy Assassination and the flawed Warren Commission follow-up. JFK deserved more than two mere technical wins. Through the JFK assassination and the events that followed, including the Vietnam War, the public became aware of the dark underbelly of the American system. Oliver Stone’s JFK uses media, information to discuss a perceived truth, who was really behind the assassination of Kennedy? Stone’s theory is as skeptical as any others, but the way in which he anticipates the information by using footage from the time, by drawing up dossiers, using courtrooms and the recurring theme of secretive meetings makes a stronger case than most of the standard political biopics. Stone’s film creates its own historical memory of the events around the era and the assassination, at times both contradicting and confirming parts of the story issued by the government and the media. It contains documentary footage, newsreels, reenactments, and fictional scenes to question and confront what had, in the public’s mind, long been identified as a pure memory. Stone uses the same footage more than once, sometimes black in white, sometimes in color, sometimes on a monitor in one corner of the screen. He asks the audience to question what they see and how they see it.

The film not only destroys nostalgic warmth by hinting that the seedy underbelly has always been a part of American society, but by suggesting that there is no clear cut truth. As Robert Sklar notes in his book Movie Made America, “sensational as they are, the political accusations that JFK makes almost pale alongside the emotions the film expresses: its sense of displacement and unrecoverable loss; its anger at the illegitimacy of power; its myth of transformation contained in a martyred president who is victim of the ruinous policies and ideologies of his era.” Media influences memory and, as Sklar points out, memory compounds media to the effect that no truth, even caught on film, is certain. Both Oliver Stone and Stephen King (11/22/63) play with the nostalgic idea that had Kennedy lived, America would have withdrew from Vietnam and continued to prosper. Nostalgia for this era seems to indicate that if the president had not been assassinated, the Happy Days may have continued ad infinitum. The particular focus on this particular point in American history, when innocence was lost, when unwilling knowledge was brought out into the forefront, brings to the forefront society’s combative relationship with truth. Evil had always had a face and voice which we cannot see or hear. 

With the JFK assassination, with the advent of television news, the discussion went deeper--that we could witness the atrocity, even the perpetrator, but we can still not wrap our heads around the why. There has to be something more. We wish we could turn back the clock. There have been too many of these tragic events in the past months, years, decades. It’s become an unfortunate fact of life. But if these tales of nostalgia have taught us anything, it’s not that we suffer because of our new knowledge. It’s that the memories we cherish should not just be things we merely hold onto, but should be what propels us forward. We continue to persevere, to carry on. We find solace, not only in nostalgia or memory, but community. Our collective memory may shift and distort events, but our identity as a society remains. Source: popmatters.com

JFK Jr. (George magazine, 1998): “I like the idea of educating the masses, of being an inspiration to the downtrodden. I like the idea of fighting for equal rights for all American citizens. I like the idea of embracing other countries and other cultures and promoting world peace. Fighting the good fight, as it were. I think artists are allowed to make more mistakes, they are allowed to dress badly and have a not so perfect past. In short, artists are allowed to be human. And presidents are not. So the question is: How can someone be a good leader if he or she isn’t allowed to be human? I’d rather eat glass.”

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