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The Politics of Paranoia


I still keep some books around from my grad school days.  Does this sound like anyone we know?:

The paranoid style is intrinsically more severely pathological than the others styles considered in this book.  It is the only one that, in its more pervasive and extreme forms, involves a psychotic loss of reality.  In other respects, also, it generally involves especially severe impairment of normal functioning.  However, it would be a mistake to assume that paranoid conditions are invariably psychotic or near psychotic.  Characteristically, paranoid modes of functioning, ways of thinking, types of affective experience, and the like, even such specific mental operations as projection, appear in many degrees of severity and, also, are modulated in a great many other ways by other factors and tendencies.  Aside from the dimension of severity, there are, descriptively and quite roughly speaking, two types of people who fall within the category of this style:  furtive, constricted apprehensively suspicious individuals and rigidly arrogant, more aggressively suspicious, megolomanic ones.  Of course, since these are only two differentiations of a more general style, they are by no means sharply distinguishable.  One can find representatives of a range of severity from frankly delusional states to, perhaps, moderately severe character distortions in both categories.

Thus begins the chapter on paranoia in the classic 1965 book Neurotic Styles, by David Shapiro.  As I read John Dean's Conservatives Without Conscience, I could not help but think of this chapter.  The title of this old book is dated but the content is ever fresh.

I'd like to write up this whole chapter here, as it includes so much of value in understanding the right wing in America, but I'll have to settle for some choice snippets:

The first formal feature of suspicious thinking that I would like to consider here is, perhaps, also the most fundamental one.  Suspicious thinking is thinking that is remarkably and impressively rigid.  Let me explain what I mean by this.

A suspicious person is a person who has something on his mind.  He looks at the world with fixed and preoccupying expectation, and he searches repetitively, and only, for confirmation of it.  He will not be persuaded to abandon his suspicion or some plan of action based on it.  On the contrary, he will pay no attention to rational arguments except to find in them some aspect or feature that actually confirms his original view.  Anyone who tried to influence or persuade a suspicious person will not only fail, but also, unless he is sensible enough to abandon his efforts early, will, himself, become an object of the original suspicious idea.

On the Paranoid Loss of Reality:

No one would deny that the suspicious person distorts reality or that he suffers a serious impairment of reality experience, but the exact nature of that impairment is less evident.  For instance, it is not blanket impairment, but impairment of certain classes of reality experience that characterizes these people.  Although we are certainly entitled to speak of severe distortion of reality, we know that it must be distortion of a quite special kind, since, even in its most severe forms, it seems to regularly allow certain kinds of congruence with normal reality experience.

In other words, these people might not look crazy in their regular actions.  And on the psychological mechanism of projection:

"Projection," in the sense with which we are concerned here, means the attribution to external figures of motivations, drives, or other tensions that are repudiated and intolerable in oneself.

The discussion gets a little weedy after this, but Shapiro basically lays out his theory of why projection is so common among paranoids as almost to define what we think of when we describe paranoid modes of thinking.

Paranoid people live in readiness for an emergency.  They seem to live in a more or less continuous state of total mobilization.  The condition of tension that is manifest in their alertness and their intense, searching attention seems, for example, reflected also in their body musculature.


One can easily notice in such a person that, although he enters a room with a greeting or perhaps a smile, sits down with apparent ease, and even begins to talk with what looks like comfortable familiarity, it all somehow seems like an imitation of the real thing.  One realizes that what at first looked like expressive behavior is not really that at all.  It is not friendly; it is only designed to look friendly.

So what happens as the paranoid experiences more and more stress?

In a general way, the answer to this question is plain.  Intensification of internal tension will place additional strain on the existing modes of tension control and result in intensification of them, as well as other existing manifestations of tension or instability.  Specifically, a rigid person, under the pressure of additional internal tension, will generally become more rigid.  And a person who is not only rigid, but also defensive, will, under additional tension, become more defensive as well.

It's going to be a long two fucking years.  Atrios is right:  Bush is not leaving Iraq.  

In my view, both Bush and Cheney fit this description, and it's no surprise they so famously confirmed each others' world views that Cheney became the VP.  Now that Cheney seems perhaps to be expendable, as the pressure on Bush is mounting, don't expect Bush to become more flexible.  Quite the opposite.  Bush Sr. is trying another family intervention, but I don't expect this to end well.

What's more, as two classic paranoids, it is in my view no accident that Bush and Cheney became the avatars of the American right wing.  What holds true for them as people holds true for their movement followers on the American right. 

The sooner the establishment media and the country recognize and accept that we've twice elected a dangerously sick man, who'd rather send people to their deaths than admit error, the better off we'll all be. 

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Pachacutec did not, as is commonly believed, die in 1471. To escape the tragic sight of his successors screwing up the Inca Empire he’d built, he fled east into the Amazon rain forest, where he began chewing lots of funky roots to get higher than Hunter Thompson ever dared. Oddly, these roots gave him not only a killer buzz, but also prolonged his life beyond what any other mortal has known, excluding Novakula. Whatever his doubts of the utility of living long enough to see old friends pop up in museums as mummies, or witness the bizarrely compelling spectacle of Katherine Harris, he’s learned a thing or two along the way. For one thing, he’s learned the importance of not letting morons run a country, having watched the Inca Empire suffer many civil wars requiring the eventual ruler to gain support from the priests and the national military. He now works during fleeting sober moments to build a vibrant progressive movement sufficiently strong and sustainable to drive a pointed stake through the heart of American “conservatism” forever. He enjoys a gay marriage, classic jazz and roots for the New York Mets.