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America's maddening paranoia

Suspiciousness and conspiracy fears have been part of our politics for decades, but the attacks on Obama's back-to-school speech are especially depressing.

September 09, 2009

Stop the presses! In addressing the nation's schoolchildren on Tuesday, President Obama did not enlist them in the international communist conspiracy or even in a kiddie crusade on behalf of a public option in health insurance. Instead, the president's back-to-school speech was a pep talk combining the tenacity of Vince Lombardi ("The story of America isn't about people who quit when things got tough") and the tenderness of Mister Rogers ("Every single one of you has something that you're good at").

In the words of Jim Greer, the chairman of the Florida Republican Party, "it's a good speech. It encourages kids to stay in school and the importance of education. ..." This is the same Jim Greer who had warned that Obama wanted to "indoctrinate America's children to his socialist agenda." He justified his turnabout by citing (minor) changes in a lesson plan distributed to schools in connection with the speech. But even if the White House had stuck to the original wording of the materials -- which asked students to "write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president" -- Greer's rant would have been out of bounds.

Though inspired by the healthcare debate, the fear-mongering also reflects what historian Richard Hofstadter called the "paranoid style in American politics," an ancient, exasperating form of discourse consisting of "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy." Although he was writing during the ascendance of Goldwater Republicanism in the early '60s, Hofstadter argued that political paranoia was "not necessarily right-wing." Indeed, conspiracy theories also flourish on the left. This week, Obama accepted the resignation of Van Jones, his advisor on "green" jobs, after reports that Jones had signed a petition questioning whether the Bush administration may have "deliberately allowed 9/11 to happen, perhaps as a pretext for war." For every kook who trembles at the government's secret plan to build an illegal immigrant highway, there's another who believes Texas oilmen killed President Kennedy.

Why has the paranoid mentality become so prevalent and so insidious this summer? Some argue that Obama's exotic background engenders a special animosity. But George W. Bush also was outfitted with a metaphorical Hitler mustache. More likely, the rise in ideological "journalism" on cable TV and the Internet has exaggerated the natural skepticism with which Americans always have viewed their leaders.

That may be inescapable in a nation that once settled political disputes with duels and whose Founding Fathers were no strangers to scurrilous attacks. Still, it's depressing that the tenor of today's politics is such that some Americans spy a conspiracy when the president welcomes children back to school.

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