Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The triumphant return of the Paranoid Style

A favourite insult of mine is a Bart Simpson coinage: “Assbutt.” This beautifully economical and redundant epithet at once conveys, with its semantic doubling, utter contempt and a scornful dismissiveness—the person on the receiving end is not worth a fouler combination of oaths, but is nevertheless an ass to the power of two.

I rarely have occasion to employ this choice insult, but lately an exemplary candidate keeps stepping up to the plate. Ladies and gentlemen: Glenn Beck of Fox News. Assbutt extraordinaire.

Yes, yes, I have been harping on this sort of thing for the last few months. After the last post on El Rushbo, I promised myself I’d get back to more personal posts and try to distance myself a little from the insanity and inanity (and Hannity) of the Fox News Alternative Universe. But it seems I’m having a Pacino moment: every time I try to get out, they pull me back in.

Truth be told however, I’m a little grateful to Assbutt and his compatriots at Fox and on the right side of the aisle in Congress. Grateful because their bloviating has taken a decidedly conspiratorial and paranoid turn. Beck is in the vanguard, but is by no means the only voice in the chorus. All of the Obama Administration’s moves, from the stimulus package to the budget to the firing of GM’s Rick Wagoner to his actions at the G20 summit, are all being characterized as evidence that the United States is moving toward totalitarianism of some form—socialist, communist, fascist, it’s unclear. But certainly, the government will be coming for YOU very soon.

Why is this good for me? As it happens, this sort of behaviour—what historian Richard Hofstadter termed the “paranoid style”—is sort of my specialty. I wrote my dissertation on representations of conspiracy and paranoia in postwar American fiction, film, and popular culture. Since defending my thesis in September 2004, I have made a handful of half-hearted attempts to return to it and rewrite it for publication in book form. There’s a sort of window of opportunity to do this: the longer you take, the more cringe-inducing your own writing becomes to you, and the more like probing the nerve of a tooth it becomes. Also, I had the added strike of having written on a more or less contemporary topic, and with the passage of time I became increasingly concerned that the whole conspiracy theory thing was becoming passé.

Because honestly, when you think of it, there was not a great deal of conspiracy-mongering happening during the Bush years. Oh, there was the usual expected fulminations, most notably with regards to 9/11—an event that big and that shattering will attract conspiracy theorists like moths to a flame. There was however very little in the way of cultural production: not much in terms of film, almost nothing in fiction, and television series pretty much universally reversed the conspiratorial trajectory of The X-Files, shifting the locus of conspiracy from inside the government to external threat (mostly, anyway—the current season of 24 is bringing it back within U.S. shores in the form of a Blackwater-style private militia). In fact, as I tended to say wistfully, the Bush Administration sort of negated the conspiratorial frisson by being so bald-faced in its malfeasance. It made one nostalgic for carefully calculated cover-ups of Nixon or Reagan.

However, all that seems to have changed. Spearheaded by Beck, but supported by the other talking heads at Fox and by such political types as Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) and Newt Gingrich, the Paranoid Style seems to be making a triumphant return. We saw the first grumblings of it during the presidential campaigns: Obama the secret Muslim, Obama the Manchurian Candidate, Obama In League With Terrorists and the Plot To Put Bill Ayers In The Cabinet, and so forth.

All that however, which might well be dismissed as simply the kind of mud one sees slung in any election, was just the warmup; since Inauguration Day, the self-appointed Paranoid Spokesmen (and women) have really been hitting their stride. And they’re doing so in interesting, albeit a little scary, ways.

I’ve been culling examples for the last few days from the news, from blogs, and online sources with an eye to possibly writing something on this topic. Certainly, I will need a new introduction to the thesis to address the years intervening between my defense and finally picking up the threads again; I’m also considering an article for a media studies journal, but am not yet sure if what I’ve been seeing will have the substance for it. I do want to offer commentary in some forum, however, so I thought I might make use of my blog as something different: a space for working through some of the issues and ideas. I’ll throw stuff up against the wall here, in other words, and see what sticks. So for the next few posts: the paranoid style redux!


Matt said...

A necessary footnote, provided by Stephen "Ready" Colbert:


Steve said...

If you want to hear Glenn Beck mocked on a semi-regular basis, I highly recommend the "Comedy and Everything Else" podcast hosted by Jimmy Dore, Stefane Zambarano and Todd Glass.