Conspiracy and the Paranoid Center

Reason magazine’s Jesse Walker has coined the phrase “paranoid center” to highlight a widespread phenomenon:  The proneness of those on the center, despite their own patronizing dismissal of “conspiracy theories,” to moral panics about stuff they barely understand.  Remember all the manufactured media hysteria about “goths” after Columbine (“… and they watched The Matrix!”), with every kid in black eyeliner and a duster potentially some kind of homicidal racist?

And sometimes, the paranoid center’s paranoid conspiracism is focused on … paranoid conspiracists!

After the Pentagon shooting by John Bedell, a troubled man with a history of mental illness, David Neiwert immediately noted that he was “inflamed by far-right conspiracy theories.”  When Joe Stack crashed his plane into an IRS building and left behind a barely coherent manifesto, Josh Marshall laid the attack at the feet of the anti-government Right:  “Ideas,” he said, “Have Consequences.”

But that’s silly.  Both Stack and Bedell were classic specimens of our native species crankus americanus.  The views of each, as Jesse Walker noted, were “a personalized hodge-podge.”  Stack’s anti-tax views, in particular, apparently owed little to talk radio and Fox News.  The main trigger seems to have been that, as with many middle class people who fall afoul of the IRS enforcement bureaucracy, his life became a horror story of endless hearings and rulings by unaccountable administrative bodies, and endless run-ins with petty tyrants.  Most of his “manifesto” amounts to a sort of procedural brief, in excruciating detail, of the IRS’s irregularities in every single stage of his dealings with them.  If anything, Stack’s rage was exacerbated by some very left-wing resentments:  special tax breaks for powerful churches, multi-billion dollar bailouts for giant banks and auto manufacturers, and the like.

Obsessive attempts by people like Marshall to lay every act of politically motivated violence to the account of the anti-government ideology, are themselves a particularly paranoid and conspiratorial form of reductionism.

They remind me of a recurring argument I heard, growing up in the Baptist church: That the Baptists were the original New Testament church founded by Christ, and that they’d existed underground continuously during the period of Catholic hegemony.  To back up this astonishing claim, its advocates had to take every example of a heresy that practiced adult rebaptism and/or congregational self-government, and draw a timeline through them — regardless of whatever doctrinal tenets they held that would be considered abhorrent by modern Baptists.  For example, the radically gnostic Cathari, who on closer inspection could have been shown to believe that all things were lawful for the redeemed and that they were no longer subject to prohibitions against murder or adultery, were included in this hodgepodge “Baptist” lineage.

Similarly,  every attempt by an unhinged person to blow up or shoot up a government building, regardless of the idiosyncratic nature of his personal grievance, is obsessively combed over for any whiff of an anti-government slant so that it can be attributed to Them, and Marshall or Olbermann can triumphantly proclaim “See?  Ideas have consequences.”

In short, both the Baptists and people like Marshall and Olbermann — like conspiracy nuts — attempt to impose meaning on reality by reading a coherent narrative into random and unrelated events.

“Yeah, man, this guy believed some of the same things that those other guys believe, and then he went out and killed some people!  So their entire belief system must be the same, and he must be listening to their dog-whistle!  The truth is OUT THERE, man!”

That reasoning process, by the way, is exactly the same one used by Birchers to prove that anyone who talks about socialism is “really a communist.”  This or that word “really means” whatever the Communist Manifesto says, so by putting together different people’s use of different words in concatenation with selected quotes from the Manifesto, one can syllogistically deduce a hidden agenda the size of Texas.  It’s the same reasoning process that sends Glenn Beck, based on some particular word somebody uses, to feverishly scrawling dotted lines between people’s name on his chalkboard.  The possibility that a wide range of movements might use similar language in different ways, without it functioning as a secret Masonic handshake, is apparently too nuanced for such people.

Maybe, just maybe, we should consider evaluating ideas on their own merits rather than who they “sound like.”

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