“The Paranoid Style in American Politics” has its 50th Anniversary

[One of my few blog entries on politics, and how it relates to psychology, sociology, and modern apocalyptic eschatology. Here is a full pdf version: Paranoid Style Turns 50_Shogren]

Because of his ability to describe and predict American political behavior, Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” should be required reading for the citizen. And except for Sacred Scriptures and the US Constitution, I never say any text should be mandatory. “Paranoid Style” was a short, dynamite article in the November 1964 issue of Harper’s, and is still available on their website archive. [1] We will look at some of its insights for today, and in particular, its implications for the evangelical church.

His immediate interest was the conservative movement that backed Barry Goldwater for president in the 1964 election. As a confirmed liberal of the old style, that is, to the left of typical Democrats of today, Hofstadter argued that he was not simply being anti-conservative – and that he was! – but rather: “I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing.”

I offer my own summary of the script of the “paranoid style”:

Nothing is what it seems to be: there are evil forces at work, carrying out their treacherous actions and shielding themselves from the attention of the general public;

I and a small group of whistle-blowers are even now revealing this hidden reality;

the proofs are extraordinarily complex and interwoven, but the central truth is simple and can be explained in a few sentences;

we who are “in the know” are continually hampered or even checkmated due to powerful enemies and widespread public apathy and gullibility.

“Nothing is what it seems to be – there are evil forces at work, carrying out their treacherous actions and shielding themselves from the attention of the general public”

conspiracy-theory-top-secretExamples from recent decades would have to include Senator Joe McCarthy, who argued that the loss of Eastern Europe and China to the Reds could not reasonably have happened by accident, or by normal political (more…)

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Published in: on December 19, 2014 at 7:29 pm  Comments (17)  
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“So I once knew a guy who…” Preachers who stretch the truth

A famous visiting preacher, the Rev. Johnson, is wrapping up his message on sacrificial love. He concludes with a story:

In the church where I used to be the pastor, there was a boy named Jimmy, 10 years old. He was good-hearted and liked by everyone in the neighborhood. One day Jimmy saw the little girl next door run out into the street after a lost ball, just when a truck came barreling towards her. Jimmy didn’t have to think twice – he dove into the street and pushed the girl out of the way, but not quickly enough so he could escape; the truck knocked Jimmy flat. The driver jumped down and held Jimmy while he was dying. Later, choking back the tears, he told the boy’s parents: “The last thing he said was, ‘Mister, tell my folks it’s okay; I just did what Jesus would have done.’”

The preacher’s voice catches as he tells the story; he concludes his message, and there is not a dry eye in the house.

You are so taken with this story that you try to track down more information. To your disappointment, you find out that the newspaper in that town had never run a story about anyone even resembling “Jimmy.” What’s more, the local police have no record of such an accident. So, you find out, Jimmy never said those words; he never saved that little girl; in fact, Jimmy never existed. It was all made-up; a gripping story, but untrue. [1] (For our purposes, we will use the word “untruth” rather than “lie”, since untruth is a broader category).

Given that the story had its desired effect – people left the building, dedicated to be more loving – was the preacher justified in inventing the story, even giving a name and composing the lad’s final words? Does the end justify the means? I will argue that he does not. Even further, can Rev. Johnson fall back on the defense, “Wellll now, it was just an illustration to make a point”? A news reporter would be fired for taking that same liberty.

Whether in sermons, political speeches or motivational talks I have sometimes sensed that a “true story” that “really happened” sounded just a little too perfect. I’ve wondered how come some preachers seem to have experiences that lend themselves neatly to sermon illustrations, while the events of my life don’t come out so tidy. I suspect I might be hearing a fiction or, as Hollywood assures us, a tale “based on a real story”.

To have your book recommended by Oprah’s Book Club is virtually a guarantee that sales will skyrocket. That’s what happened in 2005, when she announced that James Frey’s autobiography, A Million Little Pieces, was a must-read. The publisher advertised it as a “brutally honest” report. Frey wrote how he had been an outlaw, wanted in three states, in prison multiple times, on drugs, in a train accident, that is, he was living proof of what goes wrong when young people go astray. He sold millions of copies; but then much to Oprah’s chagrin, it turned out that the publisher had not properly verified the facts. Many of the key events were simply made-up: his only jail time was a few hours he spent in the local lockup while a friend arranged bail. [2] (more…)