Hofstadter Quote of the Day

As mentioned yesterday, I’ve been reading Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics.

Part of what I’m enjoying about Hofstadter is the way he does not seem to be out to get anyone or any party, but is simply describing and thinking about the way people behave. In this, there is something reminiscent of Joan Didion’s political writing.

Here’s what he means by “paranoid style” (hint: he’s not actually diagnosing anyone as paranoid).

“I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. …

He gives an example from 1963 that sounds like it could be from last week:

“Shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy, a great deal of publicity was given to a bill … to tighten federal controls over the sale of firearms through the mail …. Now there are arguments against the … bill which, however unpersuasive one may find them, have the color of conventional political reasoning. But one [person] opposed it with what might be considered representative paranoid arguments, insisting that it was “a further attempt by a subversive power to make us part of one world socialistic government” and it threatened to “create chaos” that would help “our enemies” sieze power.”

I like the reminder that reasonable people can disagree about such a bill, but unreasonable people will also make themselves heard, so it’s important not to lump the former in with the latter. In any political disagreement, there are those who-thought they hold a contrary viewpoint to yours about some specific issue-are still in touch with the reality of the situation, and so may be counted on to be reasonable in the discussion and might be willing to compromise on a solution.

The “paranoid”-as Hofstadter defines them-might not be.

“Of course, the term “paranoid style” is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than for good. But nothing entirely prevents a sound program or a sound issue from being advocated in the paranoid style, and it is admittedly impossible to settle the merits of an argument because we think we hear in its presentation the characteristic paranoid accents. Style has to do with the way in which ideas are believed and advocated rather than with the truth or falsity of their content.” [my emphasis]

Keeping this in mind, I’m going to do my best to remember that what counts is the content of ideas, not what “team” they come from.

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