1963

 

 

Richard Hofstadter delivered his now-famous talk , “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” at Oxford on November 21, 1963, the day before the Kennedy assassination. [1]  Such fortuitous timing really should be the basis of its very own conspiracy theory, but, to the best of my knowledge, no one has gone looking on the Grassy Knoll for signs of a Hofstadter connection.  Published a year later in Harper’s Magazine, it would serve as the anchor to an essay collection of the same title in 1965.  Though now widely criticized by conspiracy scholars, it is still their most frequent point of departure. While Hofstadter’s essay is unquestionably valuable on its own terms, its time of origin and publication are part of the reason “The Paranoid Style” is still the center of gravity in conspiracy studies:  it coincided with the American conspiracy’s primal scene, the Kennedy Assassination, and was thoroughly engaged with the hysterical political climate that followed.

Hofstadter’s essay, while examining a trend he saw in more than one time period in American history, was a response to Barry Goldwater’s campaign for the presidency, a campaign with strong support from the anti-communist fringe John Birch Society.  Goldwater’s campaign was widely seen as extremist, a term that the candidate himself did not entirely disavow (as he said when accepting the Republican nomination, “Extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice!”).  Whatever one might think of Hofstadter’s broader claims, the 2016 presidential campaign demonstrates how timely his essay has become once again. 

It is Hofstadter who brought  “conspiracy” and “paranoia”  into  the contemporary political and cultural lexicon.  This is due in no small part to Hofstadter’s eloquence and clarity, but also, once again, to timing: whether or not a “paranoid” style was perennial in American history, it seemed self-evident in the mid-1960s. Central to Hofstadter’s paranoid style is “the feeling of persecution,” which is “systematized in grandiose theories of conspiracy,” along with a tendency to see the enemy as a “perfect model of malice'":

  • The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a “vast” or “gigantic” conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade. The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms.[2]

Thus Hofstadter, like Popper before him, proposes a model of conspiracy theorizing whose persuasiveness is based on an intelligent restatement of an idea that immediately appears obvious (but that the reader might not have come up with on her own).  Hofstadter restates what we already know, but might not be aware of knowing. 

Since Hofstadter’s time, a number of scholars (most notably Peter Knight, Jack Z. Bratich, Brian L. Keeley and Michael Barkun) have developed much more sophisticated models of conspiracy theories, thanks to the insights of modern media theory, poststructuralism, and cultural studies, not to mention the thematic primacy of conspiracy in post-Hofstadter mass culture.  After paying deference to Hofstadter, they all take issue with his chosen term: the paranoid style.  

On Wednesday:  A Paranoid Style Guide

Notes

[1] Probably less than a day, considering the time difference; Kennedy was shot at 12:30 Central Time.

[2] All quotes from Hofstadter are taken from the ebook edition of The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays.  I'll find the page numbers for the dead tree edition when my publisher forces me to.