Whirling fear breeds paranoia

To borrow a line from the 2001 comedy, Super Troopers, “Desperation is a stinky cologne.” In a commentary published last week by CNN.com, John Avlon discusses one of America’s smelliest organizations. In particular, he highlights the 2012 release of the National Rifle Association – Institute for Legislative Action’s “enemies list.”

The lis,t which includes dozens of professional organizations, charitable groups, celebrities and other prominent individuals is as Avlon notes, “Nixonian” in its character. Its existence speaks to the fact that their extremist politics are well out of step with the majority of Americans.

Thankfully, many Congressional reactionaries have come to understand that existence on the edges of political sanity are no longer quaint or endearing. To be sure, there are probably just as many radicals on the margins of the left, but few of them have the access, clout or pocketbooks available to groups like the NRA.

The NRA’s list itself is quite telling about the culture of paranoia. There are predictable listings: the American Bar Association; the ACLU; Public Citizen; the War and Peace Foundation. What’s more revealing are “enemies” who are there only through the jaundice of reductio ad absurdum: the YWCA; the U.S. Catholic Conference; the Methodist Church; the Mennonites; Hallmark Cards; the Kansas City Chiefs football team; Blue Cross and Blue Shield; Levi Strauss; Silver Dollar City amusement park; and the Sara Lee Corporation.

So, apparently, it’s not true — there is somebody who doesn’t like Sara Lee. When you’re so cloistered in your own paranoia that sponge cake, greeting cards and hillbilly music become the enemy, you need help.

We might then ask why conservative politicians so often use scare tactics to gain sympathy for their cause. A number of studies, including a recent one from Brown University, demonstrate that fear and conservatism are developmentally linked.

One of the study’s authors, Rose McDermott, clarifies the point, “It’s not that conservative people are more fearful, it’s that fearful people are more conservative. People who are scared of novelty, uncertainty, people they don’t know, and things they don’t understand, are more supportive of policies that provide them with a sense of surety and security.”

Give certain people a demon to fear and they will follow you on almost any fool’s errand.

Of course the predisposition to demon-casting isn’t uniquely American. There are many historic examples. The Great Terror in revolutionary France comes to mind. As does the Great Purge in the Soviet Union.

Evgenia Ginzburg, author of the acclaimed Journey into the Whirlwind, was a victim of the Purge. She served 18 years in the gulags for her alleged dissent.

In her book, she describes how the paranoia creeps: “The ‘Index’ grew longer and longer, and the scale of our auto da fé grander and grander. We even had to burn Stalin’s On the Opposition. This too had become illegal under the new dispensation.”

Of course we’ve seen something similar many times in America. Within a few decades of settling colonial America, the Puritans violently persecuted the Quakers. In early Hollywood, the Hays Code was used to blacklist malcontents. Then of course there was Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Some of his words are worth remembering: “I have here in my hand a list of 205 … a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department…”

We can contrast McCarthy with the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre’s remarks after the Newtown massacre: “The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters — people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them. They walk among us every day.”

Yes, the politics of fear are powerful. Yes, there are monsters among us — monsters who want you to be so afraid that you’ll believe anything.