As the President conducts his lonely campaign to remind us of the ongoing murderous assault of Americans against Americans, and as the Senate gun bill is stripped of automatic weapons limitations, we are brought up against some sad and serious truths about our society.
It is not the “nut with a gun” who is the real problem, but the “gun nuts” among us, trading on rampant, untreated American paranoia.
Given the current state of national politics—formerly “the art of the possible”—is it even “possible” to envision a significant change in gun policy? Is it possible to imagine an event leading to a moment of reckoning? An incident so horrifying, so apocalyptic, with so many people slaughtered by “a nut with a gun,” that we would actually do something about it? Are you crazy? No! We are Americans, and Americans do not kowtow to anyone, especially nuts. To “give up our rights” because of the twenty dead first-graders at Newtown, or perhaps even a few hundred more, is just not our style.
What is that style? It was identified by Richard Hofstadter in his 1964 article, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. He starts by telling us that “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” and proceeds to review the long xenophobic history of American politicians who create bogeymen in order to “leverage” the “animosities and passions of a small minority” into votes and policies. It’s a short article (use your search engine), and well worth reading. Its main defect is its conception of the paranoid style as political, when in fact it pervades our entire culture. Perhaps that was not true in 1964; but it is now.
Cultural paranoia allows people to suspect the worst of each other, to imagine the most terrifying scenario, to harbor irrational fears of invasion and dispossession. Hofstadter saw this paranoid style in terms of certain individuals (say, McCarthy) who would evoke “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” for their own (political) ends. Today these qualities seem ingrained in the body politic, preventing the two major parties from finding any basis for cooperation, in Congress or elsewhere. We see it, and see it reinforced, in terms of race and class, in newspapers, the TV news and news-rant programs, the cop shows and the murder shows, the Internet, everywhere—a many-headed conspiracy to dispossess us, to reduce us to un-armed helplessness. Broad-based, deep-seated American paranoia rules our culture. Translated to the “gun-control” issue, and institutionalized by the position of the NRA, it constantly reminds Congress and the President of its powerful grip on certain voters (90+ guns per 100 people in America) and its potentially lethal effects on political careers.