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As the popularity of The X-Files suggests, Americans find paranoia strangely exhilarating. This is nothing new

by James Surowiecki

April 30, 1997

The American political system from its earliest days has been haunted by a paranoiac spirit and troubled by the idea of conspiracy. The rabid attacks on the so-called Illuminati which swept the country at the time of the French Revolution, the anti-Masonry and anti-Catholicism of the antebellum years, the attribution of demonic powers to Jewish bankers by Western farmers during the Populist era -- these all cultivated the same ideological terrain that has since been worked by Joe McCarthy, Pat Robertson, Timothy McVeigh, and Oliver Stone. In a country defined by its lack of definition, conspiracy theory has been a means of making sense of the world. If from one perspective America looks like a nation where anything goes, from another it looks like a place where nothing goes at all unless a secret cabal wants it to. Paranoia, one might say, is in the American grain.
One might even argue that political paranoia is the mirror image of Emersonian self-invention. Where Emerson exalted America's independence from the past and from Europe, and embraced the need for the constant re-creation of the self, conspiracy theorists instead see a nation in thrall to outside forces. Paranoids, after all, always know exactly who they are: the ones whom the evil forces are trying to destroy. There's no uncertainty. If Emerson chose contingency, paranoids choose determinism.

Not surprisingly, American political paranoia has often been read as a kind of escape from freedom. Richard Hofstadter, in his seminal essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" (1965), saw the paranoid's unremitting manichaeism and embrace of apocalyptic thinking as evidence of an unwillingness to accept the responsibility of living in an imperfect and uncertain world. If one buys Hofstadter's argument, it only makes sense, then, that in this postindustrial, postmodern world -- where more and more of the traditional signals of identity and political allegiance have been lost, where nations seem at times to have become simple rest stops for the flow of multinational capital, and where information has become the most powerful commodity there is -- conspiracy theories should continue to find fertile ground. One of the striking things about the public discourse on politics and the economy, after all, is how impotent people say they feel, how distant the levers of power seem to them. Many people simply feel irrelevant.

One of the great comforts of paranoia is that it puts you at the center of the story -- and even if that center is dangerous, being there is better than being left out. If one lives in the inner city, might it not make more sense to believe that crack use is the result of a government conspiracy than to believe it's the product of a nation that just doesn't care one way or the other? And if one is losing one's farm, wouldn't it be easier to blame that fact on the bankers' manipulation of the money supply rather than on an impersonal market that made one's work redundant? Paranoia provides not only an explanation but also a potential solution. If, as Hofstadter would have it, at the heart of the paranoid style is "the existence of a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character," then exposing and destroying that network is the key to the new world. That's not an easy task, since the conspiracy's defining characteristics are its overwhelming power and its stunning ability to dissimulate. But at least it's a task that gives one purpose.

It's also a task that has been at the center of some of the most interesting products of American culture in the postwar era -- for example, films such as the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the oddly prescient The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and the searing Seven Days in May (1964), all of which articulated the anxieties of the politically placid Eisenhower and Kennedy years. It took the turmoil of the 1960s, though, to let paranoia really develop as a style, both in American film and, perhaps more lastingly, in the fiction of such writers as Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. For Pynchon, in fact, paranoia ends up being the last resort of the individual: the only way to recognize oneself is to recognize the system that's targeting one. And in a world of COINTELPRO (the FBI's counterintelligence effort against the full spectrum of protest groups), secret invasions of Cambodia, and regular revelations about CIA covert activities, it might have been harder not to believe in conspiracies than to accept them.

America's public infatuation with paranoia disappeared sometime in the mid 1970s -- because the Vietnam War ended, or because of Jaws and Star Wars, or because the elite finally ended up controlling everything. But things have changed back again, at least if the newfound popularity of the TV series The X-Files is any indication. Fox Mulder, the FBI agent whose unswerving quest for evidence of alien life on earth is at the heart of The X-Files, is the perfect embodiment of the paranoid style. His understanding of the world creates order out of chaos, replaces ambiguity with utter clarity, and sees malevolent purpose where other people see only mistakes or flukes. For Mulder everything in the world makes sense. People just haven't yet found enough information (probably because it's being hidden from them) to figure it all out. The fabled X-Files themselves -- secret government files documenting the state's knowledge of and role in covering up the presence of alien life forms on earth -- are the perfect emblem of Mulder's certainty that everything is certain. If he had the X-Files he would know. Or, rather, since he already knows, if he had the X-Files he would be able to convince everybody else.

It's tempting to see The X-Files as a kind of extended gloss on the thesis Hofstadter offered in "The Paranoid Style." As Hofstadter put it, "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." A recent episode of The X-Files which documented the story of the Cancer Man, Mulder's chief nemesis, was a wonderful elucidation of this perspective: the Cancer Man, it turned out, had been involved in covert activities in Guatemala and Vietnam, had assassinated JFK and Martin Luther King Jr., had covered up the presence of aliens, had been involved in the S&L crisis and the Rodney King case, and, most remarkably of all, had made sure that the Buffalo Bills would never win the Super Bowl.

The X-Files eerily illuminates the peculiar exhilaration of paranoia, of recognizing that contingency can be replaced with certainty. The dilemma the show presents, in the end, is that paranoia does not seem entirely inappropriate at a time when the reins of power increasingly seem to be slipping from the hands of ordinary citizens. Certainly the attempt to think about global capitalism as a system rather than merely as a haphazard collection of different local solutions is a valuable one. And in that sense The X-Files probably pushes us in the right direction, away from utter contingency and from apathy. (This might be termed the "Fox Mulder is Noam Chomsky with a Glock 9-mm" thesis.) But the show also pushes us in the wrong direction by making Mulder essentially a lone wolf, a man who works with no one but his partner, Scully. He seems to have no faith at all in the democratic process, no trust in the press. If the conspiracy is really as powerful as Mulder thinks it is, only collective action can change it. Only some version of democracy can stand up against it. But democracy necessarily involves some measure of compromise -- and there is very little room for that when Armageddon looms.


James Surowiecki is a freelance writer who has written for such publications as Lingua Franca, The Village Voice, and The Boston Phoenix.

Discuss the American paranoid spirit in the
Community & Society forum of Post & Riposte.

See last month's American Graffiti column, "Suburbia"

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