The Paranoid Style in American Stenography

Often you see that things that look modern are really old. So it is with our theories of dark plots, dastardly machinations, and invisible grimoires.
More

Apparently a congressional stenographer snatched the mic in the gallery yesterday and went on something of a tear:

“He [God] will not be mocked,” the stenographer, apparently named Molly, yelled into the microphone as she was dragged off by security. “The greatest deception here is that this is not one nation under God. It never was. It would not have been. The Constitution would not have been written by Freemasons. They go against God. You cannot serve two masters. Praise be to God. Praise be to Jesus.”

As it just so happens, I've been going over Hofstadter's classic essay on paranoia in American politics. For me the most interesting portions of these kinds of books aren't the present but in the past. So often you see that things that look modern are really old. So it is with our theories of dark plots, dastardly machinations, and invisible grimoires.

In 1797, the volume Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free Masons, Illuminati and Reading Societies was published in Scotland (and later here in America). Its author, John Robinson, warned that unseen hands were militating toward "the express purpose of ROOTING OUT ALL THE RELIGIOUS ESTABLISHMENTS AND OVERTURNING ALL THE EXISTING GOVERNMENTS OF EUROPE." (His caps. Not mine.)

There's a strong anti-liberal slant to a lot of this work. Abbé Barruel, in 1798, published Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire du Jacobinisme in which he claimed that he could demonstrate that ...

... in the French Revolution, even the most dreadful of crimes, was foreseen, contemplated, contrived, resolved upon, decreed; that everything was the consequence of the most profound villainy, and was prepared and produced by those who alone held the leading threads of conspiracies long before woven in the secret societies, and who know how to choose and to hasten the favorable moments of their schemes....The circumstances may have served as pretext and opportunity, but the grand cause of the Revolution, of its great crimes, its huge atrocities, was always independent and self-contained, and it consisted in plots long hatched and deeply meditated.

What appeals to me about this writing—history aside—is the extremity of it. Its very similar to the style in Cannibals All, which I talked about a while back. Think about George Fitzhugh declaring, "If slavery be wrong, then the Bible cannot be true." Then dig the extreme rhetoric of  Yale President Timothy Dwight warning of a broad Jacobin conspiracy to undermine the Union:

All that the malice and atheism of the Dragon, the cruelty and rapacity of the Beast, and the fraud and deceit of the false Prophet can generate, or accomplish, swell the the list. No personal or national interest of man has been uninvaded; no impious sentiment or action has been spared...Shall we, my brethren, become partakers of these sins? Shall we introduce them into our government, our schools, our families? Shall our sons become the disciples of Voltaire, and the dragoons of Marat; or our daughters, the concubines of the Illuminati?

Wow. The Illuminati. Now that brings back memories. There was always a certain contingent among the "conscious" crowd back at my alma mater (The real HU. Holler at me on the yard this Homecoming, fam.) that believed the end times were upon us. Who would bring about these end-times? An arcane alliance of Masons, Trilaterals, Boulé, and of course the Illuminati. The result would be a New World Order—barcodes stamped on our arms, computer chips implanted in our children, and all mankind reduced to slavery. The warnings were all around us. The Republican revolution of 1994. The scourge of HIV. The hidden meanings in certain English words. The coming of Y2k. 

I was crazy back then—but not that crazy. Still it's funny how I thought that these guys—and it was always guys—were something special and different, when in reality, they were just another splinter of the same American mind. The bible for them was Behold a Pale Horse. Later I found out it was also the bible for right-wing survivalists.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

From This Author

Just In