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Paranoia and Patriotism

Leo Braudy
guyfawkes125.jpgEarly in November 2006, two days before the midterm elections, many in the UK celebrated the 401st anniversary of the attempt of Guy Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Because Fawkes and his co-conspirators were Catholic, his thwarted plan helped expand an already widespread English fear of Catholic military and political power. Then as now, Guy Fawkes Day was commemorated with bonfires, while seventeenth-century London added celebratory annual parades featuring a Pope-burning.

There was some reason for the fear: Louis XIV's Catholic France was the strongest military power in Europe, constantly eying England as a possible conquest. But most of all, anti-Catholicism in the century and more after Guy Fawkes Day was an instrument of British nationalism--us against them--that only began to dissipate when nations like France became more secular.

Paranoia still has its uses. Looking at the exit polls after the elections, analysts have pointed out how Iraq, anti-evolution, stem cell research, and gay marriage were some of the big concerns. Even while Democrats swept the House and the Senate, seven states voted in favor of defining marriage as only occurring between a man and a woman. (Arizona was the one state that defeated the proposition.)

Are these issues unrelated? For several years, I think, they have been bound together by a thread of fear: fear of an attack by Al Qaeda, fear that evolution contradicts God's plan for humans, fear that gay marriage and abortion is unnatural and will bring down God's wrath.

Of these attitudes, the first--perhaps the least deep-rooted--gradually began to be contradicted by facts. The government strategy, if strategy it was, to carry the fight away from our shores had backfired. It was hard for the Bush Administration to play both sides of that particular paranoia street: if Al Qaeda is so tied up in Iraq, where there are plenty of U.S. targets close by, doesn't that mean that its strategists are less likely to think further attacks against the States are worthwhile or useful?

Even at the time, it was possible to consider that the attack on the World Trade Center was a one-shot. The point had been made: the mighty USA is vulnerable and the failed 1993 attack had been made good. There was no follow-up because this is not that kind of war, with fall-back plans and continuing campaigns. It is the war of the fleeting against the stable, of the guerilla against the established army. And in such a war symbolism--the single grand event--is more telling than the protracted battle.

Sure, individuals might want to grab for themselves some of the martyr glory of the 9/11 attackers, but such events are few and far between. Not only did they succeed in their own eyes by attacking the World Trade Center, they continue to win by the fumbling efforts of Homeland Security to protect us, invariably closing the barn door after the horse is gone, always reacting to the last emergency as if it predicts the future, succeeding only in increasing the deficit and the general level of paranoia.

As the English anti-Catholicism of the seventeenth century implies, in times of strife, whether personal or national, we often fall back on simple ideas to express our fears. Wartime in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, for example, brought forth frequent hysterical reports of monstrous births: half man and half woman, with a cow's hoof and perhaps an eyeball in the kneecap thrown in to complete the picture. God was trying to tell us something, wrote the sage interpreters. The world was in disarray, and we needed to fix it, restore the proper authority, win the war, make sure men and women stayed in their appropriate gender roles, etc. Whatever the anxiety was, the monstrous birth could symbolize it.

Have we actually progressed much beyond that world? Similar sages in our own time were eager to elaborate on the religious implications of the Indonesian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. And I remember a tabloid not too long ago that featured on its cover the gay marriage of Sadaam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, both dressed fetchingly in silk and lace. It was a joke, but a joke that had some mythic truth buried in it. Does evolution imply we are part-animal, part-human? Does gay marriage imply that heterosexuality is only one choice among others? Few people against evolution or gay marriage would acknowledge that their opposition comes from the fear of monstrous births. But in times of anxiety and paranoia, facts have little weight compared to these darker images from the depths of the human imagination.

The anxiety about Iraq and terrorism dissolved first because there are practical, real-world facts coming through to us on a daily basis. Many of those reports show that we are not doing what we claimed to be doing, and that the situation is constantly getting worse, or at least no better. There are policies to be altered and strategies to be reassessed. There are individuals who have made bad decisions who need to be replaced. There is hot rhetoric that has to take the icy bath of reality.

The turn against the anti-evolutionists by many school board candidates, and the increasing openness to stem cell research, may similarly indicate a willingness to face fears with facts, and data about the successes of children raised by gay parents may do the same.

But my point is not that cold reason is always the answer, for bloodless logic can make as many mistakes as bloody-mindedness.

Paranoia helps create patriotism because it is easier to call the enemy the Other than it is to meet him on any ground suitable for understanding. There will always be zealots who are irreconcilable and prefer the safety of their self-righteousness. But the unity of a country, especially ours, should not be based on fear and insecurity. Do we really share values in common as a country, or are we just huddled together and scared? In the recent past the lack of national consensus on many domestic issues helped usher onto the national stage primordial fears that created a paranoid coherence. It would be warming to think, as we face the New Year, that other daylights might be dawning.

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