Racism And Other Paranoid Delusions

The dissatisfaction of disenfranchised Americans has often taken the form of grandiose paranoia, but that reliable pastime seems to have reached unprecedented levels since the election of President Obama. Why?

Can it be that more Americans than ever are feeling diminished and powerless, and so turn to caricatures of group identities to explain the workings of the country and world?

Can it be that business interests have not taken responsibility for their central role in the punctured economy, nor have they stopped purchasing excessive influence in government -- and that people increasingly mistake these inherent flaws in the "free-market" system as externalities, intruding upon "their" world?

Can it be that any events, big and small, near and far, current and past, can be endlessly and shallowly associated with only a Google or two, that discernment has declined as access to all grades of information has exploded?

All of the above probably apply.

Given today's favorable environment for lazy summarization, it can be tempting to look at the domestic extremism of the far right and presume a whole raft of xenophobic ideologies and motivations apply to each within the group. That would be unfair, yet, as time goes on and as domestic extremism becomes starker, some things do become apparent about it.

One aspect that has become clear with this week's murder by a racist paranoiac of Stephen Tyrone Johns, security guard at the Holocaust Museum, is that paranoia and racism have more in common than we might have guessed.

For racism is itself a paranoid delusion: an ethos of ignorant, unqualified presumptions, made at a distance, based exclusively on identity.

And it's this same ethos -- distance, ignorance, lack of qualification, and obsession with group identity -- that fuels the modern paranoia ecosystem from conservative talk radio to Fox News pundits to skinhead websites to bizarre email forwards from gullible, credulous family members.

What gives pause is the degree today to which the disenfranchised themselves now seem to be in a race with business interests to pollute the cognitive landscape and trample the public interest. In the same way mass marketing and advertising allures with sensational promises of happiness condensed into a purchase or a vote, paranoia allures with sensational promises of broad understanding condensed into summary conspiracy theories.

And that's a tragedy not for what it creates but for what it obscures. There are truckloads of legitimate reasons to inquire into the nature of our economic system, to question the roles of its components and challenge the institutional secrecy thrown up around the public's bailout of the banking system. The legitimacy of these inquiries couldn't be more badly damaged than when they become associated with delusional paranoia, as James von Brunn, Federal Reserve opponent, managed to do this week. It was the least of his crimes to be sure, but the most sadly indicative of our discourse.