The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse. (“Time is running out,” said [John Birch Society founder Robert] Welch in 1951. “Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month when Stalin will attack”).
As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.
Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.
The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman — sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced.
The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).
It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through “front” groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.
That description applies in equal parts to Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as to leading American neoconservatives, including some of the government’s most influential figures, and likely the President himself. At least in terms of these impulses, there really are virtually no distinctions between the mindset of the neoconservative Civilization Warriors and the Islamic extremists to whose eradication they are so devoted. While Dinesh D’Souza’s rancid book has been widely condemned as a result of its virtual endorsement of the worldview of violent Islamic radicals, identification with — and admiration for — the mindset and behavior of violent Islam is hardly confined to him.
Neoconservatives have long been speaking quite openly about the need for the U.S. to shed all of the values and constraints of civilization which have long guided and defined our country (at least aspirationally if not in fact) in order to match and copy the savagery of Islamic terrorists. The now infamous January, 2002 memorandum from Bush’s then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, addressed to President Bush, vividly illustrates this mindset. It was there that Gonzales helped lay the foundation for the array of the most extremist Bush policies by arguing:
As you have said, the war against terrorism is a new kind of war . . . In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.
The political values and precepts of civilization long embraced and advocated by America — not only for itself but for the world — were now obsolete and dismissed away as “quaint” relics of the past. George Bush was fighting to preserve our civilization, our very existence, and — just as was true for our Islamic enemies — we cannot tolerate any limitations on the means we employ, and, in any event, both the urgency and Rightness of the mission justifies any means used to fulfill it.
Their obsessions with displays of power and their (quite related) intense fear of being perceived as weak are, as Hofstadter documented so conclusively, more psychological and personal than political, and it is what binds them to the Islamic radicals who are driven by the same impulses (as Andrew Sullivan recently noted in response to a horrific story of a British Muslim man killing his whole family because the women wanted to be “too Western”: “So much of Islam’s violence seems to stem from men’s fear of losing control of women”).
Those consumed by feelings of their own weakness are always desperate to find ways to be perceived as strong. Seeking out and fighting wars (or, in the case of George Bush and his neoconservative comrades, cheering them on from a distance), is an ideal way to accomplish that. Conversely, in this mental paradigm, a willingness to negotiate and explore peaceful ways of conflict resolution is nothing more than a pitiful sign of weakness to be avoided at all costs.
Thus, when one reads any speech given by President Ahmadinejad, it becomes apparent that his views on the dynamics of international affairs and the need to show “strength” — as well as his understanding of what “strength” means — are, at their core, indistinguishable from those who have been governing our country for the last six years. None of that means that there is (or is not) a moral equivalency between the U.S. and Iran. But it does mean that the efforts on the part of our political leaders to descend to the levels of Middle Eastern tyrants and to model our behavior after theirs are proceeding with full force.