“Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”
— Joseph Heller
Early on in one of the first episodes of The X-Files, dozens of people are burned to death. This of course involves an alien spacecraft and a government cover-up.
Our heroes, Scully and Mulder go to the hospital and an emergency room doctor verbally lashes out at them acidly complaining about the federal agents he had to deal with, calling them – jackbooted fascist thugs.
Mulder is incensed and defends them.
It’s a small moment within the vast arc that comprises the show.
Here one must distinguish between the show as it exists in the popular culture; in the zeitgeist and as it exists in the bank accounts of Fox – the corporation, not the federal agent.
It has always been one of the shows most difficult conceits – that willing suspension of disbelief, that even more than aliens & Co. requires either the willing suspension or ignorance. After all, Scully and Mulder not only work for the government – for the man – but they work for a branch of the machine that is so shit-stained it must surely rank as one of history’s greatest ironies, that the show managed to make the F.B.I if not cool, then at least not vomitessly unpalatable. Scully and Mulder are, ironically, the antidote to the blunt truth of J. Edgar Hoover.
But what was at work in that scene where Mulder defends the honor of the Hoovers and by extension the rest of the bureaucratic contraption?
The show premiered in the early 90s. As has been discussed elsewhere and in depth and often ad nauseum, this was the illusory era of Post Cold War Peace Dividends, and the wondrous future guaranteed by the advent of the internet. But before we allow the manipulative fog of nostalgia to fuck us over, it is important to remember that this was also the era of Ruby Ridge, Waco and eventually Timothy McVeigh and Newt Gingrich, and an attempted coup disguised as impeachment.
And in this fevered happy place the internet provided a way for people who had previously been isolated to connect with each other, and in doing so they were able to say – hey that weird thing also happened to me.
That weird thing covered a wide spectrum from my neighbor collects old beer cans and names them, to my uncle once slept on Babe Ruth’s couch and stole his shoes…to…no I can’t explain why I have no memory of the last three days, or what my brother was doing during the time he worked for the government, but I do have his notes that describe his time working in something called MK Ultra…
An example of this is an episode in which Scully and Mulder investigate a child molestation and satanic ritual event.
The F.B.I. did in fact investigate events like that and concluded that it was overwhelmingly about hysteria.
But there is a nexus here. It is a straightforward idea: Essentially the government has lost credibility – except with professional cynics who are employed either directly by the government or as adjuncts in the commintarriat and thus have a corrupt symbiotic relationship with the government, and are paid to pretend the government is viable and may lie from time to time but that at its core it is a solid institution. That leaves the fanatics who of course are immune to facts and will willingly follow the government off a cliff and the benign but ignorant who might be susceptible to information but tend to not give it any thought.
Within that there is a deeper issue that goes uncontextualized. While it is relatively easy to dismiss Alex Jones and similar types as only paranoid, and to correctly identify their rhetoric as being no different from the gutter level of blaming the Jews and leftists for burning the Reichstag, the more nuanced cultural archeology, reveals that the well documented mendacity and crimes of the government both domestically (i.e.& e.g., COINTELPRO) and internationally (i.e. & e.g., Operation Paperclip and Gladio) represent a lethal and terminal break between faith in the inherent goodness of the government, and the truth – that it is at best a blunt machine that steps on lives indiscriminately, and at worst, does so with conscious and deliberate sadism.
Add to that already volatile mix the economic thunder dome and the sense that capitalism could just as easily be defined as organized crime, and you have a kind of Petri dish in which the sense that you are living in a kind of vast gulag seems perfectly logical. In other words read Pynchon with Hammett and Chandler as footnotes or, visa versa.
What goes undiscussed in this different focus, is that the extreme right, despite its ad hoc mixture of fact and fantasy, end up echoing the (generally) far more sophisticated denunciations of the system found among left and left of center intellectuals. From Philip K Dick to Thomas Pynchon there has, and continues to be a culture-wide rejection of the myths that form in and around the meta-myth of American Exceptionalism. But to offer Pynchon or others as evidence of something being fundamentally wrong with the system, is to be denounced as conspiratorial and to be lumped in with Alex Jones & co.
That this is the standard response of both reactionary liberals as well as conservatives should surprise no one. Both represent the truth of Gore Vidal’s observation that there is one political party in America – The Wall Street Party with a liberal (democratic) and a conservative (republican) wing. Both deny the complexity of the criticism, and its truth.
Into this vortex comes the X-Files.
But via the internet (and the X-Files was really the first internet show – pre smart phone and full of what now seem like quaint pre-tech devices like Mulder’s slide projector) people can communicate their experience of and with that sense of connection to others as it has played out in their lives. They can share their delusions and paranoia and of course their experiences in which the government acted brutally, illegally, stupidly and then, lied about it.
But still, there is something ironic and odd, mysterious even in that moment when Mulder defends the goon squad, and scares the doctor into retreating from his assertion that the government is full of fascists.
Fox – the network – of course has a hand in this. Its base, its core demographic were and always have been the disenfranchised or those who fear becoming disenfranchised, and have had nothing but rough betrayal at the hands of the government or are firmly entrenched as beneficiaries of that betrayal – screaming about it while cashing checks because of it (we’re looking at you O’Reilly and Hannity). Spend enough time with U.S. Army veterans and sooner or later the stories begin to multiply and cover the same ground – moments of hilariously funny deadpan, bureaucratic, institutionalized weirdness, acts of singular courage, acts of singular stupidity and, stories of things that can not be explained but do not, because they are inexplicable, mean that the government is run by lizards or is covering up evidence of aliens, but do mean that any sensible person with some sort of passing familiarity with history will not be surprised at the number of times you hear believable stories about…government goons engaged in illegal activities that are then covered up all along the watchtower and along the bureaucratic food chain.
For example The Ink recalls conversations with a Pentagon subcontractor – a civilian – who was tasked with analyzing the cost overruns in a massive construction project for a new high tech wiz-bang ship for the navy. There was not a hint of anything extraterrestrial about the conversations, though the contractor did enjoy very expensive well-refined weed and also told fascinating stories about all the things that went bump in the night, and vanished into the dark corners of the vast imperial machinery, where no one knows your name or even what day of the week it is.
We offer up this small anecdote not as an indictment per se but rather as a banal example of a system that does two things. One, it lies, all the time about almost everything and does so with a sense of it being banal. And two, it has zero credibility because…see item number one.
Behind this aspect of more or less benign systemic sloth and mendacity, there is of course something far more sinister. That is the well researched history of pure evil and blind pig incompetence displayed by the seemingly never ending cadres of weasels and sadistic pig fuckers, who think it’s a good idea to dope people with LSD, without telling them, to blitz them with radiation, without telling them, to infect them with syphilis, without telling them, and then to spend decades telling lies about it and then to lie about massacres in other countries, that it perpetrated or abetted, to fabricate reasons for wars, to stage coups, to infiltrate churches, mosques, synagogues, and universities to keep an eye on…subversives…to read your private correspondence, to listen to your phone calls, and to keep you under surveillance every minute of every day resulting in the criminalization of constitutionally protected rights.
Which then cease to have any meaning or usefulness. And creates an atmosphere of falsity –
Which bring us to a learned scholarly man named Richard Hofstadter who was onto something important in one of his seminal pieces, The Paranoid Style in American Politics:
Hofstadter is blunt in his program – he is directly calling out the toxic demagogues guilty of ginning up a dangerous mob frenzy that threatens everyone – a roving gang of goons who seem to be competing for winner of the best jape contest, but rather than be childish they mean to kick ass and take names. And he is keen to illustrate the longevity of this toxin – that it was there at the beginning and, as of 1964 when he wrote the essay, it shows no signs of being eradicated.
Hofstadter is fairly meticulous in his analysis. He is clear in his efforts to outline the origin of this particular strain of political paranoia, and provides three examples working backwards from the foaming-at-the-mouth overheated rhetoric of Joe McCarthy in 1951 to the Populist Party in 1895 and the fears of a Texas newspaper in 1855.
All three provide a glimpse into paranoia and anger. All three he rightly points out reveal a common thread – the denunciation of a vast conspiracy behind which lurks evil and dupes who are out to wreck and steal your rights, your prosperity and your virtue. And if not for the brave demagogue we’re all pretty much fucked. The villains in these set-pieces change – the Illuminati, the Masons, the Commies, the Catholics, the Jews, and more recently the Muslims – but what is constant is the hysterical denunciation of a conspiracy – always vast, always sinister, treacherous and if not checked and utterly crushed, will result in catastrophe.
That Hofstadter was a liberal is crucially important. That the liberals triangulate both the left and the extreme right by filtering them through the prism of profiling their accusations as only paranoia is both accurate and a distinction without a difference. But the liberals cannot, and will not admit that there is any legitimacy to the accusations because to do so would be to admit that not only is the system rigged, but that the liberals are complicit in its crimes.
For example here is Tailgunner Joe McCarthy in 1951 as quoted by Hofstadter:
“How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, which it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men. . . . What can be made of this unbroken series of decisions and acts contributing to the strategy of defeat? They cannot be attributed to incompetence. . . . The laws of probability would dictate that part of . . . [the] decisions would serve the country’s interest.”
There are two keys to this. The first is the assertion that things – our present situation – is dire and that precisely because it is so bad it must be the result of (secret, thus conspiratorial) actions taken by men with vast power. Thus, without proof, he plays to atavistic anxiety, ignores probabilities or actual evidence that would undermine his point and drops the hammer – the laws of probability – preclude any other conclusion.
As long as the math is being handled by a half-wit alcoholic goon.
Far be it from The Ink to defend Joe or even in any way whitewash his legacy. We leave that to neo-fascist white-collar thugs at The National Review. (and we also note that the call to arms over things being bad and getting worse is not confined to the demagogues of the right and is not that far removed from the same sense of calamity described, darkly and with grave foreboding by Philip Roth):
However, while we have a great deal of respect for the late Mr.Hofstadter there is a problem that needs addressing. And it breaks down into two parts.
First, McCarthy was speaking six years after the end of the last world war. From Auschwitz to Hiroshima, from the (impossible and shock to the system) fall of France to the Bataan Death March, from Stalingrad to the Nuremberg Trials, the world was beaten into a state of crouching, paranoid anxiety full of swamp-dwelling, knuckle-dragging atavistic malignant trolls of such apocalyptic fury and evil, that accusing the average person of being paranoid in the face of some jackass like McCarthy screaming at them that the Commies were going to gang rape them, and pour molten borscht down their throats would seem absurd precisely because, it really wasn’t any more far-fetched than the litany of catastrophic things that really had all just happened.
Yes, we know that the American Communist Party was a bad joke more likely to fail at kidnapping Moose and Squirrel than to succeed in overthrowing the government, but once you have woken up to a headline that says six and a half million people were rounded up and sent to extermination camps, and the chief architect of this atrocity was a third rate artist with an out-of-date Charlie Chaplin mustache, prone to speaking fits of such hysteria he seemed more likely to die from a seizure than a bullet, exactly what is your criteria for too much paranoia versus precisely the correct amount? Additionally, Hofstadter forgets, or succeeds in not mentioning, that one of the bedrock articles of faith in the war that had just ended, was the existence of vast conspiracies cooked up by assorted fascist goons from Italy to London with stops everywhere from China to Spain. In a sense the government campaign to convince everyone to join the cause was built on the idea (the threat) that sinister forces were on the march – acting both overtly and covertly. Bolsheviks, fascists, and fifth columnists were all genuine (and consider as one example among many that Ernest Hemingway, arguably the most famous serious writer. Because it would have been inconvenient to mention it, and certainly not because he was unaware of it, Hofstadter succeeds in not mentioning that in 1938, one of America’s most famous novelists brought out a play entitled, the Fifth Column. That it was not well received does nothing to lessen it’s importance or to change the fact that it was directly addressed to the assertion of conspiracies – not just in the contemporary political sense but also in the sense that conspiracies are woven into the very fabric of human consciousness.
Hofstadter was no dope of course and he lays on the (non) contextualizing evidence. He brings us a retelling of the origin of the Illuminati scare involving fears about Jacobins and plots to do awful things that everyone should have been terrified of.
But it’s here that Hofstadter starts to go off the rails. He is right to point out that the Masons were wrongly thought to be a threat to the nascent Republic and to freedom but, he mentions this while also dropping in passing Aaron Burr’s conspiracy…(emphasis added)
“As a secret society, Masonry was considered to be a standing conspiracy against republican government. It was held to be particularly liable to treason—for example, Aaron Burr’s famous conspiracy was alleged to have been conducted by Masons. ”
As stated, Hofstadter was no chump so he adds that while there may have been Masons involved in illegal activities what is at issue is the fire and brimstone apocalyptic tone of fear-mongering and denunciations employed against the Masons, and how this overblown rhetoric was and remains the hallmark of the scaremongering paranoid.
Which is fascinating except for the enormous fact in the middle of that otherwise on-target paragraph – he drops a reference to a conspiracy – namely that Aaron Burr, the Vice President of the United States, killed Alexander Hamilton and was later involved in a
plot conspiracy to overthrow the government. And of course then there’s everything Hofstadter didn’t mention – like the Alien and Sedition Act, and the court’s ruling that suspected Jacobin (sic) newspapers should be shut down, the arrest of the publisher of The American Arora, or Lincoln’s suspension of Habeas Corpus – which wasn’t overturned until 1866.
So, again, exactly what is the criteria for too much paranoia?
Hofstadter’s point, as he moved the goalpost, is not the existence of conspiracies per se, rather that the language of denunciation is the issue, which he uses to deny the legitimacy of accusations against conspirators:
“What must be emphasized here, however, is the apocalyptic and absolutistic framework in which this hostility was commonly expressed. Anti-Masons were not content simply to say that secret societies were rather a bad idea. The author of the standard exposition of anti-Masonry declared that Freemasonry was “not only the most abominable but also the most dangerous institution that ever was imposed on man. . . . It may truly be said to be Hell’s master piece.”
Well true enough, the language is, as we would say today, over-the-top but, it’s not the language of today it’s the language of an era so long ago that it requires an expert imagination and considerable intelligence to truly conjure its shadows and tone, or the expert inability to imagine much of anything at all but, even if that weren’t the case the fact remains that the men involved – Burr and Hamilton had between them conspiracies, secret affairs, blackmail, treason, and acts of armed rebellion. And yes, McCarthy was prone to ranting and vitriolic denunciations but again, coming after the thunder from Berlin, Rome, Madrid, Tokyo and Moscow, what’s our criteria and exactly who should we be paranoid about? Once you cross the threshold of Father Coughlin screaming at you through your radio how your plight is the fault of the Jews and Wall Street and bankers on Wall Street were of course conspiratorial goons, how do we define, “paranoia?”
And to add some context let’s consider what the era back then knew to be factual in regards to conspiracies in the period prior to the duel at Weehawken.
And that’s just casually scratching the surface.
Again we might ask what is so far-fetched about suspecting the government of criminal conspiracies? And what exactly is far-fetched about imagining the people down the road are plotting to blow up the state house or your house?
Let us add into this mix the popular culture of the era, and consider this list of stories involving conspiracies in the works of a somewhat well known dramatist.
Nothing but conspiracies, hallucinations, nervous breakdowns and calamities. Are we to say well yes Shakespeare has some cultural relevance but only in regards to those portions of the plays that fit our agenda? Or shall we follow the first fascist and use the Platonic model and banish the artists to the land of exile beyond the ideal city state?
The Ink thinks not.
The popular imagination had by the time it reached the era Hofstadter is describing been soaking in paranoia for centuries for a very good reason. Namely, that people are conspiratorial, violent, paranoid, and fear-mongering, and many of those people work for the government – your government and someone else’s government and together they have never failed to give any reasonable person a sense that things are not only not as they appear, but that making a fuss about it is likely to get you into some trouble. “Step out of line, the men come and take you away.”
Hofstadter of course continues and lays out that the change as he sees it is that the previous battle was fought by paranoids, who felt there was still a fight to be won – that their cherished values were still in the surplus and had to be defended whereas the contemporary paranoid – think Barry Goldwater and the Birch Society screaming about how fluoride in your water was a plot to make you impotent and unable to resist the Bolsheviks, if not an attempt to change you into an impotent Bolshevik unable to resist anything – were now fighting a rearguard battle because the conspirators had succeed in pushing them and their noble kind from power.
The changes he argues are down to a few factors:
“Important changes may also be traced to the effects of the mass media. The villains of the modern right are much more vivid than those of their paranoid predecessors, much better known to the public; the literature of the paranoid style is by the same token richer and more circumstantial in personal description and personal invective. For the vaguely delineated villains of the anti-Masons, for the obscure and disguised Jesuit agents, the little-known papal delegates of the anti-Catholics, for the shadowy international bankers of the monetary conspiracies, we may now substitute eminent public figures like Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower, secretaries of State like Marshall, Acheson, and Dulles, Justices of the Supreme Court like Frankfurter and Warren, and the whole battery of lesser but still famous and vivid alleged conspirators headed by Alger Hiss.”
All of which is interesting and would be even more interesting if it was in fact, true.
But what is in fact true is that the 19th and 18th centuries in Europe (which directly impacted the style and tone of public denunciations in America) were as violent, excessive and personal as what came later. A cursory examination of the pitched war of words between competing cadres – church, philosophers, monarchists, Jacobins – shows a level of personal attacks that are at best as bad as what came later or at worst, far worse with duels as a common response to what had been printed.
One need only consider the hysteria over Rousseau’s writing, his war with the city of Geneva, Voltaire, Diderot, Hume and a cast of thousands to see that the line between paranoia and genuine conspiracy was gossamer and that Hofstadter was not about to let the facts get in the way of a good rant. And that’s while considering that even if Rousseau was a paranoid crank, it doesn’t mean the nascent British secret service wasn’t opening his mail and keeping him under surveillance.
As a result Hofstadter is flying blind and, everyone on that list was either directly or indirectly involved in things that were not just legitimate state secrets (FDR – They took off from out top secret base in Shangri la -was a legitimate use of the privilege of state secrets) but were also up to their gills in illegitimate actions – like affairs, and relationships with gangsters and spying on people they had no moral right to spy on and being part of a society dominated by Jim Crow, apartheid, lynchings, institutionalized racism, quotas for housing and entrance to universities and an overall economic system dominated by one class, and one’s skin color, and police and courts that were violent, corrupt and in bed with organized crime, or the Klan thus rendering the entire society – paranoid and with good reason – and while Hofstadter gets a bit of a pass in that what we know about Dulles, for example, is far more and far more damning than what was known when he wrote the essay, the fact is that what was known then was already enough to make any sensible person keep one eye on the nearest exit.
After all, if Hofstadter is correct that Raymond Chandler and Hammett and Hemingway and Fitzgerald are culturally irrelevant or they are relevant but their vast excavations of the conspiratorial structure of society are on point but not on point in regards to Hofstadter or, Hofstadter is just flat out wrong.
One could as some sort of snob or reactionary, dismiss hardboiled detective stories as pulp, but the fact is, Gatsby is Jane Austen meets Hardboiled and it is about conspiracies – one inside the other; plots to fix the World Series, plots to fix love affairs gone wrong, plots to cover up murders.
Are we to say, Fitzgerald was only a paranoid?
Consider this gem; “the literature of the paranoid style is by the same token richer and more circumstantial in personal description and personal invective.”
Well, yes, the green light at the end of the dock, and all that green grass, does say something about Fitzgerald’s paranoid style but it takes in Hofstadter as much as it takes in everything else.
No, we refer you back to our list of well-known conspirators with their thees and thous and their oil toil and trouble etcetera and we say, it is simply not true and what is true instead is that from the Bible through Shakespeare and on until our time the literature of conspiracies, the mirror of the zeitgeist is not a reflection of an unjustified lack of reason, but a fully justified response to what is clearly a consistent betrayal of the public trust. That this fact is used and abused by the truly paranoid, or the bigots and the paramilitary right wing, does not render the truth illegitimate.
That is, the levers of power being in the hands of goons, freaks, and thugs with the emotional stability of child molesters and people like Richard Nixon or Mao, leads to the industrial scale liquidation of millions and the toxic erosion of civil liberties is an irrefutable fact. That history is also in fact an encyclopedia of monstrous freaks who would make Gandhi take out an insurance policy is equally true, and thus paranoia is a legitimate response – so then – let us tell sad tales of kings…
And let us unpack the traditional narrative and reconsider it – Barry Goldwater was in his early Blue Period a paranoid fear-mongering nut, who might have dropped an atom bomb on any number of people and when he and the Birchers were screaming about fluoride in the water it was crazy, except that during the same time span the government was engaged in the following:
as well as the previously mentioned Mk Ultra.
Not to mention that Prohibition had in effect been a government stimulus package to both the church and the mafia.
And, under the heading of irony, let’s float the idea that Goldwater and the Birch society being insane raises a perfectly valid reason for any reasonable person to be scared shitless about the stability of the society and the system of government. Barry – extremism in the defense of liberty is not a vice – Goldwater was the nominee of one of the two major political parties in the United States in the middle of the 20th century.
Think about that.
So, who you calling paranoid?
Or to put it another way – good god Barry Goldwater was right except for all the wrong reasons. Because of course it’s hard not to laugh at this:
“As for Eisenhower himself, Welch characterized him, in words that have made the candy manufacturer famous, as “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy”—a conclusion, he added, “based on an accumulation of detailed evidence so extensive and so palpable that it seems to put this conviction beyond any reasonable doubt.”
And Hofstadter is right to highlight it as an example of the marble in the collective right wing head rolling into a slot marked – elephant turd crazy.
Castigating Eisenhower as a willing agent of communism is as morally and intellectually legitimate as asserting that Sandy Hook was a false flag operation.
Except, substitute Nixon for Eisenhower and Watergate for everything else and you have a legitimate sense of why people are afraid. And remember Hofstadter is writing this in November of 1964 – you know that golden age of cross-dressing fascist paranoid knight of the round table, J. Edgar Hoover, and stable sensible people like Nikita Khrushchev and Curtis Lemay. And let’s recall that Harpers published this after Dallas, after the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis, after showdowns over Berlin and Governors standing in the schoolhouse doorway. Let’s remember that the democratically elected president of the United States had, with the approval of the House and the Senate and the Supreme Court, ordered the internment of tens of thousands of American citizens who had the bad luck to have been born to Japanese immigrants. And in writing his essay it is a moment in which Hofstadter is coming after Dylan has emerged into and come to form the scene. So we have this from an (in)famous profile in as establishment as you can get Newsweek that says of Dylan: (emphasis added)
“Yet his knack for stirring audiences is unmistakable, and it stems, mainly, from the words of the some 200 songs he has written, simple words that pounce upon the obvious—the inequalities, dangers and deceits of the 1960s—and hammer them home.
Thus Hofstadter and his liberal descendants arrive at an insupportable contradiction. They enter through the front door of claiming to be sober minded clear-headed excavators of the cultural mise-en-scene and then exist through the backdoor of cherry picking the details to suit their agenda. Either the culture in its entirety is relevant, and we can excavate the culture, or it is not and we condemn ourselves to a dangerous tunnel vision based on subjective claims to authority.
And so we move into the contemporary era. Hofstadter, again no fool, acknowledges a highbrow paranoid style full of footnotes, and the appearance of being well-researched and occasionally hitting its target even if the target is approximately the side of a barn, and the paranoid in question is wielding a rhetorical blunderbuss.
And yet what are we to make of the non right-wing highbrow paranoid style? For example what are we to make of say, Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, or The Secret Agent or Nostromo? What are we to make of Graham Greene and John le Carre? What shall we say about the amoral conspiratorial landscapes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler? What of the vast conspiracies of class depicted in Hemingway and Faulkner and Tolstoy and Dickens and Dostoyevsky or Doblin? How are we to gain a sense then of where to place the sickening Greek tragedy conspiratorial world of Faulkner and Tennessee Williams in which the first conspiracy is the family and its secrets, which then spill out into the world and poison it – poison its institutions and its application of the law? And what then of the Greek tragedies – relevant but only up to the limits of the liberal imagination?
The general view is that it is a non issue – that literature, that squirmy vessel of academic irrelevance, is devoid of any ability to inform our understanding of society, except of course, as we’ve outlined with The Bard, when it suits the agenda of the suits.
But of course, this is an absurd idea.
The Simple Art of Murder may or may not be highbrow writing as defined by Hofstadter, and it may even be paranoid in its view of society as inherently sinister or immoral and based on secrets and whispers in dark corners, but it is not irrelevant and it can not be dismissed as either only paranoid or only a noir fantasy that thrives on a strawman of villainy, knocked out by the strong arm of gumshoe virtue. Chandler’s America, like Hammett’s and indeed like the world described by le Carre and Greene and Conrad, is a world that is essentially paranoid precisely because as Chandler puts it – justice is something we speak about but seldom practice. Morality is never absolute, and the good guys are as likely to rob a bank and kill a hostage as the bad guys.
You can find any number of people willing to offer justifications for Operation Paperclip and the use of Nazis to further America’s might, but there’s no getting around the fact that it was a project conceived and conducted in secret and anyone who is not suspicious and even paranoid about any government conducting its business in secret, let alone when that business includes the use of Nazis, is either an idiot or a fool or on the government payroll. Or some combination of all three.
Thus Hofstadter the liberal, rightly outraged by the neo-fascist torch-light ceremony rhetoric of the paranoid right-wing, pulls a perverse reverse and sticks the unintended landing squarely in the target marked yes, but not really. And is in fact, terribly wrong.
All of which brings us back to our favorite F.B.I. agents.
The X-Files exists in a world literally almost always in shadows. It’s almost always dark everywhere Scully and Mulder go, and no one ever speaks in full sentences and no one ever gives complete answers and hardly anyone ever tells the truth. It is in that sense, completely Kafka-esque.(and oh dear, what does the joker from Prague tell us about paranoia?)
And it looks and sounds like the government.
Even when the government turns on all the lights and shouts about its business from every television and radio and phone and computer.
Because of course the government is spying on everyone.
Which doesn’t mean that the heirs to Goldwater, the contrail obsessed thugs waving their Make America Great Again hats aren’t a bunch of obsessed thugs, who look and sound menacingly like they are one bad day away from donning brown shirts and burning books – Jon Stewart’s pleas for sympathy not withstanding.
But what we are after here is not to say there’s a legitimacy to people yelling about aliens running the government, but rather to say there is a legitimacy to people yelling about the fucking government being run by people with the morality of…aliens and why they – the people doing the screaming – are not wrong to be paranoid – and that paranoia in this context ceases to be a clinical condition defined by false and irrational assumptions but is transformed into a legitimate distrust of the government.
In that moment when Mulder turned on the doctor and scared him into retreating and defended the government – when in truth the government was in fact guilty of murder and covering it up – the show betrayed its anti-establishment cred and aped the Fox network pro-government mantra of flag waving jingoistic neo-fascist rhetoric. USA! USA! America fuck yeah!
But just as quickly the show pivoted and turned its back on all of that, and launched one of the great deconstructions of the contemporary socio-political scene in the artistic landscape.
We are here not concerned with the specifics of particular episodes – though like everyone else we have our lists of favorites and those we think deserve special consideration for their brilliance, in acting, writing, directing and everything else that goes into the making of the Rube Goldberg Machine that is a television show.
Clearly Post Modern Prometheus or the appearance of Detective Munch or – insert your list here – others signify something that crossed the line from being only the space between commercials to, a work of art.
But it does matter that Scully is desirable precisely because she is not sexed up in the traditional guise of television’s appeal to misogynistic (and other) fantasies and thus, she and the show are subversive and operating in opposition to a conspiratorial system that wants to convince you to buy a package – this versus that, her and not the other one and so on in an endless market-driven lubed up fetish factory.
It does matter that our heroes are essentially always one or more steps behind the curve and are almost always victims of a shadowy bureaucracy that appears to be utterly normal – that appears in fact to be just what the bureau of the banality of evil would look like.
It matters that the show was able to deconstruct itself and make fun of itself and its own mythologies, because the ability to be at ease with one’s own absurdity is also subversive, because it is not a macho swagger and it is not a militaristic atavistic tribal rite designed to sell beer, conformity, candidates and wars.
It does matter that the show’s central villain, Cigarette Smoking Man (with a name that attaches the show to Dallas, the Ur conspiracy at the heart of the contemporary American zeitgeist), is based in part on the infamous James J. Angleton – former head of C.I.A, Counter intelligence – a man so enmeshed in the post World War 2 era of plots, counter-plots, coups, counter-coups, exploding cigars for Castro, using Nazis, overthrowing governments of whom we did not approve, that when we are shown his backstory and his involvement in the murder of JFK, it comes not only as no surprise but arrives as expected because of course there was a conspiracy to kill the president (or as Christopher Hitchens put it: The question is not was there a conspiracy but rather, out of the multiple conspiracies to kill the president, which is the one that succeeded) and more importantly even if there wasn’t the fact that more people believe it then don’t, tells you everything you need to know about just how little faith people have in the government.
And yes, we said it – yes there was a conspiracy and more to the point let us add that the issue that never gets addressed is that of course there had to be an effort to prevent a full investigation precisely because in the early 1960s, (and even after that) the government, and the states and local law enforcement were up to their eyeballs in every shady, disgusting, corrupt activity you could think of from, as already mentioned, dosing people with syphilis and drugs and radiation, to cops and judges also being members of the Klan, to using any number of extremist groups to run guns, and plot to attack Castro and stop Dr. King and all the while that was going on there’s the little matter of organized crime building an empire with the help of the government – because organized crime was the hammer the government used to crush the left.
So just try to imagine a massive investigation into anything in Texas – with investigative tendrils reaching out everywhere – that wouldn’t touch on every corrupt relationship that the federal government and the states had with each other, and everyone else. You can’t and as a case in point – remember that when first questioned, Clay Shaw denied everything and only years later was it revealed that oh yes, he was an informant for the C.I.A. and the point then being that even if he was an informant it does not prove that there was a conspiracy to kill the president but it does prove that the government lied, continues to lie and that assertions of how it’s an illness to say otherwise are revealed to be reactionary propaganda in the service of the government.
And this brings us to the fundamental failure of Hofstadter’s vision and the central flaw in the liberal vision of America, when it denounces the paranoid and their conspiracy theories – namely that institutionalized secrecy and the resulting corruption in conjunction with racism, with its hands on who gets jobs and who doesn’t, with its control of access, and where development occurs and where it doesn’t, of who the banks loan money to and how much and with it’s War on Drugs and mandatory minimums, with its private prisons and redlining of neighborhoods that prevent the free movement of people based on color, is all by definition not only a conspiracy but valid reason to be paranoid – that is, the very structure of the system is based on inter-locking conspiracies of state secrets and state power. Or as Joseph Heller put it in a slightly different context – just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.
And so, we come to The Lone Gunman. The very name is at once a joke – a wink and a nudge to the foolishly conspiratorial though usually harmless types who – like the Gunman might just as easily be found playing Dungeons and Dragons as re-watching enhanced versions of the Zapruder film.
And yet, why would we dismiss them as only a joke? That they were in part a joke is paradoxically a deadly serious meta-comment on the show’s attempt to grapple with, and reflect the now institutionalized contempt we have for our government and the fact that the currency of citizenship is paranoia. It is a reflection of what has been absorbed into the psychological bloodstream – of course they’re The Lone Gunman, because we know Oswald did not act alone.
Hofstadter may be right about the hysteria of the right-wing, in fact it’s hard to say he’s wrong but, when you live in a society where Capone goes to prison for tax evasion but not murder, and millions of people go to movies that turn gangsters into heroes, you have to stop and consider that there is a Grand Canyon size gap of cynicism between what the government says is true, and what the people know is the truth of their lives.
And finally, as an example of its longevity, its relevance to the zeitgeist and its plasticity in its ability to stay current, it is not at all hard to imagine that as the principals age and move on that the producers and the network will create a backstory involving Mulder’s time in England and his early short-lived time at the Bureau prior to the X-Files, as well as showing us Scully’s life right before and during medical school.
And in doing so look for the show to embrace a retroactive retelling of the themes we all recognize – that not only is the government operating with a massive deficit in credibility but, that the harder it pleads for sympathy and the more it insists it can be trusted while blatantly peddling alternative facts the more people will say, no, the truth is out there, and not with you.
And historically, in every instance where a government loses its ability to lead based on trust, it has only two options. To lead through fear or, surrender to greater power.
Update: See the article linked below regarding conspiratorial behavior in American politics:
Below is a link to a recent review in The Guardian. The book is called, Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann.
The book is about the interconnected conspiracies to rob the Osage Indians of the money derived from their control of oil-rich land in Oklahoma. Having been forcibly relocated in a series of ethnic cleansing and genocidal wars from their traditional homes to reservations (i.e. gulags) many of the Osage found themselves living on top of vast oil fields. To gain control of the land and the revenue White colonizers and their descendants began a campaign of murder.
You can read the review here:
We mention this for several reasons. First, it again undermines and essentially refutes the premise that one should not be paranoid about the extent to which people and or the authorities will go to get what they want and, in fact, given the evidence, it is wrong to call it paranoia and instead one should simply and more accurately call it caution.
Another reason is that it also contradicts Philip Roth’s reactionary propaganda about how the 1960s represent a threshold of such chaos that American writers were stymied in their ability to write about America’s carnival of characters. The Osage murder conspiracies began in the 1920s and were a major media sensation.
see our deconstruction of Roth here:
From the Guardian review:
“By 1925, none of the murders had been solved, and the death toll was climbing high enough that the rest of America started taking notice. National papers reported on what was termed the “Reign of Terror”, the Osage “Black Curse”.”
Again, this highlights not only the inaccuracies of Hofstadter but the sloppiness of Roth’s thinking. It highlights a lack of rigor and the depths of Roth’s hack-work in the service of a biased political agenda which itself treats context like a stranger’s used condom.
A political agenda in and of itself is not immoral though the politics expressed certainly can be vile. But a writer who refuses to consider contrary information is no longer a writer but is instead a tool.
In the face of this one should reasonably again consider that Joseph Heller was correct when he wrote: Just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.
For further exegesis on why Hofstadter ends up being right but for the wrong reasons and manages the neat trick of scoring on his own goal, there is the following:
Anyone who thinks that Americans of a certain age, observing our politics from the vantage point of say, 60+ years ago, and from there looking back further (exactly as Hofstadter did) would have been wrong to think in terms of conspiracies, both dangerous and absurd, is either a fool or someone with a vested interest in denying the truth. Or, both.
The left (or certain portions of what we charitably define as the left) and the remnants of the republican party, as well as assorted ad hoc cadres from the intelligence agencies, along with some fragments of the liberal establishment have formed an alliance of convenience. They are united in their revulsion and fear of Trump and the reawaked atavistic neo-fascists who support him.
Amid their justified fear certain ironic, and in some cases, reactionary responses emerge. For example there is Michiko Kakutani, formerly a grand dame of The New York Times, who in a recent book, sought to lay the blame for Trump on the shoulders of both the resurgent right and the left of the 1960s. Claiming that what she misidentifies as Postmodernism, is in part responsible for Trump’s sociopathic rejection of facts, is essentially using the left as a scapegoat for the moral and intellectual failures of the liberals. Kakutani is in fact a direct descendent of Hofstadter, not only in the sense that she is wrong factually, cherry picking sources and distorted the facts to suit her agenda, but she is wrong morally because she is, in the time-honored tradition of liberals, perfectly willing to fight to the death of the last leftist – in order to secure her position as a privileged member of the liberal establishment. In other words, the bourgeoisie are essentially reactionary and enemies of the left who comprise a large segment of the permanent underclass of wage slave and who through their subjugation, provide the liberals with their socio-economic status.
Another prominent member of this loose affiliation of the anti-Trump cadre, is former spook-in-chief, General (retired) Michael Hayden.
Hayden, a former member of the Bush-Cheney junta, is not wrong when he points out the sadism, and neo-fascism of Trump and his Caligula-esque policies that are more akin to spasm and fits then they are to policy directives.
But Hayden, like Kakutani, is at pains to avoid mentioning, or succeed in not mentioning, the moral waste land that is the record of the nation’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
As we have said about certain YouTube generated demagogues, the fact that they may from time to time say something that is true, in no way diminishes damage caused by the things they say that are not only not true, but toxic.
Thus while it is true that Vladimir Putin is a world class thug, and that Trump is a demagogue, the refusal to come to terms with America’s support for dictators, and participation in genocide and mass murder and war crimes succeeds in hollowing out the nation’s soul.
As a result, when Hayden & co denounce Trumps lies, his threats to the public or common good, and the danger he poses to the precarious stability of the world, it serves to highlight the chasm that separates the government from the truth and the people from faith in the government.
When Trump announced his policy of kidnapping children and holding them in internment camps, Hayden was right to compare it to the Nazi’s policy of separating children from their parents on their way to either slave labor or death. Amid the predictable blowback from both the Trump fascists and the more squeamish and dainty members of the commentariat, Hayden went missing for a few weeks.
The greater moral dilemma of course is that if one grants the premise, as we do, and accepts that Trump is in the manner of fascists, a sadistic would-be tyrant, what is required, in terms of both moral and intellectual rigor, is a proper accounting of the crimes committed by the agencies for which Hayden speaks.
To lament the immorality and sadism of Trump’s actions by invoking concentration camps, is legitimate but, it is illegitimate to do so while pretending that the Mother’s of the Disappeared either don’t exist or, if they do, their lamentations and accusations have nothing to do with the government of the United States, or its agencies.
To stand the watch against tyranny requires not just a steely resolve to confront the lies of your would-be oppressor but, it also requires the resolve to be honest about your complicity in allowing the would-be tyrant their chance.