The Anatomy of Conservative Paranoia

When a reader forwarded The National Review‘s “The Corner” blog a set of four pictures, each showing Muslims worshiping in the streets of Manhattan, it took Snopes, and four posts from three bloggers, to decide not to freak out about, or be offended by, the images. Turns out they’re not pictures from regularly-held, purposefully disruptive prayer sessions, or secret Muslim attempts to co-opt the city. They’re scenes from a single day, last year’s Muslim Day Parade. Naturally, NRO is still suspicious, suggesting that, this year, it’ll inspire riots similar to the anti-Irish Catholic riots of the nineteenth century:

I’ll register some mild foreboding. To the best of my knowledge, the Muslim Day Parade is the only one currently dedicated to celebration of a religious, as opposed to national, heritage. The history of such things, though sparse, is not encouraging.

One wonders why the parade would inspire violence this year, when it’s been held peacefully for fifteen years. And whose fault it would be if it did, given that history of peaceful celebration. But NRO’s specific rabble-rousing in this incident isn’t the point. The point, rather, is that this “story” elegantly illustrates the way the conservative media generates, and sustains, nativist “controversies,” but on a smaller scale, and played out over a shorter timeframe.

We start with information. Something happened, in the world! We don’t know what it is, or fairly understand it, but one possible interpretation of it would either (1) suggest the ascendancy of a non-white, non-Christian cultural group (and therefore imply the marginalization of white Christians), or (2) prove the evil tendencies of such group. Muslims are taking over the streets; Muslims are building a “victory mosque” at Ground Zero; Shirley Sherrod hates white people; ACORN abets illegal acts.

We move into fact-finding mode. In the meantime, the inflammatory narrative surrounding this barely-understood event builds, is reported as the only plausible and true interpretation, and anger builds over this as-of-yet theoretical offense.

The event is linked to other wrongs, either actual or perceived. Isn’t that just like that group? The mere existence of this new conspiracy legitimizes, and pulls up by the bootstraps, a thousand forgotten but similar narratives. Still without regard to its actual truth, the new narrative, bolstered by the resurgence of its predecessors, acquires legitimacy by virtue of the quantity of similar instances, regardless of the quality of any single one. This just proves that all Muslims hate America! Is Shirley Sherrod proof that affirmative action is an anti-white conspiracy? Liberal voters’ rights groups help commit voting fraud too!

A factual narrative of the original event develops, entirely disproving the scare story that’s built up around it. But by now, it’s completely beside the point. Logic and reason became irrelevant to this debate long ago. We’re angry! From here, the story can go two ways, depending on just how wrong the original guess was. Either the original narrative is abandoned, but the press continues to push the still-legitimized culture war story about marginalized whites — affirmative action is still wrong, on the strength of potential abuses that haven’t actually happened! — or the media seizes, and inflates, the kernel of truth from the original story. Doesn’t this parade still risk racial tensions? The Ground Zero mosque is insensitive!

As a way of coping with reality, this method of discourse leaves much to be desired. It entrenches built-in fears, legitimizes dog-whistle style racism, rewards xenophobic instincts, and supresses logic. It also leaks into more general political discourse. The entire course of the healthcare debate, at least the mainstream, followed this exact model, with “death panels” doing more work for the GOP than any serious concern about the deficit ever did.  There’s also not much to be done about it. When e-mail forwards carry more weight with the electorate than actual legislative text, what is there to be done?



  1. I’ll be the first to say that anti-Muslim silliness is a blight on the Right and one we’ll probably pay for eventually. However, you’re jumping the shark when you mention the healthcare debate. If you want the exact blueprint for how that went down, look no further than the Left’s reaction to SS reform under Bush. “they’re going to take grandma’s social security, etc” Fear mongering 101.

    1. Yeah, that bit with SS reform was another case of the opposition making something out to be better than it really was, but then opposing it on the basis of how good they’d made it out to be.

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