April 16, 2010

Paranoia, it's the American Way

Marc Comtois

As Rich Lowry explains in his latest column, we Americans are perpetually paranoid about our government, whether it's the liberal paranoia throughout the Bush years (Patriot Act, world hegemony) or the right wing paranoia amongst conservatives in the Clinton years (Waco, domestic anti-terrorist laws post-Oklahoma City). Lowry explains that our paranoid view of government has been in our "DNA" since the Founding (and before).

As Bernard Bailyn demonstrates in his classic, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, our forebears prized the thought of the 18th-century “country” opposition in England, which considered the government a clear and present danger to liberty — corrupt, conspiratorial, and insatiable.

America’s leaders viewed Revolutionary events through this prism. “They saw about them,” Bailyn writes, “not merely mistaken, or even evil, policies violating the principles upon which freedom rested, but what appeared to be evidence of nothing less than a deliberate assault launched surreptitiously by plotters against liberty, both in England and in America.”

This is the taproot of American paranoia. It’s not in status anxiety, or economic dispossession, or racism: It’s in flat-out distrust of governmental authority. As the Patriot Act shows, in America even the statists can summon a robust fear of government. And would we have it any other way? Would we prefer the natural deference to authority of a Japan, or a political culture as favorable to central government as Russia’s?

Lowry's analysis of Bailyn's thesis is spot on and also helps explain why we Americans sometimes tend to buy into conspiracy theories, too.

I've written a bit about Bailyn before (in other places) with probably my most succinct take on his Ideological Origins coming as part of a "review of a review" of a book by Gary Nash that I did over at Spinning Clio a few years ago. For more context, read the whole thing, but here's a snippet:

Bailyn's Ideological Origins of the American Revolution may well be one of the most misunderstood--yet paradigm-shifting--works ever published in American intellectual history. Nash's anecdotes are just that: a group of unrelated episodes that together prove no sense of unified action.

Yet, each example does portray a general sense that many Americans wanted and believed in liberty. But as Bailyn explained, it was only when an ideology of Liberty spread--one that could speak to rich and poor, white and black, male and female--that the notion of a Revolution--and a desire to take the necessary actions to affect it--began to take hold.

An ideology is a framework of ideas that, together, help to explain a society and culture: either one that is or one that is desired. As Bailyn argued, much of that ideology came from the pamphlets and books written by--sorry--often-anonymous white males. And, contra Nash and Holton, much of this literature was written around the time of the Glorious Revolution by radical English Whigs (in other words, before those Philly women).

What Nash's work shows is that many Americans from across the socio-economic spectrum had a gut-level need to stand up for their own liberty. The ideals that the Whig pamphleteers and other intellectuals, such as John Locke, wrote about were adapted by later writers in both Great Britain and the American colonies. But, specifically in the colonies, these ideas were so effective because they spoke to the pre-existing, yet only partially formed ideas and habits of a substantial portion of the American population--including those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder on whom Nash focuses. Holton either doesn't understand this or chooses not to so that he can--by implication--knock down a Bailyn strawman that has been standing up and getting knocked down for 30 years or more.

The American Revolution was a complicated and dynamic event. There is no need to knock down one group to prop up another. Nash's underdog heroes are to be admired. But so are those who were able to construct the Revolutionary ideology--like Franklin and Jefferson and Adams--and who, it turns out, emerged as the leaders of that Revolution.