Why Do Things Get So Nutty Sometimes?: Three Indispensable Readings


I don’t want to give the impression that dispassionate distance is my automatic response to every bit of craziness that occurs in society.  

I am not always a social scientist. I feel rage and anger.  My first reaction on  hearing some loony extreme view is not to immediately to unfurl the flag and  celebrate the right to free expression. I do eventually celebrate free expression, but that is not until I finally calm down and pull back from some of the nastiness of which I am capable.

Today, though, after a week of hearing some of the most vicious and extremist rhetoric I can recall, I have been thinking  a lot about three pieces of writing that strike me as indispensable in understanding our latest period of lunacy.  Believe me, I almost choked when I heard Sarah Palin talk about “reloading,”  but today I am thinking less about her mindlessness than about how and why we periodically produce movements so drenched in rage and racism. Why does the United States have such a rich and revolting tradition of individuals  like Palin who — while not  even remotely equipped to think with any originality — are brilliantly  equipped to read the rage and stoke the  hate and irrationality of others?

This is obviously a complex question. But just over 45 years ago, in a classic essay entitled The Paranoid Style in American Politics, the historian Richard Hofstadter opened a door on one of America’s  creepiest corners, a place where every loony strain of racism, nativism, millenialism, sexism, homophobia, and nuttyism come together in an incoherent, yet incendiary, brew.   

This where you find the library  for every  imaginable conspiracy theory that a twisted mind is capable of imagining. And this is also the setting for Hateland’s fully stocked pharmacy —  shelves full of folk-devils of every race, ethnicity , gender, and sexual orientation available to relieve anxiety about everything from a recession to an upset stomach.

Hofstadter understood so much of this and I can’t recommend his essay strongly enough.

Also, in today’s New York Times Frank Rich covers some of the same territory. Rich zeroes in on one of the key symptoms of paranoid politics —  a group enraged, out of control, and armed with a lengthy and astoundingly  incoherent list of grievances. These are the sophisticated political thinkers who can weave Chinese food, unpolished shoes, and aspirin into the evidence that finally proves the government’s secret plan to require weekly colonoscopies.

Finally, I recommend the latest annual report of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism, by Mark Potok.  The report is packed with proof that all the hate and incoherence and bizarre conspiracy theories have  attracted adherents, money and angry people  eager to move from anger to violence.

We can laugh all we want at their  mind-bogglingly nutty ideas, but we would ignore them at our great peril.

You don’t have to make sense to make trouble. Serious trouble.

6 thoughts on “Why Do Things Get So Nutty Sometimes?: Three Indispensable Readings

  1. Thanks for this, Steve. This is an alarming moment. I hope everyone who reads your blog finds a way to speak out and take action. As you say– we ignore this eruption of hate “at our great peril.”

    • I heard Mark Potok at length on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air. I especially appreciated how he was able to integrate his concern with incendiary hate groups and a simultaneous commitment to the First Amendment right to free expression. This is no small juggling act, and I found him inspiring.

  2. I think inherent in all this thinking is the in-group/out-group dynamic. Being the social creatures that we are, the need and desire for people to be on the inside, to feel a part of something, may be an even bigger factor than whether or not or how strongly they adhere to certain principles or rhetoric of the majority.

  3. Joann:

    I could not agree with you more. So often we think about the substance being communicated when we try to figure out why individuals or groups adopt some ideology or believe in some urban legend.

    But the substance of the message may be infinitely less important than how a person feels when they join a group that they feel understands their frustration.

    In fact, when you look at the ideology of disaffected groups from everywhere on the political spectrum, you often find a strange combination of unrelated grievances and conspiracy theories that don’t seem to fit together.

    But the excellent point you make is precisely how they do fit together: they often are collective expressions of powerlessness by a group that sees itself as marginal.

    Adopting one agenda or another is, as you point out, a way of joining a group and giving someone the feeling that they are empowering themselves.

    The question of whether this really empowers them, or whether it simply gives them the illusion of power by allowing an expression of rage, is a different matter.

    But you really provoked me with your very perceptive comment.

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