In 1964, the celebrated American historian Richard Hofstadter published an essay in Harper’s Magazine. It was entitled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”
Always fresh with insight, this evergreen essay is well worth a read again today. Observers of Australian politics will find it particularly poignant.
Hofstadter had plenty of material. He was writing at the height of the Cold War, just after the defeat of well-known paranoid Richard Nixon in the 1960 Presidential election. The previous decade had seen the Red Scare and the rise and fall of firebrand Senator Joseph McCarthy.
“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” Hofstadter wrote, pointing out that an incendiary style was a characteristic of American politics by no means confined to the extreme right. “I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”
Fast-forward to Australia in June 2015. We appear to be having our very own paranoid moment.
In a recent speech to a conference on countering violent extremism, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said this about the Islamic State in Iraq and as-Sham, (or Daesh, as it is often abbreviated from Arabic):
“Daesh is coming, if it can, for every person and for every government with a simple message: ‘Submit or die’.”
Last year, the Prime Minister warned us that terrorism could strike anywhere, at any time. "It is a serious situation when all you need to do to carry out a terrorist attacks is to have a knife, an iPhone and a victim," he said in September.
And this week, in response to the controversial comments of Zaky Mallah on Q and A, Abbott asked the ABC bluntly, “whose side are you on?”
What we’re seeing under the Abbott government is a fine case study of Hofstadter’s paranoid style of politics. It’s all there: the classic triad of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy.
Does anyone really believe that “Deash is coming, if it can, for every person and every government”? It’s a strange, even bizarre assertion that snugly fits Hofstadter’s idea of conspiratorial fantasy.
The Islamic State is a brutal and dangerous rebel insurgency. But it is largely confined to the badlands of Iraq and Syria – as the very acronym Daesh tells us.
Daesh has some very effective propaganda and makes some exceedingly bold claims. But as a matter of obvious reality, the Islamic State is not materially threatening Australia. It is not “coming for every person and every government.” Its activities are geared to attempting to carve out a new rebel state in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, a part of the world a long way away from Australia.
Any way you look at it, the threat to Australia from IS is small, constrained and manageable. It is true that Australians have left to fight for the Islamic State, and that some have been trained in terrorist techniques.
But there are perhaps only 60 Australians fighting with IS and Jahabat-al-Nusra. Some have been killed. Only a handful of them have so far returned. They are, quite obviously, being watched closely by ASIO and domestic security agencies.
And yet every day brings a new hike in the government’s terrorism paranoia. As the flags have multiplied in Prime Ministerial media conferences, so has the rhetoric intensified.
So elevated has the terror and security scare become in recent months, the Liberal government has appeared willing to throw fundamental concepts of liberalism out the window. A free media, the right to be innocent until proven guilty, the principle of natural justice … even the rule of law itself: all have been encroached upon by the Abbott government’s increasingly shrill agenda.
Who would have thought, for instance, that the party of Malcolm Fraser would present a bill to the House of Representatives that would state, quite explicitly, that “the rules of natural justice do not apply.”
Who would have thought that a government so keen to remove clause 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, on the grounds that it restricted free speech, would go on to enact several new laws that criminalise speech?
The Liberal-National government of Tony Abbott has donethese things. The mega-terror campaign shows no sign of stopping.
And so today, for instance, we saw retrospective laws being rushed through Parliament to try and head off a High Court challenge against the detention of asylum seekers by Australia in Nauru.
The legislation will attempt to put beyond doubt any challenge to the bipartisan policy of offshore detention of innocent refugees.
Yesterday, we saw the government’s absurdly-titled Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill 2015 introduced to Parliament. This bill will strip Australian citizenship from dual nationals found by the Immigration Minister to have engaged in terrorist activities.
As usual with the Abbott government’s approach to such matters, the bill is poorly drafted. Some of the offences it includes under the dubious ambit of “terrorism” include whistleblowing about ASIO operations and Commonwealth property offences, like graffiti.
Don’t spray an anti-government slogan on the walls of your local Centrelink: you could end up being deported.
As prominent legal scholar George Williams points out, “the bill applies to people convicted of advocating terrorism or urging violence against certain groups. The effect is to deprive them of their citizenship merely because of their speech.”
The University of Sydney’s Ben Saul told the Guardian today that “the fact that the terrorism definition is so wide and sweeps up all these miscellaneous security offences is too drastic and goes too far.” Saul warned that we could see “situations where utterly trivial information is classified as a matter of national security, and you can see someone being caught up and then being de-nationalised.”
And still the paranoia rolls on. This morning Tony Abbott demanded a government inquiry into the ABC and Q and A, declaring that “heads should roll."
As Hofstadter wrote, “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.”
But paranoia can only hold sway for a certain period of time. Like other manias, the fever eventually passes. When sobriety returns, the ravings of the paranoid can look quite silly, as Joe McCarthy discovered.
Like McCarthy, Tony Abbott may soon learn that paranoia is not a sustainable strategy for re-election.
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