paranoid style in american entertainment

Has there ever been a more accurately named tv show than Fringe?

As entertainments go, it’s high order potboiler stuff, the kind of show you recommend with a “You’ll like this if you like this sort of thing.”

(For you, if you don’t know: Fringe concerns the exploits of a small team of federal personnel who investigate unexplained – and most often grisly – phenomena.)

As politics, it’s an exemplary display of what Richard Hofstadter called, 50 years ago, ‘the paranoid style in American politics.’ The phrase is revived now because it’s a dead accurate description of the far right in 2010. (See Will Bunch’s mandatory book, The Backlash, for further reading.)

To quote Hofstadter by way of Wikipedia:

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. He is always manning the barricades of civilization… he does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

That’s a better than good description of the engine that powered 24 and, earlier, The X Files, and now has a new host in Fringe. I don’t think it’s intentional – in the political sense – on the part of the show’s writers and producers. I do think Fringe gets most of its energy from being perfectly of the moment.

Specifically, the show’s deepest plot line is  that we’re being invaded by creatures from an alternate, doppelgänger universe. They look like us, act like us, but behind our backs are plotting to destroy us. Sound like the beliefs of any talk show hosts and political movements you know?

Yes, you can drive a truck through the holes in the plot’s credibility, even when you accept the sci-fi world in which it’s set. But this isn’t about facts; it’s about overwhelming fear, and one of the cleverest ways Fringe exploits that fear is to make sure there is always another twist, another level to the conspiracy. (Other shows, like Lost and 24, did the same thing.) Again, you can’t help but notice that this is as incoherent as ‘Barack Obama is a Muslim-Socialist-Nazi from Kenya,’ and that like those myths Fringe’s plots skip the critical thinking part of the brain and go straight to the ‘I’m really scared’ part.

One episode in particular shows how finely tuned this sensibility is. In it, Iraq war veterans begin exploding in public places. The team finally traces the explosions to an ex-colonel who somehow (how he knows is not explained) knows about the ‘others.’ He’s blowing up his soldiers to ‘send them (the invaders from the other universe) a message.’

Fringe doesn’t explicitly endorse what the colonel has done, but it’s hard to miss the point – in times of crisis, the regular rules don’t apply. The colonel is a tragic figure, not a villain; his sin is not knowing quite enough, and being just a little too much the free-lancer. And whatever he did pales in comparison to the enormity of the threat we face.  It is both justification for what has been done in our name in Iraq and Afghanistan and a dog whistle for dealing with a President and Congress who seem very much ‘the other.’

The writers would no doubt deny such a thing and be (rightly) offended: they are, after all, writing fantasy – not news. But if you want to know the state of our fantasies in 2010, you could do a lot worse than to look at Fringe, where the ‘news’ is always be very, very afraid.

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One thought on “paranoid style in american entertainment

  1. It’s the corrosive nature of paranoia that is the real danger. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the occasional paranoid thought — it’s an ancient defense mechanism.

    But full-time paranoia is self-reinforcing and self-deepening.

    We’ve come through paranoid periods in history before, hence the allusions to Father Coughlin and Joe McCarthy when discussing Glenn Beck.

    But the cycle seems to dig a little deeper every time.

    McCarthy wanted to root out a handful of spies in the government and society. Beck wants to root out government and society, whether he acknowledges it or not.

    Will this cycle of paranoia pass? I hope so.

    But you have to wonder about the next cycle.

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