Monday, June 8, 2015

Paranoia: Are "They" Out to Get Us? Depends on Whom You Ask.

"There's something inherently American about paranoia….we dream up theories whose inevitable result is the chaotic disruption of our comfortable, orderly life-usually with dastardly consequences. I think we get a perverse thrill that comes from it.”  --Anonymous Internet post

Have you heard?

The United States military is set to invade Texas on July 15th in a “training operation” that Uncle Sam is innocuously labels “Jade Helm 15”. Thousands of troops will fan out across seven American states this summer for a month long “simulated” war game. But the truth? I wonder. Maybe this “exercise” is not about playing war but is instead about waging war against the citizens of a sovereign American state in a secret plot to take over the Lone Star state.  True?

Depends on whom you ask.  Depends on if you’re paranoid, I guess.

Some Texas government officials and citizens are absolutely convinced that the federal government is up to something nefarious. When U.S. Army officials recently visited the Texas town of Bastrop, where parts of the exercise will take place, they were met by a hostile crowd, folks holding signs: “No Gestapo in Bastrapo” and “Keep America Free”.  As reported in the Boston Globe, “Rumors stoked on the Internet and conservative talk radio spread fears that the troops and Humvees that will roll through Bastrop this summer are part of a plot by the Obama administration to declare martial law in Texas.” 

Not to be “out paranoided” by his constituents, Texas Governor Greg Abbot ordered the Texas National Guard to “monitor” the troops so that “Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights, and civil liberties will not be infringed.” Members of the Texas congressional delegation demanded answers from the Pentagon.  The irony is that Texas is more pro-military and pro-army than a place like our own Massachusetts. Only two other states boast more active military service men and women and Fort Hood, one of the largest military bases in the world, is just 100 miles from Bastrop. 

But when you are paranoid—about the government, about “the man”, about “they”, about “the powers” you perceive as being perpetually out to get you and your loved ones: facts don’t matter much.  Reassurances don’t make a difference. Instead it’s all about perception and fear. It’s about having a basic worldview which sees life as an essentially bad place, one filled with enemies and dark forces forever conspiring to do you in. 

I’ll admit when I first heard this story I was tempted as a stereotypical northeastern, big city, small car driving, latte drinking writer to dismiss such paranoia as crazy, fringe, or wacky.  But the truth is we live in an increasingly paranoid nation. One where 18 percent of Americans still believe that President Obama is not a Christian but actually a secret Muslim.  A close friend of mine can no longer talk with her highly educated co-worker because he spends his time trying to convince her that the Boston Marathon Bombing and 9/11 were plots carried out by the U.S. government.

Paranoia is not new to the American psyche.  In the 1800’s paranoid Protestants from my faith did all they could to stop Catholic immigrants from coming to our shores, labeling them “Papists” seeking world domination through the Pope.  In the 1920’s the Ku Klux Klan railed against Jews and people of color as the real threat.  McCarthyism in the 1950’s demonized communists and imagined them hiding under every bed.  Since 9/11 paranoia has ramped up and now most finds its fears in Islam.

At its core paranoia sees all of life as a threat, both real and potential.  Paranoia sees a new neighbor not as a friend to be made but a stranger to be feared.  Paranoia makes us just about the most heavily armed nation on earth even while violent crime in America is at an all time low. Paranoia sees any form of government action as intrusive. Paranoia is a civic cancer which destroys a peoples’ ability to sanely govern itself.  Paranoia always looks for the worst and inevitably finds just that.

So when I hear about tales like the one unfolding in Texas, I’m not mad or mocking. I’m sad. Sad for paranoid people who are basically afraid of life. Sad for a country split along ideological, cultural, racial and religious lines, and all because we too easily see the “other”, not as a fellow citizen and child of God, but instead as someone to be wary about.  To worry about.

What am I paranoid about? Paranoia. That’s the real threat to our increasingly frayed civic fabric.  When I look out at the world I choose to see the good, the noble, and the well meaning.  When I consider the government, I see most folks just trying their best to make our country great. When I worship the God of my choice, I see a Creator who made Creation and all that is within it and then said, “It is very good.”

Paranoia—maybe this is the force that is really out to get us.


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