Paranoia R Us

Is geography destiny?  Aaron David Miller thinks so.  Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, argues in Foreign Policy that Americans’ worldview is informed by the country’s blessed geographic endowment: to our north and south are friendly neighbors, and on either side “liquid assets,” or oceans to keep the less friendly at bay.  

How so?  

First, it has made us pragmatic.  Unlike our Old World brethren and others that for millennia grappled with religious or ethnic conflicts, we Americans developed in comparative isolation “relatively free from the heavy burdens of ideology.”  Our credo was whatever works.  Such practicality has guided us ever since, making us particularly committed to reason and compromise. 

Second, our happy geographic circumstance has also made us eternal optimists.  We were never denied or were without.  Our temperament reflects the good fortune of being the world’s trust fund babies.  Yet we tend to forget that the gods haven’t looked as kindly on others.  We may not have known much misfortune but the rest of the world has, repeatedly.  

Finally, we Americans, gloriously isolated on our continental-sized redoubt, have no particular need to care about our image abroad.  It’s of little concern.  The result is shameless opportunism; we actively engage in historically sporadic intervals.  Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t.  We’re schizophrenic: “[Americans] want to be left alone on some days (the post-World War I era, for example) and on other days try to fundamentally change the planet (Iraq in 2003).”

Does Miller have it right?  Are we practical, optimistic, and disinterested at once?  Is this a nation-state with diagnosable issues?

Miller is correct to emphasize the importance of geography to America’s collective psyche.  In this respect we’re no outliers.  Peoples’ worldviews, like real estate values, are informed by location, location, location.  Thus, Russian geopolitical insecurity is animated by the great Eurasian steppe, across whose unimpeded stretches have regularly marched foreign invaders, from the Mongol hordes to Hitler’s Wehrmacht.  Similarly, Afghan’s weak sense of national identity is influenced by the Hindu Kush’s mighty peaks, which cut one region of the country off from the other.   

Miller also correctly identifies how America’s privileged geographical endowment has given rise to a distinctly optimistic sensibility and irregular interest in the world beyond our shores.  Yet something doesn’t ring true.  Americans, he says, are “uniquely secure” because of our geography.  It’s a logical proposition, but is it true?   

Hardly.  While our geography should have endowed us with unusual confidence, American history is a tapestry of restless insecurity.  We’re not self-confident rocks but rather the opposite, Jello-kneed neurotics. 

Our peculiar paranoia evidenced itself early and often.  The fear of Indians far exceeded the threat the natives presented—a response borne by their land being confiscated and their people slaughtered.  We fetishized the natives as bloodthirsty savages keen on our annihilation, a projected image par excellence.  We also feared Old World meddling (not entirely without reason) and in due course Mexicans to the south and British confederates to our north.  In the wake of each bogeyman arose another requiring our martial attention.  Few of our national myths are as bogus as John Quincy Adams’ observation that America "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”  Motivated by a potent mix of imperial ambition and fear, that’s precisely what we did do, and continue to do.

In our own time, Cold War hysteria about communism has given way to 21st Century hysteria about terrorism.  Never mind that about as many Americans die each year from airborne televisions and unstable furniture as are killed by terrorists, we’re haunted by the specter of the crazed Jihadi.  Such misplaced fear is costly.  Needless expenditures on wars to address the absurdly overhyped terrorist threat have magnified a genuine threat (mounting debts) while diverting us from a truly existential threat (global warming).

The historian Richard Hofstadtler’s famous 1964 essay, “Paranoid Style in American Politics,” brilliantly captured our creepy mindset.  “I call it the paranoid style,” Hofstadtler wrote, “simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”  In other words, he was speaking of a perverted politics manifested by misplaced fear.  

Hofstadtler was writing in a domestic context about a mindset common on among conservatives, though he traced its roots to the country’s founding. Today, his analysis accurately captures the worldview of many Americans, irrespective of their political leanings.  Our national psyche inflects from genuine issues of policy to emotionally charged irrationalism.  Fear is in our DNA.  Sure, we may inhabit a continental expanse, but our paranoia is as vast.   

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