Those who have studied the history of American politics, people like Bernard Bailyn, for example, have long understood the appeal of the paranoid style of politics within the United States. While many have lamented this tendency, it is a fairly well-ingrained tendency within the United States and certainly is not going away during our own contemporary times of crisis and immense disagreement about the fundamentals of our republic. It is difficult to assuage the concerns of paranoid people and to get them to calm down and not see one as a threat to their survival and dignity. At the same time, though, there are times where others simply do not try to calm others down and convince them that they are not enemies or threats, and demonstrate that sometimes one’s paranoia is not nearly serious enough. I would like to ponder a couple of situations where this is the case and ponder a bit on the consequences of the paranoid style of politics in times like our own where people do not often even attempt to understand the reasonableness of someone else’s position.
The mayor of New York City was born with the name Warren Wilhelm Jr. This name, with its German overtones, has well fit the way that he has acted this week. Earlier this week plans for a funeral for a popular Hasidic rabbi were worked out between various Jewish leaders in New York City and the NYPD so as to preserve the public safety during this time of Coronavirus, which has hit New York City and the immediately surrounding area far harder than anywhere else in the United States. Yet while there had been a plan in place for the Hasidic leaders to wear masks and mourn the loss of a leader within their community, those plans fell through and the Mayor thought that instead of taking responsibility for it himself to blame the Jewish community and threaten it with hostile action by the police. The result was widely panned and the mayor doubled down on his attitude by making the classic non-apology apology of being sorry if his comments were taken negatively by others, but without apologizing for singling out Jews when he and other city authorities had gone out of their way to be gracious to Muslims seeking to worship Eid during the Coronavirus problem. But apparently graciously dealing with the funeral of a well-respected rabbi is a bridge too far.
It is no surprise that the Jewish people adopt the paranoid approach to politics very frequently, but if any people is justified in doing so, then they certainly are it. Throughout the course of human history, they have frequently been targeted in times of crisis since a great many failures on the part of leadership can be overlooked by common people when there is a suitably attractive scapegoat that can be found. As a result of centuries of being targeted and harassed and exiled and killed in lynch mobs, the Jews have recognized that they are truly safe nowhere on the face of the earth, except by virtue of their own vigilance and ability to defend themselves or find others willing to defend them. With rising attacks in New York against Jews, the mood among the population there is quite dark, especially when one considers the hostility of the mayor and his refusal to treat Jewish leaders with the same respect that he does for other groups he apparently favors far more. What the consequences for this are remains unclear, but it does not look good.
In a great many states there have been states of emergency that expire at the end of April, as I write this. In some states, there has been a tension between the legislature and governors about the speed to which states can open up and get back to normal. In some cases, legislatures have refused to carry on a state of emergency while the governor has continued lockdown orders, leading to a complicated situation where it is not always clear whose interpretation of the law is to prevail. If you think that this is a recipe for lawsuits and more bitterness and division and hostility, you are absolutely correct, not least because of the question as to whether or not drastic measures are necessary in all areas of the United States or all areas of a particular state. Death rates vary wildly by area, and as the catastrophic death rates that were speculated have not occurred and may not have occurred whatever was done by authorities based on the situation in Sweden and other places, the tension between protecting the aged and vulnerable while not greatly harming the lives of ordinary citizens with unnecessary restrictions. Not everyone agrees about these things, which is to be expected, but the paranoid style of politics tends to view those who disagree as not merely different or wrong, but as being unworthy to be allowed to speak or allowed to be free. And that obviously creates problems for the rest of us.