Dissonance Control in Political Paranoia

Bird watcher
(photo: companyink)

After writing about the Ronpaulist fear mongering of Jordan Page, and then reading Lance’s splendid post on the latest contheorist pandering of Glenn Greenwald, a common insight has reoccurred to me: the absurd amount of cognitive dissonance conditional to political paranoia.

This is something Christopher Hitchens explored quite adeptly last year at the “Four Horsemen” chat with his three fellow atheist luminaries, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris (, skip to 8:17). In a response to a point by Dennett, Hitchens argues that the stress of cognitive dissonance is the inevitable state deriving from belief in political unreality, and furthermore, that this condition exists and persists on purely survival grounds (seems true in miniature too).

I’d add that it’s the compartmentalism that political paranoia necessitates in an open society that is the most conspicuous betrayal of its essential cynicism. Something especially apparent when you run into it face to face.

For instance, if you happen to blunder into your paranoid neighbor who believes the United States is singularly dedicated to the repression of population, while he’s casually buying Twinkies and coffee at the local convenience store. You always want to ask whether he shouldn’t be stockpiling ammunition somewhere, or attending a meeting of the underground resistance instead. But of course he never is. He has developed the capacity to temporarily dissociate himself mentally from what he considers to be the dominant dynamic of his society. In effect, his belief system has an on/off switch.

The reason that a control mechanism for the discord between political fantasy and practice exists is fairly obvious. As Hitchens illustrates, if you lived your life as if even 10% of the far-left or far-right’s paranoid delusions were actually real and concrete, it would become impossible to live. Just getting through a normal day mandates a substantial deference to practical realism, and the collective consensus of the visible world. The realism that says the government didn’t wire your car with a bomb overnight, that the man walking toward you on the sidewalk is not about the knife you because you subscribe to Ron Paul’s newsletters, or that the NSA hasn’t assigned an intelligence agent to snoop on your phone calls with your wife for no apparent reason.

The logical question that presents itself of course, is if you turned off the switch permanently on your fantasies, would the realist world you inhabit look any different? Of course it would not. But I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the person who managed to do so, might feel that something had been lost from his life.

Perhaps most directly, he might find that he had lost the self-confidence that attends the patronage of an elite insight. A subscription which artificially elevates his self-estimation above the “herd” of “sheeple” blindly following the conditions of the world conspiracy. While the political paranoid’s life might not be affected to any noticeable extent by his belief or non-belief in improbable politics, his perception of himself among the lives of others is certainly affected. It is he who is enlightened and purposeful, while the masses are blind and purposeless after all.

It’s only a pity that the self-delusion of the individual to satisfy a hierarchial fantasy of social conceit, does have implications in a system of popular rule. Perhaps it could be reassuring to share the paranoid’s belief that all elections are rigged. We unfortunately cannot join that enthusiasm, when we know that the madman does have a vote.

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