In November 1964, the American historian Richard Hofstadter published an iconic essay in Harper’s Magazine titled ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’. The current South African political landscape makes such an exemplary case study for the paranoid style that it seems more like a choreographed set piece than a muddied reality.
This was the era of the Cold War, with the shadows of Joe McCarthy and Barry Goldwater still lingering in the corridors of Washington and elsewhere. In his essay, Hofstadter traced a history of the political and ideological extremism that had been a consistent hallmark of American discourse, a force which he named “the paranoid style”. In explaining this term, he wrote:
I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.
The paranoid style had, he argued, defined the anti-Communist crusades of the extreme right wing, and the anti-establishment conspiracies of the populist left. It had crept into the rhetoric and ideology of religious groups and political movements, reincarnating itself over centuries. It had a number of key characteristics: the identification of an enemy, the exaggeration of that enemy in the popular consciousness, accusations of conspiracy, the resort to absolutes and an unwillingness to compromise, fear-mongering and manipulation. The paranoid style saw only Good and Evil, with nothing in-between; a black-and-white world with no room for grey. The Enemy was plotting destruction and had to be extinguished. For many Americans, Hofstadter’s description captured in words what they had witnessed for decades.
The current South African political landscape makes such an exemplary case study for the paranoid style that it seems more like a choreographed set piece than a muddied reality.
Extremist movements ranging from the AWB to the nascent EFF are obvious archetypes of the trend. But if you read and listen carefully, you will begin to get a sense of how insidious the rhetoric of the paranoid style has become, invading many ostensibly “moderate” areas of our political discourse. Indeed, if paranoia is cholera, rhetoric is the infected water which every person must drink. Try to imagine your life in SA without exposure to it; you would have to cut out everything from government statements and newscasts to Nando’s commercials and conversations around the braai. These are the conduits of the paranoid style, sometimes disguised, often unabashed.
Paranoia seeks to justify itself through a combination of prevalence and conviction. Repetition is the first way it takes hold; in South Africa, traction is gained by paranoid rhetoric because it is never stopped in its tracks. If such rhetoric is not challenged as extremism or paranoia when it occurs, it quickly takes root. Because it so cunningly tangles itself with fear and identity, it is a dangerous game to denounce it – you risk alienating the average person with whom the rhetoric has resonance. Attempts to call paranoia by its name can come across as more dismissive than persuasive. At other times, paranoid discourse is rejected off-hand as ‘not worth a response’, allowing it to fester and multiply. Moreover, modern paranoia and media consumption habits are inseparable. South Africa, with its splintered print media and its high levels of reliance on television and radio, is a saturated message space; monetisation of the news relies on selling sensationalism. Even the more circumspect news sources often resort to inflammatory headlines and iffy storylines to capture and keep readership.
Secondly, as Hofstadter outlines, paranoia employs evidence and pedantry to justify itself. Paranoid rhetoric is usually crafted around a few small truths that are blown far out of proportion, used as evidence of a hyperbolic slippery-slope. Take, for example, the annual government audit findings for misspending, conflate misspending with corruption even though they are by definition very different things, claim that the misspending figure is the amount that government corruption cost South Africa in just one year, and conclude that the ANC has a deliberate agenda to get rich off public money. If one were to hold a microscope to this claim, one would find that at its core the numbers are real, even if the conclusions reached are not true or cannot be proved. In the paranoid mind, already primed by entrenched biases, the fact that the figure itself can be traced back to some official source stands as sufficient reason to buy into the inflated rhetoric.
These characteristics make the paranoid style both highly effective and extremely dangerous. Extremist rhetoric always begins with a small minority, but given the correct conditions can mushroom to immense proportions. A paranoia which feeds into a belief going back generations is bound to thrive. In South Africa, as in America, paranoia piggybacks on identity politics. Swart-gevaar, wit-gevaar, tribalism, xenophobia – everything is fair game. South Africa is the perfect breeding ground for paranoid rhetoric because our history has inculcated in us this divisive political game. For a long time, identity politics were the bread and butter of both the state and its opponents – today, it’s what we know best.
So how, then, does the paranoid style manifest in our country? In Hofstadter’s description, it has two stages, both of which are at the heart of our discourse. The first is ‘creating the enemy’:
The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will.
Enemy-creation, and the elaborate conspiracies that those enemies drive, occupy the thoughts of many a South African politician. Two of those enemies are the judiciary and the media. The rhetoric of the ANC suggests an “orchestrated conspiracy” by the courts against Jacob Zuma, John Hlophe and John Block. The DA and the ANC both share alternate delight in exposing alleged conspiracies by the media, in the acquisition of Independent News and Media by Iqbal Survé or in the apparent “opposition bias” of the Times Media Group. Blade Nzimande, ever the master of the Style, casts his net wide: Nkandla is “white people’s lies”, an anti-government conspiracy, and pretty much everything else is an “anti-majoritarian liberal offensive”, the efforts of a capitalist cabal hell-bent on destroying the new order. The DA’s ‘Fight Back’ and ‘Stop Zuma’ campaigns exploit paranoid tendencies within their core support base. Julius Malema is another paragon of the paranoid: when his erstwhile patron, Zuma, is threatened with prosecution, it is the product of a devilish political plot. Later, his own corruption charges are a Zuma-led conspiracy. The ANC has been captured by foreign capital and the DA is a cunning front for the old National Party. Almost in a single breath.
Enemies are everywhere, usually embodied by a political opponent or a pesky public institution. Cries of conspiracy are the best way to rally the troops. But the paranoid discourse goes beyond the rhetoric of political figures, seeping into the daily lives of ordinary South Africans too. Xenophobia is one example – the exaggerated, violent, sweeping creation of a scapegoat for a host of social and economic anxieties. For many whites, affirmative action and corruption are signs of a ‘banana republic’. For some others, white capital is the secretive mastermind behind every state and party policy decision. There is always an enemy ripe for the creating.
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 constantly lives at a turning point.
According to those who trade in paranoia, our imminent demise justifies the use of like force and like tactics against the enemy. Returning fire with fire is the final step of the paranoid style: ‘becoming your enemy’. It would be funnier if it didn’t come at such a high public cost. One of the textbook examples of this phenomenon is McCarthyism, where the black-and-white myopia of paranoia was pushed to farcical extremes; “the Communists are out to stifle freedom, and in order to stop them we must restrict out own”.
In South Africa it’s unfolding along the same lines. The paranoia surrounding the political motives of the judiciary has resulted in President Zuma telling The Star newspaper that “we don’t want to review the Constitutional Court, we want to review its powers”. The solution to judicial conspiracy seems to have taken the form of deferential appointments such as Mogoeng Mogoeng, massive political support for Judge President John Hlophe and a majority ANC-aligned Judicial Services Commission. Fight perceived politicisation with real politicisation. The creation of ANC-friendly media like The New Age newspaper and the ANN7 news channel are also sanctioned attempts to play in the same space as the ‘enemy’ media. The increasing use of the SABC as an ANC mouthpiece has fooled nobody, culminating in recent attempts to censor political party campaigning. Beyond that, the Protection of State Information Bill seeks to formalise the relationship between government control and the media.
However, one of the best examples of enemy emulation must be the formation of the EFF. After accusing the ANC of exerting undue influence, silencing internal debate and a growing lack of freedom, Julius Malema has created a party with fundamentally centralised and militarized power; the leader is ‘commander-in-chief,’ his friend Floyd gets to make the policy decisions and everyone else is called ‘commissar.’ Malema himself has since issued ultimatum after ultimatum on behalf of the EFF; stop e-tolls or we’ll tear them down, Zuma should resign in 20 days or we’ll occupy the Union Buildings, nationalise now, land reform now – the squalling invective of someone who created his enemy, modelled himself on its worst version, and now cannot be drawn to compromise.
As much as it shed light on the dynamics of its time, Hofstadter’s essay is a window unto our own, especially in the storm of electioneering and the aftermath of leadership changes. The paranoid style is a dominant feature of our political discourse, and grows in pitch and fervour with each new scandal or political formation. The narrative of ‘the enemy’, the extreme, black-and-white vocabulary that defines the rhetoric of public figures and the media, and the increasingly farcical hypocrisy of their allegations are its main features. The real problem that it creates, though, is its murder of the moderate. Hyper-inflated political rhetoric polarises even the most reasonable of people, diluting public moderation and making compromise and collaboration far more difficult.
Let’s not, of course, be too paranoid about all this. While the prevalence of the Style is worrying, it has not invaded every part of our political space. Moderates exist, and probably in large numbers. But why are they so silent? Being a moderate may not be sexy, and shouting will always beat a whisper – but if more South Africans don’t start fighting the paranoid trend, it will only be left to fester. DM
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Vashthi Nepaul has spent the last ten years being harassed by precocious teenagers. She is a former KZN Provincial, Gauteng Provincial and SA National Schools Debate Coach. She is a founder of the Tehuti Institue. Tehuti aims to expose school aged learners to means and matter that enriches education. The organisation works with both economically disadvantaged learners and learners with better means, often on the same platform to foster relationships and respect of mutual skill and interest. Saul Musker is a student, debater and sometimes-writer living in Johannesburg. He serves on at least three different non-profit boards (one of which gives him a business card) and submits poetry to competitions with cash prizes.
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