January 22, 2012


Eli Sagan, The Honey and the Hemlock: Democracy and Paranoia in Ancient Athens and Modern America (New York: Basic Books, 1991) ("Essential to the theoretical ground of this book is the concept that--as far as the relationship of the psyche and the world is concerned--there exists a crucial developmental sequence: (1) paranoia, (2) the paranoid position, and (3) overcoming the paranoid position. Clearly the sequence represents an advance in psychic maturity and health. As in all developmental psychological theory the telos of development is a psyche reasonably free of pathology. The essential problematic, nonetheless, is that paranoia and the paranoid position represent stages in the viewing of reality that every psyche goes through,. Though as adults we no longer suffer from paranoia, it was once, for all of us, the normal expectable condition We have grown out of it but it remains accurate to say, in a metaphorical manner, that we are all born paranoid. It is the mission of 'good enough' nurturing, aided by those constitutional aspects of the psyche that are able to strive toward health, to help us overcome the paranoid position. All nonpsychotic adults have succeeded, more or less, in going beyond the paranoid position. The question if he degree to which this psychic work has been successfully accomplished i crucial." "All adults remain paranoid to some degree or other. Even the most efficacious nurturing, combined with the most fortunate temperament, will leave some significant residue of the paranoid position in the adult psyche." "The degree of paranoid world views determining the value system of society is of crucial importance fr any valid theory of social evolution. Social evolution, progressing through various stages in society, can be conceived of as a diminution of paranoid response and action, , , So, too, with the development from authoritarian society to democratic society. It will be argued here that democratic society, even the imperfect democracy we simultaneously enjoy and deplore, represents the least paranoid of any form of society yet seen." Id. at 14-15. Yet, is it not the case that many commentators have suggested that the United States, supposedly the premier democracy, is itself slipping toward authoritarianism as a defense in the so-called war against terror? Or, for that matter, addressing just about any social problem including, the expanding wealth gap, immigration, education, abortion, labor-management relations. "The quintessential overriding concern of the paranoid position is the question of control. Who is controlling whom? Are they controlling me or am I controlling them? The aim of all paranoid thought and action is to get a firm grip on that which controls the world. The anxiety, mental and actual, is directed toward obtaining a certain kind of controlling power. All manifestation's of the radical paranoid position are either shrill laments that we have lost, or are losing, controlling power or fantastical attempts to regain it." Id. at 16. Think about the draconian immigration policies implements by or in some states, e.g., Mississippi, Arizona, Alabama, to regain control of their borders. "The fundamental paranoid view is that the world, and those who people it, are untrustworthy. Erik Erikson regards the task of the first period of a child's life as acquiring the quality of basic trust. The paranoid learns the exact opposite lesson; basic distrust is the ground of his or her being. Conspirators and traitors are everywhere. There is no loyal opposition. Those of contrary political positions are not, as the democratic view would have it, entitled to their opinion, since their opinions are traitorous. . . ." . Id. at 16-17. Is not that the state of American politics, the gridlock resulting from no one willing to compromise because the other side is viewed as being untrustworthy, unAmerican, or whatever? "All regressions from democracy involve the reassertion of the fundamental paranoid position. No democracy is possible unless a large group of people in society have the capacity to live without the defenses of authoritarianism, militarism, and dogmatic ideology>' "Paranoia is the problem. The paranoid position is the defense. Democracy is a miracle, considering human psychological disabilities." Id. at 22. "The paranoid position is intensely personal. All evil wears a specific human face. The individual suffering from paranoia may believe in malicious cosmic forces disrupting and poisoning the world, but the paranoid sees a person or persons behind all life's evils. . . : "Loyalty for the paranoid is always primarily loyalty to a person, the czar, the dictator, or the religious leader, not to an abstract image of freedom or tolerance or, most especially, law. In a democracy it matters not whether you like or dislike your neighbors, or whether you believe that their motives are honorable. What matters is that they are entitled to the protection of the law, just as you are. The law is impersonal, beyond persons, universal. True paranoids are incapable of this imaginative leap. They are only able to live in a society with people whom they like or who think in the same way. When the paranoid severely regresses to paranoia itself, the extermination of those in society who are different becomes a necessity. Differences among people can be tolerated only by achieving an abstract conception of personhood. One must respond to the abstract, generalized human quality of those who superficially differ from one. Paranoids cannot do this. They suffer from a xenophobia directed internally into society; security and comfort reside only in a completely homogeneous world." Id. at 23-24. In this second decade of the twenty-first century, capitalism is under suspicion due to the economic meltdowns across the globe (the United States, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, and whoever is next. The wealth gap has significantly widen in the United States, such that the underclass is almost hopelessly damned, the middle class is shrinking and, to mix my metaphors, barely keeping its nose above the water line, while the rich become richer, and the superrich become even more super. Yet . . . "When liberalism introduced the second stage of democratic society in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the marriage of capitalism and liberal democracy produced some strange progeny. In the ancient world even the most conservative of thinkers like Plato and Aristides were seriously bothered by the extremes of wealth and poverty, but the main concern of later liberal thinkers was whether the poor were entitled to vote. The enthronement of individualism buried the deep concern for the commonwealth and the common health of the polis that had been second nature to any thinking person in the ancient democratic world. The loss of this deep commitment to community has caused some modern thinkers to exaggerate the virtue of the polis , ignoring its conflicts and profound contradictions. If the second stage of democracy--liberal, bourgeois, capitalist--is to be transformed into something more just, it will have to learn what was obvious to those who lived in the polis: Great wealth is a problematic for democratic society--great poverty is a catastrophe." Id. at 289. Written twenty years ago, and still providing much food for thought. That is, if anyone is listening. But, then again, paranoids tend not to listen to those who have a different point of view.).