Paradise Lost: Paranoia Has Undermined US Democracy
While far from a dictatorship, the United States has employed a number of paranoid tactics that delegitimize its democracy. This phenomenon is on display in the fictional TV series "Homeland," which depicts hysterical CIA agents in a hysterical country.
Agent Carrie Mathison is a topical figure. The main character in the American TV series "Homeland," played by the wonderful Claire Danes, shows her true relevance in the first few episodes, in which Mathison is nervously sitting at home, observing and listening in on the life of a terror suspect on a large screen. His apartment is bugged and Mathison is determined to find out as much as she can about him. She is hysterical, bipolar, paranoid and sick -- all advantageous traits for her job.
It is often assumed that intelligence agencies are worlds of their own, and that they sometimes act on their own authority. However, they are also an expression of the societies in which they exist, especially of their fears. In other words, it is quite possible that there are not just paranoid agents, but also paranoid democracies that act in hysterical ways out of fear. They are characterized by a strong freedom myth, which leads to paranoia. It, in turn, poses a threat to freedom. The United States is currently in a late phase of this cycle.
Freedom means that there is an endless range of possibilities, and that anything can happen, including both good and bad things. That's why freedom engenders fear. The greater the freedom, the greater the fear. Where does America's fear come from?
To answer this question, it's worth taking a look at scenes from a typical Hollywood Western, in which covered wagons pass through a harsh, unwelcoming landscape, and where the silence feels ominous and the settlers are constantly casting anxious looks at the hills to the left and right. Is anyone there? Of course there is. A group of Indians has congregated and will soon attack the wagon train. There will be deaths, and a few crosses will be left behind in the wilderness.
Paradise of Freedom?
The United States is a relatively young country that began as a society of settlers. They came to America to escape oppression at the hands of European monarchies, and they developed a strong desire for freedom in the process -- a freedom they could find in the continent's vast expanses. As political individuals, they refused to accept that even though they lived on the other side of the Atlantic, they were still controlled by the British colonial power, and they fought for their independence and democracy.
Because the settlers made such great sacrifices to seize their magnificent country -- from British troops, from the Indians and from the wilderness -- their achievements became imbued with a religious exaggeration. The country was essentially declared a paradise, or, in the words of the national anthem, "the land of the free and the home of the brave."
But the nation's genetic code has also retained the fear that many settlers had to endure, both on their treks and in wars. A covered wagon with a man, a woman and a horde of children -- it's the perfect symbol of the land of unlimited opportunity, a land where total freedom and maximum vulnerability go hand-in-hand.
To understand the United States, it's worth taking a look at other paranoid democracies. In southern Africa, Boer settlers battled the local population for land. To this day, the Boers still have a glorified view of their history, as suggested by Boer expressions like "Eie land, vrye volk," or "One land, free people." A strict apartheid system was implemented in South Africa starting in 1948. The system enabled the Boers to isolate themselves from the black majority and create a democracy, but only for whites, making it entirely undemocratic. Fear was the basis of that state. It built nuclear bombs, even though it had no enemies.
Politics Shaped by Fear
Israel is the promised land of the Jews. It was created primarily to give Holocaust survivors a place where they could feel free and safe. That freedom and safety was fought for and preserved in wars against the Palestinians and neighboring powers, wars that claimed many casualties. To this day, Israel retains elements of a settler society, as the country continues to expand into the West Bank.
In Israel, too, politics are shaped by fear -- and a justified one. The country is surrounded by enemies, some of which have made the renewed extermination of the Jews their objective. But does that mean that the Israelis have to have their presumed enemies murdered abroad? One of today's symbols of political paranoia is the giant wall that seals off Palestinian areas from Israeli territory. "Homeland" is actually based on an Israeli TV series.
The United States differs in many respects from South Africa during apartheid and Israel today. But the three countries are similar in terms of the triad of freedom myth, paradise and fear. This has led to the development of a tremendous ability to put up a fight, but also a heightened sensitivity.
Political paranoia requires an enemy, or at least the concept of an enemy. For a long time after the society of white settlers had destroyed or banished the Indian tribes, there was no enemy to threaten the Americans in their paradise. It was only the Soviet Union's bombers armed with nuclear missiles that made the United States vulnerable again and fanned new fears. At the same time, the rival in the East served as the alternative model to the freedom myth, because it was a society of compulsion and limited opportunity. It also offered an austere alternative model to the American paradise, which by then had become primarily a paradise of consumerism.
Soon a paranoia developed that was reflected in one of its early excesses, the McCarthyism of the 1950s. Those suspected of harboring sympathy for communism were persecuted. Throughout the Cold War, anti-communism remained a hysterical and fundamental element of American policy.
- Part 1: Paranoia Has Undermined US Democracy
- Part 2: Need for Enemies, at Home and Abroad
Stay informed with our free news services:
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2013
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH
Click on the links below for more information about DER SPIEGEL's history, how to subscribe or purchase the latest issue of the German-language edition in print or digital form or how to obtain rights to reprint SPIEGEL articles.
- Frequently Asked Questions: Everything You Need to Know about DER SPIEGEL
- Six Decades of Quality Journalism: The History of DER SPIEGEL
- A New Home in HafenCity: SPIEGEL's New Hamburg HQ
- Reprints: How To License SPIEGEL Articles
Corriere della Sera
MORE FROM SPIEGEL INTERNATIONAL
German PoliticsMerkel's Moves: Power Struggles in Berlin
World War IITruth and Reconciliation: Why the War Still Haunts Europe
EnergyGreen Power: The Future of Energy
European UnionUnited Europe: A Continental Project
Climate ChangeGlobal Warming: Curbing Carbon Before It's Too Late