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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 10/1/20

The Paranoid Style in American Politics (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) October 1, 2020: Once upon a time, a mighty long time ago now, the American historian Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) alerted the world in 1963 to the paranoid style in American politics that has long been associated with conservatives in the Republican Party. Briefly, the paranoid style in American politics espouses a strong sense of Us versus Them. Of course, the "Us" may shift. So may the "Them."

In the time of FDR, the infamous radio priest Father Charles Coughlin (1891-1979) was one well-known exemplar of the paranoid style in American politics.

In American politics today, President Donald ("Tweety") Trump is known primarily as the most prominent practitioner of the deliberately divisive paranoid style of Us versus Them.

Now, in my recent spirited 7,500-word OEN article "Walter J. Ong's Philosophical Thought" (dated September 20, 2020), I reviewed and defended Ong's philosophical thought:

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Because the American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and cultural historian Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955) is my favorite scholar, I will once again advert to his work in the present review essay. Over the years, I took five courses from him at Saint Louis University (SLU). In addition, I took a memorable graduate course in English at SLU from Dr. Raymond Benoit on British Romantic poetry (in the 1966-1967 academic year, but I am not sure in which semester).

In any event, in Ong's lengthy Jesuit training, he studied the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1274) in depth both in his graduate philosophical studies (in Latin) and in his later graduate theological studies (in Latin).

For an accessible translation of Aquinas' thought, see Matthew Fox's creatively constructed 2020 book Sheer Joy: [Four] Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality, 2nd ed. (Mineola, NY: Ixia Press of Dover Publications; 1st ed., 1992).

Subsequently, Ong did his doctoral studies in English at Harvard University. For his Ph.D. dissertation, he massively researched the history of the verbal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic (also known as dialectic) in connection with the pivotal French Renaissance logician and educational reformer and Protestant martyr Peter Ramus (1515-1572).

One consequence of Ong's extensive studies of Western philosophical thought is that he has in his publications a permanent edge in philosophy over his younger colleague in the English Department at SLU, Raymond Benoit, author of the book Single Nature's Double Name: The Collectedness of the Conflicting in British and American Romanticism (The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1973).

In the present essay, I want to stress Benoit's account of what he refers to as disjunctive tendencies in Western culture, because disjunctive tendencies are dramatically intensified in the paranoid style in American politics.

In addition, I want to highlight Benoit's account of Coleridge's thought about the ideal poet's imagination. According to Coleridge, imagination endows the ideal poet with the capability to balance or reconcile opposite or discordant qualities - which opposite or discordant qualities Benoit characterizes as disjunctive.

In plain English, disjunctive thinking is either/or thinking. The paranoid style in American politics involves either/or thinking on steroids.

Even though Coleridge happens to be writing about the ideal poet, I find his characterization of what imagination endows the ideal poet with the capability of doing is a characteristic of Ong's mature thought. Perhaps imagination helped endow Ong with this capability.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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