Plan for the Day
- Jesse Walker on Conspiracy Theories (not assigned reading)
- PBS American Experience “McCarthy”
- John Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio,” 1947
- Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” 1948 (Available here with an audio version)
- “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” The Twilight Zone, 1960 (here)
- 2003 Remake on YouTube
- Conformity, an American Cultural Value
I hope to have feedback for your Rhetoric of Fear Analysis Drafts by the end of the week.
Jesse Walker on Conspiracy Theories
As we mentioned last class, conspiracy theories and anti-intellectualism seem to be related and might stem from similar anxieties of not being complete or in control. Conspiracies theories are important for the rhetoric of fear because they demonstrate both fringe and mainstream anxieties about the unknown. They also reveal the comfort provided by a simplistic explanation of something real and imagined. Walker’s goal is to provide a history of paranoia in the United States through a look at conspiracy theories. Next week, we’ll discuss the Satanic Panic, which is closely related to conspiracy theory anxiety, but it often goes by the term moral panic. Walker cites Stanley Cohen’s description of moral panics:
A condition, episode, person, or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians, and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges, or deteriorates and becomes more visible.Cohen, as cited in Walker, p. 1
Cohen first coined this in 1972 and could not have imagined the way “expert” would devolve into the farce it has become with the rise of social media. Walker also cites Erich Goode’s example of the “folk devil…an evil agent responsible for the threatening condition” (11). Again, this will be more important for the next two weeks when we discuss the Satanic Panic, but there is much overlap, making it difficult to provide and exact genesis of fear, hatred, paranoia, etc. within a population. In fact, Walker proposes that how one presents a conspiracy to survey respondents might affect the response, but he buries this in an endnote: “People may, for example be less inclined to embrace JFK and 9/11 theories when they are proposed alongside such obvious kook-bait questions as…’Do you believe that shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining power to manipulate our societies, or not?'” (n25, 346).
Walker takes some issue with Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” but much of the criticism seems misplaced and concerned with Hofstadter’s not addressing enough conspiracies in American History; however, that’s an unfair attack (straw man fallacy) considering Hofstadter was only writing an article and not a 300-page book like Walker. What Walker does point out that few recognize is that conspiracy theories aren’t just a condition of bad times, but “the 1990s, a time of relative peace and prosperity, were also a golden age of both frankly fictional and allegedly true tales of conspiracy….But there is also the possibility that peace breeds nightmares just as surely as strife does” (15). As I mentioned last week, there was a brief respite in fear mongering about socialism after the collapse of Soviet-style communism, but it was brief. It didn’t take long before the right-wing insinuated that Bill Clinton and other democrats were trying to usher in socialism that would destroy freedom. And the fear mongering continues to today:
- Clinton Healthcare Reform 1993 (socialized medicine)
- The Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare)
- “Socialist” Income Redistribution (para. 6)
- 15-Minute Cities (2/23/2023)
- If it isn’t car-centric, it’s authoritarian!
Walker on the White Slavery Syndicate
Walker brings up a conspiracy theory from the early 20th century that might need our attention to see how, although bogus, these conspiracies move voters to look to the government for answers (even though they also think government is the problem…another contradiction).
- “a vast international white-slavery syndicate” circa 1900 that trafficked women and girls (11)
- the international prostitution syndicate led to the Mann Act of 1910, which, in turn “gave the first major boost to the agency that would later be known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation” (12)
- The Bureau of Investigation, founded in 1908, was responsible for investigating brothels, so the White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910 expanded their powers…
- Boxer Jack Johnson’s 1910 defeat of white boxer James Jackson Jeffries led to race riots
- Jack Johnson was accused of violating the Mann Act
- Owned a desegregated restaurant
- Married a white woman
- Eventually, the FBI would use affairs to try to bring prominent “agitators” down
- Charlie Chaplin gave a pro-Soviet speech in 1942 (the USSR was an ally in WWII)
- Chaplin’s affair with Joan Berry led to his being prosecuted under the Mann Act in 1944
As seductive as it may appear, the conspiratorial view is that the government planted stories of an international prostitution rings that required a strong federal “police agency” to coordinate its prosecution; however, no syndicate existed. The FBI’s powers grew as they sought to take down agitators that went against social norms, meaning segregation. The First and Second Red Scares were also reasons to expand the FBI’s powers, so they made up stories of communist cells being everywhere. There is truth in the story: the FBI’s powers and scope rose throughout the 20th century. It is easier for some to believe this was a master plan of governmental overreach. The more complicated answer is that the FBI’s rise is a reaction to public fears that enemies are everywhere and need to be stopped.
Middle-Class Anxieties Post-WWII
You’ve heard the phrases “middle class” and “middle America,” and they have overlapping definitions. You’re also most likely aware that “middle-class” fluidity means something slightly different in different eras and places, but it’s hard not to recognize the prevailing assumption that we all strive to pursue or maintain middle-class lifestyles (or upper-class, but that requires more discussion outside the scope of today). Anna G. Creadick’s research examined the post-WWII American consumer and reviewed surveys, statistics on income, records of all kinds, etc. to present a snapshot of the “average” middle-class person. It’s important to quote her at length:
Regardless of their socioeconomic conditions, it seems, postwar individuals felt pressed to “pass” as middle class, an identity that was cast more as a matter of surfaces and appearances than structures or depth. This tension is at the center of the iconic 1955 postwar text, Sloan Wilson’s novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. In the context of a general postwar transition from scarcity to abundance, the gray flannel suit itself both masked and revealed the paradoxes of a growing middle class. This exterior uniform allowed the postwar “middle” to be perceived—and to perceive itself—as normal, as unified, as uniform. The suit itself, or the “white collar” of the shirt beneath it, was a tautological mark: wearing a suit meant being middle-class; being middle-class meant wearing a suit. But a closer look at the culture surrounding this midcentury uniform reveals that this variety of “normality” was only suit-deep—not only for those Americans still in the process of moving into the middle class, but also for those who might be expected to embody it most perfectly. American middle class identity was becoming a performance, fashioned out of consumer surfaces.Creadick, Anna G. Perfectly Average: The Pursuit Of Normality In Postwar America. U of Massachusetts P, 2010, 68.
John Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio“
This is a good preview for Science Fiction and American Culture because it’ll be assigned reading for that class. For today, let’s reflect on the short story in this class’s context of the rhetoric of fear. Before listing specific quotations, how about some questions:
- What is the role of the “middle class” identity? In fact, how do we define “middle class”?
- bourgeoisie literally means “city-dweller” in French
- What anxieties materialize through the radio’s special broadcasts?
- What contemporary comparisons can you make between the Westcott’s lives (of post-WWII New York City) and contemporary families?
There has been lots of research done in literary studies and science, technology, and society studies (STS) on appliances and domesticity. This short story is one of many that discuss an appliance or new gadget that disrupts the family home. Of course, as we all know, artifacts represent the societies from which they come, so the “thing” is never the real problem…remember, it’s never the dirty dishes—they did nothing to be broken.
- p. 33: “Jim and Irene Westcott were the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins.”
- College education
- Darrel Huff’s “How to Lie with Statistics” (on Canvas–February 9th) discusses finding average income of college alumni through surveys
- p. 34: “…the noise of music amplified so mightily that it knocked a china ornament from a table to the floor.”
- Then, “A man was speaking on the station Jim had chosen, and his voice swung instantly from the distance into a force so powerful that it shook the apartment” (p. 35)
- This “aggressive intruder” emitting “violent forces…made [Irene] uneasy.”
- p. 35: “…the ‘Missouri Waltz’….reminded her of the thin, scratchy music from an old-fashioned phonograph that she sometimes heard across the lake where she spent her summers.”
- Where do you summer?
- p. 37: “She overheard demonstrations of indigestion, carnal love, abysmal vanity, faith, and despair. Irene’s life was nearly as simple and sheltered as it appeared to be, and the forthright and sometimes brutal language that came from the loudspeaker that morning astonished and troubled her.”
- Sounds like contemporary media…
- p. 39: Jim notices that Irene’s demeanor change: “She interrupted her hostess rudely and stared at the people across the table from her with an intensity for which she would have punished her children.”
How does it all end? Happily ever after, right?
Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”
This is a much-anthologized short story and probably not the first time you’ve come across it. While there are many reasons to believe this is a thinly veiled account of Shirley Jackson’s psychological state at the time, we know the intentional fallacy isn’t the end of the interpretation. The quotations of the short story are important, but let’s ask these questions:
- What does this say about ritual in society?
- What are the reasons against giving up the ritual?
- Ultimately, what exactly does Tessie Hutchinson find to be “unfair”?
- One quote needs to be discussed in relation to this class:
“‘Listening to the young folks, nothing’s good enough for them. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live that way for a while. Used to be a saying about ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.'”
- What’s the significance of this taking place on June 27th?
- Initium Aestatis: June 27th summer festival
“The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” 1960
I’ve got notes written down, but maybe we can check out a few scenes. Did anyone watch the 2003 remake? At this point, you must have plenty to say about fear and conformity and the fear of not conforming!
Cohen, Stanley. Folk Devils and Moral Panics, 3rd ed. Psychology Press, 2002.
Hofstadter, Richard. “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Harper’s Magazine, 1 Nov. 1964, pp. 77-86.
“Defense.” Open Secrets. https://www.opensecrets.org/industries/indus.php?Ind=D
Walker, Jesse. The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. HarperCollins, 2013.