25 September 2020

Watching the Marvel movies

A friend who is an astute watcher of popculture recently confessed to me that they have been intrigued by the phenomenon of the Marvel Studios films, but had not yet sat down to see them. This is a viewing order for the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe fun for fans but designed for someone coming in cold like my friend — only glancingly familiar with either the movies or the comics they are based on — who is ready to commit to watching most or all of the films. Inspired by the “Machete Order” for watching the two Lucas trilogies of Star Wars — which treats Episode II & III as an extended flashback between V and VI, omitting Episode I entirely — this viewing order is different both from the order in which the films were released and from the chronological order of the events in the world of the films.

Marvel Studios and the fictive “Marvel Cinematic Universe” are interesting and unique for a number of reasons. There have been movie series with multiple sequels before, and superhero movies before, but the MCU is the first to capture the distinctly entangled series quality of superhero comics which fans love. Alan Moore, in his introduction to a collection of comics published in 1987, describes it better than I could:

There are great economic advantages in being able to prop up an ailing, poor-selling comic book with an appearance by a successful guest star. Consequently, all th ecomic book stories produced by any given publisher are likely to take place in the same imaginary universe. This includes the brightly colored costumed adventurers populating their super-hero titles the shambling monstrosities that dominate thier horror titles, and the odd girzzled cowpoke who's wandered in from a western title through a convenient time warp. For those more familiar with conventional literature, try to imagine Dr. Frankenstein kidnapping one of the protagonists of Little Women for his medical experiments, only to find himself to the scrutiny of a team-up between Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. I'm sure that the both the charms and the overwhelming absurdities of this approach will become immediately apparent, and so it is in comic books
The continuity-expert's nightmare of a thousand different super-powered characters co-existing in the same continuum can, with the application of a sensitive and sympathetic eye, become a rich and fertile mythic background with fascinating archetypal characters hanging around, waiting to be picked like grapes on the vine. Yes, of course, the whole idea is utterly inane, but to let its predictable inanities blind you to its truly fabulous and breathtaking aspects is to do both oneself and the genre a disservice.

This viewing order is intended to highlight this quality of superhero stories, the sense that different stories about different characters made by different creators are part of a grand story about a sprawling world of wonders and adventure, delivering a story of its developing world across the whole series.

How to use this list:

  • Marvel Studios' movies famously include one or two post-credits bonus scenes. Many of them are in-jokes for comics nerds or teasers for later movies which may be screwed up by this watch order, so I encourage you to skip most of them. I have marked movies with an asterisk when you do want to check out the post-credits bit.
  • For convenience, this post starts with just the list of movies, then repeats itself, that time with notes on each of the movies.
  • In order to highlight the building narrative, the list is sequenced such that it leaves a lot of the best stuff for late in the series. If your patience runs thin, I encourage you to just skip ahead to Section II, then Section B, to catch those three strong films before dropping out. There are also ways to abbreviate the viewing binge less radically ...
    • Within the sections, if the viewing order is important the movies are numbered. When the viewing order is less important, the movies are in a bullet list starting with the best of them, so one can skip the weaker films if one wishes.
    • Sections with Roman numerals deliver the initial long-sweep story in a deliberate order. If you want to focus on that experience, run just through these and skip the lettered sections.
    • Sections marked A, B, and S in the Roman alphabet deliver bonus Marvel Studios movies — the best of them among these — which enrich the long-sweep story but are not integral to it.
    • Sections marked Σ & Χ in the Greek alphabet deliver movies about Marvel characters which were not made by Marvel Studios; they may make an interesting contrast which inform what the Marvel Studios movies are doing.

I — Welcome to the Marvel Universe

  1. Captain Marvel
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy vol 1
  3. Thor
  4. Iron Man
  5. Iron Man 2

II — Getting the band together

  • The Avengers

III — The Ballad Of Tony Stark takes shape

  • Iron Man 3

IV — The Ballad Of Steve Rogers begins

  1. Captain America: The First Avenger
  2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

V — The Problem Child

  • Avengers: Age Of Ultron

A — Bonus stories

  • Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2
  • Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
  • Ant-Man
  • Ant-Man & The Wasp
  • Black Widow
  • Doctor Strange
  • The Incredible Hulk

VI — The Ballad Of Steve And Tony

  • Captain America: Civil War

B — Marvel’s best

  • Black Panther
  • Thor: The Dark World
    Thor: Ragnarok

VII — Infinity

  1. Avengers: Infinity War
  2. Avengers: Endgame

S - Spider-Man

  1. Spider-Man: Homecoming
  2. Spider-Man: Away From Home
  3. Spider-Man: No Way Home

Σ — Alternate Spiders

  1. Spider-Man
  2. Spider-Man 2
  3. Into The Spider-Verse

VIII — Starting the next story arc

  • WandaVision
  • Loki
  • Hawkeye
  • The Eternals

X — X-Men

  1. X-Men: First Class
  2. X-Men
  3. X-2: X-Men United
  4. X-Men: Days Of Future Past
  5. Deadpool & Deadpool 2
  6. Logan

I — Welcome to the Marvel Universe

  1. Captain Marvel
    Though this was released late in the series, it is a perfect demonstration of the basic charms of Marvel movies — action & spectacle, character melodrama, actors having fun hamming it up — plus it sets up a few things for an ordinary viewer which one had to be a comics fan to appreciate when encountering the films in release order.
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy vol 1 *
    Another movie from late in the series, showing the Marvel movies' capacity for exuberant fun speaking to our inner ten-year-old, threaded with some surprisingly poignant notes. If Star Wars has broken your heart with disappointment, this picture may rekindle your enthusiasm for Wacky Adventures In Space.
  3. Thor *
    Most film industry folks were puzzled when Marvel got Kenneth “Henry V” Branagh to direct this early Marvel movie, but it was the right move, bringing the right note of shameless Shakespearean melodrama. The story is simple but then-unknowns Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston turn out to be awfully charming, and the supporting cast are having too much fun.
  4. Iron Man *
    The movie which initially put Marvel Studios on the map. When it was released, Marvel Studios' first experiment with the Blade movies with Wesley Snipes had done well enough but had not really opened up Marvel's comics sensibility, Robert Downey, Jr. was all washed up, not even comics fans were enthusiastic about Iron Man, and director Jon Favreau was a small-time cult actor / writer / director. But Favreau was a nerd who respected the material, so the movie just worked and was a hit. And the post-credits bonus — then a surprise from out of the blue — teased the series of films which Marvel Studios hoped to build.
  5. Iron Man 2
    Frankly a mediocre entry in the series. It's not bad, but I recommend skipping it unless you find yourself loving Iron Man or RDJ as Tony Stark ... or you are someone who cannot get enough of Sam Rockwell goofing around.

II — Getting the band together

  • The Avengers *
    With this film, the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink pleasures of the Marvel Universe unfold. Aliens! Mad science! Super-spies! Hammy pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue! And Mark Ruffalo delivers an acting miracle that powers a perfect narrative climax. Uber-nerd director Joss Whedon (not yet disgraced when this was made) made it work with his love of genre shenanigans and knack for character ensemble.

III — The Ballad Of Tony Stark takes shape

  • Iron Man 3 *
    Writer / director Shane Black directed RDJ in the weird comedy-noir masterpiece Kiss Kiss Bang Bang back in 2005; tapped by Marvel, he delivered a mix of big spectacle, twisty storytelling, and a character turn for Tony Stark which made RDJ work for a living and set Tony up as interesting enough to serve as the backbone of the series. It's also worth noting that when Marvel announced that the villain would be The Mandarin — a character who is basically Comics Supervillain Fu Manchu — folks like me were Concerned about how badly racist that could go, but the movie subverts the problem of that legacy more cleverly than they (or just about anyone) have managed again since.

IV — The Ballad Of Steve Rogers Begins

I imagine that the viewer could be either binge-ing the Marvel movies or picking through it at a leisurely pace, but these two are a matched set, playing off of each other in a way that demonstrates the range of things superhero stories can do with a character. I recommend watching them in this order as a double feature, or at least within a week or two of each other.
  1. Captain America: The First Avenger
    This origin story set in the Second World War was released before The Avengers, but I think it works better — especially for non-fans — as a flashback after the ensemble movie, which introduces Captain America well enough even if you don't know anything about him. Marvel once again reached for a cult director with unique qualifications: Joe Johnston had directed the underappreciated, deliberately earnest, dieselpunk retro-pulpy The Rocketeer, and he reprises that voice for this WWII story about a character created in 1941. Chris Evans as our hero makes it look easy to play a character who is an unequivocal good guy, in contrast to the other movies featuring characters with striking flaws unto often being anti-heroes.
  2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
    The first Marvel movie to really stretch what the setting and characters can do, this entry is as much a crackling 1970s paranoid political thriller as superhero spectacle. One thing this watch order does steal from you as a viewer is how up to this point, as originally released, we had experienced our heroes were a handful of exceptional individuals in a world otherwise much like our own; Winter Soldier was a breakthrough which made the Marvel world feel expansive, with weirdness hiding behind every door.

V — The Problem Child

The problem is that this movie is not good, but it includes some loadbearing elements in the overall story of the film series, plus a large handful of good thematic and character bits worth watching it to get. Since the biggest problem is the pace and structure, the movie is a lot more fun watched a few scenes at a time. There are a bunch of good movies in Section A, so I recommend watching a scene or three from Ultron as an appetizer before picking up the next movie from that set; ideally you want to have finished Ultron before watching Section VI's Civil War, though it is not strictly necessary.
  • Avengers: Age Of Ultron
    On the one hand, the effects for the face of killer robot Ultron are a queasy Uncanny Valley failure, several elements just don't work, and there is one scene which is a horrendous misfire that has Natasha “Black Widow” Romanov say something really stupid and sexist. On the other hand, there is smarter engagement with the themes of Frankenstein in the age of artificial intelligence than a superhero movie really needs, some delightful scenes of our heroes just hanging out together, a direct rebuke to the inhuman callousness of the nearly-fascist Superman film Man Of Steel which was released while this was in production, and a few crackerjack action sequences.

A — Bonus stories

You don't need any of these to make sense out of the story arc explored in the sections with the Roman numerals, but the more of them you catch, the more callbacks and character stuff from later movies will land.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2
    A refinement of all the zany, vulgar charm of the previous entry, building to an ending with much more emotional resonance than one would expect.
  • Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
    A gem where superhero sensibilities marry well with other kinds of stories. If one has any love at all for xianxia or wuxia or kung fu movies, it reflects what Daniel Pinkwater said about Laurel & Hardy — one knows exactly what is coming but the delivery is so perfect that one cackles with delight when it arrives. This was released after the story cycle was completed but only really references Iron Man 3 and a bit of Doctor Strange, and stands well on its own.
  • Ant-Man
    Loose goofy fun, with Paul Rudd characteristically charming and funny, bursting with setpieces more about cleverly playing off of our hero's superpower than the special effects. I must also note that this is my young neice's favorite.
  • Ant-Man & The Wasp
    A sequel almost as much fun as the original, and there is even more clever play with the implicitions of our heroes' weird superpowers, if you like that sort of thing.
  • Black Widow
    This pretty-good spy thriller and family drama belongs right after Ultron in the story sequence despite production problems which wound up deferring its release until much later. (Indeed, catching this movie before the Very Bad Scene in Ultron may make that scene play a little less cringe.)
  • Doctor Strange
    The story is a little tepid and it leaves some of its interesting actors which too little to do, but there is a lot of fun to be had along the way. Our hero comes up with a very clever resolution at the ending, there are some dazzling unique visual setpieces (which will be refreshing for folks who found that Inception left a lot of opportunity for extravagant effects on the table), and it sets up my single favorite callback in a later film.
  • The Incredible Hulk *
    Originally released shortly after the original Iron Man, this picture is a mess which just does not quite come together. But if you love the Hulk, Frankenstein, Ed Norton, or mad science you may find it interesting.

VI — The Ballad Of Steve And Tony

This story works a bit better if you have gotten through Age Of Ultron first, but that is not strictly necessary.
  • Captain America: Civil War
    The first Avengers movie introduces non-fans to a type of pure superhero story, delivering a taste of a world with disparate wonders; this picture follows through on that promise, showing the kind of melodrama you can do about characters who live in a messy, complicated superhero world ... plus it finally shows the truly extravagent superhero action setpieces fans are accustomed to seeing on the comic page when a lot of superheroes are on stage together.

B — Marvel's best

These two are generally understood to be the two best Marvel movies as movies. They benefit significantly from playing off of earlier movies in the sequence but are not necessary to feed the long story of the series.
  • Black Panther
    An allegory of colonialism and global racial injustice through the lens of US Black cultural dreams and sensibilities, which sounds like eating your spinach ... but enlivened by superheroes and the exuberance of the Marvel sensibility, it is instead a fun and inspiring modern myth.
  • Thor: The Dark World
    This weak entry from much earlier in the story cycle is not really a part of this list, but if find that you love Thor and Loki enough to want to check it out, best to catch it at this point, because it sets up a great callback in ...
  • Thor: Ragnarok
    Somehow this candy-colored delight is both the most fun and funny Marvel movie while also managing to deliver another meditation on colonialism and a resonant story about family, community, and responsibility.

VII — Infinity

This wraps up the initial big ten-year story arc Marvel Studios built with their movies. Though fans' and Marvel marketing's use of the word “saga” is a bit overly grandiose, they really do add up to something. In comics, every few years comics publishers do a “crossover” story which ties together almost everything they publish, touching the stories in each character's individual books and then climaxing in a story which tries to shoehorn onto stage as many characters as possible to play a role. This is both a sleazy marketing gimmick and, when it works, the ultimate expression of the unique thing that the big superhero storytelling canvas can do with its vast cosmology, numerous genres, and hundreds of characters with interlocking stories. It is a miracle that this works at all, much less as well as it does.
  1. Avengers: Infinity War *
    Thanos, the space villain who has been knocking around the edges of the stories told so far, takes center stage in his quest for the Infinity Stones which have played a part in several of the movies. It is worth noting that structurally, Thanos is the protagonist of this movie.
  2. Avengers: Endgame
    Most superhero stories begin and end with a stable status quo. This movie shows how the world and our characters were transformed by the events of Infinity War, reflects on where our characters came from, plays out what they do next, and completes both The Ballad Of Tony Stark and The Ballad Of Steve Rogers.

S - Spider-Man

The three Marvel Studios Spider-Man movies are not strictly necessary to make sense of the big initial story arc, but are all pretty good.
  1. Spider-Man: Homecoming
    Another example of bringing life to stale genres by stirring in superheroics, in this case the teen high school comedy-drama. Not great but solid, and there is a superb twist at a key moment. Properly speaking this takes place after the events of Civil War, but it doesn't really hurt anything to get ahead.
  2. Spider-Man: Away From Home *
    More teen high school comedy-drama, not quite as strong as the first entry (and a few elements which disintegrate if one thinks too hard), but the lead characters are charming and the villain is interesting. Contains major spoilers for Section VII, so best if you wait to watch this one after that.
  3. Spider-Man: No Way Home
    The best Marvel Studios Spider-Man feature by far. It opens up some storyline stuff for the next major story arc after the conclusion of Infinity, and plays with ideas from Spider-Man movies which Marvel Studios did not make, so you may want to catch those ....

Σ — Alternate Spiders

For rights reasons, Sony has three distinct series of Spider-Man movies unconnected by style or story from the Marvel Studios version of the character. The two Amazing Spider-Man movies with Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker feature a few technical virtues (Spider-Man moves beautifully in them) but they are just plain bad. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 3 with Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker is better than its reputation, and has some lovely elements, but it is still weak enough to skip. But these three are terrific.
  1. Spider-Man & Spider-Man 2
    The first one is super and the second one is even better, in the running for best superhero movies ever in the eyes of many comics fans. In contrast to the Marvel Studios movies, director Sam Raimi commits deeply to the melodramatic storytelling style of the orginal comics of the 1960s.
  2. Into The Spider-Verse
    Definitley one of the best superhero movies ever made. And also one of the best animated features ever made. Visually dazzling, bursting with love for superhero stories, and genuinely moving.

VIII — Starting the next story arc

With the conclusion of the big “Infinity Saga” arc, there are a growing set of feature films — plus an array of streaming TV series — informed by it.
  • WandaVision
    A streaming series delivering a very good surrealist exercise in creating a David Lynch effect by playing with sitcom conventions to deliver both wit and pathos.
  • Loki
    A streaming series delivering a witty romp centered on the recurring villain. Introduces a major villain expected to play a major role in forthcoming stories.
  • Hawkeye
    A streaming series which is a fun trifle, part Holiday Comedy With A Hapless Dad, part Buddy Action Comedy.
  • The Eternals
    A gorgeously shot feature exploring (and setting up for later stories) the Marvel Universe cosmology ... but oddly dull.

X — The X-Men

Before Marvel Studios began their series, 20th Century Fox started a series of films about this team of Marvel superheroes and their antagonists. Half of the dozen-plus entries in the series are weak at best, even just plain bad, which is frustrating because the X-Men are one of the best and most beloved things from the Marvel comics. But there are a few that are good, one very good, and one true classic. Disney's acquisiton of Fox means that these characters will get rebooted in Marvel Studios films to come, so if you want a taste of another way of doing what Marvel Studios has done, these are worth a look.
  1. X-Men: First Class The second-best X-Men film. It was made late in the series, but since it flashes back to the origins of the team in the 1960s, it is actually the ideal place to start, making its allegory of the Black, gay, and other liberatory social movements very direct. (I wrote a little review of it when it was new.)
  2. X-Men
    The first film made in the series. Seeing it now, in contrast to the matured Marvel Studios approach, there are weaknesses from failure to trust the material, but at the time fans like me were excited that it was one of the best superhero movies yet made, with gravitas delivered by Ian McKellen & Patrick Stewart, a star-making turn by Hugh Jackman, some clever superheroic setpieces, and effective queer allegory.
  3. X-2: X-Men United
    A follow-up that improves a bit on its predecessor, with more room for the performances to breathe.
  4. X-Men: Days Of Future Past A flawed, fun mess which ties together the casts of the flashback and later versions of the team. If you're losing patience with the X-Men, skip this one, but it has some virtues, including a couple of terrific superhero action setpieces if you like those. After you see it, search YouTube for “quicksilver sweet dreams” to enjoy a sequel to its most memorable bit, snipped out from the gawdawful movie in which it appears.
  5. Deadpool & Deadpool 2
    A pair of gonzo, vulgar, refuge-in-audacity action comedies. They technically belong to this series but have a completely different tone. They somehow work much better than they have any right to. Worth seeing as a taste of superhero comics sensibilities in their silly Brechtian self-parody mode.
  6. Logan
    The last, and by far the best, film in this series; a little classic, period, which re-frames the characters and world as a John Ford western. It benefits if one has seen previous movies (especially X-2) but you don't strictly need any of them.

16 September 2020

Buy nice stuff

Want to buy nice consumer products from providers I like? Here are unsolicited endorsements of some of my favorite places to get Stuff.

Other indices of nice things

  • Cool tools — Kevin Kelly’s index of reviews of all kinds of things, talking not just about the qualities of the product, but about how and why it's useful, like tongue depressors or those glue sticks made of post-it note glue ... and many tools are just tips and tricks that don't require buying anything.
  • Wirecutter — exceedingly in-depth reviews explaining what the best version is for numerous key products — especially electronics — including why that thing is the best and what difference it makes if you go for the best cheap or best spendy alternative
  • The Future Of Stuff Store — particularly resiliently-designed products, especially ones which take advantage of cutting-edge materials; the creator also maintains an open list “some things that are really quite good”: “it’s just amazing how good the quality end of manufactured goods is, particularly compared to the landfill-fodder which is the norm”
  • Better Living Through Design — various kinds of cunningly-designed kit; the bags and desk accessories are my particular weaknesses
  • Pack Hacker — advice for travellers, relevant here because they have a huge library of thoughtful product reviews and recommendations
  • The Strategist — a bit lifestyle-magazine-ish, but I forgive it because it has pretty darned good taste in a range of products
  • Buy Me Once — many kinds of solidly-made stuff, again described with a bit of lifestyle magazine flavor
  • The Ones — a site maintained by some hip but (mostly) practical industrial designers listing their favorite, rock-solid products
  • The Sweet Setup — a guide to applications for Apple devices, including not just the best solutions but a lot of advice about using them well
  • The Macrumours’ buyers guide — informed guesses about when new versions of Apple products will come out, reducing your chances of getting something and then feeling frustrated to see a spiffy new version released right after you buy it
  • “What life-changing item can you buy for less that $100?” — a wooly but fun and helpful Reddit discussion
  • Kitty Unpretty’s office supply recommendations list — some smart eccentric ideas

Catalogues of various (often odd) things

Stationery & pens

Computer-adjacent office gear

  • Anker & Belkin — the two big manufacturers I trust most for stuff like chargers, cables, and other USB accessories (and related kit)
  • BlueLounge — well crafted solutions to your cable clutter, and other goodies
  • Elevation Lab — good cables and device stands; it is worth watching the video for their QuickDraw desk cable clip
  • Twelve South — unique accessories for computers, phones, and other electronics
  • Grovemade — preposterously swanky desk accessories for your computer desk
  • Peak Design Mobile — a system of elegant, protective phone cases which lock to various stands and implements; if you use one of the newer MagSafe iPhones, these are compatible, which means that you can combine best-of-breed solutions to pair it with the slightly better magnetic card wallet / mini stand from …
  • Moft — nifty portable stands for computers, tablets, and phones
  • DTTO — cases for Apple devices, including the iPad Mini case I settled on after a long hunt: inexpensive, protective, grippy without feeling gross, with a stand good for both portrait and landscape use
  • The Magic Sleeve — a cunning magnetic felt gear pocket/desk pad; watch the video to get seduced
  • Ergodriven — the weird ridged floor mat I use at my standing desk every day
  • Bellemond — makers of a superior alternative to the Paperlike tablet screen protector; it reduces glare and makes drawing & handwriting with the Pencil a lot better, though if one only writes on the tablet intermittantly, you may prefer …
  • Astropad make a magnetic-removable equivalent which comes with matching pen tips, Rock Paper Pencil
  • Conway Electric — nifty, very spendy extension cords and related gear with an Industrial aesthetic.
  • Fluidstance — balance boards for people who work at standing desks plus a line of steel desk whiteboards which I have all over my desk
  • Keyboario and Ergodox — cool weird ergonomic mechanical computer keyboards; I have a few words which may help you decide if you want one of these
  • Folding ergonomic bluetooth “travel” keyboard — this product is available branded a few different ways — I have seen it sold as GoTek Voyage, Targus, iClever, Perixx, Moko, Gomcv, and others — but it is always clearly the same product: compact, very handy, and surprisingly well-made
  • SuperCalla — USB cables with a set of magnets along the length which make them easy to wrap or fold neatly
  • Rolling Square — charging gear and similar; I keep one of their tiny multipurpose USB cables in my go bag, and they have a nifty modular magnetic arm for attaching phones, lights, and chargers to one’s laptop


  • Evergoods — my single favorite maker of bags and backpacks with clever, idiosyncratic designs; they have a travel bag with a well-integrated hip belt, and I have their CIVIC Access Pouch 2L, which is spendy for a dopp kit sized organizer but is the best item of its kind I have ever encountered
  • Bellroy — they started with thoughtfully-designed wallets, expanded to an array of accessories, and when I finally succumbed to sling bag mania, I settled on their cunningly-designed 9L Venture Sling
  • Alpaka — a more eccentric maker of nifty little bags; their Vertex Pouch eventually displaced the Bellroy sling as my EDC
  • Tom Bihn — simple but carefully-crafted and sturdy soft travel gear; their Aeronaut 30 bag has taken me around the world (and the newer laptop-friendly Techonaut incorporates the improvements I daydreamed about when I did that), and their Synik 22 or 30 laptop / travel backpacks have super organization
  • WaterField Designs — my absolute favorite makers of everyday shoulderbags and backpacks and such: their stuff perfectly straddles being classy enough to look professional without looking fussy in more casual circumstances (especially in their use of waxed canvas) and the videos explaining how their bags are meant to be used are worth a watch just an example of exploring thoughtful design; I think their Air Porter Backpack is the ideal under-seat carry-on to pair with a rolling case, and their newer Air Travel Backpack is the most professional-feeling one-bag air travel pack I have seen
  • Peak Design — camera gear and bags (and the phone cases mentioned above); their cunningly-designed Everyday Backpack is my hardworking everyday big backpack, and their travel backpack may be the most clever design of the type — note that Huckberry offers some handsome variants on their travel gear
  • Aer — intriguingly designed travel & EDC bags which I cannot vouch for having seen in the flesh, but reviews are encouraging; their Capsule Pack is another seductive member of the air travel backpack family
  • Babboon To The Moon — bags for people who share my sensibilities about how bags should be structured but want something more colorful
  • Freitag — an array of clever bags, each unique because they are made by upcycling the colorful tough canvas they use to cover trucks in Europe; the groovy stop-motion animations showing the bags in use are a delight even if you don’t want to buy one
  • Mission Workshop — my favorite fancy bicylists’ bags; they also make some interesting technical clothes
  • Saddleback Leather — gorgeous, heavy, sturdy leather luggage
  • Away — the most inexpensive sturdy rolling pullman cases (or the sturdiest inexpensive ones) I have found; their Aluminum Carry-On is spendy but satisfied my lifelong lust for an unattainably expensive Zero Haliburton case
  • Notabag — a simple lightweight bag which folds up small and has a simple, beautiful design which makes it graceful to carry things in one hand, over one shoulder, or as a backpack
  • Nanobag — by far the best packable tiny bags I have ever found, these easily pack down to almost nothing but the material is neither flimsy nor weird, plus the bag shapes are thoughtfully designed — I recommend the sling, pack, amd XL formats
  • Eagle Creek — an array of well-designed and well-constructed packing cubes; you may prefer to use cubes from the same maker as your bag, but you definitely need packing cubes if you travel
  • Matador — a bunch of interesting travel tools; I have one of their nifty pocket blankets — and even though I am not on the road any more like I used to be, I am very tempted to pick up one of their unique little soap bags
  • The Ogio locker bag — cleverly designed to organize gym gear and fit into locker just so — for years I had one which I did not even take back and forth, it just lived in my locker


  • Norman & Jules — toys for actual children with a Montessori sensibility which I find seductive
  • Art Of Play — unreasonably beautiful puzzles, games, and toys for grownups
  • Unemployed Philosophers’ Guild — a range of nifty/cute/clever tchotchkes for intellectuals, if you need something like a Nicola Tesla action figure
  • aroundsquare — simple, beautiful hand fidget stuff
  • Areaware — beautiful toys suited for adults and kids, like wooden Blockitecture blocks, as well as playful home & office stuff

Nerd-ish art


  • Outlier — spendy-but-worth-it technical clothing in a mix of plain and eccentric designs
  • Bluffworks — technical fabric clothes for a traveller who wants to look like a professional rather than a cyberpunk shadowrunner
  • American Giant — exceptionally well-made cotton basic clothes for men, including “the greatest hoodie ever made”
  • Mack Weldon — more cotton basics; my enthusiasm for their One Mile Slipper proves that I am a middle-aged guy
  • Woobie Coats — simple, very warm hooded coats cunningly designed to take advantage of existing mil-spec blanket material: inexpensive enough that you can buy them in bulk to give to your whole camping crew, or to houseless strangers
  • Gustin — clothes “like they do not make any more”, especially denim jeans, using interesting fabrics; they keep expenses relatively low by pre-selling short runs, so their mailing list offers fresh temptations on the regular
  • Voidmerch & Boredwalk — T-shirts and such with geeky/gothy words on them which are actually witty, including my Hallowe’en costume
  • Vestige — T-shirts with abstract graphics that are just really nice
  • 2046 Print Shop — T-shirts with crisp, almost-abstract science themes
  • Winkworth Ladies’ Goods — a Brooklyn designer of my acquaintance whose cozy/classy/sexy work I admire (and I gotta say that the models on their Instagram are all dreamy)
  • Katherinesummer — nifty knitwear


  • Hairstory — New Wash is a no-shampoo shampoo which will change the chemistry of your scalp, and they also have other cool haircare stuff, including a really nice scalp brush
  • Acne.org — a line of good, simple skincare products which are great even if you don't have acne; I cannot describe what AHA+ does but it is good for your skin
  • The Tangle Teezer — does one thing very well; my hair will start to tangle in five minutes if I just stand still and will quickly turn to ’locs if I let it, but this magic device sets it right in just a few swipes
  • Gilette Mach3 razors — in my experience, categorically better than any other disposable solution, but …
  • Henson Shaving — years ago I gave up on safety razors as leaving my skin too raw and failing to deliver the close shave I prefer; these beautiful precision-machined safety razors brought me back, delivering a shave every bit as good as the Mach3 — and while the razor costs a lot more, the blades cost a lot less


  • TubShroom — bath and sink filters which catch gunk without clogging
  • Kaufmann Mercantile — a range of well-made housewares and “accessories” and whatnot
  • Skurareally nice kitchen sponges and related cleaning stuff
  • Ovalware’s cold brew coffee maker is just a pleasing, solid bit of kit
  • Purist Collective — nifty insulated cups & bottles for home or on the go
  • Mighty Mug — the insulated travel cup I use at my work desk; it has clever suction device which keeps it from spilling when set on a smooth surface
  • Gigogne Tumbler — stackable glass tumblers from French makers of classic nearly-indestructible glassware
  • Onsen — waffle-style towels which sucked me in to a Kickstarter; they are really nice
  • The Swag — a cotton bag which one dampens and uses to keep vegetables fresh in the fridge; it works


  • Slate Milk — shelf-stable lactose-free not-too-sweet quality chocolate milk in a can; these make such a great afternoon treat that I have a subscription
  • Nickel Dime Cocktail Syrups & Portland Syrups — a treat I have taken to now that I have slowed down enough that I am enjoying soda concoctions more often than actual cocktails
  • U-Haul paper packing tape — so much better than all other box packing tape that it is worth going out of your way; it sticks nicely to cardboard but does not tend to get stuck to other stuff, tears easily by hand, and you can write on it
  • Hydro Seal Band-Aids & Tegaderm Dressings — are two different styles of hydrocolloid bandages which are flexible, comfortable, waterproof, and stay on for several days; if you put one on properly, you can trim the edges as they pull away over several days until the whole thing finally comes off, at which point minor wounds have usually completely healed
  • Spenco’s moist burn pads — an essential adjunct to those bandages; they belong in every first aid kid because for a burn there is no substitute

Everything else

  • Graf Lantz — a bunch of cool things made of wool felt, and their standout item is the best fabric face masks I have found, which I now wear over a silicone-frame filter mask from …
  • Gata — emergency bug out kits and related stuff for disaster paranoia
  • Garrett Wade — such beautiful tools that their gardening implements tempt me to take up gardening
  • The Gerber Prybrid — the best pocketknife I have ever owned, it stays sharp through the magic of replacable boxcutter blades, and also serves well as a pry bar and bottle opener
  • Oxford Pennant — camp flags that are just cool
  • Bibliotheca — an exceptionally handsome edition of the Bible, designed for one to enjoy reading; it uses an idiosyncratic Protestant translation which attempts to marry formal literalism with contemporary language
  • Manta — by far the best sleep blindfolds I have found
  • Upcart — a sturdy little folding dolly with a wacky triangular wheel design which enables one to use it to carry things up and down stairs

Of course the real reason I made this list is so I have a place to tuck cool stuff I find so I can go shopping for toys later. Or if you want to get me a present ….

11 September 2020

The Paranoid Style In American Politics

This article was published in Harper’s Magazine in November 1964. It is an indispensible classic, so I am transcribing an archive of it into a readable form here without permission, if only for my own convenience.

The Paranoid Style in American Politics

It had been around a long time before the Radical Right discovered it—and its targets have ranged from “the international bankers” to Masons, Jesuits, and munitions makers.

American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wind. 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. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics., In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.

Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. But nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content. I am interested here in getting at our political psychology through our political rhetoric. The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.

Here is Senator McCarthy, speaking in June 1951 about the parlous situation of the United States:

How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, which it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men.…What can be made of this unbroken series of decisions and acts contributing to the strategy of defeat? They cannot be attributed to incompetence.…The laws of probability would dictate that part of…[the] decisions would serve the country’s interest.

Now turn back fifty years to a manifesto signed in 1895 by a number of leaders of the Populist party:

As early as 1865-66 a conspiracy was entered into between the gold gamblers of Europe and America.…For nearly thirty years these conspirators have kept the people quarreling over less important matters while they have pursued with unrelenting zeal their one central purpose.…Every device of treachery, every resource of statecraft, and every artifice known to the secret cabals of the international gold ring are being used to deal a blow to the prosperity of the people and the financial and commercial independence of the country.

Next, a Texas newspaper article of 1855:

…It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions. We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber, and that our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism.…The Pope has recently sent his ambassador of state to this country on a secret commission, the effect of which is an extraordinary boldness of the Catholic church throughout the United States.…These minions of the Pope are boldly insulting our Senators; reprimanding our Statesmen; propagating the adulterous union of Church and State; abusing with foul calumny all governments but Catholic, and spewing out the bitterest execrations on all Protestantism. The Catholics in the United States receive from abroad more than $200,000 annually for the propagation of their creed. Add to this the vast revenues collected here.…

These quotations give the keynote of the style. In the history of the United States one find it, for example, in the anti-Masonic movement, the nativist and anti-Catholic movement, in certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, in many alarmists about the Mormons, in some Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers, in the exposure of a munitions makers’ conspiracy of World War I, in the popular left-wing press, in the contemporary American right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today, among White Citizens’ Councils and Black Muslims. I do not propose to try to trace the variations of the paranoid style that can be found in all these movements, but will confine myself to a few leading episodes in our past history in which the style emerged in full and archetypal splendor.

Illuminism and Masonry

I begin with a particularly revealing episode—the panic that broke out in some quarters at the end of the eighteenth century over the allegedly subversive activities of the Bavarian Illuminati. This panic was a part of the general reaction to the French Revolution. In the United States it was heightened by the response of certain men, mostly in New England and among the established clergy, to the rise of Jeffersonian democracy. Illuminism had been started in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt, a professor of law at the University of Ingolstadt. Its teachings today seem to be no more than another version of Enlightenment rationalism, spiced with the anticlerical atmosphere of eighteenth-century Bavaria. It was a somewhat naïve and utopian movement which aspired ultimately to bring the human race under the rules of reason. Its humanitarian rationalism appears to have acquired a fairly wide influence in Masonic lodges.

Americans first learned of Illumism in 1797, from a volume published in Edinburgh (later reprinted in New York) under the title, Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, Carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies. Its author was a well-known Scottish scientist, John Robison, who had himself been a somewhat casual adherent of Masonry in Britain, but whose imagination had been inflamed by what he considered to be the far less innocent Masonic movement on the Continent. Robison seems to have made his work as factual as he could, but when he came to estimating the moral character and the political influence of Illuminism, he made the characteristic paranoid leap into fantasy. The association, he thought, was formed “for the express purpose of ROOTING OUT ALL RELIGIOUS ESTABLISHMENTS, AND OVERTURNING ALL THE EXISTING GOVERNMENTS OF EUROPE.” It had become “one great and wicked project fermenting and working all over Europe.” And to it he attributed a central role in bringing about the French Revolution. He saw it as a libertine, anti-Christian movement, given to the corruption of women, the cultivation of sensual pleasures, and the violation of property rights. Its members had plans for making a tea that caused abortion—a secret substance that “blinds or kills when spurted in the face,” and a device that sounds like a stench bomb—a “method for filling a bedchamber with pestilential vapours.”

These notions were quick to make themselves felt in America. In May 1798, a minister of the Massachusetts Congregational establishment in Boston, Jedidiah Morse, delivered a timely sermon to the young country, which was then sharply divided between Jeffersonians and Federalists, Francophiles and Anglomen. Having read Robison, Morse was convinced of a Jacobinical plot touched off by Illuminism, and that the country should be rallied to defend itself. His warnings were heeded throughout New England wherever Federalists brooded about the rising tide of religious infidelity or Jeffersonian democracy. Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale, followed Morse’s sermon with a Fourth-of-July discourse on The Duty of Americans in the Present Crisis, in which he held forth against the Antichrist in his own glowing rhetoric. Soon the pulpits of New England were ringing with denunciations of the Illuminati, as though the country were swarming with them.

The anti-Masonic movement of the late 1820s and the 1830s took up and extended the obsession with conspiracy. At first, this movement may seem to be no more than an extension or repetition of the anti-Masonic theme sounded in the outcry against the Bavarian Illuminati. But whereas the panic of the 1790s was confined mainly to New England and linked to an ultraconservative point of view, the later anti-Masonic movement affected many parts of the northern United States, and was intimately linked with popular democracy and rural egalitarianism. Although anti-Masonry happened to be anti-Jacksonian (Jackson was a Mason), it manifested the same animus against the closure of opportunity for the common man and against aristocratic institutions that one finds in the Jacksonian crusade against the Bank of the United States.

The anti-Masonic movement was a product not merely of natural enthusiasm but also of the vicissitudes of party politics. It was joined and used by a great many men who did not fully share its original anti-Masonic feelings. It attracted the support of several reputable statement who had only mild sympathy with its fundamental bias, but who as politicians could not afford to ignore it. Still, it was a folk movement of considerable power, and the rural enthusiasts who provided its real impetus believed in it wholeheartedly.

As a secret society, Masonry was considered to be a standing conspiracy against republican government. It was held to be particularly liable to treason—for example, Aaron Burr’s famous conspiracy was alleged to have been conducted by Masons. Masonry was accused of constituting a separate system of loyalty, a separate imperium within the framework of federal and state governments, which was inconsistent with loyalty to them. Quite plausibly it was argued that the Masons had set up a jurisdiction of their own, with their own obligations and punishments, liable to enforcement even by the penalty of death. So basic was the conflict felt to be between secrecy and democracy that other, more innocent societies such as Phi Beta Kappa came under attack.

Since Masons were pledged to come to each other’s aid under circumstances of distress, and to extend fraternal indulgence at all times, is was held that the order nullified the enforcement of regular law. Masonic constables, sheriffs, juries, and judges must all be in league with Masonic criminals and fugitives. The press was believed to have been so “muzzled” by Masonic editors and proprietors that news of Masonic malfeasance could be suppressed. At a moment when almost every alleged citadel of privilege in America was under democratic assault, Masonry was attacked as a fraternity of the privileged, closing business opportunities and nearly monopolizing political offices.

Certain elements of truth and reality there may have been in these views of Masonry. What must be emphasized here, however, is the apocalyptic and absolutistic framework in which this hostility was commonly expressed. Anti-Masons were not content simply to say that secret societies were rather a bad idea. The author of the standard exposition of anti-Masonry declared that Freemasonry was “not only the most abominable but also the most dangerous institution that ever was imposed on man.…It may truly be said to be HELL'S MASTER PIECE.”

The Jesuit Threat

Fear of a Masonic plot had hardly been quieted when the rumors arose of a Catholic plot against American values. One meets here again the same frame of mind, but a different villain. The anti-Catholic movement converged with a growing nativism, and while they were not identical, together they cut such a wide swath in American life that they were bound to embrace many moderates to whom the paranoid style, in its full glory, did not appeal. Moreover, we need not dismiss out of hand as totally parochial or mean-spirited the desire of Yankee Americans to maintain an ethnically and religiously homogeneous society nor the particular Protestant commitments to individualism and freedom that were brought into play. But the movement had a large paranoid infusion, and the most influential anti-Catholic militants certainly had a strong affinity for the paranoid style.

Two books which appeared in 1835 described the new danger to the American way of life and may be taken as expressions of the anti-Catholic mentality. One, Foreign Conspiracies against the Liberties of the United States, was from the hand of the celebrated painter and inventor of the telegraph, S.F.B. Morse. “A conspiracy exists,” Morse proclaimed , and “its plans are already in operation…we are attacked in a vulnerable quarter which cannot be defended by our ships, our forts, or our armies.” The main source of the conspiracy Morse found in Metternich’s government: “Austria is now acting in this country. She has devised a grand scheme. She has organized a great plan for doing something here.…She has her Jesuit missionaries traveling through the land; she has supplied them with money, and has furnished a fountain for a regular supply.” Were the plot successful, Morse said, some scion of the House of Hapsburg would soon be installed as Emperor of the United States.

“It is an ascertained fact,” wrote another Protestant militant,

that Jesuits are prowling about all parts of the United States in every possible disguise, expressly to ascertain the advantageous situations and modes to disseminate Popery. A minister of the Gospel from Ohio has informed us that he discovered one carrying on his devices in his congregation; and he says that the western country swarms with them under the name of puppet show men, dancing masters, music teachers, peddlers of images and ornaments, barrel organ players, and similar practitioners.

Lyman Beecher, the elder of a famous family and the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote in the same year his Plea for the West, in which he considered the possibility that the Christian millennium might come in the American states. Everything depended, in his judgment, upon what influences dominated the great West, where the future of the country lay. There Protestantism was engaged in a life-or-death struggle with Catholicism. “Whatever we do, it must be done quickly.…” A great tide of immigration, hostile to free institutions, was sweeping in upon the country, subsidized and sent by “the potentates of Europe,” multiplying tumult and violence, filling jails, crowding poorhouses, quadrupling taxation, and sending increasing thousands of voters to “lay their inexperienced hand upon the helm of our power.”

The Paranoid Style in Action

The John Birch Society is attempting to suppress a television series about the United Nations by means of a mass letter-writing campaign to the sponsor,…The Xerox Corporation. The corporation, however, intends to go ahead with the programs.…

The July issue of the John Birch Society Bulletin…said an “avalanche of mail ought to convince them of the unwisdom of their proposed action—just as United Air Lines was persuaded to back down and take the U.N. insignia off their planes.” (A United Air Lines spokesman confirmed that the U.N. emblem was removed from its planes, following “considerable public reaction against it.”)

Birch official John Rousselot said, ”We hate to see a corporation of this country promote the U.N. when we know that it is an instrument of the Soviet Communist conspiracy.”

—San Francisco Chronicle, July 31, 1964

Anti-Catholicism has always been the pornography of the Puritan. Whereas the anti-Masons had envisaged drinking bouts and had entertained themselves with sado-masochistic fantasies about the actual enforcement of grisly Masonic oaths,1 the anti-Catholics invented an immense lore about libertine priests, the confessional as an opportunity for seduction, licentious convents and monasteries. Probably the most widely read contemporary book in the United States before Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a work supposedly written by one Maria Monk, entitled Awful Disclosures, which appeared in 1836. The author, who purported to have escaped from the Hotel Dieu nunnery in Montreal after five years there as novice and nun, reported her convent life in elaborate and circumstantial detail. She reported having been told by the Mother Superior that she must “obey the priests in all things”; to her “utter astonishment and horror,” she soon found what the nature of such obedience was. Infants born of convent liaisons were baptized and then killed, she said, so that they might ascend at once to heaven. Her book, hotly attacked and defended , continued to be read and believed even after her mother gave testimony that Maria had been somewhat addled ever since childhood after she had rammed a pencil into her head. Maria died in prison in 1849, after having been arrested in a brothel as a pickpocket.

Anti-Catholicism, like anti-Masonry, mixed its fortunes with American party politics, and it became an enduring factor in American politics. The American Protective Association of the 1890s revived it with ideological variations more suitable to the times—the depression of 1893, for example, was alleged to be an international creation of the Catholics who began it by starting a run on the banks. Some spokesmen of the movement circulated a bogus encyclical attributed to Leo XIII instructing American Catholics on a certain date in 1893 to exterminate all heretics, and a great many anti-Catholics daily expected a nationwide uprising. The myth of an impending Catholic war of mutilation and extermination of heretics persisted into the twentieth century.

Why They Feel Dispossessed

If, after our historically discontinuous examples of the paranoid style, we now take the long jump to the contemporary right wing, we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still established way of life. But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.

Important changes may also be traced to the effects of the mass media. The villains of the modern right are much more vivid than those of their paranoid predecessors, much better known to the public; the literature of the paranoid style is by the same token richer and more circumstantial in personal description and personal invective. For the vaguely delineated villains of the anti-Masons, for the obscure and disguised Jesuit agents, the little-known papal delegates of the anti-Catholics, for the shadowy international bankers of the monetary conspiracies, we may now substitute eminent public figures like Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower., secretaries of State like Marshall, Acheson, and Dulles, Justices of the Supreme Court like Frankfurter and Warren, and the whole battery of lesser but still famous and vivid alleged conspirators headed by Alger Hiss.

Events since 1939 have given the contemporary right-wing paranoid a vast theatre for his imagination, full of rich and proliferating detail, replete with realistic cues and undeniable proofs of the validity of his suspicions. The theatre of action is now the entire world, and he can draw not only on the events of World War II, but also on those of the Korean War and the Cold War. Any historian of warfare knows it is in good part a comedy of errors and a museum of incompetence; but if for every error and every act of incompetence one can substitute an act of treason, many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination. In the end, the real mystery, for one who reads the primary works of paranoid scholarship, is not how the United States has been brought to its present dangerous position but how it has managed to survive at all.

The basic elements of contemporary right-wing thought can be reduced to three: First, there has been the now-familiar sustained conspiracy, running over more than a generation, and reaching its climax in Roosevelt’s New Deal, to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism or communism. A great many right-wingers would agree with Frank Chodorov, the author of The Income Tax: The Root of All Evil, that this campaign began with the passage of the income-tax amendment to the Constitution in 1913.

The second contention is that top government officialdom has been so infiltrated by Communists that American policy, at least since the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, has been dominated by men who were shrewdly and consistently selling out American national interests.

Finally, the country is infused with a network of Communist agents, just as in the old days it was infiltrated by Jesuit agents, so that the whole apparatus of education, religion, the press, and the mass media is engaged in a common effort to paralyze the resistance of loyal Americans.

Perhaps the most representative document of the McCarthyist phase was a long indictment of Secretary of State George C. Marshall, delivered in 1951 in the Senate by senator McCarthy, and later published in a somewhat different form. McCarthy pictured Marshall was the focal figure in a betrayal of American interests stretching in time from the strategic plans for World War II to the formulation of the Marshall Plan. Marshal was associated with practically every American failure or defeat, McCarthy insisted, and none of this was either accident or incompetence. There was a “baffling pattern” of Marshall’s interventions in the war, which always conduced to the well-being of the Kremlin. The sharp decline in America’s relative strength from 1945 to 1951 did not “just happen”; it was “brought about, step by step, by will and intention,” the consequence not of mistakes but of a treasonous conspiracy, “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”

Today, the mantle of McCarthy has fallen on a retired candy manufacturer, Robert H. Welch, Jr., who is less strategically placed and has a much smaller but better organized following than the Senator. A few years ago Welch proclaimed that “Communist influences are now in almost complete control of our government”—note the care and scrupulousness of that “almost.” He has offered a full scale interpretation of our recent history n which Communists figure at every turn: They started a run on American banks in 1933 that forced their closure; they contrived the recognition of the Soviet Union by the United States in the same year, just in time to save the Soviets from economic collapse; they have stirred up the fuss over segregation in the South; they have taken over the Supreme Court and made it “one of the most important agencies of Communism.”

Close attention to history wins for Mr. Welch an insight into affairs that is given to few of us. “For many reasons and after a lot of study,” he wrote some years ago, “I personally believe [John Foster] Dulles to be a Communist agent.” The job of Professor Arthur F. Burns as head of Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors was “merely a cover-up for Burns’s liaison work between Eisenhower and some of his Communist bosses.” Eisenhower’s brother Milton was “actually [his] superior and boss within the Communist party.” As for Eisenhower himself, Welch characterized him, in words that have made the candy manufacturer famous, as “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy”—a conclusion, he added, “based on an accumulation of detailed evidence so extensive and so palpable that it seems to put this conviction beyond any reasonable doubt.”

Emulating the Enemy

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. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date fort the apocalypse. (“Time is running out,” said Welch in 1951. “Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month when Stalin will attack.”)

As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. 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. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).

It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through “front” groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy.2 Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.

On the other hand, the sexual freedom often attributed to the enemy, his lack of moral inhibition, his possession of especially effective techniques for fulfilling his desires, give exponents of the paranoid style an opportunity to project and express unacknowledgeable aspects of their own psychological concerns. Catholics and Mormons—later, Negroes and Jews—have lent themselves to a preoccupation with illicit sex. Very often the fantasies of true believers reveal strong sadomasochistic outlets, vividly expressed, for example, in the delight of anti-Masons with the cruelty of Masonic punishments.

Renegades and Pedants

A special significance attaches to the figure of the renegade from the enemy cause. The anti-Masonic movement seemed at times to be the creation of ex-Masons; certainly the highest significance was attributed to their revelations, and every word they said was believed. Anti-Catholicism used the runaway nun and the apostate priest; the place of ex-Communists in the avant-garde anti-Communist movements of our time is well known. In some part, the special authority accorded the renegade derives from the obsession with secrecy so characteristics of such movements: the renegade is the man or woman who has been in the Arcanum, and brings forth with him or her the final verification of suspicions which might otherwise have been doubted by a skeptical world. But I think there is a deeper eschatological significance that attaches to the person of the renegade: in the spiritual wrestling match between good and evil which is the paranoid’s archetypal model of the world, the renegade is living proof that all the conversions are not made by the wrong side. He brings with him the promise of redemption and victory.

A final characteristic of the paranoid style is related to the quality of its pedantry. One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows. It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed. Of course, there are highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow paranoids, as there are likely to be in any political tendency. But respectable paranoid literature not only starts from certain moral commitments that can indeed be justified but also carefully and all but obsessively accumulates :evidence.” The difference between this “evidence” and that commonly employed by others is that it seems less a means of entering into normal political controversy than a means of warding off the profane intrusion of the secular political world. The paranoid seems to have little expectation of actually convincing a hostile world, but he can accumulate evidence in order to protect his cherished convictions from it.

Paranoid writing begins with certain broad defensible judgments. There was something to be said for the anti-Masons. After all, a secret society composed of influential men bound by special obligations could conceivable pose some kind of threat to the civil order in which they were suspended. There was also something to be said for the Protestant principles of individuality and freedom, as well as for the nativist desire to develop in North America a homogeneous civilization. Again, in our time an actual laxity in security allowed some Communists to find a place in governmental circles, and innumerable decisions of World War II and the Cold War could be faulted.

The higher paranoid scholarship is nothing if not coherent—in fact the paranoid mind is far more coherent than the real world. It is nothing if not scholarly in technique. McCarthy’s 96-page pamphlet, McCarthyism, contains no less than 313 footnote references, and Mr. Welch’s incredible assault on Eisenhower, The Politician, has one hundred pages of bibliography and notes. The entire right-wing movement of our time is a parade of experts, study groups, monographs, footnotes, and bibliographies. Sometimes the right-wing striving for scholarly depth and an inclusive world view has startling consequences: Mr. Welch, for example, has charged that the popularity of Arnold Toynbee’s historical work is the consequence of a plot on the part of Fabians, “Labour party bosses in England,” and various members of the Anglo-American “liberal establishment” to overshadow the much more truthful and illuminating work of Oswald Spengler.

The Double Sufferer

The paranoid style is not confined to our own country and time; it is an international phenomenon. Studying the millennial sects of Europe from the eleventh to the sixteenth century, Norman Cohn believed he found a persistent psychic complex that corresponds broadly with what I have been considering—a style made up of certain preoccupations and fantasies: “the megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary; the refusal to accept the ineluctable limitations and imperfections of human existence, such as transience, dissention, conflict, fallibility whether intellectual or moral; the obsession with inerrable prophecies…systematized misinterpretations, always gross and often grotesque.”

This glimpse across a long span of time emboldens me to make the conjecture—it is no more than that—that a mentality disposed to see the world in this way may be a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population. But certain religious traditions, certain social structures and national inheritances, certain historical catastrophes or frustrations may be conducive to the release of such psychic energies, and to situations in which they can more readily be built into mass movements or political parties. In American experience ethnic and religious conflict have plainly been a major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but class conflicts also can mobilize such energies. Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest—perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands—are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery. A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to developing such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him—and in any case he resists enlightenment.

We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.

(1) Many anti-Masons had been fascinated by the penalties involved if Masons failed to live up to their obligations. My own favorite is the oath attributed to a royal archmason who invited “having my skull smote off and my brains exposed to the scorching rays of the sun.”

(2) In his recent book, How to Win an Election, Stephen C. Shadegg cites a statement attributed to Mao Tse-tung: “Give me just two or three men in a village and I will take the village.” Shadegg comments: “ In the Goldwater campaigns of 1952 and 1958 and in all other campaigns where I have served as consultant I have followed the advice of Mao Tse-tung.” “I would suggest,” writes senator Goldwater in Why Not Victory? “that we analyze and copy the strategy of the enemy; theirs has worked and ours has not.
Richard Hofstadter is DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University. His latest book, “Anti-intellectualism in American Life,” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction earlier this year. This essay is adapted from the Herbert Spencer Lecture delivered at Oxford University in November 1963.