25 September 2020

A watch order for the Marvel Cinematic Universe

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. I am plotting to create a series of posts inspired by this friend, to give them the best possible introduction and guidance in getting the most out of the Marvel movies.

This guide is the first installment in that project: a viewing order for the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe fun for fans but designed for someone coming in cold — 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 movies with numerous 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 title,s the shambling monstrosities that dominate tehir 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. In practice this requires squinting a bit to pretend to see it. Though Marvel Studios producer Kevin Feige tries to create a coherent world and narrative from the efforts of different creators working on different projects, just as a comics publisher's editor-in-chief does, such a project is inherently doomed. (Indeed, superhero stories have a tradition of Brechtian jokes about how things do not actually hang together.)

One other bit of craft for the viewer: Marvel Studios' movies include one or two post-credits “easter egg” bonus scenes, and you will want to make sure to catch those, with a few exceptions where it is best to skip them. I will mark the exceptions with an asterisk.

I — Welcome to the Marvel Universe

Start with these movies, in this order
  1. Iron Man
  2. Captain Marvel
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy vol 1
  4. Thor *

A — Bonus stories

These are two of the weakest entries in the movie series. They have their charms but don't quite land, so I invite the viewer to skip them. If you do watch them, you can pick them up at any point before part IV of this watch order.
  • Iron Man 2 *
  • Thor: The Dark World — I hope to write a skip guide for watching an abridged version of this one, since it sets up some great callbacks in later films

B — More bonus issues

More optional entries in the series, better than set A, to watch at any point before part VI
  • The Incredible Hulk — a flawed mess with some interesting Mad Science
  • Doctor Strange — a tepid story but it shows off magic as a part of the Marvel Universe, sets up the single best callback in the later films, and has some spectacular visuals
  • Ant-Man * — a fun trifle with a terrific final setpiece that makes a big cameo in a later film a lot more fun

II — Getting the band together

  • The Avengers
With this film, the kitchen-sink pleasures of the Marvel Universe unfold. If, at this point, watching these films feels more like a chore than fun, you can quit here and feel like you Got The Thing. But if you are on the bubble, I promise that the best films in the series are yet to come ....

III — The Steve Rogers Story

I imagine that the viewer could be binge-ing this series or picking through it at a leisurely pace, but these two movies 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
  2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

IV — Whither the Avengers

Watch these in order
  1. Iron Man 3
  2. Avengers: Age of Ultron — this movie is frankly a broken mess, but it is very thematically interesting, and plays a meaningful role in the over-arching narrative
  3. Captain America: Civil War

V — Plots thicken

Watch this set in any order; some of the best of the series here; if you lose interest in the whole series, try skipping ahead to here before you nope out
  • Black Panther
  • Thor: Ragnarok
  • Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming

C — Parallel worlds

Extra credit: a few good movies about MCU characters not made by Marvel Studios, which are both worth seeing for their own sake and as a reflection on different approaches to adapting these characters to film. Watch any or all at any point after this. Note that none of them have easter eggs in the credits.
  • Spider-Man & Spider-Man 2 — the first one is terrific, and the second one is even better ... while only serious superhero nerds have cause to care about the third film in this series or the Amazing Spider-Man reboot films
  • Into The Spider-Verse — breathtaking, just see it
  • Hulk — a bonkers mess made by one of the greatest living film directors

D — Parallel world: The X-Men

Before Marvel Studios began their series, 20th Century Fox started a series of films about this team of superheroes and their antagonists. Half of the dozen-plus entries in the series are weak or even bad, which is frustrating because the X-Men are one of the best and most beloved things in Marvel's comics, but there are a few that are good, one that is very good, and one is a true classic. Disney's acquisiton of Fox means that these characters will get rebooted in Marvel Studios films to come.
  1. X-Men: First Class — the second-best X-Men film, made late in the series, flashing back to the origins of the team in the 1960s
  2. X-Men — the first film made in the series, at the time one of the best superhero movies ever, and the movie which made Hugh Jackman a star; though pretty good, its weaknesses make an interesting contrast with Marvel Studios’ later approach
  3. X-2: X-Men United — the stronger follow-up to X-Men
  4. X-Men: Days Of Future Past — a flawed, fun mess which ties together the casts of the flashback and “present day” versions of the team (and after you see it, search YouTube for “quicksilver sweet dreams” to enjoy a sequel to the most memorable setpiece, snipped out from the bad movie in which it appears)
  5. Deadpool & Deadpool 2 — a pair of gonzo, vulgar, refuge-in-audacity action comedies technically belonging to this series that somehow work much better than they have any right to; worth seeing as a taste of superhero comics in their Brechtian self-parody mode
  6. Logan — the last, and by far the best, film in this series, reframing the X-Men as a John Ford Western

VI — The Gauntlet

Watch these in order
  1. Avengers: Infinity War — fully leveraging the big canvas
  2. Ant-Man & The Wasp — a fun break; the post-credits bit sets up the next film
  3. Avengers: Endgame — the whole series becomes wood behind the spear of this climactic story

D — Coda

One last story in the cycle. A bit of a weak trifle you can skip, but it does nicely close the door on the series.
  • Spider-Man: Far From Home

Those are all the Marvel Cinematic Universe films for now. There are more coming, but they will represent the start of a new story cycle ....

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 is 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 has exceedingly in-depth reviews explaining what the best version is of 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 identifies 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 lists cunningly-designed kit; the bags and desk accessories are my particular weaknesses
  • The Strategist is a bit lifestyle-magazine-ish, but I forgive it because it has pretty darned good taste in a range of products
  • Buy Me Once also has a bit of a lifestyle magazine flavor, helpfully indexing solidly-made stuff
  • The Ones is a site maintained by some hip but (mostly) practical industrial designers listing their favorite, rock-solid products
  • The Sweet Setup is 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 is useful if you like Apple products, offering help gussing when new versions of 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?” is a wooly but fun and helpful Reddit discussion

Catalogues of Various, Mostly Odd, Things

Stationery & pens

  • Jetpens is a huge catalogue of delicious office supplies from Japan, and has great indices and reviews of various essentials
  • The Pen Type-B in brass is my favorite pen ever
  • Nico Neco Zakkaya sell deliciously twee Japanese stationary and supplies
  • Baum•Kuchen sell deliciously fussy European & Japanese stationary and supplies
  • Chromalabel sell an array of color-coding stickers ... including kraft paper
  • Discount School Supply make tools for schools & homeschoolers which also have applications in a creative office, like groovy storage, cheap little dry erase boards, and
  • Levenger is less reliably my taste than it used to be, and everything is a bit more spendy than it should be, but there is still some good stuff there

Computer-oriented office supplies

  • BlueLounge make well crafted solutions to your cable clutter, and other goodies
  • Elevation Lab make good cables and device stands
  • Twelve South make some unique accessories for computers, phones, and other electronics
  • Grovemade makes preposterously swanky desk accessories for your computer desk
  • Moft make my favorite portable stands for computers, tablets, and phones
  • The Magic Sleeve is a very well-considered laptop or tablet accessory which I love; watch the video to get seduced
  • Ergodriven make the ridged floor mat I use at my standing desk every day
  • Paperlike make a popular iPad screen protector, though I tried the Bellemond which you can find on Amazon and like it even better; if you use the Apple Pencil, you need one, and if you tried the Apple Pencil but did not like it, you really need one
  • Conway Electric make nifty, very spendy extension cords and related gear with an Industrial aesthetic.
  • Mighty Mug makes insulated cups and mugs with a clever suction thing on the bottom which activates if you tilt the cup, preventing spills
  • Fluidstance make balance boards for people who work at standing desks, but the thing that interests me is their nifty, spendy desk whiteboards
  • Keyboario and Ergodox make cool weird ergonomic mechanical computer keyboards; I have a few words which may help you decide if you want one of these


  • Tom Bihn make simple but carefully-crafted 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), while the Synik 22 or 30 laptop / travel backpacks have super organization
  • WaterField Designs are 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, the videos explaining how their bags are meant to be used are worth a watch just an example of exploring thoughtful deisgn, I think their Bolt Backpack is the ideal laptop backpack, and their newer Air Travel Backpack is the most professional-feeling one-bag air travel pack I have seen
  • Peak Design make camera gear, including bags; their cunningly-designed Everyday Backpack is my big backpack when I need one, and their travel backpack may be the most clever design of the type
  • Aer make some 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 make bags for people who share my sensibilities about how bags should be structured but want something more colorful
  • Mission Workshop make my favorite fancy bicylists’ bags; they also make some interesting technical clothes
  • Saddleback Leather make gorgeous, heavy, sturdy luggage
  • Away make 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 is 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
  • Eagle Creek make 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 make a bunch of interesting travel kit — 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


  • Norman & Jules sells toys for actual children with a Montessori sensibility which I find seductive
  • Art Of Play has unreasonably beautiful puzzles, games, and toys for grownups
  • Unemployed Philosophers' Guild sell a range of nifty/cute/clever tchotchkes for intellectuals, if you need something like a Nicola Tesla action figure

Nerd art


  • Outlier is my favorite maker of spendy-but-worth-it technical clothing; there is a part of me that wants to never wear anything else
  • Bluffworks make technical fabric clothes for a traveller who wants to look like a professional rather than a cyberpunk shadowrunner
  • American Giant make exceptionally well-made cotton basic clothes for men, including a “the greatest hoodie ever made”
  • Mack Weldon are like American Giant; my enthusiasm for their One Mile Slipper proves that I am a middle-aged guy
  • Gustin make clothes “like they do not make any more”, especially denim jeans, pre-selling short runs of stuff made interesting fabrics to keep expenses low
  • Voidmerch make T-shirts and such with geeky/gothy words on them which are actually witty, including my Hallowe'en costume
  • Vestige make T-shirts with abstract graphics that are just really nice
  • 2046 Print Shop make T-shirts with crisp, almost-abstract science themes


  • Hairstory make New Wash, which is a no-shampoo shampoo which will change the chemistry of your scalp, plus some other cool stuff, including a really nice scalp brush
  • Acne.org sells a line of good, simple skincare products which are great even if you don't have acne
  • The Tangle Teezer does one thing very well; my hair will start to tangle in five minutes if I just stand still and turn to locs if I let it, but this magic device will set it right in just a few swipes

Everything else

  • Graf Lantz make a bunch of cool things out of wool felt, but their standout item is the best face masks I have found
  • Nickel Dime Cocktail Syrups and Portland Syrups are a treat I have taken to now that I have slowed down enough that I am enjoying soda concoctions more often than actual cocktails
  • Garrett Wade sells such beautiful tools that their gardening implements tempt me to take up gardening
  • Kaufmann Mercantile is a bit like Garrett Wade, offering not just tools but a range of well-made housewares and “accessories” and whatnot
  • Oxford Pennant make camp flags that are just cool
  • Skura make really nice sponges and related cleaning stuff
  • Manta sleep masks are by far the best blindfolds I have found
  • Hydro Seal Band-Aids 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 the wound is usually completely healed
  • TubShroom make bath and sink filters which catch gunk without clogging
  • Upcart is little folding dolly with a wacky triangular wheel design which enables one to use it to carry things up and down stairs
  • U-Haul paper packing tape is so much better than all other box packing tape that it is worth going out of your way to get it — 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

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.


I hate “heartwarming” stories. I love These Leather-Clad Bikers Will Do Whatever It Takes To Make Abused Kids Feel Safe.

“When we tell a child they don't have to be afraid, they believe us,” Pipes says. “When we tell them we will be there for them, they believe us.”

Earlier in the day, when the bikers met in the parking lot of a nearby CVS pharmacy, Pipes reminded them to be mindful of their emotions. That means no hugging unless the child initiates it.

“Nytro,” Pipes says, raising his eyebrows in her direction. Nytro hides her face behind her hands, and everyone laughs. She's quick to hug.

And then Pipes says, more sternly this time: There will be no crying.

“I don't want to see any tears coming out of your eyes, and the child doesn't either,” he says, making sure everyone is looking at him when he says it.

“Remember why we're here: to empower the child. If you can't handle it, keep your shades on.”

Have a hankie ready. Or keep your shades on.