Paranoia goes mainstream

June 05, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

Editor's note: Tim Rowland is away this week. Until his return, The Herald-Mail is publishing past columns. This one was published July 30, 1995.

You can't flip a magazine or newspaper page anymore without reading a worrisome story about the increase of paranoia in America.

As one of the last remaining non-paranoid (except when it comes to Roland Hemond's Baltimore Orioles trades) people in the country, I try not to take this stuff too seriously. But it often reminds me of the line: "Just 'cause you ain't paranoid don't mean they ain't out to get you."

The latest piece I saw was in The Washington Post, which fretted last week that paranoia has escaped from the domain of the radical leftists and rightists and is now property of mainstream people and press.


It pointed out that substantial numbers of people are believing substantial numbers of - let's be honest here - rather far-fetched conspiracy theories.

Obviously I don't have any inside information that you don't have. But if I have to bet 50 grand on it, I'm saying that Vince Foster killed himself, that the police didn't frame O.J., that the government wasn't behind the Oklahoma City bombing, and that Freemasons don't rule the world. Come on. If someone asks if you believe Bill Clinton brokered drugs out of an Arkansas airstrip for Fidel Castro and then says you will be shot if you're wrong, are you really going to say you believe it? I didn't think so (You guys who are still seeing the black helicopters, you can put your hands down now).

And I think if the question were posed this way - that you had to bet something meaningful - the percentages of those "believing" in these conspiracies nationwide would drop exponentially.

On the other hand, if it's no more skin off my nose than exaggerating to a pollster just to try to mess with the results or send an angry message to government in general, sure, I would do that.

So because of this, we see large percentages of people who say they are willing to believe some pretty off-the-wall things and we get all upset about it.

Paranoia has come full circle. Now we're paranoid about being paranoid.

But then as Americans, we do have to frown with concern about something, don't we? Remember about five years ago when everyone thought it so traumatic that 80 percent of high school students couldn't find Honduras on a map or name their own U.S. senator? Now, no one cares about the former and the latter is seen as a virtue.

What's happening, I believe, is that the latest in this stream of fret journalism is confusing paranoia with skepticism.

Trouble is, there's a big difference.

Paranoia is stockpiling guns, ammunition, a home generator and legumes in the basement, or marching out to a wilderness cabin to drill with your very own self-styled militia team.

Skepticism is thinking that it wouldn't be out of the question for the government or big business to do something underhanded and shady. And haven't they both proved capable of that?

Selling guns to your enemy and using the profit to fund a band of Latin American rebels seems pretty wacked out at first glance. I would have laid money that would never happen - but of course, it did.

Besides, believing in conspiracies, heaven help us, is more fun.

Where's the joy in believing everything operates as it should every day of the year? That would be pretty dull.

I don't see the harm in believing, or at least being tantalized by the thought of conspiracies. People believe in all sorts of things. No one I know has actually been handed a business card by a ghost, a space alien or the devil, but we believe in them and no one worries too much about it.

Pundits say our latest throes of paranoia are different because it's dangerous and unhealthy to be so distrusting of government.

I would argue the opposite; it's more dangerous and unhealthy not to have an inherent distrust of government. Journalism itself is much the belief that sooner or later our leaders are going to do something stupid. And do they ever disappoint?

Much of the reason government is as clean as it is is because our leaders know they are being watched.

If it comes down to a choice between blind faith in government or a healthy distrust of government, a leaning toward skepticism is not out of line.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. You can phone him at 301-733-5131, extension 2324, fax him at 301-714-0245 or e-mail him at

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