I liked being paranoid. My days were full of satisfyingly edgy certainties, and I slept well at night.
I’m not talking about clinically diagnosable paranoia. That’s not at all fun, I know, between the frightening hallucinations and the agitation. I’m talking about a social form of paranoia, the kind a group can indulge in together because it makes them feel better, at least for a while.
I found my group on the campus of The Evergreen State College in the '80s, when I was a student there. My first week at Evergreen, a new friend took me on a campus tour and pointed out that the paving bricks of Red Square were deliberately designed to be slippery when wet. “If there’s ever another wave of mass demonstrations like in the '60s, they'll be able to use fire hoses to bring everybody down.” I was hooked.
Being paranoid means having an instant group of friends — a big plus for the shy and insecure. It doesn’t necessarily mean being wrong. For all I know, Red Square really was paved with slippery anti-protest bricks. Crazier things have happened.
What makes the conversation paranoid is the way it clicks along from one certainty to the next. Every utterance is a chance to unite against a shared enemy, who is conveniently never present for an awkward face-to-face.
It’s never: "Wow — what an amazing idea. Slippery bricks! On a public college campus in what’s basically a rain forest. How on earth does the college, or the state for that matter, deal with all the lawsuits they must get when people slip in the rain and break their hips?”
No, it's: “Man! (pregnant pause) What won't they do to bring us down?”
They. When you’re paranoid, it’s all about Them. They’re the worry stone you keep in the palm of your hand, the frame of reference that gives every little thing its meaning. You wake up thinking about Them. Your dreams are full of Them. When you go on a date, you bond over Them. It becomes important that you never disagree about Them, because the one thing that makes everything else fall into place is that They are bad.
Whatever scares you or makes you angry turns out to be another manifestation of Them. You apply for a part-time job with a timber company, and the working conditions turn out to be lousy? It’s Them. In the ‘80s we weren’t saying “The Man,” we were saying things like “Capitalism” and “Corporations.”
By the way, I still don’t believe we were wrong about a lot of the facts. I think it’s pretty clear that many things aren’t going well in our society and our planet, and more than ever we need to learn how to work together with passion, creativity, and intelligence. And while I no longer think of corporations as evil per se, I remain skeptical that it’s a good idea for us to weaken our government to the point where it’s non-functioning, leaving us with nothing strong enough to rein in the excesses of the global private sector.
So call me a liberal — a name which, by the way, no self-respecting leftist at Evergreen would have stood for. We hated liberals as much (and as reasonably) as Ann Coulter does, because for us, “liberal” meant “not radical.” I think that we had something in common with Ann Coulter et al. Something about the liberal values of tolerance, fairness, and thoughtfulness rankled. We were looking for instant hits of gratifyingly outer-directed contempt. Complexity made us nervous, and being nervous pissed us off.
The problem with paranoia is that, while it’s comforting when you’re in its thrall, it’s not really a way to engage productively with other people. Quite the opposite. Which I finally noticed one day at a small protest in a clearing in the woods in Thurston County, outside the USDA Animal Damage Control office. Our protest wasn’t without wit: we were holding a funeral for the wild animals who were trapped and poisoned by ADC agents. We even had a preacher in a borrowed black choir robe giving a sermon. But I’m sure any observer would have picked up on our tone, which was not so much angry as violently self-righteous.
Unlike Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., we weren’t courageously putting ourselves in harm’s way so we could appeal to our opponents’ humanity. Those protests were powerful because they were profoundly about respect — self-respect, and respect for the opponent. They were efforts not to kill or intimidate others but to ask them to open their minds.
At our protest, I found myself looking at the office, which was a small brown trailer. One woman was working in there. Every now and then I got a glimpse of her through the window. She looked to be middle aged, with old-fashioned beauty-salon hair. I wondered what she made of our anger and disgust with her job. There weren’t many of us, but there was only one of her, and it seemed unfair to me that she had to take the brunt of our rage. I felt ashamed; it seemed that we were only there to make some lady we didn’t know feel bad.
At least we weren’t threatening her. But for all I know she might have felt threatened. She certainly stayed inside the trailer with the door shut.
Life is messy. So is politics. The throes of political conflict will always appeal to those of us who are still young enough, emotionally speaking, to long more than anything for a way of feeling clean, and good, and certain all the time. And the only way to do that is to find a Them to bear all the dirtiness, the badness, and the wrongness.
But meanwhile the world is being saved, or not, by the efforts of grownups, who have learned how to keep their eyes on a goal without having to have an enemy in their sights.