The novelist Joseph Heller coined the phrase: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” And the comedian Kenneth Williams, in a poignant portrayal of Julius Caesar, intoned: “Infamy, infamy. They’ve all got it in for me!” From Catch-22 to Carry On Cleo, paranoia has been a dominant theme of post-war culture. It has added spice to state-of-the-nation dramas, produced great psychological twists in conspiracy thrillers and often made us laugh.
In real life, however, it can be very dangerous. Millions of people believe the Holocaust was a hoax. In 2016, the Leave campaign imagined an invasion of Turkish immigrants. 60 per cent of Britons, according to one survey, believe at least one conspiracy theory about how the country is run.
Now, I love a good conspiracy thriller. I can’t wait to see Official Secrets, which apparently shows how the United States and the United Kingdom colluded to blackmail other countries into supporting an invasion of Iraq. This “plot” may or may not be true. When I’m staring up at a big screen with my popcorn it doesn’t really matter. I am being entertained, taking time out from my everyday existence, enjoying the likes of Bond, Bourne and The Terminator as escapist fantasies.
In fact, come to think of it, nearly all my favourite movies – The Manchurian Candidate, The Parallax View, Rosemary’s Baby, The Conversation, Chinatown – are conspiracy thrillers.
And yet I take real-life theories of secret-service plots, police cover-ups and deep-state smear campaigns with a large bucket of salt.
I’m sorry but the moon landings really did take place. The world is not ruled by lizards. And Catherine Tyldesley was kicked out of Strictly because, on the night, Mike Bushell was the better dancer.
Still, you don’t have to be David Icke to get that we are living in a paranoid world. There is an atmosphere of anxiety and unease. People are suspicious about their leaders. Authoritarian regimes are on the rise. It would be foolish to dismiss reports about Facebook’s election malpractice or Russian attempts to meddle in our politics.
But as American historian Richard Hofstadter argued as long ago as 1964, politics is vulnerable to a “paranoid style”. He defined this style as “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” and traced it back to the Millenarian Christian sects of Medieval Europe.
Hofstadter’s target was the political right and he deftly deconstructed the paranoid mindset of senator Joseph McCarthy, who had spent most of the 1950s accusing thousands of innocent Americans of being Soviet agents. He worried about the rise of the far-right wing of the Republican Party and would no doubt be horrified that, 55 years later, that tendency’s poster boy, Donald Trump, is happily peddling ludicrous conspiracy theories about the Ukrainians and the Biden family.
Today, both the extreme right and extreme left are united in their belief that the so-called liberal elite is conspiring against the interests of so-called ordinary people. Both left and right have increasingly succumbed to fever dreams about a Machiavellian establishment they seem convinced, as Williams would put it, is out to get them. They argue that power and influence has been stolen from “the masses” by an evil cabal; that wealthy outsiders (often Jewish) are pulling the strings from their secret hideouts.
Take the BBC. According to Remainers, its pro-Brexit bias has stood out like a sore thumb for the past four years. It packs the Question Time audience with Brexiteers. And all its presenters love Nigel Farage.
According to Brexiteers, the broadcaster is actually driven by a hatred of Eurosceptics – part of an elitist plot to deny the will of the people and surrender to the European Union.
I think they are both wrong. The political agenda is obvious. The hidden hand of the Illuminati could clearly be detected in Mike Bushell’s rigged dance-off victory against Tyldesley – an ITV actress.
Forget the coming election. The Beeb is going all out to ensure its prized sports presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing dressed as a rabbit.