Tony Gilkes is a very English hero. The Middlesborough pensioner wanted nothing more than what all hungry Englishmen want: a hearty meat pie. Yet when he tried to procure pastries from his local Morrisons at 8.45am he was rebuffed; staff at the supermarket refused to serve him before 9am. So what did Gilkes do? He went to war on the retail chain until it backed down and agreed to serve flaky fare from 7am. But most English of all was Tony’s suspicion that sinister motives were afoot. He mused:
‘There’s more to this. Morrisons have got their own agenda. They don’t want people to know about it. They have given too many ridiculous stories about why. They contradicted themselves over and over.’
Something didn’t smell right and it wasn’t processed meat wrapped in suet.
What more delicious, if calorific, symbol of the paranoid moment we are living through? Francis Wheen identified the seventies, decade of Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, and plots real and imagined against Harold Wilson, as the ‘golden age of paranoia’ when ‘the grotesque and fantastical had come to seem almost commonplace’. You want grotesque and fantastical? Donald Trump is President and Jeremy Corbyn is within cycling distance of Downing Street. Nazis march through US streets and anti-Semites through the ranks of Labour. We are leaving the EU over £350million a week and 80 million Turks, neither of which was ever coming. MPs appear on Kremlin TV and ‘independent journalists’ prosper by offering alternative versions of reality. The 2010s are showing the seventies how paranoia is really done.
The Douma chemical attack has been chum for conspiracy theorists. Social media is awash with memes labelling the attack fake or a false flag and the air strikes a Tory electoral strategy. Speaking in the Commons, Corbyn asked:
‘What about the impact on local people of chemicals being released into the local environment? News footage shows both journalists and local people in the rubble without any protective clothing.’
You see what he did there? Nudge-nudge, wink-wink. Durham Law School dean Thom Brooks tweets:
‘Did Theresa May do this to help Tories in poor local election campaign? Not all options considered before air strike. UK inspectors to start now in Syria and Parliament back Monday. No reason couldn’t wait another day or two. Unless…’
When you anathematise your opponents as uniquely evil – be that Tories or the West – competing sources of malevolence must be explained away.
The poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal has given birth to a panoply of paranoia as anti-Westerners, egged on by Russian trolls, pin the blame on their own government. Corbyn continues to demand yet more proof of Kremlin culpability. The Labour leader is not making any accusations, of course; he’s just asking questions. He has learned from Trump’s birtherism the political value of paranoia. Richard Hofstadter observed the popularisation of ‘paranoid modes of expression’ in post-war American life and politics, such as McCarthyism and Bircherism. But where Hofstadter’s paranoid style is an outgrowth of right-wing politics, Karl Popper saw it as a form of politics with broader appeal. This he named the ‘conspiracy theory of society’ in which ‘all results, even those which at first sight do not seem to be intended by anybody, are the intended results of the actions of people who are interested in those results’.
The attraction of conspiracy theories to the marginalised is obvious. There is strange consolation in knowing your misfortunes are not random but the work of a shadowy elite and, conspiracism being what it is, that often means Jews. After the Grenfell Tower fire one activist said the residents had been ‘burnt alive in a Jewish sacrifice’; another blamed ‘Zionist supporters of the Tory Party’ for ‘the murder in Grenfell’. A Labour councillor appointed deputy mayor ‘to help the council rebuild trust with residents’ had previously spread claims that Isis ‘originated from Zionists’. When seeking to exculpate Labour of antisemitism charges, desperate Corbynistas will often resort to the plight of the downtrodden and Corbyn’s (unspecified) plans to help them. We have nothing against Jews but can we get back to talking about poor people?
Yet the most eager consumers of today’s paranoia are not the destitute or uneducated. It is the middle classes who have gone ga-ga for crackpots and the crackpottery they push. Thus the BBC is pursuing a pro-Brexit agenda, the Zionists were in league with the Nazis, Bashar al-Assad is a blameless victim of Western lies, and the UK Government is poisoning its own citizens. We live in an age of righteous victims, for whom Iraq, expenses, and sexual abuse cover-ups legitimise the abandonment of reason in favour of grievance and lurid fantasies. Thus the comfortable middle classes get to be victims – of media bias, political agendas, and intelligence cover-ups. Their paranoia is not only justified – they feel entitled to it.