Paranoia – is it a mental disorder or a political strategy? Dr Steven Reisner exposes the underlying connection between our Trumpian culture of paranoia and the eruption of antisemitic violence by mentally ill assailants on the streets of New York.
Hello everyone. I’m Steven Reisner and this is Madness, where psychology and capitalism collide. Last month, three Jews were murdered at a deli in New Jersey because they were Jews. The perpetrator left a note that read “I do this because my creator makes me do this and I hate who he hates.” Two weeks later, three Hassidic Jews in Crown Heights were punched by a homeless woman shouting, “Fuck you Jews!” The next day, five Jews were stabbed by a schizophrenic black man with a machete in Monsey.
I am coming to you today from New York City, where my fellow Jews are suddenly expressing fear of walking in the streets looking, well, like Jews. This is a shock, because until recently, by which I mean, until Trump, anti-Semitic incidents in this country and in NYC had become rare, and violent attacks against Jews were almost non-existent. In the three years since Trump became President, there have been more fatal anti-Semitic attacks in America than there were in the entire 20th century. In New York City, the number of hate crimes against Jews has increased by 100% and they are becoming increasingly violent. And that’s what I will be focusing on today.
I do this for two reasons. First, because I am a Jew, and as Hannah Arendt put it: “If you are attacked as a Jew you have to fight back as a Jew. You cannot say, ‘Excuse me, I am not a Jew, I am a human being.” And second… because attacking Jews in NYC just seems weird to me. Aside from the fact that NY is a city with more diversity than any other city in the world – there are more than 800 languages spoken here – this is also the city that has more Jews than any city in the world, more than Tel Aviv, more than Jerusalem. I always thought of New York as a place where alienated people came to be around other alienated people. Irish, Italians, Jews, the great migration, queer people – marginalized people have poured into this city for over centuries. So it was even more confusing to discover that the perpetrators of these recent anti-Semitic hate crimes were not Trump-supporting white nationalists, but black people with apparently serious mental illness. Sufferers causing suffering to other sufferers? Sounds like Madness.
In the fifties and early sixties, Lenny Bruce did a routine where he divided the world into “Jewish” and “Goyish.” He said, “if you live in New York or any other big city you are Jewish. It doesn’t matter if you are Catholic. If you live in New York, you are Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you are going to be goyish even if you are Jewish.” It’s hard for people today to understand what he was talking about. So let me explain: When Lenny Bruce did that routine, Jews did not consider themselves white. Jews believed, myself included, that only White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants were really white. We believed that, in America, there were white people, WASPs, and there was everyone else. So when Bruce said “Goyish”, he really meant “WASPish” – white people in power-ish, and when he referred to Jews, he really meant “everybody else.” Lenny Bruce was an idealist who thought those who didn’t have power, had something else: culture, character, sexuality, and this gave the rest of us something in common. He went on: “Kool-Aid is goyish. Evaporated milk is goyish even if the Jews invented it. Chocolate is Jewish and fudge is goyish. “Blacks are all Jews. Italians are all Jews. Irishmen who have rejected their religion are Jews. Mouths are very Jewish. And bosoms. Baton-twirling? Goyish.” I had a close friend in high school, Carl. He was the first one to teach me about race relations. It was 1970. I remember one night, he was sleeping over and he said to me, “You owe me for 400 years!” I said, my parents only came to America in 1950. At most I owe you for 20 years.”
James Baldwin, writing in the New York Times in 1967, explained that American blacks did not see marginalization the way Lenny Bruce saw it. In an article, called Blacks are Anti-Semitic Because They Are Anti-White, Baldwin wrote, “The most ironical thing about black anti-Semitism is that the black is really condemning the Jew for having become an American white man — for having become, in effect, a Christian.” Baldwin’s point is essential: that Jews, including Lenny Bruce, and including me, assume something about being marginalized that blacks don’t have the privilege to assume. And that is the idea that suffering confers a kind of universal moral authority. Baldwin says, “The Jew’s suffering is recognized as part of the moral history of the world in a way that black suffering is not. The uprising in the Warsaw ghetto was not described as a riot.” Speaking as a Jew whose grandparents were murdered in the Warsaw ghetto, I read Baldwin’s words, and I understand that the antagonism of blacks and Jews is deeper and more complex than I had imagined. And I will return to this. But for the moment, I want to focus, not on the fact that the offenders in these cases were black, but on the fact that they were psychotic, because I think it is essential today to highlight a psychotic process being mobilized by Trump and the Republicans – by the people who in my day were referred to as WASPs, and who Baldwin was referring to when he spoke of Christians: white men in power – looking to stay in power.
To get there, I have to talk about psychosis and about paranoia, and the distinction between them, even though the two can and do overlap. I am going to be arguing that psychosis is a psychological problem, but paranoia is, in very large part, a political problem, a political problem to which psychotic people are extremely susceptible. It could be said that psychotic people are the canaries in our national coal mine breathing the vapors of paranoia emanating from the cracks in our democracy.
For the most part, people don’t understand psychosis. So I want to take a moment to help those of you who are not psychotic understand what it’s like to be psychotic. Simply put, psychotic people have a problem holding onto the structure of things. They don’t easily grasp how things are organized and how other people understand the organization of things. Because of this, they have a hard time making sense of their own experiences, sometimes even their own perceptions. As a result, psychotic people tend to be extremely sensitive to stimulation: the voices in their heads, the physical sensations in their bodies, the sounds and smells around them. When they are stressed this gets worse. When they are afraid, it gets much worse. Some simply get disorganized, and require a lot of support and structure from people around them, from their families and friends, but others experience this over-stimulation as a kind of persecution; They desperately try to figure out who is persecuting them and why, especially when their perceptions and sensations feel like overload. So, in order not to lose their hold on what’s real, some psychotics organize rigid belief systems that explain their persecution. These beliefs don’t arise in a vacuum, but are always connected to the culture they live in, so psychotic delusions can become organized around everything from religious doctrine to pseudo-science. There was a time when people blamed their psychotic experiences on the devil, or transmitters in the fillings of their teeth. Now it is more frequent for people to believe their sensations are caused by microwaves coming from cell phone stations or satellites. Or, they may blame the CIA, or the government, or the Jews. And more and more often, they find their conspiracy theories on twitter, from the President, which brings us to paranoia.
There is psychotic paranoia, as I was just describing it, but there is also political paranoia – paranoia used as a political strategy. We have been seeing rapid and radical change taking place in democracies around the world. The change, of course, is the election of authoritarian leaders who promote divisiveness and fear, who assert nationalism over democracy and who brazenly promote a kind of purity of race, religion and class – the kind of leaders that we haven’t seen win democratic elections since the fascists took power in Europe in the 1930’s. These changes are happening at breathtaking speed all over the world, in the United States, in Britain, Italy, Brazil, India, Turkey, Egypt, the list goes on. I am convinced that it is no coincidence that these changes are happening simultaneously with two other changes that have taken all of humanity by surprise: the rapid global deterioration associated with climate change and the huge and increasingly globalized wealth and power disparity that is the result of runaway capitalism.
In the face of these overwhelming changes, citizens in the democracies no longer seem to be voting based on their values; they’re voting based on their fears. And the leaders that are being elected are being elected because they know how to exploit and incite those fears. When Trump describes immigrants as rapists and criminals and Muslims as murderers beheading Christians, he is inciting fear, and more than that, he is generating a culture of paranoia. It is no coincidence that, since Trump was elected, hate crimes have risen all over America, but they have risen twice as fast in areas where Trump has held rallies. Hannah Arendt, perhaps the clearest philosopher of paranoid culture, studied the strategic power of authoritarian rhetoric. She wrote: “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.” Paranoia is a process of “fabricating facts.” It always involves a rapid shift from suspicion to belief, without taking the intermediate step of reviewing the evidence.
In the political sphere, paranoid culture relies solely on the persuasiveness of the leader, who replaces fact-based logic with emotion-based logic. Listen to how Trump justified the murder of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani to Laura Ingraham:
Ingraham: Did they have large scale attacks planned for other embassies? And if those were planned, why can’t we reveal that to the American people. Wouldn’t that help your case?
Trump: I can reveal that I believe it would have been four embassies, but Baghdad certainly would have been the lead. But I think it would have been four embassy; could have been military bases; could have been a lot of other things, too. But it was imminent.”
There is no need, in paranoid culture to support the emotional logic with facts, since the truth is based on Trump’s feelings alone. And, what makes this situation reminiscent of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, is that Trump’s cabinet parroted Trump’s emotional logic.
MARGARET BRENNAN: “…was the specific threat that the president shared with Fox News about four U.S. embassies being under threat, also shared with Congress? Why was there a difference?”
MARK ESPER: “Well, what the President said was he believed that it probably and could have been attacks against additional embassies. I shared that view. I know other members of National Security Team shared that view. That’s why I deployed thousands of American paratroopers to the Middle East to reinforce our embassy in Baghdad and other sites throughout the region.
And on that basis, the military acted, Sulemani was killed and we came close, and are still close, to a war with Iran. In the crossfire, 176 innocent civilians died aboard Flight PS752, shot down unintentionally by a jittery Iranian military. And not only the National Security Team, but the Republican party, and Fox news all magnified the leap from suspicion to belief and from belief to action. No act of congress, no intelligence that supported the choice, just the will of a leader, who rules with grandiose infallibility. In the 20th century, when authoritarian regimes promoted paranoid culture, vicious anti-Semitism invariably followed. This is also happening in the 21st century. But today, there is a completely new form of anti-Semitism taking hold.
Alongside the time-honored anti-semitism of white nationalists and neo-Nazis, there is an Anti-Semitism that professes to be pro-Jewish. At the same time as nationalist authoritarians like Trump, Johnson, and Orban, spread bigotry and anti-Semitism in their own countries, they claim to be fighting anti-semitism. How? Because they have aligned with a brother right wing authoritarian figure: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu and his political associates have redefined anti-Semitism in purely political terms: an anti-Semite is not someone who hates Jews because they are Jews, but someone who questions the policies of Netanyahu’s government, particularly when it comes the treatment of Palestinians. Anyone who questions Likud policies is considered anti-Zionist and therefore is anti-Semitic. According to Netanyahu, the International Criminal Court is anti-Semitic for investigating war crimes in the occupied territories, even though they are investigating Israelis and Palestinians. He also called for a boycott of an Israeli TV station, calling the station anti-Semitic, because they ran a story about documents leaked from his recent indictment on bribery and fraud charges. And members of his Likud party called the station’s reporting a “blood libel.”
In this bizarre world of ethical revisionism, Netanyahu is providing cover for anti-Semitic authoritarians like Trump, Putin, Johnson, Orban, and Mateusz Moravetsky of Poland, as they whitewash their country’s anti-Semitic histories and circulate the crudest anti-semitic tropes, so long as the targets of their anti-semitic tirades are left-leaning Jews who criticize Netanyahu’s ‘greater Israel’ policies. Netanyahu’s son, Yair, posted a viciously anti-Semitic cartoon of Jews as reptiles and global conspiracists, apparently taken from a racist Facebook page. He photoshopped the image, superimposing the faces of George Soros and Israelis who oppose the politics of his father. But what twists my head completely around, like something out of the exorcist, is the right-wing alliance of Trump Republicans, Israelis and evangelical Christians.
It turns out that in the US, the largest group of American supporters of Israel are Evangelical Christian Zionists, outnumbering even Jews. Their support is based on the idea that the return of Jews to Israel was a necessary step on the way to the second coming of Christ and the rapture. When Trump moved the American Embassy to Jerusalem, the ceremony was opened and closed by Christian Zionist pastors. It was opened by Pastor Robert Jefress, who is known for saying that once Jesus returns, Jews must accept him or go to hell: “Hell is going to be filled with good religious people who have rejected the truth of Christ.” The ceremony was closed by Pastor John Hagee, the founder of the evangelic group, Christians United for Israel, who has argued that Hitler was part of God’s plan to return the Jews to Israel, a necessary step on the way to the 2nd coming.
At Trump’s recent white house Hannukah party, Hagee and Jeffress were guests of honor. To fully round out this picture, we have to add the fact that Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo are among our nation’s 8 million Christian Zionists. What we have in America today is a right-wing government stoking bigoted, white nationalist violence against immigrants, blacks, Muslims and certainly Jews. At the same time, that same government is aligning with the bigoted Jewish nationalism of Netanhyahu’s government. This makes it possible for groups of every political persuasion, on the right and on the left, to find, in the Jews, something to hate. White nationalists can chant “Jews will not replace us” while ethnic minorities in America see Jews as the oppressors of their Palestinian comrades.
New York City and its surrounding areas are becoming ground zero in the interplay of paranoid politics and paranoid violence. In New York City, wealth disparity is the highest in the nation, with the average income of the city’s 1% over 100 times the average income of the 99%. Homelessness has reached levels not seen since the great depression, with over 100,000 homeless people on the streets and in the shelters of New York. Over 2/3rds of the city’s homeless population is black or Hispanic and the vast majority of homeless who live on the streets are mentally ill. I believe we need to see the current upsurge of anti-semitism erupting among the mentally ill as a political fire alarm warning of the coming conflagrations that is the inevitable result of unchecked paranoid culture.
I remember one of the first times I spoke to my mother of her experiences during the Holocaust, I was 16 and I finally got up the courage to see if I could get her to talk about those experiences. And I wanted to go in chronological order. And she told me of the first event when the Nazis came into her town and gathered up all the Jews of Pab Yenitza in the town square, they pushed all the Jews in a big circle. And what they did, is they took clubs and they started beating the Jews on the outside of the circle. And those Jews started to rush into the center of the circle and they beat them and beat them, and more and more Jews rushed to the center of the circle. And my mother said that what she noticed was that there were some people who were pushing others out to the outside of the circle and pushing themselves deeper in to the inside of the circle. And they were pushing the old and the, the, the infirm and the ones who couldn’t protect themselves and scrambling to the center. And my mother told me that at that moment she understood that something fundamental had changed. From then on, she said she understood that being a human being would not come naturally – that you had to make an effort to be a human being, to keep your humanity.
In the current political climate in America, Jews are faced with a choice. We can be the Jews that Baldwin described – Jews who have become white and aligned with the authoritarians and Christian Zionists, in the belief that all that is important is our own survival and power. Or we can be the Jews of 2,000 years of ethics evolving out of the crucible of our experience of hatred and bigotry and genocide. Jews who hold Hannah’s Arendt’s maxim “if I am attacked as a Jew, I will fight back as a Jew” alongside Hillel’s “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”