David Greenberg: Everyone talks about the "paranoid style," but what did Hofstadter really mean by it?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the"History Lesson" column since 1998.]

A few years ago, in this column, I proposed a moratorium on drive-by references to historian Richard Hofstadter's classic essay"The Paranoid Style in American Politics." Too often, pundits invoked the title of that Goldwater-era exploration of right-wing fringe politics without giving much attention to the essay's actual content, let alone the context in which Hofstadter wrote it.

Not surprisingly, my plea worked about as well as a stop sign before a runaway 18-wheeler. Lately, from the rise of Sarah Palin to the spring's"tea parties" to the"birther" frenzies and health care town halls of this summer to the Joe Wilson contretemps, allusions to Hofstadter have never seemed more widespread.

It's hard to deny that the title recommends itself. Today's ultraconservative activists exhibit many core elements of the style that Hofstadter identified: the penchant for" conspiratorial fantasy," the apocalyptic stakes imagined to be involved in policy debates, the imperviousness to rational persuasion. Nonetheless, Hofstadter's thesis ought to be used carefully and sparingly. All too often, pundits wheel out Hofstadter's intellectual authority as a substitute for fresh analysis; sometimes they appear to be endorsing a psychological diagnosis of conservative activists—a reading of Hofstadter's work that he pointedly disavowed ("I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics"), but that his choice of words inevitably, and unfortunately, encouraged.

So, if"the paranoid style" is destined to stay with us as a concept, it's worth re-examining its meaning and the context in which Hofstadter developed it.

For Hofstadter, the essay (first given as a lecture at Oxford in 1963, published in short form in Harper's in 1964, expanded for the book in 1965) represented the final statement, if not exactly the culmination, of a decade of explorations into the American far right. It was during the heyday of Sen. Joe McCarthy—who claimed that Cold War espionage"must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man"—that a claque of intellectuals began to examine the sources and motives of these outré movements that were suddenly visible in American politics.

The thinkers who investigated the historical, psychological, and sociological roots of right-wing extremism ranged from social psychologists such as Gordon Allport to continental theorists such as Theodor Adorno to best-selling popularizers such as Eric Hoffer—many of them unsettled by the trauma of European fascism and its echoes in the McCarthy movement. (In the 1960s, with the rise of conspiratorial thinking in the New Left, many turned their attention to the paranoid style on the left as well.) A handful of these thinkers, collaborating in a Columbia University faculty seminar, wrote up their theories for a volume called The New American Right (1955), later updated as The Radical Right (1963).

Hofstadter's contribution to The New American Right was"The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt," which actually makes more of an effort than does"The Paranoid Style" to identify the sources and hallmarks of ultraconservative thought. Like many of his colleagues in the Columbia seminar, Hofstadter had by this point long ago dropped his youthful Marxism and come to regard the economistic worldview of the previous generation's leading historians as inadequate. He and his peers sought to mine richer veins of social thought, going back to Weber and Freud, to dig deeper into motive, values, ideology, and the habits of mind of subcultures.

Hofstadter's 1954 essay introduced the concept of"status politics." It suggested that the far right's obsessions—which he judged inexplicable solely by reference to conventional material interests—were tied to a distinctly modern anxiety:"[t]he rootlessness and heterogeneity of American life," felt as the old order of the rural village collapsed. Once-dominant WASPs of native stock feared displacement by rising ethnic groups, while Irish and German Catholics embraced"hyper-patriotism,""hyper-conformism," and kindred values to strut their American bona fides. Patriotic societies, veterans' groups, and McCarthyite causes helped these groups equate their own values with American ones.

"The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt," furthermore, situated these individuals within a rapidly shifting culture. Contributing to their frightened, aggressive, and bitter disposition were, among other factors, the"the growth of the mass media of communication," the"long tenure in power" of liberals, and the feeling during the Cold War of" continued crisis" rather than the periodic involvement in world affairs that the United States had enjoyed before 1939. Although Hofstadter didn't plumb these factors in depth, and although at times he let his contempt for his subjects overwhelm his capacity to explicate their thought, he was still able to describe the impulses behind the new conservatism nonjudgmentally, as"a response, however unrealistic, to realities."

Over the next decade, Hofstadter retained his interest in ultraconservatism. As the fury of McCarthyism gave way to the more quotidian conformity of the Ike Age (and the popular rejection of the cerebral Adlai Stevenson), Hofstadter trained his focus on the historical sources of America's long-standing hostility toward the life of the mind, producing perhaps his most brilliant work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963). Just at that moment, however, right-wing extremism came roaring back. In 1964, the far right won the Republican presidential nomination for its own standard-bearer, Barry Goldwater. And the assassination of President Kennedy on a trip to seething, ultraconservative Dallas—where mobs had just verbally and physically harassed Stevenson and where a John Birch Society newspaper ad on Nov. 22 menacingly charged the president with communistic sympathies—made the extremists appear newly dangerous.

Hofstadter hints at the influence of the assassination on his thinking in"The Paranoid Style." He recounts a congressional hearing, following Kennedy's murder, on a gun-control measure that so exercised three Arizona men that they"drove 2,500 miles to Washington from Bagdad, Arizona, to testify against it … with what might be considered representative paranoid arguments, insisting that it was an 'attempt by a subversive power to make us part of one world socialistic government. '" If nothing else, the assassination crystallized the worries about a resurgent right that led historians in the 1960s to look again at conspiracy-mindedness.

Ironically, the historical portion of Hofstadter essay, though seldom cited these days by journalists, was groundbreaking, though not very controversial. It traced the tendency in our political culture, on the left and right, to see all-powerful conspiracies devoted to subverting the American way. In contrast, the essay's latter half, a portrait of the style and practices of the contemporary far right, is what usually gets cited.

No one would deny the cogent insights of the essay. Hofstadter identifies real aspects of a familiar right-wing type, from the hyper-competence he ascribes to his conspiring enemies ("he is a perfect model of malice; a kind of amoral superman") to his taste for pseudo-pedantry ("McCarthy's 96-page pamphlet McCarthyism contains no less than 313 footnote references, and Mr. Welch's fantastic assault on Eisenhower, The Politician, is weighed down by a hundred pages of bibliography and notes"). And as countless admirers have noted, some of Hofstadter's language about the right of that era—from anti-fluoridation cranks to John Birch Society members—perfectly describes today's extremists. To wit:"The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major states—men seated at the very centers of American power." Direct links between the Goldwater-era conspiracism and today's are easy to find: the right's criticisms of President Obama's health care reform, for example, carries the distinct whiff of Ronald Reagan's early-1960s alarums against"socialized medicine."

But while dead-on in many details and useful in anatomizing angry fringe groups, Hofstadter's essay evaded the hardest questions. He never explained what moved particular people or subcultures to embrace the paranoid style. He's probably correct that"the paranoid disposition is mobilized into action chiefly by social conflicts that involve ultimate schemes of values and that bring fundamental fears and hatreds, rather than negotiable interests, into political action"—in essence, status politics again—but he was frustratingly silent about who, precisely, is drawn to the Manichaeism he described.

Moreover, at a time when a magazine called Fact used a (methodologically bogus) survey of American Psychiatric Association members to conclude during the 1964 campaign season that Goldwater was clinically paranoid, Hofstadter's psychological metaphor sounded like elite condescension—an impression of Hofstadter's work that has endured among not just the conservatives he studied but also his own academic heirs. Indeed, for all the continual journalistic hosannas to the relevance of"The Paranoid Style," professional historians have grown increasingly confirmed of late that Hofstadter, Bell, and company got conservatism wrong. For about 15 years now, ever since Ronald Reagan's ascent became grist for the historian's mill, there has been a" cottage industry" of dissertations and books seeking to understand how a fringe conservatism—famously dismissed by Hofstadter's Columbia colleague Lionel Trilling as"irritable mental gestures that seek to resemble ideas"—went mainstream and gained power. These new studies of postwar conservatism often begin with a ritual denunciation of Hofstadter and his contemporaries. They deem the Columbians to be patronizing toward their subjects, too dismissive of the grass-roots right's actual ideas, and above all too keen to place quasi-psychological neuroses, whether"status anxiety" or a nonclinical"paranoia" (whatever Hofstadter meant by that) at the center of their analyses. They fashion the right's midcentury critics as hopelessly elite liberals, peering down their noses at the Southern and Western riffraff mindlessly rallying behind screwball ideas, demagogic leaders, or ethnic hatreds.

It's true that Hofstadter often failed to grant the legitimacy of certain conservative principles that were at least defensible. What's more, his Olympian tone, despite his leavening wit, could come across as supercilious. Yet as easy as it is for today's historians to deride Hofstadter's condescension—and to take pride in feeling superior to him in the process—these historians themselves fall into an identical dilemma, without resolving it any more satisfactorily than Hofstadter did. The dilemma is how you understand an extremist movement with analytic detachment without legitimizing what are often deeply misguided (and sometimes despicable) beliefs. How do you offer a sympathetic account of paleo-conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly without glossing over their anti-Semitism—or explain the Klan without explaining its racism away?

The problem is compounded by writing about current politics: When Hofstadter examined the distant past—the paranoid style in the anti-Masonic movement of the 19th century, for example—he didn't worry that he might be seen as insufficiently judgmental toward a dim historical curiosity. But in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, even the most dispassionate historian would be hard pressed to muffle every note of contempt, anger, or even crankiness of his own.

This is, I think, the main problem with using Hofstadter and"The Paranoid Style" to understand the birthers and town hall screamers and Glenn Beck acolytes of today. It's difficult enough to write about McCarthyites and Goldwaterites with the proper proportions of imaginative sympathy and moral judgment. But when we're caught in the throes of our own contentious moment, it hardly seems possible to separate the political need to fight irrationalism and zealotry from the psycho-sociological project of distilling the motives of extremists. It's natural, even necessary, to try to make sense of a movement that appears—to many of us, at any rate—delusional. But the most that history, or historians, can do is what Hofstadter did in the first half of the"Paranoid Style": point to the many antecedents of today's right-wing fantasies and, by putting them in historical context, making them more comprehensible and perhaps less fearsome.

Those who talk about being frightened today or act as if Obama is the first president to suffer the slings of what Franklin Roosevelt called"nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror" would do well to note that on the back cover of my 1996 reissue of The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays is a quote from Hofstadter's sole equal among his generation of political historians, Arthur Schlesinger:

Recent months have witnessed an attack of unprecedented passion and ferocity against the national government. … Unbridled rhetoric is having consequences far beyond anything that antigovernment politicians intend. The flow of angry words seems to have activated and in a sense legitimized what the historian Richard Hofstadter called the"paranoid strain" in American politics.

Schlesinger published his comment in the Wall Street Journal on June 7, 1995.

The"paranoid" style did not return suddenly this summer. On the contrary, Hofstadter was surely correct when he wrote that while"it comes in waves of different intensity, it appears to be all but ineradicable."

Read entire article at Slate

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Maarja Krusten - 9/30/2009

David’s article is pulled from Slate and he may not know that it is posted here. I don’t know whether he will show up to read the posted comments or to address issues raised here. But I’d like to throw out a question to historians and history buffs alike.

In his book and blog entries, Rick Shenkman has pointed to civic ignorance and the disappearance in recent decades of civics as a stand-alone class in our high schools. I’m old enough to have had civics classes. In fact, in high school in the 1960s, I even had a class which examined how democracy worked in practice. We read newspaper articles and discussed current events. Such classes provided a good grounding for assessing how government affected our daily lives as citizens. As I entered the workforce, I took jobs which further humanized governmental processes for me.

Academic historians have pointed to the fact that fewer and fewer historians are drawn to governmental or Presidential history. POTUS, the blog on HNN which was supposed to examine Presidential history, limped along for a few years and recently became inactive. Yet recent articles suggest that more and more Americans are following political news than in the past. I’m interested in the framework through which they follow such news.

Is there a role for historians in engaging with the public and talking about what they’ve learned through their studies about government and how people perceive it? Can historians learn from the public and the public from historians? Or is this one of the areas where we’re moving more and more towards a Big Sort, to use Bill Bishop’s image of an increasingly balkanized nation? I’ve been working for 36 years as a federal employee in Washington, DC, under Republican and Democratic administrations alike. I’m interested in why people view policy makers as not “normal Americans” or why others refer to governmental actions “planned in private” as “conspiracies.” Why did a poster on HNN in 2003 shrug at the thought of Washington, DC and what he called its “parasites” being wiped out -- and receive no pushback from political sympathizers?

What goes into these perceptions of Washington? Is there a correlation to the lack of civics classes and historians’ lack of interest (during Republican and Democratic administrations alike) in engaging with citizens and debating what lies behind various governmental actions? Assuming that not all minds are closed, although some may be, can HNN be better utilized by historians to learn from citizens and citizens from historians?

Maarja Krusten - 9/29/2009

Would you mind expanding on your concept of “normal folk?” As someone whose parents fled Soviet Communism, I like to focus on what is good about the United States. When I still self identified as a Republican (I’m now an Independent), I voted for Ronald Reagan. That being the case, I’m accustomed to and very comfortable with an affirmative vision of the United States. I live in a very diverse urban area and like my fellow Americans. I consider myself very lucky to live in the U.S. The term you use sounds exclusionary (aren’t most Americans normal regardless of how they vote and where they live?) but I’m uncertain as to whom you are screening out of the “normal” category.

These certainly are challenging times on human, governmental, and institutional levels. David Brooks, one of the Republican columnists on the New York Times’ op ed page, has an interesting column today about this. He believes the challenges are so great, some potentially difficult realignments may necessary.

In “The Next Culture War,” Brooks explains why he think the U.S. has avoided some historical cycles but is struggling now. He refers to a slippage in “economic morality” in recent years. Brooks observes that in “the three decades between 1950 and 1980, personal consumption was remarkably stable, amounting to about 62 percent of G.D.P. In the next three decades, it shot upward, reaching 70 percent of G.D.P. in 2008. During this period, debt exploded. In 1960, Americans’ personal debt amounted to about 55 percent of national income. By 2007, Americans’ personal debt had surged to 133 percent of national income.”

Brooks believes that “Our current cultural politics are organized by the obsolete culture war, which has put secular liberals on one side and religious conservatives on the other. But the slide in economic morality afflicted Red and Blue America equally.

If there is to be a movement to restore economic values, it will have to cut across the current taxonomies. Its goal will be to make the U.S. again a producer economy, not a consumer economy. It will champion a return to financial self-restraint, large and small.
It will have to take on what you might call the lobbyist ethos — the righteous conviction held by everybody from AARP to the agribusinesses that their groups are entitled to every possible appropriation, regardless of the larger public cost. It will have to take on the self-indulgent popular demand for low taxes and high spending.

A crusade for economic self-restraint would have to rearrange the current alliances and embrace policies like energy taxes and spending cuts that are now deemed politically impossible. But this sort of moral revival is what the country actually needs.”

Donald Wolberg - 9/29/2009

It is striking and disturbing that the self-defined "elite" is so out of touch with the reality of life and folks who live it. The recognition of the intellectual sterility, as well as the lack of experience, so apparent in a very, very thin resume of what passes for leadership in the the Obama administration, and the sadly realized expectation of its complete failure in "matters that matter" to normal folk, was understood by "normal folk" very early in the administration's history. Buyer's remorse set in quickly and is growing; that is very apparent in the coffee shops, feed stores and downtown smalltown places that matter. It is a remorse from the center, where most Americans reside, but it also has spilled over to the American left and right of center, more rapidly that than failure's recognition greeted the Carter administration. Perhaps Mr. Obama will consult with Mr. Carter and begin work on Mr. Carter's neutron bomb, to deal with the Taliban and the Iranians, while his inability to act on anything substantive leaves more allied kids dead in Afghanistan, and the Poles are called at midnight, 70 years to the day after the Soviets invaded. That seems to have been almost as amazing act or lack of historical understanding as Mr. Obama's campaign statement wondering if he, "had visited 57 of our 59 states," or "we need to do away with all forms of carbon," or his praise, "...of the Austrian language," or the need to reduce drug company patent limits from "12 years to 5, so we can get more genetic drugs on the market." It was then that I realized Mr. Biden must be writing Mr. Obama's speeches, and I became very concerned.

Unfortunately, the admission of buyer's remorse is easier for real folks than for supposed theorists of everything. Downtown smalltown has less of pride's false baggage to leave behing on the road. In the end, that is a good thing.

Per Fagereng - 9/28/2009

It may be interesting to study the motivations of right-wing conspiracy folks, taking care not to over-generalize, but let's not shrink-wrap the issue.

Just because there are bogus conspiracy theories doesn't mean that all are bogus. Some conspiracies are real.

Here's a psychological insight. When right-wingers talked about a Soviet scheme to rule the world, I suspect that some were "projecting." In other words, it was the US that was making plans to rule the world. We can see it more clearly now that NATO broke a promise to Russia and advanced to the borders of no-longer-Soviet Russia.

Since Hofstadter wrote his book, the US has overthrown democracies, assassinated national leaders, and bombed many nations. These deeds were planned in private, hence they involved conspiracy. Let's not use bogus conspiracies to blind us to real ones.

Some folks would like to ignore all conspiracy research because there are crackpots in the field. That's a bit like refusing to study history because of crackpots like David Irving.

Maarja Krusten - 9/28/2009

Regarding content, it's very challenging to figure out why people relate to each other, to the political parties, and to their countrymen as they do. Regarding style of discourse, experts such as Deborah Tannen argue, without favoring any one, that there are multiple styles. I generally don't buy in to very broad stereotypes but I think she's on the right track in describing some of the different conversational styles. (So does the Texas Office of Attorney General, which uses some of Tannen's work in its course offerings.)
What one person sees as a weakness another may see as a strength. I think it's helpful for those who are in the business of persuasion (as opposed to demagoguery) to learn something about those styles. They have to pitch their arguments so as not to lose some parts of the audience from the get go.

If someone is pitching an argument to a broad cross section of the American people, even just on message boards, getting the balance right can be very tricky. In some forums, perhaps impossible. A person for whom conversation is combat may get involved in pissing contests and walk away satisfied that he won, that he left the field as king of the hill.

Someone else may follow the back and forth between him and others and conclude that the fighter had no confidence in his position, that if he had, he wouldn't have been so aggressive and unwilling to acknowledge points made by others. That the combativeness masked or was intended to distract from inherent weaknesses in the position. For the observer, it might even seem as if the "king of the hill" lost, rather than won.

Both the combatant and the observer may feel their perceptions are valid, of course. Who's to say who is "right?" What appeals to some people repels others. So, depending on the venue and the goal of the back and forth, it all can get very tricky. That people have such differing personalities, temperaments, and styles of conversation all goes into the mix when examining debates and arguments and who comes across as "paranoid" and who does not.

Posted by Smartphone on personal time

Misha Mazzini Griffith - 9/28/2009

I like the concept of "intellectual modesty," except that the phrase could be interpreted two very different ways.
The boisterous movement may have started in the anonymity of message boards, but we have seen it spread to such events as the recent "9/12" march in downtown D.C. There it was important to be loud, and the very visual signs touting fascist and communist symbols left no doubt that shock and outrage were the paramount goals. Contrast that with the recent protests in Pittsburgh at the G-20 summit, in which the front lines of the violent protesters were dressed entirely in black, with scarves covering their faces. It was as if the Anarchists were trying to distance themselves from the conservative protesters but at the same time wanting to identify with such groups as Hamas.
That said, I think we historians need to look at psychology for some answers. What we are watching, for the most part, is infantile acting out. For example, I have an old friend who was very much a radical lefty in high school, who delighted in spouting obscenity-laden diatribes against conservative leaders. Having rejoined into a virtual friendship with him on Facebook, I find he is still spouting obscenity-laden diatribes, this time against the left and the environmental movement. All of his arguments sound the same--there has clearly been no intellectual growth. Strangely, considering the very personal medium of Facebook, he takes pains to use photographs of actors as his profile picture and slightly disguises his name. He just seems to have the kind of personality that seeks to be the bride at every funeral and the corpse at every wedding (and yes, I do mean it in that order.)
As you observed, we are going to have a whale of a time sorting this all out.

Maarja Krusten - 9/28/2009

I'm fascinated by online commentary, which I find difficult to sort through. Much of it tears at the fabric of our nation but I do not know why the posters are motivated to do that to a country many of them say they love. With no knowledge of how a person's life has unfolded, it is impossible to determine what drives them. For example, what am I to make of the man who calls for urban areas to be wiped out so America can return to its rural roots, and adds that he would be happy if there were no progressives left alive in America? (I saw someone write that earlier this year at a site which allows anonymous posting.) What colors his view of his fellow Americans that he would call for the decimation of so many of them? What about the poster who sneers at conservatives as authoritarians? Doesn't he have any friends or neighbors who vote Republican and who can explain and humanize the motivations of such voters for him? What fears drive some posters to dehumanize and delegitimize their fellow Americans? Why is there so much a sense among many posters on message boards that "I can only be somebody if I consider you to be nobody?"

Some of what we see on newspapers' message boards may be affected by anonymity. But Joel Achenbach, an online columnist for the Washington Post, pointed a year or two ago to how discourse plays out in areas where people speak under their own names. He wrote that “The
demands of punditry disallow intellectual modesty. Certainly we see
that in the world of TV and radio, where we’ve created a political
culture dominated by a certain kind of loud, angry, chest-beating male.
The culture of bluster is driven by ratings — and, online, by page
views. The moderated opinion, nuanced and open-minded, is a field mouse
in a land patrolled by raptors.

Punditry increasingly is the province of partisans, table-pounders, the
permanently outraged, the congenitally ungenerous.”

I like his image of nuanced and open-minded opinion being a field mouse in a land patrolled by raptors. I've seen some people associated with newspapers characterize many of the people who email them or post comments under their articles as uncommonly angry. If that is so, I can understand why people with more moderate temperaments or less anger might avoid some message boards. The problem for historians lies in the fact that it is difficult to figure out what opinions reflect outliers and what commentary reflects simmering concerns that is "out there" but which people might not say to each other face to face.

Misha Mazzini Griffith - 9/28/2009

You are quite right in noticing that the Internet has indeed made changes in the speed and quantity of commentary. Where before, only an elite had the opportunity to comment in the mass media. The rest of the commentariat were limited to barstool punditry and coffee-house revolutions. Today, the technology has enabled anyone with an ax to grind it in public, and grind they do. The Washington D.C. newspapers are among the least civil, but the anonymity afforded by the commentary sections of many sites ensure the level of dialogue to eventually fall to the lowest common denominator (Hitler references and racial epithets.) Forget about trying to use facts or to argue from a position of authority, you will be shouted down. Instead of using the power of the Internet to gather relevant information and create connections, the average poster seeks to garner attention like a three-year old in a noisy store, by endlessly screaming "Mommy, look at me!" at the top of her lungs.
Sadly, I think we can point to this new "habit of mind" as influencing the public discourse, where tactics that were once rare are now practiced on the floor of Congress. The "egalitarian" impulses of the Internet have legitimized the concept that every point of view carries the same weight and deserves to be published, no matter how wrong, ugly or inflammatory. We engage in it at our peril. Will ignoring it make it go away or will our silence be interpreted as our agreement with their arguments?

Maarja Krusten - 9/27/2009

Hi, David,

One change since Hofstadter examined the political scene is the creation of the Internet. It provides an enormous amount of data about how some citizens feel about issues and how they process information. It’s hard to tell what postings mean, however. As a former federal archivist, I’ve encountered very emotional, even paranoid, reactions from posters at both ends of the political spectrum on newspapers’ message boards in recent years.

At the Washington Post's message boards, I was called "corrupt" by one poster during the Bush administration for explaining that compliance with the Presidential Records Act is voluntary. Some anti-Bush posters seemed angry when I explained that unlike with the Federal Records Act, responsibility for records management (RM) statutorily resides with the sitting President and his designees, not with the National Archives. And that there was no basis for imprisoning White House officials for failing to preserve their email messages. Many posters kept yelling about impeachment and prosecutions. Others insisted in 2008 that there could be no missing White House emails because intelligence agencies collected and preserved all emails sent throughout the United States by everyone.

More recently, at the message board for the Washington Times, I was called a "paid Obama plant" for explaining that preservation of the White House's interactions with the public on its Facebook page fit with past archival practices and statutory requirements. I sought to reassure posters who expressed alarm about infringement of privacy rights and KGB-like actions. I reminded them that posting on social media sites set up by the White House is voluntary and, by its nature, public. What the National Archives and White House are doing in archiving the Facebook page for the White House is no different than past administrations compiling clippings files of letters to the editor. I was accused by other posters of not understanding the grave danger in which the United States finds itself due to the National Archives' attempts to preserve the administration’s Facebook pages.

Both newspapers’ message boards provided me a small glimpse at how some people view the political parties and the federal government. Because I accept that there are people on both sides for whom, as Stephen Colbert puts it, “facts may change but my opinions never do,” I chose not to question the posters. If you or anyone reading this essay has engaged the public on the web in an area involving specialized knowledge, I’d be interested in hearing how it worked out for you.