Hysteria level: Elevated

Posted: Mar 01, 2006 12:01 AM

Any reliable field guide to the flora and fauna of American politics would surely include a hefty section on one of its perennials: hysteria. Rhymes with wisteria. Hysteria is much faster-growing; it can spring up in one news cycle and be gone by the next. But it can be just as hard to cut down if neglected and allowed to take subterranean root, where it finds unending nourishment in the darker depths of the American psyche, with its core of isolationism and xenophobia.

What drove the hysteria up the wall last week was the news that a company based in the United Arab Emirates was going to acquire a controlling interest in a British-based firm that operates major American ports.

Horrors! The hysteria index spiked, urged onward and upward by politicians from both parties who sensed a prairie fire of emotions building out there - and rushed to exploit it.

All the Rush Limbaughs of the left were soon in full cry, sensing a real issue at last, which they do just about every week, and they hadn't spotted anything this promising since Dick Cheney's hunting accident proved a less than impeachable offense. This time they were joined by the separate but equally blind xenophobes of the right, to whom all Ay-rabs look alike.

To get a really good political panic going in this country, the recipe is simple: Start with your regular base of fear and loathing, time its rise for a congressional election year, mix in presidential ambitions like Hillary Clinton's, call out the kind of demagogues who see the Fall of the Republic every time a new Supreme Court justice is nominated, and turn up the heat. Serve quick, before it cools.

Result: Demagogues of both left and right were soon inviting Americans to picture burnoosed terrorists slipping a weapon of mass destruction into a cargo container and devastating a great American city. (It's getting harder and harder to distinguish political discourse in this country from a B-movie.)

The only ingredients missing from this scary scenario were the facts. No need to mention that the United Arab Emirates has been an ally of this country in the war against terror, or as much of an ally as any Arab country can afford to be, cooperating in the arrests of top al-Qaida agents. Or that American military aircraft routinely refuel at air bases in the Emirates, though the emirs might not want that fact advertised.

Speaking of the U.A.E.'s extensive connections with this country, Sen. Clinton might want to call home: Hubby has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from the Emirates for the Clinton Library in Little Rock (thank you very much!) and, according to his presidential foundation's Web site, the American University in Dubai welcomes William J. Clinton Scholars every year.

More facts: This particular oil-rich little sheikhdom, Dubai, has other investments all over the world, its port-operating company (Dubai Ports World) is mainly run by Western executives (including an American chief operating officer), and the responsibility for security at American ports remains where it has always been - with the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs Service and state and local authorities, all of whom have more pressing problems than whether an international conglomerate headquartered in the U.A.E. plans to buy a controlling interest in the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company of London, England.

The vast majority of major American ports are already operated by foreign-based companies - welcome to globalization! - and that number includes companies based in Communist China. And we're supposed to panic over one owned by the government of Dubai, U.A.E.?

Who says bipartisanship is dead? Last week's hysteria soon enveloped both parties. Was there a big-name politician who didn't join in? You'd expect the stampede to be led by the usual suspects like New York's Charles Schumer, Michigan's Carl Levin, the ever-angry Ted Kennedy and the louder leaders of the opposition in general.

But here were Republican spokesmen like Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, and Dennis Hastert, the speaker of the House, joining the jittery chorus. Even an ordinarily sensible senator like South Carolina's Lindsey Graham came down with a case of Arabophobia.

It was the rare John McCain who suggested that it might be a good idea to get the facts before joining the stampede, but that's not the kind of comment that makes headlines, or the wilder reaches of the Web. It's so . . . sensible. Will anyone remember that Sen. McCain kept his head while others all about him were losing theirs? Probably not. Because as perspective returns, this port deal will soon enough be succeeded by some other faux scandal as the focal point of America's free-floating paranoia.

This deal with the U.A.E. is not a security problem, or at least not any more of one than is presented by any foreign company's investing here. Just as American companies invest overseas in a world where globalization, formerly known as free trade, has expanded exponentially. Nor is it an economic problem; this country welcomes foreign investment and should.

No, this is a psychological problem, and the classic diagnosis of it is Richard Hoftstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," which first appeared in Harper's magazine during the rip-roaring presidential campaign of 1964.

Professor Hofstadter made his academic reputation by exploring the dark underside of American populism at the turn of the 20th century. His findings shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the trajectory of Southern populism from Tom Watson in Georgia to Orval Faubus in Arkansas.

Back in '64, the professor's article homed in on the fantasies that fueled the Goldwater campaign of that year, when names like Robert Welch and outfits like the John Birch Society were still in the news. But if you'll take Dr. Hoftstadter's psychoanalysis of the Radical Right that year and apply it to today's Looney Left, it makes a remarkably accurate fit.

In the paranoid style, the opposition can't be just mistaken or misguided; it must be lying and deceiving. Because, you see, it's part of a deep-seated plot against all things decent and honorable. See some of Cindy Sheehan's wilder fulminations, and their echoes in the "serious" speeches of Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Al Gore . . . . You can almost smell what Professor Hoftstadter in his time called the fear of displacement on the part of a fading political elite.

It's not just a political elite but a cultural one that now feels dispossessed, undermined, denied its rightful place in the American sun. Note today's nostalgia on the left for the good old days when only three look-alike, sound-alike television networks dominated the one evening hour of national news allowed American viewers. Quick, close the gates! Bring back the "Fairness" Doctrine! This free market in ideas has gotten entirely too free. Who do these people think they are - the people?

The Great Arab Port Issue is only the latest straw grasped by the conspiracy theorists. There was a whole succession of them before - from the Valerie Plame flame-out to a "domestic" wiretapping scandal that turned out to be more about international phone calls. Soon enough this one-week wonder of a Burning Issue will be replaced by another. It's only to be expected. It's the paranoid style of American politics.