The Kingdom of Paranoia

Christmas Tree at Rockefeller CentreIt’s usually at about this time of year that I become particularly sentimental and my dreams are filled with images of my place of origin. I catch myself awaking with a start in the middle of the night and then feel disappointed that I’m in my bed in England as opposed to where I rest in New York. There is indeed something special about the city at Christmastime: I hesitate to define it in a few words. Perhaps it is its restless energy: at that point in the year, it is concentrated on leisure and enjoyment and it achieves its objectives with gusto. I find myself thinking not only about the crowds at Rockefeller Centre gathered to look at the tree, but also stepping into the building behind it: it is an art-deco masterpiece. It instantly transports me to the Thirties, when the main entertainment was radio and that radio was filled with glowing vacuum tubes. I can imagine a young Sinatra standing behind a large microphone and crooning about Christmas Eve.

Proceeding out into the chilly concrete canyons of the city once more, one finds further tantalising spectacles on Fifth Avenue: there is usually a long queue in front of Saks Fifth Avenue to look at the Christmas displays in their windows. Further down is perhaps one of the most pleasant restaurants in the city, Cipriani’s, which is connected to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. When one enters the modest doorway, there is a brief opportunity to shake off the cold and bask in the warm, gentle glow of the restaurant. Order a Bellini. Have the gnocchi. Note the fading December sunlight with occasional glances at Central Park. Cherish the end of another year.

All these pleasures lay ahead of me, their promise contained in emails and telephone calls from home which state schedules and plans. All I have to do is get to the end of “working 2010” and board a plane. Simple. Yet, it is air travel which is dominating the news from America as of late and not in a good way.

By no means do I consider my travels unique: I am sure that many individuals are standing on tiptoe to reach the end of this month and long just as much to grasp the holiday season with both hands. Airports in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles will soon face the onslaught of travellers looking for the right gate, getting shoved into tiny seats and enduring luggage carousels which are in effect glorified roulette wheels: round and round she goes, where she stops nobody knows, will the right bag land on the right place? This gruelling, badly mechanised process has now been made worse by the intrusiveness of security: nowadays, passengers are required to subject themselves to a full body scan or a full pat-down which involves one’s genitalia. This is just the latest step on a long, downward stairway to America becoming the Kingdom of Paranoia in which the sole ruler is Fear.

Paranoia is not always counterfactual. It is certainly true that terrorists have attempted to conceal explosives in their underwear. However, paranoia often arises from intellectual laziness: rather than be mostly concerned about finding terrorists, those charged with protecting passengers are more concerned with finding bombs. Note the distinction: finding terrorists actually requires critical thinking. It requires analysis; perhaps a brief interview, as the Israelis do, and testing narratives of travel for consistency is a far better indicator than feeling up nuns. As Richard Reid proved with his cack-handed attempt to set his shoes alight, cleverness is not necessarily a feature of the modern terrorist. The facts suggest a gentler approach can work: beyond the Israeli example, while British air security can be intrusive, it does not reach as far as American procedures. Yet, its track record is sound: the Metropolitan Police continue to heavily rely on intelligence as a matter of course.

If this paranoia were solely limited to air travel, America might consider itself lucky: the damage could be limited to the President being asked, awkwardly, how Chicago is supposed to host the Olympics and thus welcome the world, when procedures to enter the country are so aggressive and difficult. However, the Kingdom of Paranoia does have other narratives: one of the most repeated ones has to do with American decline. Much of what I see out of the States has to do with concern about retreat from the nation’s “founding principles” and worry about the rise of China and India.

Let’s be clear: America is in decline, but it is a relative decline. America should not wish its greatness to be at the expense of say, China being poor and chaotic and Indians living amidst open sewers. The rest of the world was always going to want to improve their lot, and as such, the gap was destined to narrow. To suggest that returning to the past would establish some sort of paradise is incorrect: the Founding Fathers knew very well that theirs was a nation that needed improvement. Note the following phrase from the preamble of the Constitution: “in order to form a more perfect union.” The word “more” is significant: without it, then the idea that the nation was paradise on Day One is established. The “more” indicates that there is work to be done. Things changed, political parties shifted, programmes were provided as men of talent and hacks both tried to grapple with the nation’s needs and achieve “more”. But the propaganda of the Kingdom of Paranoia whispers in the ear, “It was better before”. It was better before women’s liberation, before birth control, before the advances in technology, before improvements to access to education and medical care. It was better when gays were in the closet, better when domestic violence was a private matter rather than a crime, better when political protest was considered an aberration. I humbly submit, no, it wasn’t. However, I am obviously in a minority: the American people just granted a House majority to those who wish to climb back down the ladder of history (admittedly, their opponents just wanted to hang off the rung they were on).

Perhaps America should cherish what it is and what it has, rather than waste time on being fearful. There are problems, of course, but there have always been difficulties: no period represents nirvana, merely the hopes, fears, achievements and troubles of a particular generation. Confidence should arise from realising there is so much good across the land: those travellers who wearily drag their way through airports in December are indicators of strong families (whatever the composition of those families may be), the spirit that the nation is able to summon at times of celebration as well as tragedy indicates that its soul is far from broken. It need not be a Kingdom of Paranoia, since it is a land that has so much good.

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