Andrew Burt

Review: American Hysteria

American Hysteria: The Untold Story of Mass Political Extremism in the United States

Andrew Burt

For most, Jade Helm 15 may sound like the newest MMORPG, but for Chuck Norris, recipient of many kicks to theAmerican Hysteria head, the upcoming military training exercise is something straight out of Gray State (in other words, B-grade survivalist porn).

“It is neither over-reactionary nor conspiratorial to call into question or ask for transparency about Jade Helm 15 or any other government activity,” Norris wrote in an op-ed for WND.

Sadly, it’s not just over-the-hill actors. Some politicians have been swept up in the paranoia as well. It’s disappointing, but not surprising. As Andrew Burt writes in his new book, American Hysteria: The Untold Story of Mass Political Extremism in the United States:

“Every few decades, a striking political phenomenon emerges, based upon the fear that a secret network has infiltrated American society and threatens destruction from the inside. Even more fascinating is the fact that this type of movement is not relegated to the fringes of the political arena — it routinely takes center stage.”

While there are plenty of examples to choose from, Burt focuses on five less-than-dignified instances of American witch hunts: the anti-illuminati and anti-mason movements from the country’s earliest days to 20th century’s Red Scare and its bastard sequel, McCarthyism, and finishing with the anti-Islam sentiment of the modern day (specifically, the anti-Sharia movement).

In this excellent study, Burt seeks the common ground between these manias. What he finds, not surprisingly, is that “hysteria arises at times of profound change in America’s national identity,” predictably when a fading social group is losing its leverage. They perceive an outside threat that has penetrated the establishment.

Jade Helm 15 is a perfect example. Since the Civil Rights movement, a culture war has been festering, particularly among aging white men threatened by new demographics and the embrace of multiculturalism.

This war went nuclear when Americans elected a black president who was acquainted with Islam. The enemy wasn’t at the gates — it was inside the White House!

So, despite the fact that routine military exercises have been occurring in Texas for years, under the direction of a black commander-in-chief, ostensibly sane politicians are buying into Norris’ nonsense.

This, Burt writes, is what separates hysteria from extremism. Extremism is always present, but generally marginalized. Political and cultural battles can be contentious, but they typically occur within an agreed-upon scope of reality.

The time to get nervous is when legitimate mainstream figures get caught up in the crazy (e.g. a viable presidential candidate believing that Obama and the CIA are plotting a takeover of Texas and Utah).

In other words: It’s time to get nervous.

But back to Burt. There is no knocking his narrative and reporting skills. American Hysteria is well-researched and -written, and I hope to see more from him in the future. He has written for such outlets as U.S. News & World Report, the Atlantic, Slate and Politico, but this is his first book-length work. My only knock on this book is the overlap between some of the episodes (e.g. the Illuminati and the Masons, the Red Scare and McCarthyism). I would love to see Burt take on other manias, such as the Satanic Panic, perhaps in later books.

After giving us the history of hysteria, Burt goes one further and offers us tips in handling the manias that haven’t happened yet. “The first rule of hand in approaching movements of hysteria is thus to accept them for what they are, rather than dismissing them outright, as is so often the temptation.”

As much as I am amused by Norris’ rants, it would be wrong to dismiss his views out of hand — not because there is any substance to his op-ed, but because there is something important to be learned from the subtext.

“Hysteria, after all, is about exclusion — it is the story of groups of men and women, like McCarthy and his supporters, confronting profound changes within American society and then excluding other groups as a result.”

To prevent the next Red Scare, we’ve got to recognize it in its infancy, understand the true interests of its followers and confront the unreasonable with reason.

It may work, it may not. The upshot of those times when it doesn’t work is that it makes for colorful history — a history skillfully explored by Burt in this must-read book. I can’t think of anything more patriotic than reading this book in time for July 4, to learn from our missteps to avoid repeating them again and again.

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