Paris -- Americans are large, we contain platitudes. Especially about what it means to be American. Why then are we so prone to fears about the dark forces conspiring to deny us our American identity?
Consider these two seemingly contradictory ideas:
* Nobody treads on us.
We live free or die. Freedom-lovers all, we thrive on our inalienable rights and unbounded horizons, and damned be the kings, tyrants and bureaucrats, jackbooted and otherwise, who have the audacity to tell us where to get off.
* They are gnawing away at our God-given freedom.
Satan is at work. Once, the Communists were the dark angel's avant garde, but now that the Communists have gone into retirement, or into business, or both, Satan's faithful have zigged and zagged and been reincarnated as ZOG (Zionist Occupied Government). Look out, freedom lovers, here comes . . . the Council on Foreign Relations! The Trilateral Commission! The Federal Reserve! Warburgs and Rothschilds!
Americans, of course, are hardly the only people to quiver in terror at the gargoyle face of the Illuminati. Many Italians and Greeks are given to speak of "dark forces" who may be, variously, Mafiosi, bankers or the U.S. Armed Forces.
The Arab world is full of those who see the Elders of Zion stroking their beards at every stroke of bad fortune. In recent days, the Japanese sect Aum Shinrikyo has made its own original contribution to conspiratology. In fact, if the history of demonization were cut out of the history of the human race, there'd be little left but atmosphere.
Still, as the Zeitgeist slouches through Oklahoma City at the bitter end of the second millennium, one is forced to recognize a peculiar quality to the American brand of Manichaeism. It is measured by the immense strain between the affirmation of freedom and the humiliation of submission.
Is there, then, what Marxists would call a contradiction which has the freedom lovers of the U.S. huddled around their fireplaces waiting for jackbooted thugs to smash in the front doors?
In fact, the more disturbing possibility is that the apparent contradiction is actually the explanation. It is precisely because Americans fancy themselves utterly free by rights that they so easily give themselves over to ferocious fantasies about
Americans each in some secret chamber of the self think that each of us is in the end responsible for our fates. But to be absolutely free is a stupendous responsibility.
The conviction of irrepressible freedom implies a terrible burden, for each and every one of us knows failure, defeat, disappointment. We're all losers. It's in the nature of the case that freedom doesn't deliver -- at least not on the bounties promised.
And here's the torment. The truly free individuals we claim to be have no one to blame for bad outcomes. Denying the actuality of raw, messy, irreducible human interdependence, our insistence on utter freedom leaves us dangling, at a loss.
If life is not precisely what we bargained for, we might come to the conclusion that there are limits to what the best of intentions can deliver. Or other people might. This sort of peasant fatalism is not in the American grain. Limits are precisely what the American, drunk on his endless horizons, objects to.
How much easier to demonize! The more absolute the freedom we profess, the more passionate the pressure to find alibis for life -- that is, enemies. Americans claim that they believe in freedom of opportunity, but what they really want is prosperity from their work. Talk about entitlements!
Thus the paranoid turn: We could have gotten what we want if it had not been for "them."
Thus, the land of the unbridled market is also the land of the militias. The industrial country with the lowest taxes and the most efficient means of collecting them is convinced that it is taxing itself into destitution.
It is because so many Americans think they were born to absolute freedom that some of them think the woods are full of Russian soldiers and ATF goons outfitting boxcars with handcuffs for one-way trips to concentration camps.
Americans are far from the only believers in dark forces, but it's the coexistence of the brightness and the darkness, the freedom and the menace, that sets us apart from fellow paranoids the world over.
Todd Gitlin, a professor of sociology at the University of PTC California at Berkeley, is the author of "The Sixties -- Years of Hope, Days of Rage." He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.