Russ Catlin and Hofstadter’s “Paranoid Style”

In his essay that appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1964, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Richard Hofstadter offered readers what could be described as a scholarly discussion on the role of conspiracy theories in American history, which coming in the aftermath of the assassination of president John F. Kennedy in Dallas in November 1963, garnered much attention within the academy and the public. Hofstadter defined the “paranoid style” as being characterized by the following: “a distorted way of viewing the world, characterized by delusional thinking, excessive suspicion, shoddy scholarship, exaggeration of facts, and unjustified leaps of imagination.”*

Using Hofstadter’s criteria, one might suggest that most of these characteristics could be applied to Russ Catlin’s work regarding the AAA Contest Board, chairmen William Schimpf and Richard Kennerdell, and the secrecy – the conspiracy – surrounding the AAA national championship from 1909 to  1920. It appears that Catlin was quite capable of spinning an elaborate tale of secrecy and suspicion to support his contentions that the championships were legitimate, but that their existence was withheld from the public for various reasons.

Catlin’s vendetta against Richard Kennerdell is especially vicious at times, his attacks being libelous on occasion. The story that Catlin weaves regarding the conspiracy to deprive Tommy Milton of the 1920 AAA national championship could be the poster child for shoddy scholarship – along with several other characteristics of Hofstadter’s “paranoid style.”

That the Catlin version of national championship history was finally challenged by John Glenn Printz and Ken McMaken with solid, well-documented research and should have been soundly refuted, but was not, is a tale that is still with us, decades later. That it was Printz and McMaken who were rebuked and chastised is remarkable. That it is Catlin’s version of history that is being embraced by INDYCAR is shameful and a disgrace.

* “Richard Hofstadter’s Brilliant Essay Misled Us About the Paranoid Style of American Politics,” Richard Brotherton, History News Network, 21 February 2016, accessed 26 February 2016, at http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/161832.

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