Jesse Walker’s The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory (HarperCollins) is the perfect book for the times. Meticulously researched, broadly considered, and effervescently written, the book limns the murky space between The Crazies and normal citizens, showing how conspiracies color politics and vice versa.
Walker’s big idea is as simple as it is compelling: Far from being merely obsessions of a radical subculture, conspiracy theories are common explanations for most political phenomena—and have been since the birth of our republic. The only difference between a “conspiracy theory” and “common sense” is the power of the theorists in question.
To prove his point, he must catalog the conspiracies. But, he says near the beginning, “this book isn’t exhaustive,” it can’t have every conspiracy, and he will be mainly agnostic about the conspiracy stories he describes.
Thus setting himself above the fray, Walker, the Baltimore-based books editor of the libertarian-mindedReason Magazine, need not concern himself with the credibility of any particular conspiracy theory. This is brilliant marketing, as it allows him to draw readers (and buyers) from all camps. And it is also good for his brand, which in this way can remain unsullied by the stink of conspiracy theory—a thing that has (not so) memorably sunk the careers of respected journalists like Pierre Salinger and Gary Webb. Well played, Mr. Walker.
But who—or more correctly, what cabal of demented fiends—arranged all this?
Ha! Just kidding—or am I?
The most important thing one must do when analyzing conspiracy theories is define what one is. The author shows his hand before 80 pages have elapsed, conflating social scientists who worry about the power of mass advertising with “conspiracy theorists.”
Walker tars Vance Packard (The Hidden Persuaders) with the conspiracist brush for pointing out (in 1957) that ad men were arming themselves with psychology to better manipulate consumers. Packard’s thesis is the sort of conspiracy “theory” we must resist, Walker informs us, because “the fear of mass culture has an authoritarian side too. . . . if you see the average voter as an automaton, it’s obviously easier to support laws that might otherwise seem like restrictions on his freedom.”
Ah, yes! The old Spiro Agnew/Fox News “media elite” argument, presented as common sense. But it’s also instructive, because it lays bare the contradiction at the heart of The United States of Paranoia. On the one hand, conspiracy theories—most of them fanciful—have not only gripped certain populations at certain times but form the core of the American ideology. Yet, on the other hand, The People are not easily manipulated by advertising or swayed by irrational fears of conspiracy.
Walker remains admirably even-handed as he chronicles the witch hunts and other “moral panics” of the nation’s early years. He lays the groundwork for his thesis reasonably well, but his organization can be confusing.
Instead of going chronologically, Walker divides the conspiracies into categories such as “The Enemy Above,” “The Enemy Within,” and “The Enemy Below.” These can be helpful in describing a single outbreak of mass hysteria, but they don’t hold as vessels for multiple mass paranoiac incidents, which tend to contain elements of several archetypes.
Showing that people tend to lose their heads, sometimes en masse, in times of war (the conspiracies tend to happen when the nation is at war—who’da thunk?), is a useful reminder, and if the book has an idea that everyone can guide their lives by, it is this.
The conspiracy of 1787 provides a good laugh. That was when the America our forefathers had envisioned and fought a revolution for was usurped by a cabal that, supposedly meeting to tweak the nation’s founding document, far overstepped its brief and came out with an entirely new document—plus a trumped-up rule claiming just nine of the existing 13 states needed to approve it in order for it to become binding on all of them. It was an outrageous power grab, and it was a true conspiracy, done in secret and found out by the general populous only when Maryland delegate Luther Martin “broke the convention’s code of silence and revealed the coming new order” to the state House of Delegates.
Of course, the document in question is the U.S. Constitution.
Most of Walker’s early conspiracy stories are just as amusing.
The “Conspiracies of Angels” stories are familiar. P.B. Randolph and “globe-trotting occultist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky” (whose New York-based Theosophical Society presented a thrilling gumbo of “ancient wisdom,” prognostications about the future and alleged magical powers of such influential folks as L. Frank Baum and Vice President Henry Wallace) will ring at least a faint bell in the brains of anyone who has read a book during the past half-century. And, indeed, their thinking may sound familiar to anyone who has cast a skeptical eye on today’s magical evangelists, who range from prosperity gospel preachers to the techno-utopians of Silicon Valley.
Walker’s most provocative (and confusing) contention is that the conspiracy mindset has infiltrated everyone via the mass media of the TV age. Pages and pages list plot summaries of TV shows and movies, with everything from The Eiger Sanction to TV’s Good Times conscripted into service of his thesis.
Then Walker connects the dots—sort of. He explains that a curious New York Times story that seemed to use the plot of a 1973 movie, Scorpio, to assert that the CIA sometimes assassinates foreign enemies was not just “thin sourcing.” The reporter and “other high-ranking Times staffers had recently attended a private luncheon with President Gerald Ford,” Walker explains. “Intent on explaining the need for limits on intelligence investigations [by the press], Ford had declared that the CIA had secrets that it couldn’t reveal. Stuff that would ‘ruin the U.S. image around the world.’
“‘Like what?’ asked one of the reporters.
“‘Like assassinations,’ replied Ford. Realizing what he had just let slip, he immediately added, ‘That’s off the record!’”
Aside from the quaintness—in the age of “torture memos,” open-ended imprisonment in gulags, and routine drone strikes—what can we make of this slip, which Walker terms a “gaffe”?
That the U.S. government has engaged in conspiracies is self-evident, and was so even when Ford let the news slip. But frankly acknowledging these incidents (let alone their meaning) is still very hard, even 40 years on, in a book dealing with conspiracies. Walker recounts the MKULTRA and COINTELPRO projects with workmanlike aplomb, but he shies away from more recent conspiracies, preferring to follow the exploits of people like John Todd (a charlatan who claimed to be ex-Illuminati, and not very interesting) and Paul Krassner (the Leftist cultural critic—better story, signifying not much). We learn again that 1967’s “Report from Iron Mountain on the Possibility and Desirability of Peace” was a satiric hoax, and not the Evil Generals’ True Plan for Perpetual War for Profit. As if, in the light of U.S. history since then, that matters.
The 1960s pranksters known as the Discordians and the ’70s scoffaholic Church of the SubGenius well illustrate what Walker calls the “ironic paranoid style,” but because the actual government misdeeds in Vietnam, the MKULTRA experiments, and Watergate were followed and accompanied by additional outrages that Walker neglects, the reader is left to conclude that ironic (and fake) conspiracies are the notable residue of the 1960s and ’70s counterculture.
Missing from the book: the alleged plot by Ronald Reagan’s campaign team to delay Iran’s release of the 52 American hostages that nation held until after the election; CIA complicity in narcotics trafficking (mentioned as an allegation on page 286), a historical fact covered in numerous books and studies, culminating in the CIA’s own 1998 two-volume report; electronic vote rigging.
The 1990s militia movement is whitewashed and called a “panic,” the “sovereign citizens” (they believe all taxes are theft, the IRS an arm of a private bank, etc.) brushed past in a section on left-right “fusion” paranoia. This is all a reaction against the “rise in paramilitary police tactics,” Walker writes, citing the University of Hartford historian Robert Churchill.
But those tactics—and the underlying intelligence operations against political agitators of all political stripes—have animated police and military culture for decades.
That the U.S. military began spying on U.S. citizens en masse in the 1960s is relatively well-known now, but Walker has nothing to say about how this might change the calibration about what reasonable people consider “paranoid.”
Paranoia and conspiracy-thinking must be understood in the context of the reality: endless wars of aggression, two generations of decline in workers’ wages, and a secret government agency that actually is reading all your email—and collecting your phone data.
Perhaps it is too early for a historian’s take on the Ironic Style of American Paranoia, but in sidestepping the half-dozen or so most widespread recent conspiracies (and theories), Walker shirks his responsibility to contextualize the Paul Krassners and Ivan Stangs of the world.