The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory

Book review of The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory, by Jesse Walker.
421 pages excluding index.
Published 2013 by HarperCollins.

This book makes well its case that “The Paranoid Style Is American Politics”, as the name of the first chapter states. It covers pretty much everything, at least in passing: Presidential assassinations; slave uprisings; religious disputes; Indian conflict; influence by the French, English, and Spanish; overt devil worship; Freemasonry; Jews; Communism; the Illuminati; the Ku Klux Klan; later the FBI and COINTELPRO; the CIA and CHAOS; Rosicrucianism; Watergate; the Vietnam War; the tradition of paranoid movies and TV shows; Christian fears of devil worshiping and witchcraft and ritual mutilations and child abuse.

Chapter 3, The Devil Next Door, includes detailed coverage of anti-Mormon paranoia about polygamy, harems, bloc voting, the Danites, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and treatment in novels by Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet) and Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. It also talks about the Shakers, Catholics and Jesuits, Puritans and Indians. Just in that one chapter.

It was interesting to see “benevolent conspiracies” treated as a separate category. Even traditional religious worldviews somewhat fit into this category, of God and angels and prophets working together for everyone’s ultimate good.

I really enjoyed reading the review of prank, ironic, and parody conspiracy theorizing from the Forteans, Discordianism, Robert Anton Wilson, the Church of the SubGenius, and others. I am an active Mormon, and in high school my mom (also Mormon) bought me the Book of the SubGenius because she knew I would enjoy it. I did and do. I, like many of the parody conspiracy peddlers, don’t think that having fun with it means no conspiracy is ever true. Of course some are. But the paranoid mindset seems best countered with a lack of self-seriousness.

The review of conspiracy beliefs since the end of the Cold War around 1990 was interesting. It starts with some of this quotation:

The end of the Cold War was a deferred apocalypse. The outcome “and then one side basically imploded suddenly” was not on the menu. The Cold War was supposed to end in a nuclear inferno that killed everyone. It wasn’t supposed to just have the air go out of it. And a deferred eschaton has unusual power. Culturally, we spent decades expecting that we were all going to die. The reprieve didn’t suddenly make everybody less pessimistic. It just turned that pessimism inward.

―Philip Sandifer, Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 39 (Prime Suspect, Cracker), September 12, 2012, cited in The United States of Paranoia, p. 275

By 1990 fax machines were common and underground communication had picked up pace. Conspiracy theories were morphing ever more quickly, and convenient but never very accurate lines between “left” and “right” fell apart. President Bush senior declaring the “New World Order” couldn’t have been a bigger invitation to paranoia and the catchphrase was picked up by left-leaning (e.g. Test Dept’s song series New World Order) and continued to be of concern to constitutionalists and others.

By 1994 the popular advent of the World Wide Web made most every theory and news tidbit available immediately, and its reach to readers grew steadily. That world was the backdrop for my college and early post-college years, with specifics such as Ruby Ridge, Waco, supposed conspiracies between and by Federal Reserve and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the FBI’s open battle against real privacy with The Clipper Chip, the national security conspiracy against us in considering strong cryptography (such as PGP and HTTPS/SSL) to be regulated munitions.

The book’s investigation of the militia and later Tea Party movements as much more diverse than the racist portrayal in popular media is well-researched and presented. Many real terrorist conspiracies were revealed by militias to police, who then foiled them. But militias in general were smeared by the popular press rather than shown to be more mainstream than those who splintered away from them for violent purposes. There were many reviews in the book of what eventually was discovered about who was connected to whom or who was a lone actor, that I had not heard before.

One of my favorite things about the book is that it didn’t bog down on any one topic for too long. It is not, for the most part, trying to prove or debunk specific conspiracy theories, especially the older and interminably contentious ones. Though it is enlightening, instead it is showing that conspiracy theories and paranoia are a central feature of American history, not just the province of the fringe. Because some conspiracies are definitely real and proven, the tendency to find conspiracies can never be fully eradicated due to the rational basis and occasionally confirmed facts. But the pull to see conspiracies everywhere leads to paranoia and attracts and distracts many people, and can become a serious problem for them. There are some interesting lessons to consider here about faith of all types.

It is an excellent book. I found it a fun read, easy to read in big gulps or in bite-sized chunks. Even the endnotes were rewarding. I was delighted to see my friend Eric Dixon thanked in the acknowledgements! I appreciated that the book was well-edited, both because book publishing in recent years seems to have gotten sloppier, and because books on conspiracy are often poorly edited and/or poorly sourced which raises concerns about the quality of research. Jesse Walker has done a great job here and I recommend it highly.


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