The nice folks at the Reason Foundation sent me a free review copy of Jesse Walker’s The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory all the way back in September of last year. At the time I was churning through my close reading of Radley Balko’s Warrior Cop, so it took me a month or so to get around to reading Walker’s book. And after reading it, I really didn’t have much to say about it, so I kept putting off writing anything.
I still don’t have as much to say as I did about Radley’s book (which will probably come as a relief to readers) because United States of Paranoia doesn’t really tell a single unified story that I can talk about. Stories have arcs and plots, but one of the guiding premises of the book is that when it comes to conspiracy theories and paranoia, not much has changed. So USoP is more like a collection of short stories tied together by a common theme.
Of course, when I say “stories” I’m not talking about fiction. These are true stories. Well…they’re sort of true stories. I mean, many of the conspiracy theories are wild nonsense and paranoia, with little or no truth to them, but they are conspiracy theories that people really, truly believed in. United States of Paranoia is filled with true stories about untrue stories.
Jesse Walker seems to have been inspired to write this book at least in part by Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” in which Hofstadter discusses political paranoia and conspiracy theories in fringe political movements. Walker has argued at least since his 2009 article “The Paranoid Center” in Reason magazine, that paranoia and conspiracy theories are often found in the mainstream.
In 2006, a nationwide Scripps Howard survey indicated that 36 percent of the people polled—a minority but hardly a modest one—believed it “very” or “somewhat” likely that U.S. leaders had either allowed 9/ 11 to happen or actively plotted the attacks. Theories about JFK’s assassination aren’t a minority taste at all: Forty years after John F. Kennedy was shot, an ABC News poll showed 70 percent of the country believing a conspiracy was behind the president’s death. (In 1983, the number of believers was an even higher 80 percent.) A 1996 Gallup Poll had 71 percent of the country thinking that the government is hiding something about UFOs.
In the worst case, these mainstream conspiracy theories become political causes and influence legislation and public policy. Probably the most infamous recent conspiracy theory to take hold is the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic that spread through law enforcement agencies in the 1980s, when police investigators and prosecutors (and unfortunately judges and juries) seemed willing to believe any stories told by the child victims, no matter how incoherent or imaginative.
One child […] began by saying she had no secrets to share, then eventually declared that she had been raped. After more days of questioning, she said “she was forced to drink [a teacher’s] urine and to consume his feces covered with chocolate sauce.” With time the girl “was talking about animals being slaughtered at the school and about how she was taken to a ‘mansion’ to be molested,” about adults “forcing her to take drugs, about fellating animals, about trips to a church and ‘devil land,’ and about being made to touch dead people.”
More recently, sex work activists like Maggie McNeill have been chronicling the conspiracy-theory-like thinking engaged in by so many people who are worried about human trafficking.
Although Walker didn’t write United States of Paranoia as a guide to recognizing and analyzing conspiracy theories, that’s certainly something you will be better equipped to do after you read the first of its two major sections, “Primal Myths,” which discusses some of the conspiracy theories that have circulated in the United States since before it was a country. This is an effective way to illustrate the structures of conspiracy theories, because the myths are no longer in our common consciousness, they concern matters no longer of direct importance, so we don’t get caught up in them as we think about them. However, it’s not hard to see the similarity of the old conspiracy theories to modern ones, which helps us to recognize and think about them.
Walker attempts to organizes the conspiracy theories into taxonomic categories roughly according to the identity of the bad guys: The Enemy Outside, the Enemy Within, the Enemy Above, the Enemy Below. (Walker also identifies a fifth category — the Benevolent Conspiracy — which posits a secret society working behind the scenes to help us and protect us from greater evils.)
In the early days of what eventually became the United States, the local Indian tribes were a prime candidate for conspiracy theories about the Enemy Outside. The mostly Christian immigrants were suspicious of the non-Christian Native American religions, often suspecting the Indians of being in league with Satan. On the other hand, most of the immigrants were Protestants, leading some of them to suspect that the Indians were in league with the Catholics. Making matters worse for the conspiracy-minded (and for the Indians), the colonists were unreasonably concerned that the tribes were on the brink of uniting under some imaginary “superchief” or Indian “King.”
Like most conspiracy theories, these fears were not completely made of whole cloth. Some tribes were a real source of danger for the settlers, but they were also likely to go to war with each other, or to join the colonists in attacking another tribe. In fact, tribes would sometimes spread rumors that other tribes were planning to attack the Europeans, hoping to encourage the colonists to bring their powerful military forces to bear against a rival tribe.
(We see similar patterns in our modern Enemy Outside, when we imagine that all the world’s Muslim terrorists are arrayed against us, an alliance of evil masterminds hiding in caves. It’s not that there aren’t Muslim terrorists, but they aren’t by any means unified, and some of the various Islamic groups have tried to manipulate us into fighting their enemies.)
Walker illustrates the Enemy Within through the witchcraft hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts. It started with accusations against an Indian slave, an obvious Enemy Outside, but soon the fear spread that almost anyone might be a witch — prostitutes, businessmen, ministers, even the governor’s wife. Many of the accusations followed preexisting animosities — business rivalries, cultural conflicts, religious differences — because if you’re going to suspect someone in your life of being a witch, it’s probably going to be someone you already have reason to dislike. And besides, an accusation of witchcraft was a good way to cause trouble for your enemies.
There was also, as the sociologist Richard Weisman has pointed out, a change in the role of the government. The typical New England witchcraft accusation involved townspeople blaming their neighbors for various mundane misfortunes. If you look past the fact that the charges involved the use of magical powers, you’ll find that the conflicts weren’t so different from the disputes that modern people have over rat-attracting junk piles, dogs that dig up gardens, or tree branches that extend into an adjoining yard. Even by the legal standards of the time, the use of malevolent magic was difficult to prove, so the New England courts were ordinarily reluctant to take on such cases.
But now the state was throwing itself into the conflict, creating a situation closer in spirit to Europe’s persecutions than to traditional tiffs between neighbors. An ordinary citizen of Salem might worry that the witches next door were poisoning his cow or making his children sick. The authorities had a grander fear: in Weisman’s words, that “an organized plot to subvert the Puritan mission had successfully infiltrated the core of the church.” Tales of vast conspiracies began to appear in the confessions.
Those confessions were easy to get, since accused witches could avoid execution by revealing the names of other witches, and the confessions led to an ever-expanding list of suspects, which raised the chilling prospect that the Enemy Within was actively recruiting conspirators, and that they might use their mysterious powers to induct your friends or even your children. These sorts of accusations have been routinely leveled against minority religious groups such as Shakers, Catholics, and Mormons.
(We can see similar Enemies Within in the anti-cult panic that followed the Jonestown massacre, or the rhetoric used to stir up oppression of fascists, communists, and homosexuals.)
The Enemy Within was also suspected to be capable of using almost every new medium to recruit. In modern times, comic books, television, video games, and the internet have all been sources of concern. Fear of manipulation through some form of mass media leads to perhaps the ultimate expression of the Enemy Within: The belief that most of the people around you are an easily manipulated mob, “sheeple,” deluded into “false consciousness,” and that only you — and a few especially intelligent people who share your views — can see the real truth.
The fear of mass culture had an authoritarian side too. It was shot through with distrust of ordinary people, who were often described in terms that suggested they weren’t fully human. Erich Fromm’s influential Escape from Freedom (1941) argued that while some of us had achieved a “genuine individuality,” monopoly capitalism had created a “compulsive conforming” in which “the individual becomes an automaton, loses his self, and yet at the same time consciously conceives of himself as free and subject only to himself.” Not every critic of mass culture would go that far, but they all contrasted the individual man with the amorphous mass.
Such ideas don’t have to lead to authoritarian conclusions. But 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. And if you think he’s being manipulated by occult forces—advertisers, broadcasters, comic book publishers— it’s easier to rationalize those restrictions as an act of liberation.
Whereas the Enemy Within could be your neighbor, your priest, or the people teaching your children, the Enemy Below was identifiable as a particular social class. In the American colonies and the early United States, the most identifiable Enemy Below was the African slave population, who were frequently suspected of plotting an uprising to kill their white owners.
Slave escapes and revolts were real, of course, and the successful rebellion in Haiti set the slave-owning regions on high alert for signs of trouble. Rebellious slaves had often resorted to starting fires to destroy property and distract the authorities, so as far as the white population was concerned, every building that caught on fire was potentially a portent of a slave uprising. There was also concern that various shady people in rough neighborhoods were fomenting slave rebellions for dastardly reasons of their own, and during wars the slaves were often said to be working with the enemy.
(I think we can see echoes of the Enemy Below in the 1992 riots that erupted in black communities in Los Angeles. Fifty three people died and thousands were injured before military forces quieted the city. Just as slave owners couldn’t believe that slaves would spontaneously rise up, right-wing conspiracy nuts couldn’t believe that the riots were the result of poor police handling of genuine widespread outrage at the acquittal of white police officers accused of beating a black man. Rumors began to circulate that black and Hispanic street gangs had been planning the whole thing for weeks in advance so they could loot, burn, and kill.)
The opposite of the Enemy Below was the Enemy Above, the rich and powerful people who were supposedly keeping everyone else down. In the early days, predictably, the lead suspects were a cabal within the British government, intending to extinguish all liberty, starting with the colonies:
If the colonies could be subdued, one pamphleteer warned, the plotters “might open their batteries with safety against British Liberty; and Britons be made to feel the same oppressive hand of despotic Power.” The alarm was sounded: “a PLAN has been systematically laid, and persued by the British ministry . . . for enslaving America; as the STIRRUP by which they design to mount the RED HORSE of TYRANNY and DESPOTISM at home.”
(Apparently, even back then, ALL CAPS was a bit of a warning sign.)
The secret plan, John Adams explained, was to “establish the Church of England, with all its creeds, articles, tests, ceremonies, and tithes, and prohibit all other churches.” When the Stamp Act of 1765 imposed a tax on printed paper , Joseph Warren of Massachusetts announced that the law had been “designed . . . to force the colonies into a rebellion, and from thence to take occasion to treat them with severity, and, by military power, to reduce them to servitude.” The Boston Massacre of 1770, the Tea Act of 1773, the Intolerable Acts of 1774: All were evidence of the dark design. One isolated act of oppression “may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day,” Thomas Jefferson acknowledged, but America was undergoing “a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers.” And that meant it faced “a deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.”
If you were to poll the founding fathers, you would hear slightly different accounts of who was a part of this conspiracy and what exactly the conspirators were up to. But when it came to where the enemy was taking them, they agreed with Jefferson. George Washington wrote that “a regular Systematick Plan ” threatened to reduce the colonists to “tame, & abject Slaves, as the Blacks we Rule over with such arbitrary Sway.” Alexander Hamilton concurred: A “system of slavery,” he said, was being “fabricated against America.” When the revolutionaries formed a Continental Congress, the body denounced the “ministerial plan for enslaving us” and issued a warning to the people of Great Britain: “May not a ministry, with the same armies, enslave you?” When the colonies declared independence, the plot against America was detailed in the new country’s founding document. The Declaration of Independence did not merely describe “a long train of abuses and usurpations.” It argued that those abuses added up to “a design” to bring the colonists “under absolute Despotism.”
Again, as is often the case, the conspiracy theory was not entirely based on fiction. The British did, after all, rule over the colonies. But perhaps their ultimate goal was something less than total enslavement. (The British and their American loyalists suspected a mysterious cabal was behind the rebellion in the colonies. And that the French might be behind it .)
Other Enemies Above included the Masons, the Illuminati (but of course!), and bankers. Leading up to the Civil War, northern Republicans saw the hand of the Slave Power behind behind every setback. After the war, the KKK loomed larger than life in the nightmares of freed blacks. In more modern times, some people blame all political opposition on either George Soros or the Koch brothers.
Throughout the historical section of the book, certain themes seem to emerge:
- Conspiracy theories often have a basis in reality: Indians really did attack the colonies, rich people really do have undue influence in the government, slaves really did rise up against their masters.
- The conspiracies tend to imagine a much greater degree of coordination than is actually evident: That the Indians have a secret king, that all those fires can’t just be random accidents, and that people seeking political change must be serving a hidden master.
- The conspiracies tend to imagine very ambitious goals: The European royals don’t just want to rule the colonies, they intend to destroy all freedom, and the witches aren’t just hexing people they don’t like, they’re destroying the foundations of the church.
- The conspiracy tends to deny the agency or legitimacy of the enemy: The slaves aren’t unhappy, they’re being goaded into rebellion by outside forces, and the workers demanding unions are just following the commands of their communist paymasters.
- The conspiracy theorists often imagine that an entire religious group or immigrant community could live among us for years or decades for purposes of enacting a secret agenda when the right moment arises.
- The conspiracy is often declared to simultaneously be (a) vast and far-reaching and yet (b) hidden so well that we can only surmise its existence indirectly, unless we coerce people into confessing their complicity and naming co-conspirators.
- The enemy — whether above or below, inside or outside — always, always wants our women.
Having laid the historic foundation, the rest of the book explores some modern conspiracy movements. It’s a longer section, but if you’ve been around a while, the conspiracies are mostly pretty familiar: Super-secret government programs, the CIA, MK Ultra and COINTELPRO, the Illuminati and the Rothschilds, the Weavers and the McMartins and the whole Satanic Ritual Abuse panic. There’s also the whole extremely weird discordian movement, which deservedly gets a chapter of its own.
(The militia movement alone has a fascinating history. Vaguely organized around a opposition to federal power, globalization, and/or the militarized police state, the movement included racists opposed to government equal rights policies, but the militia movement also included blacks and Jews, which often brought condemnation from white supremacists. Various militia groups have opposed the Rodney King beating, they’ve reported attempts to bomb gay bars and abortion clinics, and they’ve infiltrated police groups to expose racist behavior. That didn’t stop militia opponents from manufacturing their own conspiracy theories about what the militias were really all about, and it didn’t stop people from smearing their opponents with accusations of ideological affiliations with militias. The resemblance to witch hunts, Red Scares, and, well, a lot of modern politics, is not coincidental.)
By the end of the book, Walker has caught up to the present day, and the internet has put every conspiracy theory just one Google search away from anyone who’s curious, and which has led to a confusing mishmash of conspiracies — crop circles one day, CIA brainwashing the next, followed by the latest news on the Zionist conspiracy. And so now we have black nationalists who’ve adopted sovereign citizen theories that originated with the white power patriot movement.
The events of 9/11 were, of course, the result of a genuine conspiracy, but they also added fuel to the fire and touched off paranoid conspiracy theories about Muslim fifth columnists. As with the witch trials, these theories affected the government, leading to conspiracy-driven policies about how much liquid we can carry on planes and official paranoia about photography at a time when everyone in the country was about to start carrying small digital cameras.
Somewhere along the way, historians started to collect conspiracy theories and trace their origins. Soon people started collecting conspiracy theories and trading them like baseball cards, mixing the historic with the modern and the made-up-just-for-fun.
Which is, I guess, where Jesse Walker comes in.
One final note: While United States of Paranoia is a book about conspiracy theories, it’s also very much a book about telling stories that grab people’s imaginations. If you’re a novelist or screenwriter working on a series of stories, and you need to construct a compelling enemy, one that is at once secretive and powerful, then United States of Paranoia is an excellent guide. As H. P. Lovecraft says in the epigram that opens the eighth chapter, “No weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care & verisimilitude of an actual hoax.”