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Arts & Culture

‘The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory’

Jesse Walker’s book dissects America’s foundation of paranoia, yet shies away from recent proof that the government really is out to get you

Photo: Photo by Monica Lopossay, License: N/A

Photo by Monica Lopossay

Photo: , License: N/A

Jesse Walker’s The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory (HarperCollins, 448 pages) 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, an editor at the libertarian-minded Reason 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 sank 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 to do when analyzing conspiracy theories is to 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.

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