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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

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 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 populace 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 the 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.

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