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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

“‘Like assassinations,’ replied Ford. Realizing what he had just let slip, he immediately added, ‘That’s off the record!’”

Aside from the quaintness, in this 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 MK-Ultra and CoIntelPro projects with workmanlike aplomb, but he shies away from more recent conspiracies, preferring to follow the exploits of ’70s charlatans and pranksters like John Todd and Paul Krassner. We learn again that 1967’s “Report From Iron Mountain on the Possibility and Desirability of Peace” was a satiric hoax, 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 MK-Ultra experiments and Watergate were followed and accompanied by additional outrages that Walker neglects, the reader is left to conclude that ironic (fake) conspiracies are the only notable residue of the 1960s and ’70s counterculture.

Significant theories 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.) are 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-theorizing must be understood in the context of 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. Smart move, for brand credibility. Too bad, for us paranoid – but apparently normal – citizens.

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