In three successive decades in the mid-20th century, a "Brown Scare" swept through this country, followed by a "Red Scare," and finally a "Lavender Scare," Jesse Walker tells us in his bold and thought-provoking new book, "The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory."
Americans heard so many stories that described Nazis, communists and homosexuals nefariously and secretly trying to take over our government, our minds and our bodies, they began to see them everywhere. In an earlier era, they feared murderous slaves and libidinous Native American kidnappers. And more recently: UFOs and satanic nursery schools.
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"This is a book about America's demons," Walker writes. "Many of those demons are imaginary, but all of them have truths to tell us. A conspiracy story that catches on becomes a form of folklore. It says something true about the anxieties and experiences of the people who believe and repeat it …"
Walker wrote "Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America" and is an editor at Reason magazine. He doesn't debunk conspiracy theories per se in this book. He doesn't weigh in on the Kennedy assassination, for example, and he takes it for granted that you believe President Obama's birth certificate is genuine: "Birthers" make only the briefest of cameos in his book.
Giving the reader an "exhaustive" history of all conspiracy theories is not Walker's mission. Instead, "The United States of Paranoia" is an oddly entertaining exploration of the roots of "paranoid" thinking across several centuries of American history.
Not only do Americans believe conspiracy theories, they also believe their fellow citizens are more susceptible to conspiracies and manipulation by "elites" than they really are, Walker writes. Take, for example, the myth surrounding Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds." In the years after Welles' broadcast, a few writers spread the idea that it had induced a mass panic.
"The truth was more mundane but also more interesting," Walker points out. In fact, only a few people truly believed aliens had invaded the East Coast. A famous Life magazine cover photo of a farmer with a pitchfork ready to fight the aliens was staged. Walker argues that the story of the purported "panic" fed the notion that Americans could easily be manipulated, that they were a many-headed "robot" easily controlled by skillful artists using the mass media.
Americans fear mobs: They are the dark force lurking inside "Enemy Below" conspiracy theories, one of several categories of "primal myths" Walker explores. Over time, blacks, immigrant laborers and Jewish radicals have all been the protagonists in imagined "Enemy Below" conspiracy theories. A mythical group of black intellectuals called "The Organization" was said to be behind the 1965 Watts riots, Walker writes.
In his influential 1964 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," historian Richard Hofstadter contended that it was social outsiders or "marginal" movements that most often embraced this kind of conspiratorial thinking. Walker quickly demolishes that argument. It wasn't true in the 18th century, when Federalist leaders and their Jeffersonian rivals both spread conspiracy theories, he says. And it certainly isn't true in the modern age, when the mainstream media and political leaders in both parties have spread paranoid narratives.
The book argues convincingly that the mainstream media, following the lead of groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, exaggerated the threat of right-wing militias after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 — even though neither bomber Timothy McVeigh nor his accomplice, Terry Nichols, was ever a member of a militia. Of course, with the radical right also embracing conspiracy theories of its own — "Enemy Above" myths about "the One-World Government" and the like — it became easier to portray them as dangerous, fascist wackos plotting a coup d'etat.
All those images of militia men began to seep into America's collective subconscious. Something similar happened after the 9/11 attacks, when Americans were "semiotically aroused," Walker writes, quoting a phrase coined by historian Richard Landes.
To be "semiotically aroused" is to fall under the influence of signs and symbols. A few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, the constant broadcast of images of Islamic extremists caused such a spell to overcome several otherwise rational people in Tyler, Texas, according to Walker. An object made with wires and duct tape was found in a mailbox. Believing it was a weapon of mass destruction, the authorities called in the bomb squad. An entire neighborhood was evacuated. The object turned out to be an 8-year-old boy's homemade flashlight, built for his science class.
"The most prevalent form of paranoia after 9/11 was the mindset that allowed officials to mistake a harmless school project for a jihad," writes Walker.
It's all too rare to come upon a writer willing to attack the sacred cows of the right and left with equal amounts of intelligence and flair. Walker is, thankfully, that kind of writer and a tireless and thorough researcher to boot. He also states an obvious fact many skeptics are unwilling to accept: Behind just about every conspiracy theory there is also, more often than not, a grain of truth.
Yes, Al Qaeda staged the 9/11 attacks. But in a "paranoid" retelling after the attacks, the Al Qaeda movement became a centralized organization controlled by one man, a fact contradicted by most intelligence reports. In the American imagination, Al Qaeda became something akin to "the global networks of mayhem found in James Bond movies," Walker writes.
Instead, years later, when American forces actually reached Osama bin Laden's last hideout, they found not a "Goldfinger" or a "Dr. No" but instead a pathetic and lonely man who colored his beard. He didn't even have cable TV or a cellphone.
It was a truth that was more mundane but also more interesting.
The United States of Paranoia
A Conspiracy Theory
HarperCollins: 448 pp., $25.99