The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory by Jesse Walker (Harper 2013), 448 pages.
What is the substance of American paranoia? From where does it emanate, and why is its study important? These are some of the questions that, without preaching or bludgeoning us with elitist pretensions, Jesse Walker, books editor at Reason magazine, addresses in The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. The book is an absorbing journey through the lives and handicrafts of conspiracy-theory peddlers and through alternative looks at historical and pop-culture artifacts that might otherwise seem perfectly quotidian. Whether we’re treating them as gospel or poking fun, Americans are in love and deeply enthralled with conspiracy theories and the paranoia they embody. Swiveling from Jay-Z and 50 Cent to Dan Brown and Robert Anton Wilson, Walker’s book is an often-erratic survey of the outlandish, the “patterns in chaos” we’ve drawn “to make sense of events … that scare us.” It shows that finding these patterns even where they don’t exist is an enduring human tendency, that is, one that applies to all of us, irrespective of ethnic, political, or class ties.
His expedition into all things paranoid and conspiratorial in our history and culture breaks down into two overarching parts, the first a consideration of “five primal myths,” the second treating “the more recent past” and its interrelation with those “five core myths.” The taxonomy The United States of Paranoia constructs is immediately familiar. We’ve all encountered countless specimens of each species Walker sets forth (though he grants that a given conspiracy may fall into one or several of the categories): the Enemy Outside, the Enemy Within, the Enemy Above, the Enemy Below, and the Benevolent Conspiracy. Glossing the fundamental fallacy that binds all five of his primal myths, Walker writes, “Just as an animist treats natural forces as conscious spirits, many conspiracists treat social forces as conscious cabals.” The book nevertheless refrains from judging any of the particular conspiracy theories it presents, even while it acknowledges that some are quite clearly susceptible to being judged as either true or false. So as he introduces the colorful characters and chronicles that make up a conspiracy story, Walker never puts his nose in the air or insists that only an unsophisticated rube could believe such an absurdity. We’re all susceptible to the alluring appeal of some account of events — however obviously invented — that might offer us peace of mind, that seems to put the pieces of the puzzle in place.
Paranoia is of course a species of fear; as such, it depends for its subsistence on our ignorance and uncertainties, giving birth to superstitions — concocted explanations based on incomplete evidence. Or as Walker writes, “A conspiracy story is especially enticing because it imagines an intelligence behind the pattern.” Thus is the kinship bonding superstitions to conspiracy theories made clear; we might even regard the latter category as a social kind or subset of the former, as superstitions that treat not hidden supernatural causes, but hidden social causes. And as with superstitions, the fabricated causal relationships envisioned by conspiracy theories are, as Richard Dawkins once noted of theological accounts, usually far more complex (and therefore unlikely) than the fact- or evidence-based explanations they hope to upend.
Still, superstitions and conspiracy theories are not to be casually dismissed. Walker shows that even when unsupported or untrue, conspiracy theories are nevertheless real in that they affect both politics and popular culture; in fact, The United States of Paranoia is proof positive that it is impossible to neatly separate politics from pop culture in American history. Attending to the flawed notion of “political paranoia as a feature of the fringe,” Walker treats it rather as a vital and significant “form of folklore,” a current that permeates the way we think about news and events.
Bizarre stories that have little or no basis in reality are as much a part of the way we assemble our worldviews as are objective facts; and a possible reason for that is the relative scarcity of such facts as compared with the fear-fueled, prêt-à-porter yarns that are so convenient and readily available in contrast.
One such fear-inspired superstition is the ridiculous faith in politicians and the political process, the paradoxical credence that without them, the violence of a Hobbesian state of nature (“where every man is enemy to every man”) would destroy even the possibility of peaceful society. The relationship between this Hobbesian paranoia and apparent justifications for the state provides a close analogy to the connection between post–9/11 panic and the growth of the “national security” apparatus. Just as Hobbes’s arguments about human beings’ political nature should actually make us more suspicious of centralized government power, so too should 9/11 have distanced us from both military imperialism and the expansion of the domestic police state. But because of ridiculous, cooked-up narratives, introduced at the right moment of dread and alarm, politicians and bureaucrats were able to double down on all of the policies that precipitate terrorism in the first place.
Paranoias like the one that gripped the country after that grim day, the most pervasive and most socially significant kind, are also ironically the least plausible; they call to mind Hitler’s “big lie,” the one that plants itself in the subconscious, in “the deeper strata of [the] emotional nature.” As a result, historically we have been more apt to trust Big Brother than our own neighbors, to pay the salaries of a professional criminal class in a distant capital all while the local news warns us of petty criminals. Our fears are out of order, not correctly prioritized. The United States of Paranoia is largely about such misprioritization — about the tendency to allow pareidolia to provoke in us fear of some vague monster in the shadows. Pareidolia, the phenomenon “in which [random] patterns are perceived as meaningful shapes and sounds,” Walker explains, is what allows people to see, for example, demonic faces in the smoke billowing from the World Trade Center in photos taken on 9/11.
Paranoia has allowed us to build whole systems on the worst mistakes and misconstructions. But if some fears are founded on those misconstructions and our willingness to see enemies that aren’t there, then certainly the reverse mistake is also common: Circumstances and events that ought to rouse our skepticism and even trepidation are too often treated as, if not completely innocuous, “necessary evils.” Even while we fan the flames of our conspiracy theories, we are not as wary of power as prudence would counsel. Still, all things big — be they aspects of big government or big business (broken down into, for example, big agra, big pharma, big insurance, et cetera) — rightly appear to inspire at least some fear in us. As Frank Gelein wrote in his study The Politics of Paranoia, “Grandeur seems to be an attribute of tyranny, injustice, and non-democratic forms of government.” And that sort of fear is not necessarily conspiratorial or paranoid, but is often, history teaches, quite justified.
Owing to this fine line, then, the one separating baseless paranoia from warranted misgivings about power, libertarianism’s critics have frequently harassed us into defensive positions, where we must insist that we’re not to be lumped in with tinfoil-hat–wearing loons and conspiracists. To that point, Walker observes the treatment that Barry Goldwater received from the mental-health profession the same year that saw the publication of Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (followed by a book by the same name). The partisan psychiatrists had claimed that Goldwater had “a paranoid personality.” Hofstadter’s influential 1964 Harper’s article spoke to the exaggerated, alarmist tone found in much of political rhetoric, a “distorted style” Hofstadter saw as “a possible signal that may alert us to a distorted judgment.” Hofstadter had, however, confined the paranoid style to the fringe, as an indulgence of the margin avoided by the reasonable, respectable center. Walker shows that not to be the case at all, placing conspiracy theories and the paranoid style “at the country’s core,” shared by the periphery and the center’s establishment.
Libertarianism is repeatedly smeared as the epitome of the paranoid style, predisposed to exaggerating the threats associated with the growth of government. Healthy skepticism, though, the kind Walker urges at the close of his book, is in fact the crux of the libertarian posture. Hardly eager, jittery consumers of superstitions and paranoid delusions, libertarians are generally (even stereotypically) rationalistic, situating principles and reason before allegiance to political institutions and their symbols — that in the face of the profusion of hit pieces steadily flowing forth from libertarianism’s critics, especially in the last few years. One such driveling rebuke by Saul Friedman in 2010 even borrowed the title of Hofstadter’s article (“Libertarians: The Paranoid Style in American Politics”), reciting all the standard cavils against libertarianism from those who couldn’t care less about actually understanding it — of course we’re just corporate-sponsored crypto-right-wingers who hate society’s poor and underprivileged.
Quite contrary to the caricatures of our detractors, it is not libertarians who are deluded by paranoid fantasies, but statists whose anti-freedom bias grows out of an essentially backward, misprioritized idea about the source of chaos in society. For if Hobbes was correct that “‘war’ consisteth not in battle only, or in the act of fighting,” then we should at all times regard politics itself as a war, as the very institutional force that renders “the fruit [of industry] uncertain.”
Walker nimbly and entertainingly reveals our readiness — indeed, desire — to put confidence in and then to augment the folk tradition of the conspiratorial narrative. If there is a lesson to glean from The United States of Paranoia, it is that the truth is a rather slippery thing; that attempts to pin it down or neatly cordon it off from the host of zany stories and archetypes we have embraced as a culture are in general doomed to fail. Given the difficulties associated with disentangling fact and fiction, we should, Walker concludes, “empathize with people who seem alien” and “be open to evidence that might undermine the patterns we think we see in the world.”