The United States of Paranoia
I really enjoyed Jesse Walker’s The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. It didn’t teach me a lot about the Illuminati and their ilk (who I knew quite a bit about already), but it was fantastic on the ironic post-modern conspiracism of Paul Krasner, Robert Anton Wilson, the Discordians, and later deconstructive groups like the Church of the SubGenius. Walker tells some terrific stories about fake ex-Satanists and the role they played in (re)popularizing the myths about the Illuminati (specifically John Todd) and he showed how far-reaching Mae Brussell’s influence was. Like Kathy Olmstead in Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11, he has much to say about the post-Watergate revelations about the government’s activities that in some cases beggared the fantasies of the most perfervid conspiracy theorists.
As someone who is fascinated by the weird synchronicities that are present not just in conspiracy theories but in the lives of the people who dream them up (L. Ron Hubbard’s connection to OTO and Aleister Crowley, for example; the fact that Mark Lane was present at Jonestown; the strange death of Jim Keith of Black Helicopters Over America fame), I was blown away to learn that Discordianism’s co-founder Kerry Thornley (aka Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst) served in the Marine Corps with Lee Harvey Oswald and wrote an unpublished novel, The Idle Warriors, about him before the JFK assassination. Whittaker Chambers also inspired a fictional character before he became notorious–Gifford Maxim, in Lionel Trilling’s 1947 novel The Middle of the Journey. Walker is great on the relationship between on-line Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) and 911, Newtown, and Boston Marathon Trutherism–something that I opined about in my recent Salon piece, but that I know nowhere near as much about as Walker does.
Where I take issue with Walker is his mostly tacit assumption that conspiracism is more often than not an admirable expression of a healthy skepticism–that it signals an independent-minded, anti-authoritarian openness to different ways of thinking. For all their antics, the likes of Robert Welch, Henry Ford, Nesta Webster, Milton William Cooper, and Alex Jones are not Absurdists, post-modernists, or even the live-and-let-live libertarians that they are sometimes presumed to be–they have real agendas and their thinking is rigid and dogmatic in the extreme. He underplays the toxicity and the ubiquity of the Protocols and, indeed, the significance of their content. And while I agree with him that liberal watchdog groups like the SPLC and the ADL can be annoyingly humorless and literal-minded, that they are sometimes no less alarmist than their wrong-thinking adversaries are, and that their scare-mongering statistics about hate groups are biased to maximize fund-raising, I vehemently disagree that the connections they draw between conspiracism and programmatic hatreds are paranoid in their own right.
I am a free speech absolutist; I defend anyone’s right to deny the Holocaust, bait gays or women, or defend indefensible propositions about the genetic superiority of one race over another. But I do believe that hateful words have consequences. No, Sarah Palin’s bulls-eye map didn’t directly inspire Jared Lee Loughner to murder 19 people in Tucson. The SPLC’s designation of the Family Research Council as a “hate group” didn’t cause Floyd Corkins to shoot Leonardo Johnson in the arm either. But contempt breeds contempt; it poisons discourse across the board and it can have the effect of normalizing violence. I deplore it and I believe that it needs to be called out–whether it appears on an obscure racist website, in Ron Paul’s ancient newsletters, in a joke that a US Congressman tells at one of his fundraisers, or a plank that finds its way into the Republican platform. The content of a group’s or a person’s beliefs–the texts they refer to, the authorities they cite, the tenets they adhere to–are always relevant, especially if they turn on the immutable evil of an identifiable group of people. This is why I wrote The New Hate, after all.
Walker’s culture criticism is entertaining; he is smart, witty, and knowledgeable about a wide range of esoterica; he made me feel woefully uninformed about things that I’m supposed to be expert in. For the most part, he strikes the right balance between empathy and doubt. “We should be skeptical, yes, of people who might be conspiring against us,” he writes. “But we should also be skeptical–deeply, deeply skeptical–of our fearful, fallible selves.”
Truer words have never been written. Still, he left me with the disquieting feeling that when it comes to the big overbearing hatreds that underlie so much of conspiracy thinking, he is a little bit too skeptical–or too willing to turn a blind eye.