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co-founder Kerry Thornley (aka Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst) served in the Marine Corps with Lee Harvey Oswald and wrote an unpublished novel, The Idle Warriors, about him before the JFK assassination.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.

12 thoughts on “The United States of Paranoia

  1. Perhaps the single most compelling argument against the “healthy skepticism” predicate of Jesse Walker’s premise about conspiracism is the saga of David Lewis Rice on Christmas Eve of 1985..

    David Lewis Rice’s grisly murders of a husband, wife, and their 2 children (10 and 12 years old) will stand forever as a cautionary tale regarding the inherent toxicity of conspiracy theories believed and acted upon.

    Rice planned the murders for 6 months. He chloroformed the family into unconsciousness, got a filleting knife from their kitchen, and an iron from their laundry room and clubbed, pounded, and stabbed the entire family to death.

    He did this because he MISTAKENLY thought that the husband (a Seattle civil rights attorney) was the “top Communist” and Regional Director of the Communist Party in Washington state as well as a prominent Jew. [He wasn’t Jewish either!]

    Rice got his mistaken ideas from reading falsehoods in right-wing extremist literature — but to make this story even more ghoulish than it already is — the literature which David Lewis Rice read and believed and acted upon actually pertained to the deceased father of the husband who was murdered.

    That deceased father was Jonathan Goldmark. In 1964, Goldmark won a libel lawsuit against Albert Canwell (first Chairman of the Washington State Un-American Activities Committee) along with several John Birch Society members who falsely accused Jonathan Goldmark and his wife (Sally) of being under Communist Party discipline.

  2. The Idle Warriors was actually published—I’ve got a copy here on my shelf—but tracking down a copy can be difficult (well, “difficult” as in expensive).

    1. I should have said “unpublished at the time.” There’s a couple of paperbacks available at Amazon, but they are priced for the antiquarian market, in the low 3 figures.

  3. Thanks for the very kind review, Arthur. I feel I should push back a little bit on your criticism, if not to come to a consensus — clearly we draw the line in different places — then just to make it clear to your readers that I don’t regard ALL conspiracy theorists as mere skeptics or eccentrics. I think my Enemy Outside and Enemy Below chapters in particular include a lot of examples of ugly conspiracism, and I would hope none of my readers would think I consider the internment on Deer Island, the Salem witch trials, the repression of alleged slave rebellions, or (to give a more recent example) the terrorist schemes of The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord as harmless consequences of conspiracy thinking. And I certainly agree that the Protocols are a toxic document, even if I’m also darkly amused at the contortions people like William Guy Carr went through to insist they weren’t anti-Semites even as they based their worldview on an anti-Semitic forgery.

    1. As a person who’s constantly being accused of disbelieving ALL conspiracies (or of being a ‘Zionist shill for Wall Street’), I totally understand your desire to push back–and you are right to do so, lest people presume the worst of you without reading your book. It really is just a matter of drawing the line in different places. I really enjoyed your book and I learned a great deal from it too.

  4. The book was well written, but more of an intellectual social commentary than I expected. There was no focus on the details of individual conspiracy theories – this is not the book for an in-depth appraisal of various conspiracy ideas. But as an introspective analysis of conspiracy theory and social paranoia as folklore, it is very interesting. The author also details how historical events like Watergate or the fall of the USSR shift the focus between the enemy outside to the enemy within, or vice versa. From Indians during colonial times through blacks and communists he discusses the various bogeymen our media have sometimes focused on throughout American history – and why, both from a historical and psychological perspective. Not at all what I expected, but still very good.

  5. Wacky Conspiracy Theories Conspiracy theories are popular in a certain segment of the population. Buffeted by forces they don’t understand and can’t control, there is something comforting in imagining that dark forces are in control – and, of course, that they are part of a unique group who know what is really going on and are combatting the evil. Why, though, do so many conspiracy theories involve Hillary Clinton?

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