NOVEMBER 1, 2013
IN 1990, the writer Sophy Burnham published a work of non-fiction called A Book of Angels. It was so successful that Burnham has since become known as “The Angel Lady” to her millions of fans. Filled with anecdotes both ancient and modern, paranormal and banal, Burnham’s pantheistic, popular approach to the esoteric field of angelology captivated secular and religious audiences alike. Indicative of Angels’ success and influence is the sequel Burnham released a year later, Angel Letters, comprised of over fifty letters she received from fans of A Book of Angels who wrote to share stories of their own mysterious encounters with benevolent, seemingly divine forces. The Angel books were a success because they flattered a conviction widely shared from the furthest fringe to the heart of the mainstream, a conviction which was, in quite another way, recently vindicated on the stage of mass culture by reports of the NSA’s abuses: the belief that somebody up there is watching us.
If Burnham’s books present a benevolent conspiracy of angels, then Jesse Walker, books editor at Reason magazine, offers, in The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory, more or less the opposite: a sort of demonology of American conspiracy theories, from colonial times to the present day. Indeed, when it comes to his intentions in writing the book, Walker doesn’t mince words:
This is a book about America’s demons. 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, even if it says nothing true about the objects of the theory itself.
Just as an animist treats natural forces as conscious spirits, many conspiracists treat social forces as conscious cabals.
Walker’s stance echoes that of an earlier scholar of American conspiracy theory, the historian Richard Hofstadter, whose landmark book The Paranoid Style in American Politics appeared in 1964. While acknowledging his debt to Hofstadter, Walker identifies that a certain elitism in the stance Hofstadter assumes endures as a problematic feature of the study of conspiracies in general. Consider, for instance, the following oft-quoted passage from The Paranoid Style:
A fundamental paradox of the paranoid style is the imitation of the enemy. The enemy, for example, may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry […] Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through “front” groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various Christian anti-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication, discipline, and strategic ingenuity the Communist calls forth.
Walker does not dispute Hofstadter’s claims; in fact, he holds the passage up as the brightest insight of a brilliant essay. But he does point out that much the same could be said of the elite audience at whom the piece was aimed, and that the essay ultimately creates “a distorted picture in which the country’s outsiders are possessed by fear and its establishment usually is not.”
While Walker’s writing seldom reads as programmatic, there is a populist ire always roiling underneath. “Pundits tend to write off political paranoia as a feature of the fringe,” he writes, “a disorder that occasionally flares up until the sober center can put out the flames”:
They’re wrong. The fear of conspiracies has been a potent force across the political spectrum, from the colonial era to the present, in the establishment as well as at the extremes […] They have flourished not just in times of great division but in eras of relative comity. They have been popular not just with dissenters and nonconformists but with individuals and institutions at the center of power. They are not simply a colorful historical byway. They are at the country’s core.
Walker proceeds to lay out a general taxonomy of American conspiracy theories, “five primal myths […] archetypes that can absorb all kinds of allegations, true or not, and arrange them into a familiar form.” These he distinguishes as “The Enemy Outside” (foreign actors who plot society’s downfall from a distance); “The Enemy Within” (domestic threats to the status quo); “The Enemy Above” (conspiracies of the ruling classes); “The Enemy Below” (conspiracies of the lower classes and social pariahs); and “The Benevolent Conspiracy” (a secret force working behind the scenes to improve people’s lives). Enumerating examples of these five primal myths and how they have recurred and recombined throughout American history, Walker is able to convincingly illustrate how conspiracy narratives that may appear at first glance to be isolated, episodic interludes specific to the idiosyncratic circumstances of a particular era or social sphere, though distortions, are also real manifestations of enduring facets of a national consciousness. Conspiracy theories, according to Walker, and contra Hofstadter, are endemic rather than aberrant phenomena, and manifest at every level of American society.
In a particularly telling example, Walker traces the myth of The Enemy Outside from the period between the Pequot and King Philip’s wars (when English colonists’ fears of a “universall [sic] combination” of Indians lead them to form The New England Confederation) to the contemporary misunderstandings by US policymakers concerning the diffuse nature of al-Qaeda (Walker cites a Washington Post from 2012 that referred to Bin Laden as a “terrorist CEO in an isolated compound”). In both cases, an inaccurate but powerful metaphor — diverse and diffuse Indian societies likened to the absolute monarchies of Europe on the one hand, a diverse and diffuse terrorist network likened to a private corporation on the other — opened up a space for conspiratorial thinking and mythical misreadings that lead to reaction-formations with devastating real-world consequences. For infamous conspiracy theorist John Todd — who for nearly four decades beginning in the late 1970s, wound a crooked path across the United States, speaking at churches and community centers about the intertwining plots of the Illuminati, the Freemasons, witches, Jesus movements, and the music industry — the toll of belief came at a no less devastating individual cost: estrangement from his friends and family, frequent arrests, institutionalization, and an early death.
Walker’s chapter on conspiracy spoofs and spoofers is a more lighthearted counterpoint to the personal and political tragedies detailed in much of the book, and also may be his most effective. Here he discusses the Church of the SubGenius (a wicked send-up of New Age religions and self-help guides, ostensibly led by the beatific, pipe-smoking übermensch “Bob Dobbs”) and The Realist, a magazine that often printed earnestly submitted conspiracy theories alongside deadpan satires of the same. Just as science fiction author Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy came to serve as a sort of primary text for those who actually believe that its eponymous secret society manipulates global events, the communities fostered by these intended hoaxes were, in fact, very real. For a short time in the early seventies, Paul Krassner, the editor of The Realist, even became convinced that people were following him: as Krassner’s explains: “I thought that what I published was so important that I wanted to be persecuted, in order to validate the work.”
If Walker has, as he claims, written a sort of contemporary American demonology, it is populated by demons of the antique tradition: not necessarily evil spirits, but ones capable, like the humans who invented them, of a wide range of behavior. Perhaps a better term to describe the form of The United States of Paranoia is a bestiary. What differentiates the bestiary as a form most from its more buttoned down cousin, the encyclopedia, is the transparency of its animating ethos. In contrast to the definitional, indexical project of the encyclopedia — whose scriptural tone foregrounds its status as the official book of record, as much as possible striving to erase the specter of human authorship — the bestiary is essayistic, speculative, and most importantly, allegorical. It is as much a work of moral instruction for the beasts that read it as the beasts with which it is ostensibly concerned.
Conspiracy theories, like religious beliefs, have the power to transfigure the believer, and our hardwired apophenia — our tendency to read meaning into random and meaningless data — may lead us to stretch even the most homely and harmless of these theories far past the point of credibility or charm. For all the scope of The United States of Paranoia, Walker’s moral is ultimately a humble one: as Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “we are what we pretend to be.”