Reason magazine books editor Jesse Walker is author of the recent book, The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory (HarperCollins, $25.99), which reaches back to the earliest days of American history to examine how conspiracy theories take hold and what kind of influence they have on politics when they fail to fizzle out.
Acknowledging that his new book draws partial inspiration from and is partially a reply to Richard Hofstadter's famous monograph, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Walker explained in an interview with me last month at the Cato Institute that The United States of Paranoia “grew out of a lot of things.”
'Folklore of conspiracy thinking'
He had “been writing stories that touched on these issues for many years. At one point in the book, I quote from interviews I did way back in 1995 for a magazine article.”
In particular, Walker said, he “wanted to explore the folklore of conspiracy thinking in America and just what we can learn from these stories – even the ones that aren't true [and] hat they say about the anxieties and the experiences of the people who believe them.”
Walker acknowledged that conspiracy theories and urban legends “overlap,” but they are not the same thing.
“The two big differences are that sometimes a conspiracy theory is true and, by definition, no urban legend is true,” while “not all urban legends involve conspiracies, but many do.”
He pointed out that “one rich source of material in the book was just looking at the works by the sociologists and anthropologists who collect urban legends and that sort of folklore.”
Anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism
Similarly, while some conspiracy theories have anti-Catholic or anti-Semitic roots, not all do.
“There are a lot of anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, which is not to say that anyone who believes in a conspiracy theory shares those bigotries,” Walker explained.
“Of those conspiracy theories that involve scapegoating a group, the three that seem to have the most potent influence in American history were those involving Catholics, blacks, or Indians. Obviously, there are also ones involving Jews, gays, liberals, conservatives, and others, but those were the big three.”
On the other hand, he said, “if I were writing a history of European paranoia, anti-Semitism would be much closer to the core,” adding that there are “a number of anti-Semites in the book,” which focuses on American history.
Even little-known and generally forgotten conspiracy theories can re-emerge unexpectedly, Walker said.
Some of them “will continue to be around and mutate and find new forms. I never would have guessed in the 1980s,” for instance, “that there would be all sorts of rap lyrics about the Illuminati” two decades later.
At my prompting, Walker commented on some well-known conspiracy theories involving President Barack Obama, the AIDS virus, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
One common conspiracy theory of the past few years has been based on the claim that President Obama was not born in the United States. This has earned the sobriquet “birtherism,” and includes such elements that Obama was born in Kenya and his official birth certificate from Hawaii is a fake.
In the book, he said, he gives three reasons for why “birtherism has taken hold and even has believers now, even though it's pretty hard to make the case for it being true at this point.”
The first is a “desire for a magic bullet, something that can win you a political victory without the pain of political persuasion. It's worth noting,” Walker explained, “that birtherism initially caught on among the diehard supporters of Hillary Clinton during the primaries in 2008 before it migrated to the right.”
A second reason “is the fear of the foreign.”
If someone is “afraid of foreign Muslims and [doesn't] like the president, it's easy to be attracted to the idea of the president being foreign and/or a Muslim.”
In general, he continued, “if people who are uncomfortable with the idea of America as a multicultural nation, to them, the President is metaphorically foreign for all sorts of reasons and a conspiracy theory is very good at making the metaphoric into the concrete.”
The third reason, Walker said, is that birtherism is “a way to maintain your respect for the presidency while rejecting a president. If you can say, 'he's a usurper, pretender to the throne' – you actually see these sort of royalist metaphors in a lot of birther literature” – the birther can claim respect for the office if not for the man.
Walker added that he is “not saying that every birther subscribes to all three of those. Those groups overlap.” There are people for whom none of those reasons fit, “but those are three themes that often come up in the birther literature.”
AIDS created by U.S. government?
Another conspiracy that emerged relatively recently was the idea that the U.S. government created the AIDS virus.
There a lot of different AIDS theories, Walker said, but the one he addresses in his book “is the idea that white doctors were injecting black babies with AIDS. You might remember that rumor in the '80s.”
That story is “obviously not true,” he noted, but still “it's easy to see how it could catch on among people who have experienced a long history of high-handed or abusive treatment from the white medical establishment, including some genuine conspiracies, like the Tuskegee Experiment. That sort of lays the ground work for believing other conspiracy theories.”
Those who refuse to believe that Islamic-extremist hijackers destroyed the World Trade Center by crashing jet planes into the Twin Towers are known as “9/11 truthers.” They often say that the U.S. government engineered the collapse of the buildings in order to trigger a war and reduce Americans' civil liberties.
The question of 9/11 trutherism is “one that has people have adopted that for so many reasons, I really hate to reduce it to any one or two.”
Sometimes, Walker pointed out, “people say that trutherism is a paralyzing idea because everything is stacked against you. The flip side is that you just have to worry about what's happening in Washington not trying to disentangle what's going on in foreign lands.”
That is not, however, “the only reason that trutherism catches on,” and he addresses some of those other possibilities in his book.
As it happens, Jesse Walker was also a guest of Coy Barefoot on WCHV-FM's “Inside Charlottesville” on August 27, talking about The United States of Paranoia.
(This article is based on two previously published pieces on Examiner.com.)
Note: Cross-posted from Book Reviews by Rick Sincere.