Seth Blake on The United States of Paranoia : A Conspiracy Theory
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.”