Talkin' 'Bout History, Irony, Politics, and Paranoia

When this week is over, I'll be taking a temporary leave of absence from Reason to write a book about political paranoia. (Think "The Paranoid Center," but with more history and more pop culture.) RAW Illumination, a fan site devoted to the writer Robert Anton Wilson, has just interviewed me about that project, among other topics. Here's the opening question and answer:

Tell me about the book you’re working on, The United States of Paranoia. And can you say something about how Robert Anton Wilson fits into it?

It's a history of American political paranoia. The central argument is that conspiracy theories aren't just a feature of the fringe but have been a potent force across the political spectrum, in the center as well as the extremes, from the colonial era to the present. I also argue that conspiracy stories need to be read not just as claims to be either believed or debunked but as folklore. When a tale takes hold, it says something true about the anxieties and experiences of the people who believe and repeat the yarn, even if it says nothing true about the objects of the theory itself.

The first half of the book will lay out five primal conspiracy narratives that keep recurring in American history, zeroing in on particular examples from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The second half will look at how those primal stories have played out in different contexts in the last four decades. One theme in the second half is what I call the ironic style of American conspiracism -- a sensibility that treats alleged cabals as a bizarre mutant mythos to be mined for laughs, metaphors, and social insights. Not surprisingly, this is where Robert Anton Wilson comes in: He's the godfather of the ironic style.

I'm writing the book for HarperCollins, and we're tentatively planning to have it in stores in fall of 2013.

And here's an exchange about libertarians and social change:

Do you see any point to actually participating [in politics]? Many libertarians who hoped to see Obama as an improvement on peace and civil liberties have been bitterly disappointed.

I'm not *against* political participation, but I think libertarians need to be aware of its limits. I'm less interested in electing officials who agree with me than in building movements that can pressure elected officials who *don't* agree with me. And those movements should be modular. When you assemble coalitions around issues rather than candidates, you can bring people together who don't agree on (say) trade policy but do agree on (say) the need to restore the Fourth Amendment. And then you can be a part of a different coalition a week later when it's time to take a stand on a trade issue.

At every stage of this process, you need to be not just ready but eager to reach across traditional left/right lines. One of the biggest barriers to serious change in this country is the way people get channeled into these Red Team/Blue Team poo-throwing matches. You have Americans more worried about some nightmare scenario of the far left or far right taking power than they are about the cozy bipartisan center that produces most of the bad ideas that actually get enacted.

It's also important to keep a bottom-up perspective. Let the people in Washington look at the world from Washington's point of view; the rest of us shouldn't be seduced into thinking like a legislator. Useful libertarian activism is a matter of defending and extending the zones of free action. The majority of the most promising transformations in America over the last few decades took place not because officials decided on their own to relinquish some of their authority, but because grassroots institutions either seized new ground or crept onto it while no one was watching. Examples range from the homeschooling revolution, which achieved tremendous victories while school choice legislation was at best sputtering forward, to the various DIY alternatives eating away at licensed professions from building to broadcasting. With any domestic policy you dislike, someone somewhere has probably found a way to route around it. Libertarian activists should look for ways to turn that route into a superhighway.

Finally, you should try to think in both the long and short terms. It's a pretty safe bet that the America of one year from now is not going to be very different from the America we live in today. But it's an even safer bet that the America of 100 years from now will be drastically different. Radical change isn't just possible -- it's inevitable. The question is how to nudge that change in the directions we like.

Read the whole thing here.

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  • ChrisO||

    And those movements should be modular.

    Too complicated to work. And it ignores how party politics satisfies the tribal urge within us.

  • GILMORE (as 'Salon Reader')||

    That clearly sounds like something an upper-class, white-male, private-school-educated, Ayn-Rand-deluded libertarian would say.

    Whereas we upper-class, white-male, private-liberal-arts-school-grad, Howard-Zinn-enlightened are the defenders of the underclass from their rapacious capitalist ideology!!

    Burn him!! Ooohgah!

  • Stonerock||

    Ha!

  • ld||

    I also was partially brought in by RAW. I used to be more of a anarchocom munalist, but I could never understand why "anarchists" were so strongly against voluntary capitalism. It seemed so anti- any real lack of state. Who else would be stopping people from living a capitalist lifestyle if that's what they prefer as opposed to a communist one.

    I love that in Illuminatus both aspects (when treated at all) are treated as exactly what they are. Free people making choices about how they want to live. I've moved more "right" in how I'd live ideally in a true anarchy, although I do have some communal feelings, but RAW was the first to make me feel like there were other people who really thought that anarchy was just free people choosing their associations, not one particular type of association held over others.

  • GILMORE||

    I used to be more of a anarchocom munalist

    ...antibiotics cleared that up though?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    A leave of absence? I find this suspicious.

  • Invisible Finger||

    Like Tim and Matt's leaves of absence, only without regular paychecks from another employer coming in.

  • kilroy||

    I'm less interested in electing officials who agree with me than in building movements that can pressure elected officials who *don't* agree with me.

    Well said, though there's nothing wrong with helping elect someone you substantially agree with.

  • ||

    General Ursus isn't really that much of a libertarian.

  • Charlton Heston||

    Get your hands off me, you damned dirty ape.

  • ||

    Chuck, of course, was. Let my people go! Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape! Soylent Green is people!

  • ||

    "Die, hippie vampire!"

  • Jeff P||

    My God James Gregory was an amazing actor. Ursus. Lugar on Barney Miller. Iron Guts Kelly on M.A.S.H., President Grant on Wild Wild West. He should be a Nerd Saint.

  • Invisible Finger||

    Also an Elvis movie.

  • ||

    I'm old enough to remember the rumors that Nixon was building internment camps out West for all the hippies and protesters....

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Those rumors were based on the fact that there was a law (sponsored by Democrats in 1950) to have the President lock up people without trial in case of a national-security emergency. Reports circulated that Nixon actually wanted to *use* this law, so Congress repealed it. They also passed the Non-Detention Act, so that if the U.S. wanted to lock someone up, there should at the very least be a criminal statute authorizing it.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    It didn't even need to be a criminal statute as long as congress passed it.

  • Jeff P||

    You have to admit that would have made an awesome TV show. Like Hogan's Heroes with the cast of Laugh-In.

  • ||

    According to Alex Jones they're STILL being built! Aaargh! Run for hills! No wait, that's where they're building them! Aaargh!

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    The interviewer isn't the sort of reporter who simply jumps to conclusions. Consider this:

    "I don't want to make any facile assumptions about your politics, but you seem to lean libertarian on at least some issues."

  • robc||

    Im one of those libertarians who read Illuminatus! before Atlas Shrugged. However, I actually finished Atlas Shrugged.

    So, when are one of the RAW libertarians gonna pony up the dough for a Illuminatus! movie trilogy?

  • Jesse Walker||

    So, when are one of the RAW libertarians gonna pony up the dough for a Illuminatus! movie trilogy?

    When are the Rand libertarians going to pony up the dough for an Atlas Shrugged 10-hour rock opera?

  • robc||

    You say that like its a good thing.

  • ||

    I always thought that in the wake of the popularity of DaVinci Code, a fine TV show could have been made out of The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles. Sort of John Adams meets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

    I wish he had been able to finish the series. I thought it was a much more accessible introduction to RAW than Illuminatus! or Masks.

  • T||

    I still haven't read Atlas Shrugged but my copy of the trilogy is beat all to hell. RAW had a much better sense of humor than Rand.

    Of course, any would be an improvement on none.

  • Trespassers W||

    "None" isn't exactly fair. Rand isn't exactly a laff riot, but she has made me LOL for reals on occasion. Sure mostly it was the "ooh, vicious retort" or the anon-bot "I never thought of it that way LOL" kind of laugh, but in some of her lighter work, it was the regular kind of "that's actually funny" laugh.

  • ||

    . I'm less interested in electing officials who agree with me than in building movements that can pressure elected officials who *don't* agree with me. And those movements should be modular.

    Jesse, this is where you're supposed to put in a plug for the Reason Foundation, "a 501(c)(3) organization (ID #95-3298239 ); as such, contributions are tax-deductible in accordance with the Internal Revenue Code."

  • ||

    When a tale takes hold, it says something true about the anxieties and experiences of the people who believe and repeat the yarn, even if it says nothing true about the objects of the theory itself.

    Well...of course. This is the primary feature of all conspiracy theory garbage. Still, the book sounds interesting, Jesse, and I like the way you're approaching the subject. But does this mean no Jesse posts for the entire leave of absence?!?

  • Bradley||

    The Paranoid Center article was one of the best political pieces I've ever read. So I'm expecting a lot. Do not disappoint us, Jesse. Or else.

  • Cliché Bandit||

    examples from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

    Does Jesse mean 17, 18, and 19 hundreds? Because I am not sure the 17th century had a lot of intrigue that we would know about and the 20th century is rife with it.

  • Jesse Walker||

    No, I mean the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The book will discuss King Philip's War and the Salem witch trials, both of which took place in the 17th century. The 20th century material will be concentrated in the second half of the book.

  • robc||

    No 21st century material?

  • Jesse Walker||

    Last two chapters.

  • robc||

    Okay, how about 22nd century? You that good?

  • tarran||

  • Cliché Bandit||

    Sweet...just checkin' cause all I got is some east India Trading and Jamestown. I look forward to reading it.

  • Jeff P||

    Krypton was an inside job.

    BTW, the truther comic book The Big Lie comes out this week.

  • GHRTSY||

    temporary leave of absence? Is there any other kind? And is there any kind of leave that does not involve absence?

  • Jeff P||

    Well, Jay Leno is still on TV...

  • cynical||

    If you want to take a break to play Deus Ex: Human Revolution, you could just ask.

  • Mr. Mark||

    "I'm less interested in electing officials who agree with me than in building movements that can pressure elected officials who *don't* agree with me."

    Doesn't work.

    Specifically, the whole thing of worrying about politicians themselves doesn't work. They don't elect themselves.

    Politicians put on ideologies like the rest of us put on clothes. They don't believe in anything - except their own godlike importance.

    The problem is with the ideas held to be true by the people who elect the politicians. If people go on believing fallacies, then politicians will cater to those fallacies.

    The present condition of American politics and its effects on our economy and our freedoms, is a byproduct of the societal transformations that have occurred over the years.

  • ||

    Robert Anton Wilson wrote the Illuminatus Trilogy on welfare. No welfare, no autonomy over his time, no Illuminatus trilogy, no Bob Wilson as you know and love him.

    Just sayin'.

  • Mensan||

    "Maybe the apes are ALREADY our masters."

    alt text RACIST!

  • Dan Clore||

    And said that anyone who blamed him for taking welfare could be dismissed as a Terminal Asshole, thus saving time and aggravation.

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