What Conspiracy Theories Say About Us: Jesse Walker on The United States of Paranoia

"Political paranoia, and conspiracy theories in particular, have been a part of the United States since before there was a United States," explains Reason Magazine books editor Jesse Walker, author of the new book The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. "Even when a conspiracy theory says absolutely nothing true about the object of the theory, if it catches on it says something true about the anxieties and the experiences of the people who believe it."

Rejecting the assumption that these beliefs are the purview of outsiders on the fringes of society, Walker details how even those at the very heart of American power - from John Quincy Adams' fear of Freemasons to LBJ's insistence that communists were stoking race riots - have held these views.

ReasonTV's Nick Gillespie sat down with Walker to discuss his book, the deep history of conspiracy theories in America, and how he became fascinated with the topic. 

Approx. 9:20 minutes.

Produced by Meredith Bragg. Shot by Todd Krainin and Amanda Winkler.

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  • albo||

    Be sure to watch the video until the credits at the end. You can barely see the words, but it reads:

    "This video sponsored by the Reverse Vampire Task Force of the Trilateral Commission."

    Coincidence?

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    How many subliminal messages are embedded in this video? Let's count.

  • Archduke Trousersenthusiast||

    I counted all of them.
    Did you?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    MUST. OBEY. LIBERTARIAN. LEADERS.

  • John Galt||

    My video just has a frame with the words EAT MORE CHEESE flashed for a fraction of a second over and over.

    The French are not to be trusted!

  • WTF||

    I don't know; it's kind of hard to dismiss conspiracy theories out of hand given all that's been exposed about what the Obama administration has actually been up to.

  • albo||

    That's the thing: real conspiracies get exposed. People can't keep a secret, especially large groups of people and especially when the secret is controversial.

  • SIV||

    What if only a small group knows?

  • Archduke Trousersenthusiast||

    The only way 2 people can keep a secret is if one of them is dead.

  • John Galt||

    The only way 2 people can keep a secret is if they're both dead, and didn't write down, or otherwise record, the secret before they both died.

  • Brandybuck||

    There is the Smell Test to consider. Does the NSA hoover up emails? Yes, it passes the smell test. Did Bush and Cheney orchestrate 9/11 as a false flag attack? No, it doesn't pass the smell test, not even if you shove mentholatum up your nostrils. Are reptilian shapeshifters secretly ruling the world from a base underneath Denver International Airport? Not only does it fail the smell test, your nose has just dissolved off of your face in response to the horrible stench of the idea.

    What is the difference? Plausibility. Conspiracy theorist postulate schemes and plots that don't hold up to science, violate the basic principles of economics and human psychology, are riddled with logical fallacies, and woven together with strands of conjecture.

  • Wesley Mouch||

    Well, that explains where my luggage went at the Denver airport.

  • Inigo M.||

    Great post.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    Bush didn't orchestrate his last bowel movement. Cheney on the other hand ...

    Nice straw man there, conflating reptilian shapeshifters with false flag terrorism, something the US has been shown to be quite practiced at.

  • JohnD||

    Just because you are paranoid doesn't mean someone isn't out to get you.

  • Bam!||

    "...explains Reason Magazine books editor Jesse Walker, author of the new book The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. "

    He wrote a book? You'd think Reason would mention that once or twice.

  • Johnrambo||

    It's not worth reading that's why. United states of Derp.

  • Archduke Trousersenthusiast||

    Did someone write a book?

  • sarcasmic||

    There's always been a cabal conspiring against liberty. It's called government.

  • John Galt||

    Sad, but true.

  • CE||

    There are plenty of small groups of powerful people planning nefarious things. To pretend otherwise is naive. Why do you think their lackeys in the controlled media disparage anyone who starts to get close to the truth as a "conspiracy theorist"?

  • Johnrambo||

    I sorry but after watching that interview the author just came across as a 2d thinker. Rather stupid really.

  • Moe19||

    Paranoia? Like maybe ATTACK WATCH?

  • Gladstone||

    The problem with conspiracy theories is that it encourages people to make up the most irrational and outrageous theories. If the government lies and cover-ups everything then all evidence is a lie so your theory will never be disproven. Also the more outrageous your theory gets the further it gets from the Official Story which makes it better. Not to mention they often don't bother to actual promote an actual "theory" beyond simply disagreeing with the official story so ironically they aren't theorists!

  • Rock Action||

    I can't agree more heartily with the first statement in the video. Very Szaszian, actually.

  • Mizchief||

    I'm conspiracy theory buff. The best are the ones that take widely accepted facts and string them together with plausible but unverified connections between them. I think in some cases they do a good job of personifying abstract concepts of greed and evil. It's similar to religion. You take all of the complex interactions of matter and evolution and simplify them into a all-knowing being that orchestrates everything. God is the biggest conspiracy theory of all time!

    While I don't believe that Illuminati, in concert with the devil, secretly rule the entire world, studying the theory can give you insight into how the motives of greed and the desire for power from a much larger collection of individuals crates the same results for the average Joe as if the conspiracy theory was true.

  • Wesley Mouch||

    That's what THEY want you to think.

  • KRoyall||

    We have much more to fear from what the government is doing right out in the open.

  • Inigo M.||

    Sadly, this is true.

  • John Galt||

    Actually, it's very boring that you damned foreigners are receiving "cheques" for 'errn'ing "parttime" on your "labtop."

    What would be exciting is seeing you invest in a handy-dandy American-English spellchecker.

  • John Galt||

    It's just your paranoia that makes you believe I'm paranoid.

  • Jackand Ace||

    Surprised he did not mention the biggest conspiracy theory circulating today, that being that every major science organization in the country has somehow been bought off when it comes to climate change. National Academy of Sciences, American Geophysical Union, American Meteorological Society, American Physical Society, American Chemical Society- all of them-everyone somehow bought off to arrive at the same conclusion that global warming is real, primarily caused by man, and that we should do something about it. And then somehow spread internationally to include World Meteorological Society, Royal Society. And the whole thing financed by someone (Al Gore?) in order to make Americans come to the wrong conclusion so that we destroy the way we live.

    Oh well.

  • umh||

    When the government lies or withholds information then conspiracy theories will evolve to fill in the void.

  • Johnrambo||

    " First off, this guy rips off the entire premiss of his book from Robert Goldberg's "enemies within".

    Author: "I can't think 3 dimensionally, therefore conspiracy theories are about people's psychological fears and anxieties."

    The New world order is a long standing goal of western banking and industrialist figures.This is well documented. Read tragedy and hope by bill Clinton's mentor.

    There are a hand full of people who run the planet. There called "the superclass". David Rothkopf editor of Foreign policy and CFR member wrote a famous book about it.

    There is a military industrial complex technocracy in America. Eisenhower warned about it remember?

    The author of this book gets hung up on the folklore "packaging" of the "conspiracy" brand. That's all this book is about. It completely side steps the actual data and evidence of real conspiracies.
    Claiming that wealthy people aren't smart enough to project long term 100 year operational goals to shape society using media and social engineering is in my opinion being willfully ignorant.

    Rand corporation DARPA,The office of net assessments at the pentagon. Look up some white papers on line and read them for yourself. It's all there. Don't waste your money on this hipster wanna be's silly book shitting on critical thinkers and observers of the military industrial complex.

  • Trollificus||

    What's missing here is more analysis of what motivates people to believe in such theories. At the core is the desire to be "smarter than 99% of those sheep who can't figure this out".

    To claim that everyone else has been fooled by "Group X", is a tempting and easily-attained way to show you are the smart one and everyone else is a dupe. (at least the Church of the SubGenius is self-aware enough to have fun with this)

    Tempting, easy, but not true. You listening, Rambo?

    A variation on "Do not explain by malice what can be explained by stupidity" (itself a variation of Occam's Razor) would be "Do not explain by reptilian shape-shifting overlords what can be explained by greed and lust for power".

  • Jackand Ace||

    Indeed...exactly my point above about climate change. Every single major science organization in the world says its real, and man is either the primary culprit or one of them. Prior to the study of climate change we used to trust organizations like the National Academy of Sciences to make suggestions based on science...now to the conspiracy crowd its suggestions based on how much money scientists can generate for themselves.

  • Johnrambo||

    Are you listening? Or are you jut trying to come across as smarter than everyone? Tip: try taking your own advice.

  • Johnrambo||

    Lol what causes people to believe such theories? Oh I don't know, reading books written by political scientists and colonels working for the pentagon? Turning on the news from another country?

  • Trollificus||

    And yes, there may be an element of that "easily attained superiority" in my affinity for libertarianism.

    "I may have partied my way out of school, but at least I'm smart enough not to be duped by these indistinguishable "political parties"!"

    *sigh*

  • Arthur45||

    Part of the reason conspiracy theories are embraced without cause is due to the fact that they allow the believer to present himself as "a guy in the know." And the dumber the individual, the more attractive the
    prospect of being thought of as a guy who knows the inside story becomes.

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