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:

When Clark Kent started asking the wrong questions, the PLANET exiled him to a suburban bureau.

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.

Maybe the apes are ALREADY our masters.

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.