Conspiracy Theories

It Takes a Nation of Truthers to Hold Us Back

A roundup of United States of Paranoia coverage.


Tomorrow is the official release date of my book The United States of Paranoia, so I'm going into full self-promotion mode:

* Salon has reviewed the book under the headline "A Nation of Truthers." Here's an excerpt:

Did you know "treason" rhymes with "reason"? I'll bet some witty fellow could get a lot of mileage out of that.

Walker's book is a riposte of sorts to the most famous treatment of America's suspicious fantasies, Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," an essay first published in 1964 and oft cited since. Walker calls Hofstadter's essay "flawed but fascinating," and gives Hofstadter credit for the canny observation that the people who battle conspiracies have a tendency to form organizations and initiatives that eerily resemble those of their alleged foes. (Joe McCarthy, meet Joseph Stalin; you two guys have a lot in common.) But where Walker feels Hofstadter went wrong is in his assertion that "political paranoia is 'the preferred style only of minority movements'" and that the style has "a greater affinity for bad causes than good."

Au contraire, says Walker. "Educated elites have conspiracy theories, too" and the nation's long history of "moral panics" illustrates the ways that "influential social institutions"—from the government to churches and political parties to the press—engage in paranoid thinking, sometimes with lethal results. "When I say virtually everyone is capable of paranoid thinking," Walker writes, "I really do mean everyone, including you, me and the founding fathers…It is even possible to be paranoid about paranoids." He then proceeds, in lively and often witty fashion, to prove it. Some of what Walker has to say will be familiar, but few readers are likely to get to the end of the book without having cherished notions challenged.

* The writer Robert Anton Wilson looms large in chapter nine of the book, and so RAW Illumination, a Wilson fan site, has interviewed me. (The interviewer, Tom Jackson, also writes for the Sandusky Register, and a shorter version of the exchange will appear there later.) Here's how the conversation starts:

A livelier writer than his son.

Jackson: What do you hope people will learn after reading The United States of Paranoia?

Walker: I hope they'll learn that conspiracy theories are not some new invention: that they've always been with us and that they aren't going away. I hope they'll learn that there isn't a single all-purpose political or psychological explanation for why such stories take hold. I hope they'll learn that the American establishment is prone to conspiracy thinking, no less than its critics on the left and the right are. I hope they'll learn that these stories have something to teach us even when they're entirely false—that a conspiracy theory doesn't take hold with a lot of people unless it speaks to their anxieties or experiences.

And I hope that as they read about the things our ancestors believed, they'll feel a little shock of recognition. The fears and folklore of modern times can sound a lot like the fears and folklore of earlier generations. We're not as unique as we think.

Everybody must get stoned.

Elsewhere in the interview, I reveal what really happened to John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.

* I'll be discussing the book on the Jerry Doyle show tonight at 8:30 eastern. Listen online here, or find a radio station that carries the program here.

* And on Thursday, we'll be having a party to celebrate the book's release at Reason's D.C. office. If you're in the area, you're invited to stop by. Details—including how to RSVP—are here. Washington-based readers can also come see me speak at the bookstore Politics & Prose on Tuesday evening; info about that event is here.

NEXT: Somalia Defense Ministry Plagued by Corruption

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  1. Can I promote my next book here too?

    1. If you’re doing it with Sugrfree.

      1. I haven’t seen evidence of any work he’s done that hasn’t horrified me before the end of the first paragraph. Our styles are not compatable.

        1. Synergy, baby!

          (Do you actually have a book, by the way?)

          1. Yes, several.

            Though my last one sold a grand total of – five copies.

            Still, I own my flops. Good thing it was an e-book, so the publishing costs were low.

  2. “(Joe McCarthy, meet Joseph Stalin; you two guys have a lot in common.)”

    Really, Salon? You think that a Senator who – at worst – drove some people out of their government jobs is equivalent to the Soviet tyrant responsible for millions of deaths, including civilian victims *and* war victims when he wasn’t prepared for WWII?

    Even if every none of McCarthy’s “victims” was a security risk (and I think some of them were), he can’t even come close to the crimes of Stalin.

    This is silly, “Hitler had pieces of flair” – style moral equivalence.

    1. Homework assignment: contrast and compare “a lot” and “everything”.

      1. The comparison of McCarthy and Stalin was in the context of this:

        “the people who battle conspiracies have a tendency to form organizations and initiatives that eerily resemble those of their alleged foes”

        In what way did McCarthy “eerily resemble” Stalin’s commie murder machine?

        Let’s see – McCarthy didn’t think that some people with records of whitewashing Mao’s communists should be working for, or advising the government.

        He didn’t think a woman who took the Daily Worker (communist newspaper which she claimed was delivered to her by mistake) should work for the Defense Department handling military information.

        He accused some innocent people like George Marshall of communist sympathies because they made some bad decisions re the commies.

        How is that morally equivalent to shooting, starving, or freezing to death several million people?

        1. Dammit, Eduard! Would stop othering Laura Miller with your silly man-facts? She has FEELS that Joe McCarthy and Joseph Stalin were the same. And that’s all that matters.

        2. Re: Edward van Haalen,

          In what way did McCarthy “eerily resemble” Stalin’s commie murder machine?

          It doesn’t. It is nothing more than an attempt of keeping defaming the senator while, at the same time, diminish or obfuscate the horrendous crimes of the communist leader through a false equivalency. It’s just your regular lyin’-ass shit pulled by your run-of-the-mill leftists, who still pray at the altar of the builder of the “society of the future” – because (they think) they have seen it and believe that it works.

  3. You can’t spell “treason” without “reason”.

    You happy now, Walker?

    PS You know who else wrote a book that attempted to influence people…

    1. Andrew Carnegie?

      1. wait… no… Someone I had less respect for

        1. Though it appears Andrew did write a few books in his day.

    2. Jehovah?

  4. Some of what Walker has to say will be familiar, but few readers are likely to get to the end of the book without having cherished notions challenged.

    That, to me, is pretty high praise.

  5. Au contraire, says Walker. “Educated elites have conspiracy theories, too”

    Yes and it usually goes something like “the proles are out to get us, so we must act in secret to bend the levers of academia and government to our liking. Totally different from a conspiracy. Totes diff.”

  6. From the interview:
    Oh, yeah, it also will interest (4) Robert Anton Wilson fans, and not just because the entire book is about conspiracy theories. As this blog concerns Robert Anton Wilson and Wilson’s interests, I should point out that Jesse’s book contains a chapter, “Operation Mindfuck,” that will tell you much that you didn’t know before about Discordianism, Kerry Thornley, RAW etc.

    I don’t know if Jesse also covers this, but speaking of Discordianism and Kerry Thornley, this also relates to the early crypto-anarchist and cypherpunk movement, which resulted in spurring interest and effort amongst hackers in the areas of cryptography and privacy and cryptocurrencies prior to the advent of bitcoin.…

    Doug Casey also held a Discordian circle called the Eris Society (…..good-party

    and interestingly, they were also involved in the efforts of creating the Republic of Minerva in the south pacific

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