The question of whether you believe in conspiracy theories is surprisingly tricky. You may not think that the moon landing or Beyoncé’s pregnancy was fake, you may not imagine lizards lurking behind Donald Rumsfield and Dick Cheney’s faces, but by now you probably know that the US government is operating a massive secret surveillance apparatus, which would sound like a paranoid fantasy if it weren’t true. And many, many Americans profess some level of credulity when it comes to some conspiracies, which at times can seem less crazy than believing that there’s never, ever, a man behind the curtain pulling strings.
Free-floating fear and half-baked ideas about what’s really going on have been a more significant part of American history than is generally accepted, according to Jesse Walker’s thorough, meticulously researched book, The United States of Paranoia. “Pundits tend to write off political paranoia as a feature of the fringe,” he writes in his introduction. “They’re wrong. The fear of conspiracies has been a potent force across the political spectrum, from the colonial era to the present, in the establishment as well as the extremes.” He then goes on to explore what amounts to an alternate history of the US—from the Puritans’ panic over witches and colonial Americans' panics about Indians plotting in the wilderness or slaves concocting murderous rebellions to Watergate and the FBI’s often bizarre, occasionally illegal COINTELPRO operations to batshit (and sometimes ironic) theories about UFOs and the Illuminati to the fear of Satanists in the 80s to the militia movement to 9/11 Truthers to people who are paranoid about paranoid conspiracy theorists. Along the way there are fascinating tangents about now-mostly-forgotten fringe figures like John Todd, who traveled around the country in the 70s spinning insane tales to church congregations of how witches and the Illuminati controlled everything from the military to rock music. (Todd had a long history of coercing underage girls into sex, and he was finally sent to prison in 1988 for rape.)
If that sounds at all interesting, you should read the book when it comes out on August 20. I recently chatted with Jesse about conspiracies, rumor, and how people come to believe the things they do.
VICE: You take a long historical view of conspiracy theories in America. Do you think we’re more paranoid than we used to be?
Jesse Walker: I don’t think so. I’m not quite sure how I would even measure that, given what the baseline of paranoia is. What I do think happens is that the direction of the paranoia shifts. One thing I mentioned in the book was how a lot of people started saying after Obama got elected, “Ooh, the right wing has suddenly gotten very paranoid.” In fact, in the Bush era, there were tons of right-wing conspiracy theories, it’s just that they weren’t about the government. They were aimed mostly at people outside America’s borders. With another party in power, [the right] has rediscovered some of its libertarian impulses. A lot of discussions about the United States becoming more paranoid or less paranoid just has to do with what kind of paranoia people are paying attention to.
The recent revelations about the NSA and FBI’s monitoring of cell phone metadata and internet communications make me wonder if it’s possible that the government itself is paranoid.
I can’t get into the head of the average NSA bureaucrat enacting a program. But I think that the creation of that sort of system obviously has to do with fear and paranoia. I should stress I’m using the word paranoid in a colloquial way. I should just be saying “fear.” Another problem has to do with the way “conspiracy theory” gets used, because people who use the phrase conspiracy theory disparagingly believe in all sorts of conspiracies, it’s just that they say, “Well those are true, so they don’t count.” What they really mean when they say “conspiracy theory” is, at best, “nutty conspiracy theory,” and, at worst, “conspiracy theory that feeds into an ideology that I don’t share, which I will therefore think of as nutty.” But I’ve forgotten your original question.
I wanted to know whether you thought that this surveillance was a result of institutional paranoia on the government’s part.
I wrote about moral panics in the book, and one way that sociologists distinguish moral panics from other phenomena is the residue that a moral panic leaves. A lot of times, there’s the residue of a new law, a new bureaucracy, which then have momentum of their own. The story of the growth of the FBI is the story of J. Edgar Hoover finding one wave of fear to ride after another. First it’s white slavery, then it’s Communists, then he’s told to back off the political surveillance, but when FDR is afraid of the far right he leaps onto that, and he moves into the far left. And then in the early 60s he uses the fear of the Ku Klux Klan to get liberals to sign off on things that he uses against the New Left. It’s masterful. Hoover clearly was an adept bureaucratic warrior. But he was also clearly paranoid. He imagined all sorts of conspiracies that in many cases weren’t there, and in many cases were, in his imagination, much larger and more powerful than they were in real life.
In the process of researching this book, did you get any insight into how people wind up believing what most of us would regard as really extreme, nonsensical conspiracy theories?
I hate to generalize about these kinds of things. When people talk about looking for what are the common patterns of people becoming, we’ll say for sake of a phrase, “extreme conspiracy theorists,” what they’re really looking at is how people adopt belief systems in general. There’s all sorts of conversion experiences people have that can lead them to embracing a worldview, whether it’s religious, or political, or whatever. That said, conspiracy theories have to do with our ability to see patterns. [Paranoia is] where our drive to find patterns and create narratives meets our capacity for fear, especially fear of people who, one way or another, are removed from us—whether they’re from another culture or higher or lower in the social hierarchy or they just have different politics. I find that people grab onto compelling narratives and they don’t always know how to weigh evidence very well. And I don’t just mean that in the context of conspiracy theories. I just mean that there are people who, once they’ve adopted a worldview, find it very easy to accept claims without examining them thoroughly. Everybody can fall into this.
Do you think it’s ever a good thing to be paranoid?
I don’t want to tell people to be paranoid. There are certainly plenty of times when it makes sense to be suspicious. My own framework of dealing with the world is to distrust narratives in general, because I know how easy it is to construct one. Conspiracy theorists, at large, are most compelling when they are finding holes in narratives that everyone else automatically believes without looking too carefully at them. And they’re least compelling when they’re building narratives of their own.
You have a long chapter about what you call the “ironic style” of conspiracy theorists, which refers to people who appreciate conspiracies for their own sake. Do you consider yourself one of those ironists?
I think in many ways the book is covertly, or maybe not so covertly, a case for the ironic style. It’s not just a matter of appreciating [conspiracy theories] as jokes. It’s appreciating them as world views, appreciating them as creations, appreciating them in the same way that someone who doesn’t necessarily believe in a religious faith can still enjoy the products of that faith. There are people who are like, “I want to read about conspiracy theories” in this ironic, distanced way and laugh at them. There are people who see a conspiracy tract as science fiction written by someone who didn’t realize he was writing science fiction. Then there are ironists who risk falling into paranoia. In the book, I talk about a couple people who fall down the rabbit hole because they started taking their own creations too seriously. The ironic style isn't just about humor. It's about finding metaphors and insights in the conspiracy stories people come up with whether or not those stories are true. And that's what my book is trying to do too: to go beyond just accepting or debunking a conspiracy theory and see what we can learn about America by exploring the stories that caught on.
A point I try to stress in the book is that even a conspiracy theory that says absolutely nothing true about the external world does say something true about the anxieties and experiences of the people who believe it. One example that I mention in the book is the claim that white doctors were deliberately injecting black babies with AIDS. There’s no evidence for that. But while investigating that theory, you can’t stop there. You have to go on to ask, “Why did people believe this was true?” And in fact, there is this long history of the secretive medical mistreatment of black people, which includes the Tuskegee experiment and all sorts of other things. There were these rumors about night doctors [who would supposedly secretly experiment on African Americans] and it’s really unclear to what extent those were true. Historians who look at this are very cautious, because it’s entirely possible that hospitals were seriously abusing the rights of people from the underclass. We’re trying to piece it together from such incomplete evidence that there’s always going to be question marks. There’s a spectrum that on one end has stuff that’s accepted as historical fact and on the other contains weird fantasies. But these aren’t completely separate categories because there’s this whole realm of possibilities in between.
Jesse Walker’s The United States of Paranoia will hit stores on August 20, but you can pre-order a copy on Amazon here.
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