September 17, 2013 6:58:03 PM
You know about those fringe movements that think there are secret plots against Americans. The Illuminati are controlling everything, for instance, or there is a vast network of Satanic child abusers, or a hidden group of insiders devoted to keeping us from knowing the truth about President Obama's birth certificate. According to Jesse Walker, however, these are not fringe movements. Paranoia and fear of conspiracy plots are as American as apple pie. Such conspiracy beliefs "... have flourished not just in times of great division but in eras of relative comity. They have been popular not just with dissenters and nonconformists but with individuals and institutions at the center of power. They are not simply a colorful historical byway. They are at the country's core." That's the thesis of The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory (Harper), in which Walker shows that such fears have been part of America even before there was an America. If you are looking to find who really shot Kennedy or how much the Masons are controlling the Congress, you won't find it here. Walker admits that some of the plots he describes are imaginary, but it isn't his aim to tell you which ones; conspiracies, after all, can always take in more unconfirmable territory, and no amount of evidence affects true believers. But he does give a historic insight into paranoid thinking and attempts to explain why so many of us have for centuries adopted it in many diverse styles.
Walker starts with reference to the most famous work on the subject, Richard Hofstadter's essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" of 1964. Hofstadter, Walker shows, was too limited. Political paranoia is not manifest merely by fringes or minority groups, it's all over the place, and has been so from the beginning. The early colonists, for example, had the idea (paired with the one that they were setting up a land in accord with religious precepts) that the Indians did not just have their own barbarous religion, but were the actual agents of Satan. Cotton Mather himself said the Indians included "horrid sorcerers, and hellish conjurers, and such as conversed with demons." This sort of fretting helped further the Salem witch trials, with the first accusation against an Indian woman, then spreading to her assistants within the colonists. Those Indians proved useful plot fodder in Maryland, which was the one colony to be ruled by Catholics. Recurrent rumors arose that those Catholic rulers had hired Indians to kill the Protestants, and eventually a Protestant agitator raised an army, took over the State House, made himself governor, and banned Catholic worship. (It was, of course, not the last worry about the plots of popery; they can be traced to such current manifestations as those who truly believe in the conspiracies outlined in The Da Vinci Code, and of course the church has not done itself any favors with its pedophilia or banking scandals.)
The witch scares found an easy analog in the commie scares two hundred and fifty years later. McCarthyist witch hunting was the same sort of manifestation of paranoia, that the seemingly upright neighbor next door was furtively studying tabloids from the American Communist Party, and, of course, that commies were at work undermining the very government that granted them paychecks. Although one of the most enjoyable parts of his book is his focus on popular media, Walker does not mention the film I Married a Communist, but he does briefly cite I Married a Monster from Outer Space as one of the fifties films that featured aliens impersonating or controlling American citizens. The chief such film is, of course, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which fed on the fear that people you trust were actually increasingly taken over by alien powers.
There was the Red Scare, and then there was the Lavender Scare, the idea that homosexuals were infiltrating the government. The director of the CIA himself warned Congress that there were "perverts in key positions" and they formed "a government within a government." He explicitly said they were part of a lodge, a fraternity, and that they recruited other perverts and made sure that perverts got promotions "usually in the interest of furthering the romance of the moment." As a result, more suspected homosexuals got the ax than suspected communists did, but as Walker says, this should not be surprising; the US has always had more gay people than communists. Preceding these in the color codes was the Brown Scare, a wave of worry about Nazis starting in the 1930s, resulting in calls for restrictions not just on Nazis but on reputable conservatives as well. The Brown Scare, once the threat of Nazism had been conquered, neatly served as a model for those other color schemes.
Racial misunderstanding has always been fertile ground for conspiracies. Owners always worried that slaves were plotting revenge. The Civil War and Emancipation didn't result in increased trust. When a few anti-slavery politicians fell ill, there was a theory that it wasn't chance, but a poison conspiracy to try to keep Southern planters in charge of what was really going on. Of course, it also worked the other way. In the early twentieth century, there were widespread stories told in African-American communities that "night doctors" were on nocturnal prowls to kidnap, murder, and dissect unsuspecting blacks. A variant came around 1980, when black children were kidnapped and killed, and the rumor was that the government was harvesting their genitals for aphrodisiacs. The great problem is that although such stories sound silly, how unrealistic might they be given the infamous four decades of the Tuskegee Experiment?
This is one of the things that makes belief in conspiracies so powerful: there really are conspiracies. There was a real one associated with Watergate, for instance, and with the 9/11 destruction. However, both of these conspiracies have been supplemented and broadened with unprovable offshoots that claimed, for instance, that the Watergate burglars were actually attempting to block extraterrestrials from running Democratic Party headquarters or that the government had deliberately refrained from preventing, or had actually promoted, the attacks on the World Trade Center. That's all malevolent, but not all conspiracies are plots against us. There is a whole chapter here called "Conspiracies of Angels," about sometimes elaborate schemes to do us all good. There are plenty of religious variations on these plots (although many of the religious plots described in other chapters are far from angelic), but I had never heard of the 11:11 conspiracy. You know how often you look at your alarm clock, and it so frequently says "11:11," or you know how often your VCR flashes "11:11?" Well, me, either, but there are 11:11ers who believe that some friendly celestial conspiracy wants us to see the mystical gathering of four ones just to let us know they are here. One website says that when you chance to see 11:11, the best thing to do is to respond verbally to the manifestation, as in saying aloud, "OK guys I hear you, tell me what you want."
Walker's epilogue tries to summarize all the funny, strange, and inexplicable stuff that has gone before, and to explain it. We are pattern-seeing creatures, he says, and psychologists well know that we see patterns when there is only randomness, like seeing faces in the clouds. With conspiracy theories, we construct stories to explain events, and the theory is enticing because it hints that there is some sort of intelligence behind the pattern. We are all conspiracy theorists, but Walker says we can limit any damage that paranoia does by being aware of the cultural myths that form such stories, and we can try to empathize with people who have bought into them. We can thus, he says, benefit from healthy skepticism and limit the effects of paranoia. But, of course, that's just what he wants you to believe.