The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory

The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory

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by Jesse Walker
     
 

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A history of America's demons

1693: Cotton Mather suggests that the spirits attacking Salem are allied with the colony's human enemies. At their "Cheef Witch-meetings," he writes, "there has been present some French canadians, and some Indian Sagamores, to concert the methods of ruining New England."

1835: A gunman tries to kill

Overview

A history of America's demons

1693: Cotton Mather suggests that the spirits attacking Salem are allied with the colony's human enemies. At their "Cheef Witch-meetings," he writes, "there has been present some French canadians, and some Indian Sagamores, to concert the methods of ruining New England."

1835: A gunman tries to kill Andrew Jackson. The president accuses a senator of plotting the assassination. Jackson's critics counter that the shooting was arranged by the president himself to gain public support.

1868: An article in the New-York Tribune declares that the Democrats have engineered malaria outbreaks in the nation's capital, pumping "the air, and the water, and the whisky of Washington full of poison."

1967: President Lyndon Johnson asks his cabinet if the Communists are behind the country's urban riots. The attorney general tells him that the evidence isn't there, but Johnson isn't convinced.

Conspiracy theories aren't just a feature of the fringe. They've been a potent force across the political spectrum, at the center as well as the extremes, from the colonial era to the present. In The United States of Paranoia, Jesse Walker explores this rich history, arguing that conspiracy stories should be read not just as claims to be either believed or debunked but also as folklore. When a tale takes hold, it reveals something true about the anxieties and experiences of those who believe and repeat it, even if the story says nothing true about the objects of the theory itself.

In a story that stretches from the seventeenth century to today, Walker lays out five conspiracy narratives that recur in American politics and popular culture. With intensive research and a deadpan sense of humor, The United States of Paranoia combines the rigor of real history with the punch of pulp fiction.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Walker (Rebels on the Air) has clearly been taking notes as book editor for Reason magazine. Here he puts his journalistic and investigative skills to work in a superb analysis of American paranoia; fear of others and ourselves, he argues, has been a part of our national make-up since the country’s very inception. Walker smartly avoids taking sides—after all, “the world is filled with plots both petty and grand.” Instead, he corrals conspiracy theories into five stables: those dealing with the perceived enemy within (e.g., militia and hate groups); the enemy outside (e.g., al-Qaeda); the enemy above (e.g., the Illuminati); and the enemy below (e.g., the Occupy movement). The fifth category relates to theories of a so-called benevolent conspiracy, which assume that someone or something is working for the betterment of humanity. In some cases these categories overlap: Native Americans and colonists, for example, each viewed the other as the enemy outside. Walker’s means of attack are ingenious, and they allow him to make his points succinctly, often using popular films, like Rambo, to illustrate his points and add weight to his arguments. It all adds up to a terrific, measured, objective study of one of American culture’s most loaded topics. 18 b&w illus. (Sept.)
Debbie Nathan
“First there was A People’s History of the United States. Now there’s a paranoid’s history, with Jesse Walker revealing that normal, sensible citizens have been conspiracy nuts ever since our nation’s beginning.”
Vice
“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.”
Jeet Heer
“Prepare to be amazed.”
Los Angeles Times
“Oddly entertaining...Walker quickly demolishes [Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics]. It’s all too rare to come upon a writer willing to attack the sacred cows of the right and left with equal amounts of intelligence and flair.”
Kirkus Reviews
A compendium of conspiracy theories in America, both past and present, and those who embrace them. "The fear of conspiracies," writes Reason magazine books editor Walker (Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America, 2001), "has been a potent force across the political spectrum, from the colonial era to the present, in the establishment as well as the extremes." In fact, in the United States, "it is always a paranoid time." After offering a loose categorization of conspiratorial styles--Enemy Outside, Enemy Within, Enemy Above, Enemy Below, Benevolent Conspiracy--Walker goes on to show how these paranoiac archetypes have played themselves out in American history. Early white settlers feared not just Native Americans, but a vast Indian conspiracy aided and abetted by the Catholic Church. Witches did the work of the devil in colonial New England. Mormons had an army of assassins and stole the bodies and souls of women. Walker also looks at the paranoid popular culture of the 1950s, with a look at the cult-classic film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, then it's on to McCarthyism, African-American unrest being the product of Muslims and Marxists and, always, the influence of "outside agitators." Then on to 9/11, the mother lode of conspiracy theories, in which anything and everything could be be a terrorist plot, the "birthers," and the idea of Barack as a socialist Muslim.To his credit, Walker does not attribute conspiracy theories to any particular political tendency, and he duly covers those who believe that the modern-day tea party, backed by a couple of rich brothers, plans to destroy America. Appropriately bemused by the weird things we will believe, Walker makes clear that if polarization and deep suspicion define our current political atmosphere, well, it's nothing new. An insightful and entertaining look at the demons and devils that haunt the American imagination.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780062383228
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
10/14/2014
Sold by:
HARPERCOLLINS
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
464
Sales rank:
655,415
File size:
5 MB

Meet the Author

Jesse Walker is the books editor of Reason magazine and the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America. He lives in Baltimore with his wife and their two daughters.

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The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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