Interview: Jesse Walker of Reason on The United States of Paranoia
In 1964, liberal historian Richard Hofstadter wrote “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” With the 50th anniversary fast approaching for that landmark article, still the benchmark for many on the American left today, how is it holding up?
“Not all that well,” Jesse Walker of Reason magazine tells me during our interview to discuss his new book, The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. Hofstadter could spot conspiracies on the right, but was blind to his fellow liberal elites also internalizing their own share of paranoia. “He was writing in the early 1960s, at the time when there was a lot of sort of overexcited fear about the extreme right, and he drew on that in his own essay,” Walker adds. “But he didn't recognize that just as there were anti-Communists who were sort of mimicking Communists, there were anti-anti-Communists, who were emulating the McCarthyists, who were, putting together reports on the fellow traveling organizations of the Birchers. Or who are, even within the government talking about or using the IRS or the FCC to harass people or harass organizations the way that McCarthy and people in the McCarthy era had harassed people on the left.”
And today, with domestic spying, a newly-politicized IRS, and leftwing elites who believe that they have Bletchley Park-level abilities to decode the hidden racism in every statement uttered by anyone to their right (and not just Republicans), in a sense, little has changed. But then, Walker’s insight is that even if a conspiracy theory is, as most of them are, pure bunkum, they can tell us a lot about which fears were most pressing at a particular time to the corner of society which dreamed it up.
During our 19-minute long interview, we’ll discuss:
● What are the five patterns that fit most conspiracy theories?
● What was the inspiration for Walker’s book?
● How the nature and reasons for paranoia in America have changed over the centuries.
● Why was the Hollywood left of the 1970s seeing so many rightwing boogiemen lurking behind every corner, just as the New Left was accomplishing many of their political goals?
● How did a seemingly right-wing icon like Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo character grew out of those earlier paranoid leftwing films of the 1970s?
● How conspiracy theories from fluoride paranoia to the birther movement can start on one side of the political aisle, before hopping the fence to the other.
And much more. Click here to listen:
(19 minutes and 17 seconds long; 17.6 MB file size. Want to download instead of streaming? Right click here to download this interview to your hard drive. Or right click here to download the 3.30 MB lo-fi edition.)
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Transcript of our interview begins on the following page; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.