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Interview: Jesse Walker of Reason on The United States of Paranoia


MR. DRISCOLL:  This is Ed Driscoll for PJ Media.com, and we’re talking today with Jesse Walker of Reason.com, the author of the new book, The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. It’s published by HarperCollins and available from Amazon.com and your local bookseller. And Jesse, thanks for stopping by today.

MR. WALKER:  Well, thank you for having me.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Jesse, is the thesis of your book that even if a conspiracy theory is, as most of them are, pure bunkum, they can tell us a lot about what fears were most pressing at a particular time to the corner of society which dreamed it up?

MR. WALKER:  Yeah, yeah.  I think that's a pretty good way of putting it, that even -- even conspiracy theories that say nothing true, or are only at best half true, say something about people's anxieties and experiences.  And what I'm trying to do is just looking at American history from the 17th century till today through the prism of people's fears and seeing what we can tell about ourselves in that way.

MR. DRISCOLL:  The book goes as far back as the 17th century; are we as a nation any more or less paranoid than we were say, 100 or 200 years ago?

MR. WALKER:  I don't think we're more or less paranoid.  I think the direction of the paranoia changes.  The nature of the paranoia changes.  Often though not always, the reason for the paranoia changes.  But it just seems to be sort of a fundamental part of being a human being, that number one, you're going to want to find patterns and create narratives, when you see signals and there are gaps in them, find something that explains them.

And number two, there's going to be things that you're suspicious of.  So sometimes those narratives you create are going to be suspicious.  And number three, because sometimes -- people do sometimes actually conspire, that's always going to be something in people's heads that might be going on.

It's not like being afraid of sea monsters or zombies and eventually you notice you haven't seen any of those.  Enough times, there are scandals that come forward that involve some sort of official conspiracy, that people say, hmm, well, maybe another one could be true.

And I don't think it's particular to America.  I wrote about the United States, because I'm from here and I wanted to look at American history in this lens.  If someone were to write a book about the history of, say, European paranoia, it would be very different in a lot of ways, because it's a different culture over there.  But I don't think they'd be any more or less paranoid than we are.