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:
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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.
MR. DRISCOLL: By the way, I'm really enjoying the book. I'm finding myself --
MR. WALKER: Well, thank you.
MR. DRISCOLL: -- highlighting wide swatches of it in Kindle edition. And I could see quoting some of the passages on numerous occasions on my blog, particularly the pages that identify the various types of conspiracy theories, the enemy above, the enemy below, and so forth. Could you talk about the various templates you use to define conspiracy theories?
MR. WALKER: Yeah. Well, I have five. And obviously there's all sorts of shaded areas in between them. Often a conspiracy will change forms. So it's one kind and then another. So this isn't like hard and fast, like animal kingdom versus plant kingdom.
But basically I have -- I talk about the enemy outside, the enemy within, the enemy below, the enemy above, and the benevolent conspiracy. And just quickly defining them, the enemy outside, the classic American example is fear of Native American tribes, or fear of the Catholic Church among American Protestants. But it's echoed since then in different forms. People outside the gates who you're worried about trying to get inside and transform the country.
The enemy within, on the other hand, [are] the conspirators [where] you can't tell the bad guys from the good guys. It could be your neighbor. It could even be in your family. You know, anyone could be a pod person, right? Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the ultimate enemy within story.
The enemy below is fear of conspiracies among people that are lower than you in the sort of the social ranking, social hierarchy. The classic examples would be slave owners being afraid of plots about slave revolts.
The enemy above, that's fear of conspiracies in the government or other powerful institutions, [such as] big corporations, or what have you.
And then the benevolent conspiracy, which a lot of people who talk about conspiracy theories leave out, but there are theorists who imagine secret forces, or hidden forces, secretly guiding us towards a better tomorrow. Essentially, it's sort of a vast conspiracy to improve people's lives.
MR. DRISCOLL: Are these definitions something you coined, or did you adapt them --
MR. WALKER: Yeah.
MR. DRISCOLL: -- from earlier books on conspiracies?
MR. WALKER: I mean, I coined them. I mean, obviously people have used the phrase "the enemy within" many times before. But I just sort of set these up as a way of understanding these, because I figure, in some ways, what I'm doing in this book is similar to what people who like look at parts of American history through the lens of the novels or the movies of the time. I'm just looking at stories people told. It's just that they're often stories that people thought were true.
And I thought, well, what could be some genre boundaries? I mean, if I were to approach this the way a literary critic would, how can I divide these up in a way that makes sense and organizes people's thoughts and makes it easier to see how one story influences another?
MR. DRISCOLL: Jesse, what was the inspiration for the United States of Paranoia, and how difficult was it to research? Did you find yourself looking over your shoulder for men in black, or UFOs or Bigfoot or second gunmen on grassy knolls as you were putting it together?
MR. WALKER: You know, there were times when I picked just the right music for writing the chapter I was on. There was some spooky European prog rock, which is not usually what I listen to. But it was just right for writing about people who were afraid of satanic cult conspiracies.
But, let me back up to the earlier part of your question. It's kind of hard to talk about the genesis, because it sort of grew organically out of just articles I'd been writing for years. In fact, at one point, in one chapter, I take quotes from an article that I wrote way back in 1995, a magazine article. And people that I interviewed then and I just sort of reached back into those interviews to see what people were -- show what people were saying at that point.
But sort of gradually, in the Bush and Obama years, I wrote a lot of stories that touched on this. I guess the one that more people read than any other was a piece for Reason called "The Paranoid Center," which was about sort of the fear within the media and the government of the Tea Party movement, andthe effort to link these sort of unconnected crimes, like the Holocaust Museum shooting and the assassination of that abortion doctor in Kansas, into something much larger than it really was.
I can't remember at what point it sort of congealed into an idea for a book. I just know at some point in like 2008/2009, I started putting together a proposal and kept reworking it until I had something that a publisher wanted to buy.
MR. DRISCOLL: Both the earlier "Paranoid Center" article and the new book reference Richard Hofstadter's landmark 1964 article, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Nearly 50 years on, how is Hofstadter’s thesis holding up?
MR. WALKER: Not all that well. He serves as sort of a foil for me. I think he has genuine insights. I don't mean to be dismissive of the essay. And I give him credit for two parts of that essay in particular, one being his discussion of the role of alleged defectors in spreading conspiracy stories. He would talk about the person who claimed to be a former mason and spilling the Freemason secrets. And I always just found myself reaching back to that when I was writing about some folks who were touring churches in the '70s claiming to be former witches and defectors from the Illuminati.
And I think he also has a good point about the sort of role of projection -- I'm trying to remember the way that he phrased it. He said that the enemy seems to be on many counts a projection of the self, both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self, [which can be] attributed to him. Secret organizations set up the combat. Secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates communist cells, et cetera, et cetera.
And I think that was insightful. But then, at the same time, I thought that Hofstadter didn't recognize that the same point applied to a lot of his elite audience. I mean, he was writing in the early 1960s, at the time when there was a lot of overexcited fear about the extreme right, and he drew on that in his own essay. 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 were within the government talking [about] and 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.
So I think that there's been like fifty years of scholarship since Hofstadter, which I draw on and cite and quote in the book, which has either updated what he wrote or pushed back against it or showed things that he missed. And a lot of that's missing.
I'll tell you, the thing that bothers me most about his essay, reading it now, is that he says that it's a style of minority movements -- minority in the sense, not of people who aren't white, but minority in the sense of the sort of small opposition groups. And in fact, political paranoia has been at the heart of American culture, in the center and the establishment, as well as the extremes, going back to the beginning.
And that's just sort of missing from people who are still just using Hofstadter as their way of looking at conspiracy theories.
MR. DRISCOLL: You have a fascinating chapter on the conspiracies that obsessed Hollywood in the 1970s; but what I found interesting about them is that Hollywood was putting them into wide circulation during a period in which the left seemed to have accomplished all of its goals. The New Left dominated the movie industry, America had pulled out of Vietnam, Nixon had resigned, and yet according to numerous motion pictures at the time, right wing boogiemen were everywhere. Why was that?
MR. WALKER: Well, I'd say there's a -- first of all, the New Left didn't accomplish all its goals. But -- I know you're exaggerating.
I think that when you were living in that period of the post-Watergate investigations, the Church Committee and so on, and all these, often very disturbing revelations about what J. Edgar Hoover was up to, about Nixon using the IRS to harass his political enemies, about the CIA illegally spying domestically as well -- instead of just abroad, as it was supposed to do, about FBI agents, infiltrating and disrupting peaceful organizations; when all that comes out, it's very easy, then, to start, imagining much worse things are going on as well.
I mean, real conspiracies lower the bar for the sorts of fictional conspiracies you can imagine. And Hollywood jumped on that. Some of those movies are terrific, if you enjoy a good thriller, you know? And it fit in with the sort of cynical flavor of a lot of that sort of new Hollywood output of the 1970s.
And it was just a sort of confluence of what the public was ready to accept, while all those revelations were coming out, and what Hollywood was willing to do, just at the time of the flowering of creativity that was happening there in the 1970s.
MR. DRISCOLL: I also enjoyed the deconstruction a chapter or two later of what is seemingly a polar opposite character, Sylvester Stallone’s iconic mid-1980s alter-ego, Rambo. But as you write, Rambo also has more than a few connections to the leftwing paranoia of the 1970s.
MR. WALKER: Yeah, the Rambo movies are sort of a direct descendent from those 1970s conspiracy thrillers. And I actually point to -- and I'm not the first person to point to this movie as sort of an interesting step between the two -- there was a movie called Good Guys Wear Black, that came out in 1978, where Chuck Norris played a soldier who had an ill-fated attempt to free some prisoners of war, and then it turns out that the government didn't want the mission to succeed.
And it's really sort of a '70s conspiracy thriller. And at the same time, you can see the seeds of all of those POW MIA rescue movies of the '80s in it. And then you realize, if you watch a movie like Rambo: First Blood Part 2, having seen, Good Guys Wear Black, hey, you know, the government is the enemy in this movie.
It's very anti-Communist, and it's very sympathetic to soldiers. So you can see why people wouldn't associate it with the counterculture. But it still has this very cynical view, where Rambo's not supposed to find any of the prisoners; he only is able to rescue them because the ditches the authorities' plans and sets off on his own.
And I quote from a novelization of the movie, which even has a little wisecrack about the intervention that sort of seemed to be looming in Nicaragua at the time. So it's not always easy to just point to two things as being polar opposites. Sometimes there are unexpected connections.
MR. DRISCOLL: Well, beyond the Rambo movies, Reason had a great piece over a decade ago on how fluoride in the water conspiracy theories went from the John Birch right, as Dr. Strangelove had lots of fun satirizing in the early 1960s, to the Ralph Nader left by the late 1990s. Are there other examples of conspiracies that started off on one side of the aisle before moving to the other?
MR. WALKER: Oh, sure, yeah. I mean, there's -- actually, a classic example. People forget the Birthers; that started with diehard supporters of Hillary Clinton, who sort of were hoping that talking about Obama's birth certificate would be kind of like a magic bullet that would mean that they wouldn't have to persuade people to vote for their candidate over Obama, they could just sort of knock him off the stage that way, if it turned out to be true. And then when Hillary Clinton finally withdrew from the race, it sort of migrated rightwards, and conservatives embraced it.
And there's plenty of other examples. And sometimes -- I mean, especially since the '90s, with the Internet and just the greater ability of different subcultures to interact, conspiracy theories tend to leak and get repurposed.
So you can have -- I mean, in the '90s it became more and more common to see sort of hippies and militiamen and black nationalists and flying saucer buffs and so on, all paying attention to each others' theories and working in elements of them into their own native conspiracy theories. So yeah, I talked about that a lot in the book, because it's just fascinating to watch how these things get transmitted.
MR. DRISCOLL: Since 9/11, we've had the Truthers and Birthers and, as you just mentioned, the latter group appearing on both sides of the aisle. Shouldn't --
MR. WALKER: And the Truthers on both sides of the aisle. I mean, there are people on the right who are into the whole Bush knew thing. So --
MR. DRISCOLL: But shouldn't the Internet be making the nation smarter and less paranoid, instead of the reverse?
MR. WALKER: I -- I think the Internet means that any idea, good, bad, weird, funny, can just spread more quickly. It intensifies the velocity with which things spread. I don't think that it makes people smarter or dumber.
I think, ultimately, actually, the Internet makes people smarter, just because there's more opportunity to get outside your own bubble and see the world from other points of view. And that ultimately got to make you smarter. Or on average, it would make more people smarter.
But as you get outside your own bubble and see things from another point of view, you might stumble through a few very odd worldviews before you come to something enlightened.
MR. DRISCOLL: Last question: Any hopes that The United States of Paranoia will put an end or at least reduce some of the conspiracy mongering?
MR. WALKER: Oh, no. I mean, I didn't write this as an attack on conspiracy theories, although I'm very open about it when I think something isn't true. And I didn't write it as a collection of conspiracy theories that I believe in.
It's just sort of me looking at the stories and at American history and culture through that lens. So I'm not even trying to stop it here. But it would be fruitless to try to stop it, because that's just the way people's minds work.
Like I said, we're always going to be seeing signals, seeing patterns, creating narratives, being suspicious of people. And there's always going to be some conspiracies that are real, so some theorizing is going to be justified. And that's just the way it is, you know?
I was on TV a few days ago, and someone said conspiracy theories were toxic to democracy. And all I can say is, I hope not, because that means you could never have a democratic society. You just have to have institutions that can adjust to them.
MR. DRISCOLL: This is Ed Driscoll, and we’ve been talking 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 Jesse, thanks once again for stopping by PJ Media.com today.
MR. WALKER: Well, thanks for inviting me. It was fun.
(End of recording; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.)
Transcribed by eScribers.net, with minor revisions (including hyperlinks) by Ed Driscoll.