I was also struck again and again by how malleable conspiracy theories are. They can change on a dime. Something that's a benevolent conspiracy to one audience becomes the enemy outside to someone else. Or the identity of the enemy can evolve over time.
Is there a peculiarly American "flavor" of conspiracy theories?
The classic American narrative is the enemy without and historically, it dates back to Colonial times.
Native Americans were persecuted because they represented the anarchic New World and were perceived as agents of disorder. In contrast, Roman Catholics were persecuted because they represented the aristocratic Old World we had just overthrown. That tension runs throughout American history.
I would expect a totalitarian society to have fewer "enemy without" stories and more "enemy above" stories. We are a more transparent society. But democracy has its own anxieties.
Is one form of conspiracy myth more potentially damaging than any other?
That depends on your politics. From my point of view, the enemy outside, the enemy within and the enemy below theories often are used to justify attacks on civil liberties.
I tend to be more indulgent of enemy above conspiracy theories. I think it's good to be skeptical of power. I just wish these theories were grounded more in good journalism instead of going off half-cocked.
But in terms of the sheer amount of damage done, the paranoia of a large political institution always will have greater consequence than the paranoia of an individual outlier.
Don't you come uncomfortably close to defining all religions as benevolent conspiracies? Are you concerned that you'll be accused of reductionism by your more spiritually oriented readers?
Yeah, theories of conspiracy theory often intersect with religion. A person of one religion generally is skeptical toward all other religions.
But you can't analyze American culture without analyzing American religion. I don't think that a Bible-believing Christian will have a hard time accepting the notion that someone who believes in benevolent aliens believes in a secularized version of angels. They might think they're right and the other person is wrong, but they'll understand that it's the same family of beliefs.
Again, I'm not out to debunk anyone's faith. I'm offering a theory of conspiracy thinking, not a theory of religion. People are free to adopt whatever spiritual path they want. I'm not trying to dissuade them.
What final insight do you hope readers will come away with after reading your book?
I became aware of how easy it is to create a compelling conspiracy narrative and how hard it was to avoid falling into it.
Conspiracy theorists are at their best and most useful when they're pointing out the holes in the evidence that people take for granted. They're at their worst when they're contriving alternative narratives to explain those holes.
I want people to come away being skeptical of all narratives — especially their own.
If you go
Jesse Walker discusses "The United States of Paranoia" ($25.99, HarperCollins) at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road. Free. Call 410-377-2966 or go to theivybookshop.com.