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Towson author writes a history of conspiracy theories in America

Political DissentCentral Intelligence AgencyFBIJohn F. Kennedy

As Jesse Walker sees it, the Land of the Free is rife with paranoid theories about everyone and everything.

We always have been a nation that seeks out subversives lurking in the amber waves of grain. And we always will be, though the Towson author says that America isn't more paranoid than any other nation.

Nor is distrust, suspicion and hyper-vigilance always an irrational response. History has too often proved otherwise.

"I'm not setting out in this book to prove or debunk any particular conspiracy theory," Walker says a few days before coming to the Ivy Bookshop to discuss his new history of conspiracy theories, "The United States of Paranoia."

"Some people actually do conspire. The world is filled with plots."

The problem, says Walker, 42, the books editor for Reason magazine, it's just that it's so hard to tell which demons are real and which are figments of our imagination.

In his book, Walker identifies five common conspiracy myths:

•The enemy without. A foreign adversary is trying to take away our cherished way of life. Example: We should declare war on Iraq because Saddam Hussein is stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.

•The enemy within. We're being sabotaged by evildoers who look just like us and are bent on making converts. Example: Homosexuals shouldn't be allowed to teach in elementary or high schools because they are driven to prey on vulnerable children.

•The enemy above. We're being manipulated by elite institutions plotting to take away our liberties. Example: President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA.

•The enemy below. The lowest levels of society are mindless beasts plotting an insurrection. Example: Walker argues that the woefully inadequate federal relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina resulted in part from exaggerated rumors of civil disorder that sparked an "elite paranoia."

•Benevolent conspiracies. A higher power is watching over us and trying to improve our lives. There's often an underlying assumption that the "enlightened" should rule over the unenlightened for their own good. Pop culture example: Dan Brown's blockbuster novel "The DaVinci Code."

What's your definition of a conspiracy theory?

For me, a "conspiracy theory" is a whole family of stories about cabals, assassinations, aliens and so on, anything that involves secret, influential activity involving more than one figure. When I was a teenager, I started reading serious books about the CIA and the FBI and official misbehavior that came out in the 1970s.

Often on the same shelves were books that I found a bit more dubious, where the evidence was shakier. I began thinking of conspiracy theories as stories or folklore.

Conspiracy theories are a way of ordering our psychic space. They're a way of concretizing our anxieties as a society. You can learn a lot from folklore, even when the folklore is false.

What other traits do conspiracy myths have in common?

Conspiracy theories are what happen when our natural human tendency to find patterns and tell stories meets our natural human tendency to have suspicions that things are going on that we can't entirely perceive.

I want people to know that conspiracy theories aren't new. They've been around for as long as there has been European settlement in America.

It's also important to know that conspiracy theories aren't just a feature of the fringe or of political minorities. They've always been present in the political center and among members of the establishment as well as among dissidents at political extremes.

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.

mary.mccauley@baltun.com

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.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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