Review of Jesse Walker, The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. HarperCollins, 2013.
Conspiracy theories make me nervous. I’ve been the star attraction in too many of them.
Not me personally, you understand. But as a Jew, I periodically emerge as an ex officio plotter against Western civilization, or Islamic civilization, or whatever group or institution the conspiracy-theorist is passionately devoted to and believes is under deadly assault from within and without.
I’m the central character of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was discredited as a forgery nearly a hundred years ago but continues to be a best-seller in Lord knows how many countries and how many languages. I look at the sinister, dramatic robes I’m made to wear in the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and wonder: can this really be me? Bourgeois, stuffily respectable, pay-my-taxes-on-time and never-go-above-the-speed-limit me?
If it weren’t for the murderous turns these theories are capable of taking, I might almost be flattered.
And of course I’m capable–especially at 3:00 in the morning when I can’t sleep–of evolving conspiracy theories of my own. A conspiracy of the world’s anti-Semites, say, rubbing their hands and going heh-heh-heh as they envision finishing the work Hitler began (which means gassing me like a cockroach). I’m not alone in this propensity. “Iran is, indeed, preparing the ground for a nuclear Holocaust through a sustained campaign of demonizing the Jews. … Holocaust denial, annihilating the Jewish state, and the nuclear program are three interlocking parts of the same equation, designed to complete what anti-Semites from Haman to Hitler never quite succeeded in achieving.” So wrote distinguished historian Robert Wistrich in 2010, near the end of his 1184-page history of anti-Semitism called, appropriately, A Lethal Obsession.
Who’s to say Wistrich is wrong? Even paranoids have enemies, right? And conspiracies do exist. Think Watergate; it’s not the first, not the last. A conspiracy theory can be wacko. It can be the truth–but not quite the simple truth. The conspiracy, even if it’s real, comes to us refracted through the minds of the conspiracy-theorists who’ve imagined or discovered its existence.
In his intriguing new book, Jesse Walker explores this double-edged reality. “I will lay out five primal myths,” he promises in his opening pages. “that underlie America’s conspiracy folklore. By using the word myths, I don’t mean to suggest that these stories are never true. I mean that they’re culturally resonant ideas that appear again and again when Americans communicate with each other: archetypes that can absorb all kinds of allegations, true or not, and arrange them into a familiar form.”
The five primal myths: the Enemy Outside … the Enemy Within … the Enemy Above … the Enemy Below. And, detached from this fourfold symmetry, what Walker calls “the Benevolent Conspiracy”–that sometimes the Hidden Guys are the good guys.
There’s a brilliance in this taxonomy, and still more in the archetypes that Walker selects to illustrate each myth. It was a stroke of genius to pick Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic witchcraft story “Young Goodman Brown” as the template for “the Enemy Within” (or “The Devil Next Door,” as Walker entitles the pertinent chapter). His prime example of “the Enemy Above”–conspiratorial government–is the convention held behind closed doors in Philadelphia in 1787, imagined as the Anti-Federalists reasonably saw it: a “detestable and nefarious conspiracy” to impose despotic central power upon a newly free people.
We admire the Constitution the conspirators came up with; we forget how sneakily they rammed it through. To paraphrase the old couplet: when conspiracy produces useful results, one stops calling it conspiracy.
As these examples show, Walker isn’t afraid to go deep into American history for the roots of his “primal myths.” But he doesn’t stay there. The JFK assassination, Watergate, 9/11 (including the Satanic face that turned up in one photo of the burning Towers), Barack Obama’s allegedly foreign birth–all of these have their place in the second half of Walker’s book.
And let it be noted: Walker doesn’t feed into the easy notion of conspiracy theories as the province of right-wing kooks. On the contrary, he shows how often right-wing movements are the unjustly labeled targets of conspiracy theorizing, by liberals who denounce the conservative “politics of fear” even while peddling their own paranoias.
Of course UFOs have place in the book; how could they not? I’m a little disappointed Walker doesn’t allot more space to them. (Contrast Michael Barkun’s A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, published ten years ago, in which UFOs occupy central stage.) Also disappointed that he allots a few pages to the towering UFO mythmaker Gray Barker–indeed, uses the cover of Barker’s They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers, with its ominous image of the Three Men in Black, as his frontispiece–yet gives no hint of the inner ambiguities and tensions that tormented Barker, that make him humanly intelligible and even appealing.
“Gray Barker, a writer who published supposedly true stories about UFOs while privately calling saucers ‘a bucket of shit’ …” Every word of this description is true. Yet how misleading is the impression it creates! Read the full text of Barker’s “UFO Is a Bucket of Shit” poem; feel the intensity of his self-hatred, his conflict over the subject that genuinely obsessed him and at the same time put food on his table. (“And I sit here writing / While the shit drips down my face / In great rivulets.”) It’s miles away from the blithe cynicism Walker’s description evokes.
As if to compensate for this flaw, Walker offers the suggestion–which I find quite brilliant–that UFOlogists are to be understood as a subdivision of a broader category called “the Forteans.”
“Charles Fort, born in Albany in 1874, was a writer obsessed with anomalies … full of dark and playful hypotheses to explain those accounts. … The point of his books wasn’t to advance any particular oddball theory. It was to show the gaps in the mainstream theories, the ways inconvenient irregularities are shunted aside so our belief systems can stay intact. On the surface, Fort may sound like a mad poet reading the Weekly World News. But lurking below the lyrical strangeness of his books, you’ll find an impish philosopher of science.”
This is a fine, sympathetic reading of an eccentric and irritating writer whose books, in my teen UFOlogist days, had almost Biblical status for me. We UFOlogists always claimed Charles Fort as our forerunner; Walker affirms the connection but shifts the emphasis, making us one subgroup among Fort’s children. And thereby bestows a profound dignity upon our unending, futile hunt for the extraterrestrial visitors that deep down we’ve always known don’t really exist.
Walker entitles his epilogue, “The Monster at the End of This Book.” (If you don’t recognize the allusion, click here without delay.) “The conspiracy theorist,” he writes in his next-to-last paragraph, “will always be with us, because he will always be us. We will never stop finding patterns. We will never stop spinning stories.”
To this I would add: the conspirator too will always be with us, because he too will always be us.
The American revolutionaries, Walker quotes historian Gordon Wood as saying, believed that since “no one could actually penetrate into the inner hearts of men, true motives had to be discovered indirectly, had to be deduced from actions. That is, the causes had to be inferred from the effects.” Wood, and Walker after him, seem to think the revolutionaries were wrong in believing that. But were they? Jung somewhere has said much the same thing: that the consequences of people’s actions are a truer guide to their motivations than anything they explicitly claim.
My own experience bears him out.
I remember: it happened a little over thirty years ago. I was in a therapy group, with one other man and (if memory serves on this point) four women. There was a sofa in the room where we met; there were chairs; there were cushions on the floor where some preferred to sit. In one session, the women were restless. Giving one reason or another, they shifted their positions. Perhaps I and (or?) the other man did the same; I don’t remember that.
None of us was conscious of what we were doing, or where it was trending. For each change of seat, there was a good or good-sounding reason. Yet by the end of the session, the two women who’d been in the group the longest had wound up sitting on the couch between the two men. Paired up with us, as in the teenage parties of days of yore.
Of course we wouldn’t actually have started making out. But the erotic charge was there. And I, at least, was completely unaware of it, and of what we’d really been doing over the past hour, until one of the therapists pointed it out. I learned something that day.
Conspiracy? Conspirators? Not consciously; I can vouch for that, at least for myself. But our aims were there, even if hidden–just as the 18th-century Americans believed they were.
I have met the conspirator, and he is me.
by David Halperin
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