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book review

Jesse WalkerSupplied

The U.S. government knows who really assassinated John F. Kennedy. Officials are hiding evidence of alien life. 9/11 was an inside job.

Delusions of a lunatic fringe? Sure. That's what they want you to believe.

Contrary to what we might think, paranoia is popular. A full 71 per cent of Americans polled by Gallup in 1996 believed in an alien cover-up. A Scripps Howard survey in 2006 found 36 per cent of Americans thought their leaders were somehow complicit in the World Trade Center attacks. The suspicions of Americans are rivaled only by their elected officials'; upon being elected, President Bill Clinton himself asked one of his new aides to find out who killed JFK.

In the watershed 1964 essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter identified a undercurrent of wild suspicion along the fringes of U.S. discourse. He didn't go far enough, argues Reason Books editor Jesse Walker in The United States of Paranoia. With deep scholarship and relentless curiosity, Walker probes his country's neurotic imagination and concludes conspiracies "are not simply a colourful historical byway. They are at the country's core." It seems the fringe has always been the centre – First World War president Woodrow Wilson founded propaganda mill the Committee on Public Information, which urged Americans to report all pacifists, as they were probably Germans in disguise.

In Paranoia, Walker, who also wrote Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America, has packed his latest with so many tasty morsels of historical marginalia that it nearly bursts with weirdness. He diagnoses four founding myths plaguing America's subconscious, from the (often racially other) Enemy Outside to the powerful, corrupt Enemy Above, allowing him to make inventive leaps through time and space. His chapter on the archetypal Enemy Within – the normal-seeming plotter among us – begins with the 17th-century's Salem witch hunts before flipping ahead to 19th-century Americans' fears that new religious sects such as Mormons and Shakers would "steal" the bodies and souls of other Christians, before finding its 20th-century echo: Invasion of the Body Snatchers and other B-movies about alien possession. In Walker's hands, American history begins to feel itself like a puzzle whose pieces are falling into place.

If their leaders have been caught sporting tinfoil hats, ordinary Americans have been even more delirious. In one odd, old myth, America is the product of a benevolent conspiracy by the same ancient brotherhood of angelic beings that created the Knights of the Holy Grail. They sent a "mysterious counsellor" to guide Christopher Columbus across the Atlantic and watch over the land of the free to this day. (Guess they were on a bathroom break during 9/11.)

All this fear-mongering fostered the very American subgenre of irony-laced conspiracy literature. A chapter on it covers both the expected (Philip K. Dick), but also the more obscure (and wonderful) 1960s Playboy writer Robert Anton Wilson, who created joke conspiracies as art projects. He and his friends mailed out letters on Illuminati letterhead to the likes of the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade with announcements such as, "we've taken over the Rock Music business. But you're still so naïve. We took over the business in the 1800s. Beethoven was our first convert."

Among Walker's strengths is that he doesn't discriminate between right- and left-wing crackpots. He rightly shows that they are often paranoid mirror images of each other. His desire to press everything into the service of his greater argument – that we're all paranoid, dude – can lead to some awkward analogies, though, particularly when he's comparing Americans' fear of threats founded in reality (i.e. terrorism) with those that were complete, atrocious nonsense, often based on suspicion of maligned groups such as Native Americans.

It's not hard to see where Walker's going with this. Narratives ingrained over centuries have power. Fear begets fear, becoming self-fulfilling, no matter whether the fears are real or not. A gem of an example is the "Homintern" or Homosexual International, a mid-20th-century inside joke among America's underground gay community that went horribly awry. A play on "Comintern," the gag that there was a global network of powerful homosexuals caught on in conservative circles, who took it painfully seriously, sparking anti-gay paranoia – which in turn forced gay organizations to actually become more secretive.

Still, the rhetoric begins to feel claustrophobic in its scope. Ironically, Walker suffers from the same expansive, pattern-seeking tendency as, well, other Americans. (He admits as much.)

Eventually, the reader begins to hunger for the whys and wherefores. Why is America so crazy? Walker hints at general reasons – imagined enemies provided scapegoats to calm early settlers' fears, and the myths took hold – but mostly prefers to describe, not explain. Are Americans actually more paranoid than other people? He says he's not sure.

The biggest problem with defining everything as paranoid is that the word loses its sharpness. Fear needs to be unfounded to be true paranoia. (Remember the old line – it's not paranoia if they're actually out to get you?) Our modern fears of Islamic terrorism, fantastical or no, are different from fantasies about Freemasons.

Americans are chronically crying wolf, Walker argues – always have been, from Salem to Glenn Beck. But if so, what does that mean? And how can they ever know when to really be afraid?

Sarah Barmak is a Toronto journalist who writes about the arts, technology, business and ideas.

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