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The United States of Paranoia

Jesse Walker writes of conspiracy theories

August 29, 2013
By REGINA M. ANGELI - Books Writer , The Daily News

Conspiracy theories are as American as apple pie according to Jesse Walker, books editor for "Reason" magazine as he unfolds his analysis of the American preoccupation with plots and subplots in his work, "The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory." (Harper, 434 pages)

American history is replete with examples of irrational fear from the witchcraft trials of Salem Village to the eighteenth century's preoccupation with slave revolts and the nineteenth century's anti-Catholic, anti-Mormon, anti-immigrant fervor, Americans have been prone to paranoia.

The twentieth century gave rise to McCarthyism and its hunt for communist and the "lavender scare" which targeted homosexuals. Americans are prone to have a hyperactive sense of conspiracies and a fear of those who are viewed as a bit foreign, or unconventional.

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In a word, Walker contends that as a nation we are are simply paranoid; a term he uses in the familiar connotation, as opposed to the precise, clinical sense.

Yet this national paranoia has sometimes been a blessing as the author relates in his account of the constitutional convention which was brought about to abolish the weak Articles of Confederation.

Though this convention itself was, technically, illicit as it lacked the required unanimous declaration of the 13 states (only nine states consented) it proved to be fortuitous. Out of the suspicions on the part of the anti-federalists (those opposed to a very strong central government), there came a better constitution, one founded on the Bill of Rights.

Walker relates that this preoccupation with sinister plots has been a staple of Hollywood. The national paranoia, no doubt egged on by a series of political assassinations and the Watergate mess spawned what critics called the 1970s "conspiracy thriller" though Walker rightfully insists that this genre had been around for quite a while.

The most chilling "conspiracy flick" is "The Manchurian Candidate" based on the 1959 novel by Richard Condon.

Even the Roman Catholic Church has served as a source of fixation for conspiracy theorists. As proof of this, Walker cites the blockbuster novel and movie, "The Da Vinci Code."

He suspects the root of the profound distrust of the Roman Catholic Church is rooted in the all too real scandal involving pedophile priests. (One might add that the misdeeds of the Vatican Bank have not exactly helped matters, either.)

On a humorous note, Walker mentions how this paranoia can degenerate into absurdity in the urban myth that the song "Stairway to Heaven" is really a tribute to Satan - when played backwards.

In wry fashion, Walker advises he has no insights into whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone or the status of UFOs.

That is not to say, that he dismisses all conspiracies. He discusses the disturbing work of the CIA's MKULTRA program which sought to investigate the use of biochemical materials on human behavior and wound up dosing people with LSD without their knowledge and consent.

And while he ends his work warning us that "the conspiracy theorist will always be with us, because he will always be us" meaning that we cannot stop jumping to conclusions and finding patterns where none exist, he does offer a cure for irrationality.

In learning to empathize with those who seem foreign or strange to us and keeping a skeptical outlook, reminding ourselves of our fallibility we may stave off future witch hunts. While he doesn't stress this tactic explicitly, his clever prose reveals another potent weapon in the war on stupidity and paranoia - humor.

Think back to the great "Get Smart" television series, the political skits on "Saturday Night Live," and "Real Time with Bill Maher," or the radio programs of Garrison Keillor and the columns of Dave Barry; Americans can laugh at themselves - and laughter is a very healthy sign.



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