Image via Jesse Walker
I recently had the opportunity to speak with journalist Jesse Walker, whose latest book The United States of Paranoia takes an entertaining look at conspiracy theories throughout history, as well as their effect on pop culture. His book is partly a response to theorists like Richard Hofstadter, author of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” who claim that conspiratorial thinking is limited to a small minority of people, typically those with unusual political views.
“The fear of conspiracies has been a potent force across the political spectrum, from the colonial era to the present, in the establishment as well as at the extremes,” writes Walker, who is the books editor at Reason magazine. “[Conspiracy theories] have flourished not just in times of great division but in eras of relative comity. They have been popular not just with dissenters and nonconformists but with individuals at the center of power.”
According to Walker, conspiratorial thinking comes naturally to people, whom he refers to as “pattern-seeking, storytelling creatures.” It’s important to look at even false conspiracy theories because they can tell us things about those who believe in them. As he explains …
What got you interested in researching conspiracy theories and political paranoia?
JW: My general interest in conspiracy theories goes back to my teens, when I started reading about the misbehavior of the CIA, FBI, and other intelligence agencies—basically, the stuff the Church and Pike committees had helped expose in the 1970s. I quickly discovered that these well-documented stories often shared a library shelf with books whose claims were not so well-grounded. Sometimes, of course, you got a mix: A book might make some claims that seemed pretty well-supported and others that were more dubious and speculative.
So I found myself developing two related but distinct interests: first, in genuine covert behavior, and second, in the stories we imagine about covert behavior. It helped that I also started encountering what I came to call the “ironic style” of conspiracy thinking—The Book of the SubGenius, Illuminatus!, and other texts that weren’t interested in proving or debunking conspiracy stories so much as exploring them, finding metaphors in them, using them in satiric ways.
I first started writing my book, though I didn’t realize at the time that I was writing a book, in the middle of the 1990s. I was covering the intersection between black militants and the militia movement, looking at the ways they interacted with each other and drew on each others’ stories. Since this was shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing, I also found myself looking not just at the conspiracy stories that the militiamen told about elites but the conspiracy stories that those elites told about militiamen. That resulted in several magazine articles. Years later I found myself returning to that initial burst of journalism—even reusing some old quotes—when I sat down to write The United States of Paranoia.
One of the central themes of your writing, which you just alluded to, is that paranoia and the belief in conspiracy theories aren’t limited to the “fringes” of society; conspiracy stories are popular among people from all walks of of life. But when journalists and politicians use the phrase “conspiracy theory,” it’s usually in reference to disreputable beliefs held by people with unpopular political views. Why do you suppose that is?
JW: It’s a good question. There are plenty of widely believed stories about conspiracies, some of them pretty dubious, that are hardly ever called conspiracy theories—speculations about terror networks, urban legends about gang initiations, fearful media reports about cults, and so on. Meanwhile, fringy ideas sometimes get the “conspiracy theory” tag even if they don’t actually involve conspiracies. Some people basically use “conspiracy theory” to mean “fringe theory.”
I’m sure there’s several reasons for that, and I wouldn’t want to try to reduce the phenomenon to just one explanation. But it certainly seems to fulfill a need to believe that conspiracy thinking is just something for the far left or far right, not a widespread human trait. Evidently people find this idea comforting.
Who are your favorite examples of mainstream thinkers most people are familiar with who have espoused belief in bizarre conspiracy theories?
JW: John Quincy Adams was afraid of Masonic conspiracies. Lyndon Johnson was convinced the Communist bloc was behind the race riots of the ’60s. Richard Nixon thought [Deputy White House Counsel] Vince Foster’s death [which was ruled a suicide] “smells to high heaven.” I could go on. It’s important to realize that while some of these would have seemed bizarre even at the time, others look strange only in retrospect, now that ideas that once were embraced by a lot of Americans have fallen out of fashion.
Another theme in your writing is that belief in conspiracy theories isn’t limited to modern times, but has been part of American culture for the country’s entire history. In your book, you also mention that the internet has allowed conspiracy theories to flourish. Do you think belief in conspiracy theories is more common now than ever before, or do you think there have been more paranoid periods in American history?
JW: I don’t think the Internet has made conspiratorial thinking more common. But it certainly has had several effects.
First of all, just as the Internet has sped up the news cycle in general, it has sped up the generation and transmission of conspiracy theories.
Second, the Internet has made those theories more public. Some of the historical conspiracy rumors that I write about in the book were not discussed in the press, or at least weren’t discussed in any newspapers or magazines that I got my hands on. We know about them because sociologists and folklorists went out, interviewed people, and wrote down the stories people told them. Nowadays, a lot of that person-to-person transmission happens online, where it’s easier for outsiders to observe it. This helps create the illusion that conspiracy thinking is more common than before.
And third, because that storytelling happens in a more public space, it’s easier for different subcultures’ conspiracy stories to mix together. That mixing was certainly known to happen before the Internet, but the Net made it much easier—suddenly hippies and militiamen and black nationalists and so on who might never encounter each other in real life could be reading the same forum and absorbing the other groups’ tales.
In your book, you spend a lot of time deconstructing conspiracy theories and pointing out the underlying similarities, but have you noticed any fundamental differences between conspiracy stories from the past and present?
JW: Obviously different targets go in and out of fashion. (Certain sorts of stories are more likely to surface in times of war, for example). There is also the rise of the ironic style, which is a relatively recent development.
Beyond that, the major difference between today and the past—and by “today” I mean the last half-century or so—is the emergence of a self-aware subculture of conspiracy theorists. Before, you might see particular conspiracy theories take hold among conservatives, others among leftists, and so on. Now that still goes on, but there’s also a substantial group of people who are interested in conspiracy theories in themselves—people who go out of their way to find “paranoid” perspectives.
In part that’s a product of that mixing I mentioned earlier. In part it’s a product of the ironic style. And sometimes I wonder if it’s also related to the phenomenon you mentioned in your second question, this habit of using “conspiracy theory” as a catchall term for disreputable ideas. Once people started throwing around the phrase that way—along with similar terms, like “the paranoid style”—they may have helped plant the idea that if you’re interested in one conspiracy story, you’ll be interested in others as well. They meant to be dismissive, but some people were bound to find the category appealing.
None of my high school history teachers ever told me that John Quincy Adams believed in Masonic conspiracies. Is there value in studying the historical belief in conspiracy theories and should this information be more widely taught?
JW: Sure. You can’t understand the past without understanding its fears.
Another point you make in your writing is that even if a particular conspiracy theory isn’t true, the belief in that theory can still have real world consequences. I think most people think of conspiratorial thinking as bad, but there any positives?
JW: “Conspiratorial thinking” is such a huge category. Does it include well-grounded investigative journalism that reveals real conspiracies? That’s positive. Does it include overtly fictional stories like The X-Files or Fringe? Those are positive, at least for those of us who enjoy them, even if some fools mistake them for documentaries.
There are obviously all kinds of ways conspiracy theories can have negative effects, particularly the stories that get tied up with social scapegoating. But the belief in conspiracies isn’t innately harmful. I don’t think it’s something we need to fight so much as it’s something we need to temper with the ability to tell good evidence from bad.
That raises another question. We both seem to agree that the term “conspiracy theory” gets thrown around as a pejorative to discredit unpopular ideas. How can people promoting unpopular political views or engaging in legitimate, skeptical inquiry push back against the “conspiracy theorist” label?
JW: It depends. If you aren’t actually suggesting a conspiracy but are just speaking skeptically about people in power, you can push back by pointing out that the label doesn’t fit. In the book I mention a Cato Institute paper that said “today’s proponents of global leadership envision a role for the United States that resembles that of a global hegemon.” A rather mild comment, and not a conspiratorial claim at all, but Daniel Pipes derided it as a conspiracy theory. If the author felt like replying to Pipes, she could have simply pointed out that he’s wrong.
If you are proposing an actual conspiracy theory, on the other hand, then there’s not much you can do about the label. If the balance of evidence really does support your position—if, say, you’re a reporter in 1970 making the case that the police deliberately killed Fred Hampton of the Black Panther Party—then you ought to be able to distinguish yourself from some nut mumbling an impenetrable thesis about chemtrails. But some people are bound to treat you like you’re the chemtrails guy anyway.
Tell me a little bit about your paranoia. Have you ever found yourself nodding in agreement with a disreputable, perhaps even absurd, conspiracy story?
JW: Not any absurd ones, I’d hope. As far as merely disreputable theories go… Well, I think there’s a lot of unanswered questions about the Malcolm X assassination. Of course that’s one that everyone acknowledges was a conspiracy, since we know there were multiple gunmen. But we don’t know how far it went. I’m in no sense an authority on the topic, so take anything I say here with a grain of salt, but I think Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X [Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention] raises a bunch of significant questions about his murder. Marable was a respected scholar, so I wouldn’t call him disreputable; but his willingness to raise questions about the police’s behavior might stray into disreputable territory.
There are also plausible arguments—not proven, but plausible—that Timothy McVeigh had more than just one accomplice in the Oklahoma City bombing. He was plugged into that whole radical-right network around Elohim City, Oklahoma, and I can’t just dismiss some of the claims people have made about a wider plot there.
Sometimes I accept a non-conspiratorial version of a conspiracy story. It’s obvious, for example, that the people who meet at Bilderberg wield a lot of power, in the same sense that the people who meet at Davos wield a lot of power. But there’s a difference between recognizing that these are powerful people and embracing this strange notion that Bilderberg is the annual Lollapalooza where the big decisions get made. It’s an elite institution; it’s not some sort of secret parliament.
You spend a lot of your book discussing the influence of conspiracy theories on pop culture. If you had the chance to direct your own conspiracy-themed movie, what would it be about?
JW: It would probably be a story where various characters are falsely convinced that other characters are conspiring against them, and then that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Are there any final thoughts you’d like to leave our readers with?
JW: Just that conspiracy theories are inevitable. We are pattern-seeking, storytelling creatures; if there’s a gap in the data, we’ll try to fill it in a way that makes a coherent picture. Put that human capacity for finding patterns together with the human capacity for fear, and you’re guaranteed to see conspiracy theories emerge. And even if those theories don’t tell you anything accurate about the alleged conspirators, they’ll tell you a lot about the anxieties and experiences of the people who believe the stories and pass them along.
So even absurd conspiracy theories are worth our attention, as long as there are people who believe them. The tales may not be true, but they still have truths to tell.