What Our Conspiracy Theories Say About Us

by Patrick Appel

Jessie Walker discusses his new book, The United States of Paranoia:

Victoria Taylor calls Walker’s book “a thoroughly researched and completely readable look at infamous and forgotten conspiracy theories and presumed cabals throughout American history”:

Walker identifies five American conspiracy archetypes: the perceived enemy within (think the Salem witch trials), the enemy outside (al-Qaeda, Indian tribes during the colonial period, religious movements), the enemy above (e.g. the government, secretive masterminding organizations out to establish a New World Order, like the Illuminati), the enemy below (slave uprisings) and the “benevolent conspiracy” (angels, the Theosophical Society). Some groups fall into more than one category, and in some cases the differentiating lines are blurred, but just about all myths can be viewed as at least one of these.

In another review, Laura Miller explains how conspiracy theories catch on:

As Walker sees it, our brains are predisposed to see patterns in random data and to apply stories to explain them, which is why conspiracy theory can be so contagious. Although conspiracies do exist, we need to be vigilant against our propensity to find them whether they are there or not. The most sensible outlook would appear to be that of Robert Anton Wilson, who concluded that “powerful people” could well be “engaged in criminal plots” but who found it unlikely that “the conspirators were capable of carrying out those plots competently.” Or, I would add, of covering them up effectively. It’s the ineptness of human beings in executing elaborate schemes and then shutting up about it afterward that makes me skeptical of almost all conspiracy theories. Besides, if the U.S. government was masterful enough to engineer the 9/11 attacks, why couldn’t it also plant some WMD in Iraq?

Salon has an excerpt from the book. It concludes:

The first decade of the twenty-first century saw three particularly notable eruptions of elite paranoia. The first came with the reactions to the 9/11 attacks. The second was the response to Katrina, when powerful people’s fears both fed and were reinforced by the centralization and militarization of disaster relief. And the third began when Barack Obama became president, as commentators treated a group of unconnected crimes as a grand, malevolent movement. As is often the case with paranoid perspectives, this connect-the-dots fantasy said more about the tellers’ anxieties than it did about any order actually emerging in the world.