The Red Wire: The United States of Paranoia
You don’t have to look around very long to realize that the United States of America is one seriously paranoid country. It sometimes seems that every recognizable political group has somebody else they’re convinced is perpetrating acts of great evil. Tea Partiers and Birthers have Barack Obama. Liberals have the Koch Brothers and militias. Civil libertarians have the DEA, FBI, and CIA. Glenn Beck has, well, everybody. There’s a temptation to compartmentalize all this paranoia, to say that it only exists on the fringes of an otherwise sober republic – and, of course, that we ourselves are safely in the center where all the clear-thinking people live. In his book The United States of Paranoia, Jesse Walker makes a strong case that the paranoid mode is a deep strain that runs through not only the fringes of our politics and culture but their very center.
The United States of Paranoia is unmistakably a history book, complete with extensive footnotes. That’s the kind of sentence that might scare some people off, but in this case it shouldn’t. The combination of the lively subject matter and Walker’s crisp, clear prose makes it the kind of easy read that entertains while it enlightens. The book is divided into two parts, titled Primal Myths and Modern Fear. Most of the 12 chapters start similarly, with Walker relating a popular conspiracy tale from American history before delving into what the story tells us about the people who believed in it and the real-world consequences those beliefs had regardless of whether they were well-founded. English colonists feared Devil-worshipping Indians, witches, and slave revolts. Revolutionary Americans suspected a cabal in England secretly controlling events, one which the Founders called out for its “Systematick Plan” to undermine the colonies in the Declaration of Independence. The transfer of those suspicions to new internal conspiracies real and imagined in the new republic included those that resulted in dead presidents. Whether it came from above, below, within, or without, the common thread throughout the earliest portions of American history was the intense need for an enemy to root out.
The second half of the book delves into the governmental roots of modern American paranoia, starting with the FBI’s COINTELPRO programs in the 1950s and 60s. “The feds didn’t just infiltrate and disrupt dissident groups; they made sure the groups knew that they were being infiltrated and disrupted, so activists would suspect one another of being police agents,” writes Walker. “In effect, COINTELPRO functioned as a conspiracy to defeat subversive conspiracies by convincing the alleged subversives that they were being conspired against.” Things only got worse after Richard Nixon became president and Watergate kicked off a cascade of revelations culminating in the Church Committee’s reports. The report detailed a whole host of executive-branch nastiness including the CIA’s MKULTRA mind-control program (which among other thing dosed “nonvolunteer subjects” with LSD), the president’s use of the IRS as a tool against his enemies, and illegal CIA assassinations. Nixon defenders then made their case by pointing abuses committed by Democratic presidents going back to FDR. That both ends of the political spectrum had so much factual evidence to back up their fears about what the government was up to showed just how deep the paranoid fault lines ran in American life.
As those fault lines continued to split open over the next three decades, American popular culture reflected the nation’s fears. Decent church-goers fell under the sway of hucksters like John Todd and Mike Warnke and became convinced that the Illuminati were backing Satanic cults around the country, leading to moralist crusades against rock music and Dungeons and Dragons, and Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth created a template for writing books about the coming Armageddon. The writer Robert Anton Wilson and the Discordians fully embraced the upheaval, adopting what Walker characterizes as “the ironic style of American conspiracism, a sensibility that treats alleged cabals not as intrigues to be exposed or as lies to be debunked but as a mutant mythos to be mined for metaphors, laughs, and social insights,” It was a strain that would go on to influence pranksters like the Church of the Sub-Genius and pop-culture phenomena like the 1990s FOX series The X-Files and the rise of alternate-reality games in the early 2000s. All along, new fears continued to pop up and seep into popular culture, whether it was the CIA’s purported drug sales in inner cities in the 1980s, right-wing militias inspired by Waco and Ruby Ridge in the 1990s, or Muslim terror groups coming to impose Sharia law on America’s heartland in the aftermath on 9/11.
What Walker effectively demonstrates throughout his recounting of American history through the lens of creeping mistrust is that nobody in this country has a monopoly on the crazy. Our history is replete with embarrassments that could have been avoided, or at the very least minimized, if level heads had as much influence as we like to think they do. The Salem Witch Trials, King Philip’s War, the Anti-Masonic movement, the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Branch Davidian standoff – they all resulted from people with some measure of authority seeing powerful and twisted enemies where there were none. We have a habit of seeing what we want to see wherever we look, being afraid when we inevitably find it, and lashing out until we can flail our arms no more. It’s not the most flattering habit, and it can be downright dangerous if you find yourself on the wrong side of it, but it certainly makes for a riveting read.