Paranoia Will Destroy Ya
In the southwest corner of the Old Batavia Cemetery, a Daryle Lamonica bomb’s throw from the grand monuments to Ellicotts and Richmonds as well as modest Kauffman gravestones, rises a 37-foot-high cenotaph dedicated to Captain William Morgan, a dissolute apostate Mason who spilled the secrets of the Order in 1826 and then vanished. He may have been drowned in the Niagara River or, as some Masons insist, he may have fled to Canada to live out a besotted life.
Morgan’s disappearance inflamed what historians call our Burned-Over District; within a lustrum, an Anti-Masonic Party ran vigorously in upstate New York, Vermont, and Pennsylvania.
The Anti-Masons, a strange mixture of hyperbolic pamphleteers, political operators with an eye on the main chance, and ordinary folks justifiably suspicious of a secret society whose members occupied countless offices up to and including the presidency, are among the subjects of The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory, a terrific new book by Jesse Walker of the libertarian monthly Reason.
I was going to call Jesse a “young journalist” but hell, he’s gotta be well into his forties. I’m getting to be like my dad, who calls nonagenarians “the Marr girls” or septuagenarian ex-teammates “kids.”
Walker’s argument is that “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 the extremes. Conspiracy theories … have been popular not just with dissenters and nonconformists but with individuals and institutions at the center of power. They are not simply a colorful historical byway. They are at the country’s core.”
Walker dissects Richard Hofstadter’s unfortunate 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” which attributed support for Barry Goldwater to mental illness and which gave the pedants of the pundit class (few of whom have actually read the article) a favorite crutch-phrase. (Hofstadter treats the Anti-Masons fairly in his essay.)
Hofstadter, says Walker, sketches “a distorted picture in which the country’s outsiders are possessed by fear and its establishment usually is not.” In the smug “Paranoid Style” school spawned by Hofstadter, if the hayseed dads and Main Street moms whose sons do most of the dying in our endless wars protest injustice they are villains, while those who condemn the sons of the powerless to overseas deaths are dwellers on Olympus.
But “educated elites have conspiracy theories too,” says Walker, often based on their fear of rural populism. Who can forget the 1990s Clinton-stoked hysteria over militias—which, in Alexander Cockburn’s observation, were mostly working-class guys standing up for the Bill of Rights?
More recently, a Hofstadterian in the Department of Homeland Security (what a fascism-reeking title that is) warned darkly of the threat posed by those who are “antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority,” a category capacious enough to have included, over the years, such right-wing extremists as Dorothy Day, Norman Mailer, and Paul Goodman.
I suppose practicing decentralists are a threat to the Empire—in the way that love is the solvent of hate.
“Elite hysteria” and “antipopulist anxiety” lead Hofstadterians to assume that the degree-less are imbeciles or bigots incapable of self-government, especially in times of “crisis.” Yet, Walker writes, “In real-world America, sociologists have shown that it’s rare for people to panic or riot in a disaster, particularly in a community with few serious social divisions.” Walker dismisses the myth that the 1938 national radio broadcast of Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds provoked millions of American idiots to load their shotguns or hide under their beds cowering at the Martian menace.
Walker leads an entertaining tour of 1970s paranoia flicks, the gold standard of which is the Alan Pakula-Warren Beatty film “The Parallax View.” He offers a contrarian analysis of POW rescue movies, especially the “explicitly antiwar and surprisingly radical” first entry of the Rambo series. (My favorite of the genre is the even more anti-establishment Gene Hackman movie “Uncommon Valor.”)
At book’s end, Walker thanks his wife Rona Kobell and their daughters—“I owe more to them than to anyone else.” Then he adds: “Except, of course, the Order of the Illum—ah, but I am not supposed to speak of that.”
Witty acknowledgements: we are not in Doris Kearns Goodwin territory.
Conspiracies exist, says Jesse Walker, but so does paranoia. As an antidote, he advises, “We can empathize with people who seem alien.” At the local level, where the liberal professor can know, as a rounded human being, the Second Amendment-loving gun owner, or the evangelical Christian can know the gay couple next door, neighborliness usually trumps paranoia. But among the commenting class, placeless almost to a man and woman, Hofstadter rules.
Bill Kauffman is the author of ten books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America.