At the same time that a handful of 9/11 “truthers” were protesting on the national mall in Washington, D.C., on the occasion of the twelfth anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, historian Jesse Walker was talking about conspiracy theories just a few blocks away at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.
His September 11 appearance in a Cato panel discussion focused on Walker's recently published book, The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory (HarperCollins, $25.99), which reaches back to the earliest days of American history to examine how conspiracy theories take hold and what kind of influence they have on politics when they fail to fizzle out.
Acknowledging that his new book draws partial inspiration from and is partially a reply to Richard Hofstadter's famous monograph, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Walker – who is also books editor for Reason magazine – explained in an interview with the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner that The United States of Paranoia “grew out of a lot of things.”
'Folklore of conspiracy thinking'
He had “been writing stories that touched on these issues for many years. At one point in the book, I quote from interviews I did way back in 1995 for a magazine article.”
In particular, Walker said, he “wanted to explore the folklore of conspiracy thinking in America and just what we can learn from these stories – even the ones that aren't true [and] hat they say about the anxieties and the experiences of the people who believe them.”
Walker acknowledged that conspiracy theories and urban legends “overlap,” but they are not the same thing.
“The two big differences are that sometimes a conspiracy theory is true and, by definition, no urban legend is true,” while “not all urban legends involve conspiracies, but many do.”
He pointed out that “one rich source of material in the book was just looking at the works by the sociologists and anthropologists who collect urban legends and that sort of folklore.”
Anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism
Similarly, while some conspiracy theories have anti-Catholic or anti-Semitic roots, not all do.
“There are a lot of anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, which is not to say that anyone who believes in a conspiracy theory shares those bigotries,” Walker explained.
“Of those conspiracy theories that involve scapegoating a group, the three that seem to have the most potent influence in American history were those involving Catholics, blacks, or Indians. Obviously, there are also ones involving Jews, gays, liberals, conservatives, and others, but those were the big three.”
On the other hand, he said, “if I were writing a history of European paranoia, anti-Semitism would be much closer to the core,” adding that there are “a number of anti-Semites in the book,” which focuses on American history.
Even little-known and generally forgotten conspiracy theories can re-emerge unexpectedly, Walker said.
Some of them “will continue to be around and mutate and find new forms. I never would have guessed in the 1980s,” for instance, “that there would be all sorts of rap lyrics about the Illuminati” two decades later.
In part two of this interview, Jesse Walker comments on some conspiracy theories commonly cited in American political discourse.