Monday, August 19, 2013

The United States of Paranoia, by Jesse Walker

Jesse Walker, books editor at my favorite magazine, Reason, has written another book of his own.  Readers of Reason will recognize him as a reasonable (pun intended, of course) voice discoursing on popular culture and movements.  In his new book, The United States of Paranoia, Walker examines the  historical American tendency to seek to discover more mysterious or insidious plots and machinations behind events of the day.

Even as far back as colonial times, Americans have credited, or blamed, at different times, enemies above, below, within, and/or without for manipulating the workings of society and history.  While many observers (who may be conspirators themselves [insert evil, hand-wringing laugh here]) "tend to write off political paranoia as a feature of the fringe, a disorder that occasionally flares up until the sober center can put out the flames . . .  They're wrong.  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."

With good humor and a broad grasp of history, Walker takes the reader on a tour of conspiracies through American history.  For the most part, his perspective remains that of an outsider, leaving the reader to ask himself how much of any given conspiracy theory is based on truth.  Ultimately, a quote with which he opens the book seems to encapsulate his perspective: "Secret societies have not had power in history, but the notion that secret societies have had power in history has had power in history."

There were points at which I wished he had been more bold in his statements, but for the most part he let the facts speak for themselves.  He also spent more time on the presentation of conspiracy in fiction and film than seemed necessary, but he makes a salient point about people's perception is shaped by suggestive fiction.

A few quibbles aside, Walker's walk in the shadows of history, real or imagined, makes for an interesting read.  In his reading of history, he gives us a framework through which, as we watch the evening news and read the morning paper (OK, as we read the news on the internet), we can ask, what, if any, invisible forces are directing the course of events?

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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