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A Conspiracy Theory

by Jesse Walker

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-06-213555-1
Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

A compendium of conspiracy theories in America, both past and present, and those who embrace them.

“The fear of conspiracies,” writes Reason magazine books editor Walker (Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America, 2001), “has been a potent force across the political spectrum, from the colonial era to the present, in the establishment as well as the extremes.” In fact, in the United States, “it is always a paranoid time.” After offering a loose categorization of conspiratorial styles—Enemy Outside, Enemy Within, Enemy Above, Enemy Below, Benevolent Conspiracy—Walker goes on to show how these paranoiac archetypes have played themselves out in American history. Early white settlers feared not just Native Americans, but a vast Indian conspiracy aided and abetted by the Catholic Church. Witches did the work of the devil in colonial New England. Mormons had an army of assassins and stole the bodies and souls of women. Walker also looks at the paranoid popular culture of the 1950s, with a look at the cult-classic film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, then it’s on to McCarthyism, African-American unrest being the product of Muslims and Marxists and, always, the influence of “outside agitators.” Then on to 9/11, the mother lode of conspiracy theories, in which anything and everything could be a terrorist plot, the “birthers,” and the idea of Barack as a socialist Muslim.To his credit, Walker does not attribute conspiracy theories to any particular political tendency, and he duly covers those who believe that the modern-day tea party, backed by a couple of rich brothers, plans to destroy America. Appropriately bemused by the weird things we will believe, Walker makes clear that if polarization and deep suspicion define our current political atmosphere, well, it’s nothing new.

An insightful and entertaining look at the demons and devils that haunt the American imagination.