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Feeling paranoid? There's a book about that!

Tom Jackson • Aug 20, 2013 at 11:48 AM

Do you believe in conspiracy theories and think the media covers up what's really going on? Or do you look down your nose at "Truthers" and "Birthers"?

An interesting new book, Jesse Walker's "The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory," looks at conspiracy theories and how they've played a role in U.S. history. I got to read an advance copy of the book and I recommend it. It's being released today. 

Whether you're interested in conspiracy theories or U.S. history, or whether you simply want to read a nonfiction book that isn't about the same old thing, you're likely to find Walker's book a good read. 

Far from being a hobby of people on the fringe, conspiracy theories are at the core of the country's history and always have been, Walker argues.

The Los Angeles Times reviewed Walker's book on Thursday and called it "an oddly entertaining exploration of the roots of 'paranoid' thinking across several centuries of American history."

"It's all too rare to come upon a writer willing to attack the sacred cows of the right and left with equal amounts of intelligence and flair. Walker is, thankfully, that kind of writer and a tireless and thorough researcher to boot," LA Times reviewer Hector Tobar wrote. "He also states an obvious fact many skeptics are unwilling to accept: Behind just about every conspiracy theory there is also, more often than not, a grain of truth."

Salon has an excerpt from the book here.

Walker is the books editor for Reason magazine. His new tome is his second book; he also wrote "Rebels on the the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America." I asked him to take a few questions about the new book.

What do you hope people will learn after reading The United States of Paranoia?

WALKER: I hope they'll learn that conspiracy theories are not some new invention: that they've always been with us and that they aren't going away. I hope they'll learn that there isn't a single all-purpose political or psychological explanation for why such stories take hold. I hope they'll learn that the American establishment is prone to conspiracy thinking, no less than its critics on the left and the right are. I hope they'll learn that these stories have something to teach us even when they're entirely false—that a conspiracy theory doesn't take hold with a lot of people unless it speaks to their anxieties or experiences.

And I hope that as they read about the things our ancestors believed, they'll feel a little shock of recognition. The fears and folklore of modern times can sound a lot like the fears and folklore of earlier generations. We're not as unique as we think.

It seems to me we are living in very paranoid times, akin to what the country went through in the 1970s. Do you think the timing of your book turned out to be good, perhaps by accident?

WALKER: Many people have said this to me. But as I say in the book, "it is always a paranoid time." If this had come out last year, people would have looked around at all the election-year conspiracy chatter and told me how well-timed the book was. If it had come out the year before that, people would have pointed to the birthers or to the conspiracy theories about the death of bin Laden.

Do you hope some of your readers will become more tolerant? Much of the book seems to argue for tolerance of other peoples' conspiracy theories, or at least an effort to understand where they are coming from. 

WALKER: Well, I'm all for debunking claims that aren't true, and that includes untrue claims about conspiracies. But I do hope the debunkers will approach their task with a little humility, an awareness that they're capable of believing dubious tales too.

One chapter of your book traces the effects of 1970s paranoia on popular culture, including conspiracy movies. Do you expect a new wave of paranoid surveillance movies in reaction to the NSA scandal?

WALKER:If we do get them, I hope they're as good as the '70s movies were.

So, what do you think happened to JFK in Dallas?

Walker: Contrary to what you may have read in the Weekly World News, he died.

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