The United States of Paranoia

This weekend I read Jesse Walker’s The United States of Paranoia. And it contains a brief discussion of The Mystic Clan! Which is not the only reason to read it, but it’s a good one. Anyway, I feel like, if you were just going to read two books on where we are as a nation at this moment, you could do no better than this and Balko’s book. Somewhere, in the space between them, there’s just a lot of good truth about where we are and why.

Walker does some things very nicely. I think he does a great job of showing how paranoia is built into the fabric of our country, that it’s been there pretty much from the moment the English met the Indians and worried they were conspiring with the French or other Indians to do them in. And he’s appropriately sympathetic to the truth in that old bumper sticker that just because you’re paranoid, don’t mean they’re not after you. (Pause for an appreciation of Nirvana’s ability to turn a bumper sticker into a song lyric). There are actually conspiracies, just not always the ones we think.

I also liked that he got into how we talk about belief in conspiracies as if it’s just the provenance of wacko lefties or nutty right-wingers, but they’re actually interwoven throughout races, classes, genders, and political beliefs.

He organizes types of conspiracies we believe in into four main ones–the enemy outside (The Indians are plotting against us!), the enemy inside (Your wife is secretly a witch!), the enemy below (the slaves are plotting against us!), and the enemy above (a secret society headed by Andy Jackson really rules the country and they’re the ones agitating the Indians, witches, and slaves against you!)–and then talks about how these motifs reoccur and morph into each other.

One of the most interesting things he talks about is how our brains are so determined to find these kinds of patterns that you can end up with a situation where, say, 10 college history professors get together and decide to play a game where they will “prove” using historical documents that every U.S. president is or has been a vampire, and they can find “evidence” of this secret vampire cabal pretty easily and even, weirdly enough, considering they know they made it up, find themselves forgetting that this isn’t true.

In other words, if you put a compelling enough narrative order to random facts, your brain will begin to accept the truth of that narrative order even if it’s just arbitrary and made up. And he talks a little about the trap where even the absence of evidence can be evidence. So, if you couldn’t find anything that suggested that FDR was a vampire, it wouldn’t necessarily prove that he wasn’t. He could, after all, just be the best at keeping it secret.

It’s interesting to think how this thing that is normally a force for good in our lives–learning to recognize patterns and developing understanding from those patterns–can easily also work against a person.

But it’s also kind of the driving force behind Project X–Sam Houston was really a werewolf! Adelicia Acklen collected weird canines! That cute girl at the brothel was really the Devil! So, I’m convinced it’s a good book for writers to read, just for understanding on how to build plots that contain sinister plots.