The United States of Paranoia

A Conspiracy Theory

by Jesse Walker

The United States of Paranoia

Hardcover, 434 pages, HarperCollins, List Price: $25.99 | purchase

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The United States of Paranoia
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A Conspiracy Theory
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Jesse Walker

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Book Summary

The books editor of Reason magazine explores the origins, evolution, legacy and impact of paranoia in American politics and culture by discussing five conspiracy narratives that keep recurring throughout history.

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Conspiracy theorists and other protesters march through downtown Denver on Aug. 26, 2008. Ben Woloszyn/AP hide caption

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Excerpt: The United States of Paranoia

Five primal myths underlie America's conspiracy folklore. By using the word myths, I don't mean to suggest that these stories are never true. I mean that they're culturally resonant ideas that appear again and again when Americans communicate with one another: archetypes that can absorb all kinds of allegations, true or not, and arrange them into a familiar form. One is the Enemy Outside, who plots outside the community's gates, and one is the Enemy Within, comprising villainous neighbors who can't easily be distinguished from friends. There is the Enemy Above, hiding at the top of the social pyramid, and there is the Enemy Below, lurking at the bottom. And then there is the Benevolent Conspiracy, which isn't an enemy at all: a secret force working behind the scenes to improve people's lives.

The first form the Enemy Outside took in the Americas was the Indian conspiracy, a fear that flared up in settlements ranging from Puritan Massachusetts to Quaker Pennsylvania to Anglican Virginia. In 1689, it helped spark a revolution in Maryland.

A Protestant rebellion in England had deposed the Catholic king James II just a year before. In Maryland — the only colony in English America to be ruled by Catholics, though it had a predominantly Protestant population — a rumor started to circulate that "the great men of Maryland hath hired the Seneca Indians to kill the protestants." Ten thousand Seneca Indians were said to be gathering at the head of the Patuxent River; when that army turned out to be a fiction, a new report claimed that 9,000 were gathered at the mouth of the river and another 900 had already invaded a settlement. One man swore that he had overheard some drunken Eastern Shore Indians blabbing that a man on the Provincial Council had hired them to attack the colonists. The rumors cooled down for a spell when the invasion didn't materialize, only to flare up again when the colony's government failed to recognize the new king and queen of England. A Protestant agitator named John Coode raised an army, seized the State House, and installed himself as the new governor of Maryland. The colony then banned Catholic worship, a restriction that would not be lifted until after the American Revolution.

The Maryland rumors combined the Enemy Outside with a cabal in the highest reaches of the government — with the Enemy Above. The fear of the Indian/Catholic conspiracy had at least as much to do with resentment of Maryland's autocratic regime as it did with the fear of an external attack. A similar tale took hold around the same time in the Dominion of New England: An unpopular governor, Edmund Andros, was accused of conspiring with the Wabanaki, deliberately sending white troops to be slaughtered by the Indians. (In one soldier's words, his comrades wondered whether Andros had "brought them theither to be a sacrifice to their heathen Adversaries.") As in Maryland, such reports fed a revolt, and in 1689 Andros was deposed. Nearly a century later, the Declaration of Independence would accuse America's English overlords of having "endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages."

But the Indians' alleged allies were usually based outside the community's gates. At different moments in King Philip's War, the Wampanoag Indians were said to be a pawn or partner of an Old World power, of a Catholic conspiracy, or of a Quaker conspiracy. They were hardly the only Indians whose purported plots were supposedly linked to the machinations of white allies. In 1653, while England and the Netherlands were at war in Europe, the colonists of New England looked suspiciously at the colonists in New Netherland. A belief took hold that, in the Puritan minister Increase Mather's words, "there was an horrid Conspiracy amongst the Indians throughout this Land to cut off all the English, and that they were animated thereto by the Dutch." (The evidence for the plot, Mather conceded, was "vague and uncertain.") In 1700, in turn, the former New Netherland — now controlled by the English and known as New York — barred all Catholic clergy from the colony, citing among its reasons the Church's alleged efforts "to Debauch, Seduce and Withdraw the Indians from their due Obedience unto His Majesty; and to excite and stir them up to Sedition, Rebellion and Open Hostility."

Catholic conspiracies are, in fact, the second most significant form taken by the Enemy Outside. The pope was perceived as a master manipulator; priests and nuns were seen as his corrupt and licentious lieutenants. Anti-Catholic sentiment has deep European roots, but it found a new shape in North America, particularly after independence. Nineteenth-century nativists believed that the Church was plotting to impose its hierarchy on an egalitarian American republic. If Indian conspiracies embodied the settlers' fear of the anarchic New World, papal conspiracies embodied their fears of the aristocratic Old World they had left behind. Yet both Enemies Outside were closely linked to anxieties about Satan, sexuality, and ethnic impurity, and the two were often imagined as allied.

The Enemy Outside isn't defined by any particular origin. He's defined by the fact that you think he's out there trying to come in. The details vary at different times and places, but several characteristics recur. There is the image of the world outside your gates as an unfriendly wilderness where evil forces dwell. There is the proclivity to see those forces as a centralized conspiracy guided by a puppet master or a small cabal. There is the fear of the border zone where cultures mix, the suspicion that aliens at home are agents of a foreign power, and the fear that your community might be remade in the enemy's image. And there is the tendency to see this conflict in terms of a grand, apocalyptic struggle — if not literally against Satan, then against something deeply evil.

From The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory by Jesse Walker. Copyright 2013 by Jesse Walker. Excerpted by permission of Harper.

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