I recently finished Jesse Walker’s The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. It is, despite its entirely unnecessary subtitle, an phenomenal book. It provides an historical account of conspiratorial thinking in America, mixed with an insightful analysis of the patterns and ur-myths that form the groundwork of modern conspiracy theories.

I should say that I am probably the ideal audience for this book. I’ve been fascinated by conspiracy theories for as long as I can remember, being in my youth an obsessive X-Files fan1, as well as a fan of the work of Robert Anton Wilson, Umberto Eco, Steve Jackson, Rev. Ivan Stang, and anyone else who co-opted the conspiratorial worldview in their art. I have been, at times, nearly obsessed with what Jesse Walker refers to as the “ironic style” of conspiracy theories. This is the use of conspiracy as a central tenet for art or play, best seen in the Church of the Subgenius, Discordianism, and the games of Steve Jackson.

But I was happy to find that Walker’s account of conspiracy theories in America went well beyond kooks and jokers and focused instead on instances in which conspiracies played major roles in the course of history. His examination of the role of conspiracy theories in both sides of the run up to the civil war was particularly interesting, with both sides fearing similar secret machinations, but with inverted hidden powers. The South feared agitation and back-room dealings by a cadre of abolitionists, while the North held a terror of a great cabal known generally as the Slave Power.

The book is remarkably well-written and researched, and Walker has a clear love for his topic. The author is a surprisingly fair judge, giving even-handed, almost sympathetic, accounts of various hysterias through the ages, starting with the first European colonists to American shores. Despite his commendable neutrality, Walker is a very engaging stylist, giving wry glimpses of the stories of conspiracies he explores, spinning them as compelling yarns, which helps convey a bit of their persuasive power.

The United States of Paranoia is an excellent book, and highly recommended for any reader, even those less intrigued than I with the conspiratorial obsession of their fellow human beings.

1 To my slight shame, I remember meeting William B Davis (“Cancer Man”) at an event in Richland much more clearly than I do the Middle School friend with whom I attended the event.