Join us for our annual conversation about the best summer books for kids and young adults.
Guest Host: Matt McCleskey
Conspiracy theories are often thought of as a fringe element in American society. But they’ve played an integral role in politics and culture from the earliest days of our nation’s founding. From the Salem witch trials to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, we consider the history and current state of conspiracies and ask what the anxieties they reflect tell us about ourselves.
- Jesse Walker author 'The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory'; books editor, Reason magazine
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU, sitting in today for Kojo.
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYSorting fact from fiction can be an imprecise exercise. And when various special interests and the government get involved, the lines can become blurry. That's one of the reasons conspiracy theories are so popular and remain so. And even if we all know that the moon landing wasn't staged, Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and government secrets from Area 51 have more to do with the Cold War than with aliens, we just might be able to learn something from the fact that some people, in many cases lots of people, believe the opposite.
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYHere to help us understand what conspiracy theories tell us about our culture and ourselves is Jesse Walker. He's books editor for "Reason Magazine" and also author of several books, the latest of which is, "The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory." Thanks for being here.
MR. JESSE WALKERThanks for having me.
MCCLESKEYA conspiracy, of course, is a very real criminal charge. But conspiracy theories have long been ascribed a sort of marginal status in our culture. Still, you point out in the book that they've been around in America since before our country really was even America -- before our country was founded. Tell us some early examples of conspiracy theories.
WALKERYeah, I mean, they're really not just a fringe phenomenon. And I think that's one of the most important things to understand. They've really been at the core of the country's culture, going back to the beginning of the European settlement and, I presume, among the Indians before that. But we don't have the written records. But as soon as settlers started arriving in the New World, they had conspiracy theories about one another and also about the Indians out in the wilderness.
WALKERAnd the stories about the Indians ranged from, you know, plausible notions that some of them might be plotting an attack along with another tribe, out to some very (word?) and bizarre ideas, for example, that Satan had come to the New World ahead of the settlers because the gospel was setting the Old World. He was losing ground. So he rounded up some of the unconverted Pagans, brought them here, set them up as the Indians and was directing their attacks from afar against the Puritans and others.
WALKERAnd there's also this tendency to believe -- and this kicked in, for example, during King Philip's War at the end of the 17th century and this was a conflict that set the settlers against several, you know, Indian groups, but also with various Indians on their side -- but there was this tendency to believe, among many of the settlers, that all the Indians were in cahoots with one another -- that the ones who appeared to be their allies were actually part of this vast conspiracy. And that even Indians who had converted and lived in what were called praying villages, were a fifth column.
WALKERAnd, in fact, this led to Indians from the praying villages being rounded up on Deer Island, where many people died and others eventually were sold into slavery -- one of the first great crimes of American history.
MCCLESKEYIt seems like that morph ability -- once the conspiracy theory takes hold -- there can always be another twist to it explained, even though, yes, they're on our side, but actually they're really not. Do you see that across the years with other conspiracies as well, this ability to change even if it's disproved perhaps, or something doesn't fit with the theory, that you can then turn it just a little bit and all of a sudden it does fit back in?
WALKERWell, I think the morph ability goes beyond that. I mean, and there's -- I set up in the book, sort of five narratives that keep coming back again and again. And so that there's sort of this rough scaffolding that, you know, different names can be plugged into 100 years later, but the story sounds very similar. And, you know, often, you know, one of those narratives will morph into another. I mean it's depending upon the needs and the anxieties of the group that's spreading the story.
MCCLESKEYLet's run quickly through what those are. One, is the enemy from without.
WALKERYeah, the enemy outside. And the classic example, that would be these sort of stories about the Indians. That's the idea of the conspirators outside the community's gates, something alien plotting to come in and destroy or transform your community. There's also the enemy within, which is the opposite. It's the neighbor that could be the conspirator. It's not conspicuously alien. The idea is...
MCCLESKEYThat might be more like the Salem witch trials.
WALKERThe Salem witch trials are the classic example. And the classic pop culture example is any "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" type movie. The enemy above is plotting at the top of the society -- any sort of secret government-type theory. The enemy below is down at the bottom of society -- often people within the government will have these sort of theories about who might be plotting to overturn the social order.
WALKERAnd then the fifth is the idea of the benevolent conspiracy, because often conspiracy stories involve people supposedly -- or I shouldn't just say people, I should say beings, because they often involve aliens or angels -- plotting behind the scenes to improve people's lives, elevate society, maybe help America reach some sort of a special destiny.
MCCLESKEYAlien abduction, I suppose. They could go either way.
WALKERWell, alien abductions usually have -- they're not so benevolent. Yeah.
MCCLESKEYWell, you mentioned that you can often take the names and change them over the years and they wind up -- the stories wind up looking pretty much, fairly similar. This month, of course, we've been looking back at the assassination of President Kennedy and at 50 years thereafter. But, as you begin the book, you talk about an assassination attempt, which was a very real attempt against Andrew Jackson.
MCCLESKEYBut then what grew out of that -- it appeared, at least at first, like it might be one lone person who might have been mentally disturbed. But then where did it go from there?
WALKERWell, it ultimately ended up with one person who was mentally disturbed being, you know, committed. But, you know, there were rumors that he had been spotted at the home of a senator who was a prominent critic of Andrew Jackson. Andrew Jackson, himself, suspected that the senator had hired him to kill him. And there were charges in the press and an investigation in Congress. And then the opponents of Jackson sort of counter blasted with the idea that it was sort of a false-flag attack.
WALKERThat the reason why, I mean, this guy pulled out two guns and both of them failed to fire -- and so there's, well, there's a reason why they both failed to fire and Andrew Jackson was easily able to subdue him. Clearly, he hired the guy himself in order to create public sympathy for him. And then this sort of entered the political folklore, I mean, afterwards so that, I mean, I talk about a book that was written in the 1860s in which this becomes part of a long series of alleged assassination attempts.
WALKERSo that, and this other person who wrote the book was named John Smith Dye, but he was drawing on rumors that had been going through Whig and Republican circles for years on the road...
MCCLESKEYSome other presidents have...
WALKERI mean, that...
WALKERYeah, that William Henry Harrison, that his death had not been by natural causes, but that he had been poisoned by a southern cabal, with, you know, their own slave-owning interests. Zachary Taylor had been poisoned. That James Buchanan, who did not die in office, had narrowly escaped a poisoning attempt, and therefore became a willing servant of the slave power, so as not to have it happen again.
MCCLESKEYWhere does a rumor cross over into being a conspiracy theory?
WALKERWell, I mean, the moment that it involves a conspiracy. I mean, I have a very sort of broad and capacious definition of conspiracy story in this book. And, in fact, I -- there are kind of the two sorts of pushback I've got on this. On the one hand, people who are -- who think it's odd that I include stories that were true. You know, I mean conspiracies that turned out to be true. I mean, I talk about actual CIA, FBI, you know, crimes that were exposed in the 70s, for example.
WALKERBut I think that's -- they're stories about conspiracies and they affected the way people -- the framework people had for, you know, interpreting other stores that came before them. And then, on the flip side, stories that nobody thinks are true. I mean, I mentioned "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," you know, books, films, TV shows, games. But I think that's a part of how these general sort of mythic story structures are transmitted. You know, a rumor or conspiracy theory influences and episode of the "X-Files," say.
WALKERAnd then people who see that episode have that framework when they hear someone make a claim later on.
MCCLESKEYAnd the "X-Files" was very popular, of course, throughout the 1990s. Do you find that conspiracy theories ebb and flow? Or particular theories or just the idea of conspiracy theories, do they remain something that's in the public culture? Or do they come and go with the economic changes or downturns or...
WALKERWell, I mean particular conspiracy theories come and go, obviously. I mean they're -- pretty much every significant event in American history, and lots of insignificant ones, inspire at least one conspiracy theory. And then people often forget about them. It's unusual that the Kennedy killing lingers in our imagination for so long; whereas people forget the conspiracy theories people had about, say, you know, the attempted assassination of George Wallace. But conspiracy theories themselves are a constant. The direction might change. The content might change.
WALKERBut there's never really a time when they go away. I mean, the 1990s were a time of relative peace and prosperity. But they were a golden age of -- in the above stories. You know? I mean, both in pop culture with things like the New World Order, and in terms of what people actually, you know, believed. And, you know, New World -- I mean, pop culture with the "X-Files" and what people actually believed, like the New World Order and so on.
MCCLESKEYYeah. Interested also in the fact that you mentioned, while they're often dismissed as fringe ideas, it is something that's central -- this persistent nature of conspiracy theories gets at something central to the American psyche. What is that? What is -- what need are we trying to fill through these elaborate conspiracy theories?
WALKERMany different needs. I don't like to get reductive and to put it all down to, you know, why -- and when people try to do that, there's always conspiracies that they don't fit. I will say that there is a broad human drive to imagine conspiracy stories. And I could give you three reasons why, maybe that sort of combine that need to that. One is that we have a natural capacity to seek patterns and to create narratives and to make sense of sort of the gaps in the data around us. Number two, we naturally have things to be fearful of -- to be anxious about.
WALKERSo a bunch of those patterns that we think we see and narratives we create are going to involve people coming to get us. And the third is, again, you know, people do actually conspire sometimes. I mean, it's just not like you're sitting around worrying about vampires and eventually notice that no vampires show up. I mean, you watch the news and, you know, something like the NSA scandal happens.
WALKERYou know, or there are things where it's not demonstrated, but it's at least, you know, plausible that there's, you know. some sort of cover up going on.
MCCLESKEYThe Watergate break in and cover up.
WALKERObviously, yeah, Watergate, you know? It's, you know, I mean, all these -- the Church Committee revelations of the 1970s. You know? It's a, I mean, or, you know, Waco. I mean you don't have to buy these very bizarre theories, said it was like a training ground for the New World Order to say, "Hey, there was a -- they messed up and they covered up and people died, right?" So I mean, this is a -- when they have people actually seeing genuine conspiracies and conspiracy-like behavior, that just, you know, fuels our ability to imagine more.
WALKERAnd often imagining more with the starring roles going to the people who are just in that last conspiracy.
MCCLESKEYWell, how has the Internet changed conspiracy theories? Or has it -- I imagine it's made it easier for people to find other like-minded folks.
WALKERI would say there's been, sort of, three main ways that the Internet has affected all this. It hasn't increased -- well, it's made everything go faster, for one thing. I mean, you know, the news cycle's sped up. That's true of the rumor news cycle as well. And then, number two, it has made everything go -- it's much more in public.
WALKERIn the past, I mean, I write in the book about people who -- I mean, for example, rumors that circulated among white southerners in the 1940s, an idea that Hitler was plotting with American blacks through something called swastika clubs to, you know, give the blacks control of white southerners, if Germany won World War II -- a very strange story. We know this because a sociologist went out and collected the rumors. As far as I know, it was not written down in like, you know, a book that's circulated. I still haven't seen that book, if it was.
WALKERNowadays, you can watch those rumors happen on your Facebook feed. So it's much more public, a lot of things that previously shut out of the wide, you know, eye, you know, people can see. And then the third is that because things are more in public, it's much easier for things to mix. And I think this has been something that's happened with a lot more intensity since the 1990s. There's always been some mixing of conspiracy stories.
WALKERBut ever since, you know, hippies and black nationalists and UFO buffs and militiamen could go on the same conspiracy forum and swap stories -- even if they hate each other at the end of the day, they can work things into their own stories that they picked up from one another. And, you know, that's a byproduct of the public nature or semipublic nature of the internet.
MCCLESKEYIt reminds me of the children's game of telephone where you go around the circle and whisper from one to the next and sort of with everybody in the room, where does it get to by the end of the circle.
MCCLESKEYWell, I'd like to ask our listeners what purpose do you think conspiracy theories on our society? Should they be relegated to the outer fringe? Is there something more to them? Have you ever dismissed a story as a conspiracy theory only to find out later that it was true? Give us a call to join in the conversation. 800-433-8850 is our phone number. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also get in touch through our Facebook page or by sending a Tweet to @kojoshow.
MCCLESKEYWe're going to take a short break. We'll be back in just a minute. We're speaking with Jesse Walker. He's the books editor for Reason magazine and author of "The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory." Stay with us. We'll be back in just a couple of minutes.
MCCLESKEYWelcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of Morning Edition here on WAMU sitting in today for Kojo. We're speaking this hour with Jesse Walker, the author of "The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory." I want to go first to an email that we got from Beth in D.C. She asks, do you cover current conspiracies, for example the birther movement and beliefs that President Obama is a Muslim or working with al-Qaida?"
MCCLESKEY"Apparently," she says, "40 percent of Republicans believe these claims," and says, "if you can talk about these conspiracy theories without sliding into a false equivalency with George Bush, that would be great." So do you cover current conspiracies in the...
WALKERWell, I mean, current is a relative term. Books have lead times but I do have a few pages about the birthers and where I think that comes from, yeah.
MCCLESKEYWell, where do you think it comes from?
WALKERI think that there's really sort of three sort of driving factors there and they overlap. But not everybody who's a birther sort of falls into every one of the categories. One is just the desire for some kind of magic bullet that'll sort of end Obama's career without the pain of political persuasion. You can snap your fingers and say, okay he's not in office anymore. I mean, it's worth remembering that the birther theories first started circulating among hardcore Hillary Clinton supporters, because she was losing her fight for the nomination.
WALKERAnd then after he was, you know, fighting McCain in the general election, that's when it shifted to the right because that's where the need was. Another was, you know, the fear of the foreign. I think it becomes kind of a -- if you don't think of the United States as a multicultural nation it becomes easy to sort of see the president is metaphorically foreign. You know, he's raised in Indonesia, his father's from Africa, he was born in Hawaii. That's the state that's not even in the -- isn't in America, you know. And conspiracy theories are very good at sort of transmuting the metaphorical into the real.
WALKERAnd then third of all, there's this tendency to -- for people who revere the presidency but don't respect the president, it becomes a way to sort of respect the throne, you know, even as you're casting aspersions. You could say -- I mean, one of the clichés in the '90s was that Bill Clinton was a stain on the presidency, you know. Well, if you can say, you know, he's actually an imposter, that's even better. And, in fact, there's this whole sort of string of royalists metaphors. You hear among some birthers that say -- use phrases like pretender to the throne. It's not that their monarchists but that's the sort of natural metaphor you reach for to explicate that kind of a...
MCCLESKEYAnd I should point out, in the book the goal is not to go one by one and either debunk or hold up a particular conspiracy theory. It's more looking systematically at our culture and how they fit in with our thinking.
WALKERYeah, I mean, I make the point early on that the thing about conspiracy theories is that even when they say absolutely nothing true, and even ones that are false often have elements of truth. And that's part of how a conspiracy theory, you know, catches on. But even if a conspiracy theory says absolutely nothing true about the object of the theory, if it catches on it says something true about the anxieties and the experiences of the people who believe it. It becomes a form of focal art.
WALKERAnd it's an important thing to pay attention to because, I mean, what I'm doing here is sort of like using conspiracy theories as a lens on the American past. A history of America in the sense of the history of the things we've been afraid of.
MCCLESKEYI want to read a Tweet that we received from Bossy who says "Conspiracy theories are promulgated by conspirers to distract us from the real conspiracy that there is no conspiracy."
WALKERThat reminds me of actually something in the book. I talk about COINTELPRO, which was an FBI program from the late '50s through the early '70s to infiltrate and disrupt, you know, various dissonant groups, and generally nonviolent groups. And it's an example of, you know, a genuine conspiracy and a rather vial one. But it was also driven by paranoia itself because there was this fear that these were subversive forces. And then on top of that, one of the techniques was to sort of spread word that other people were the police infiltrator to deliberately encourage paranoia within this group.
WALKERSo it essentially was a government conspiracy to combat alleged subversive conspiracies by convincing the conspirators that they were being conspired against.
MCCLESKEYThat's a lot of conspiring.
WALKERYes, it is. You're in a hall of mirrors.
MCCLESKEYAnother Tweet from Eric. He says, "They provide convenient explanations that reconfirm our existing beliefs while rejecting the inconvenient, often banal truth." Let's go to the phones now. Shane in Edgewater, Md. has been waiting on the line. Shane, thanks so much for calling. Go ahead.
SHANEHey, thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to point out that, you know, people do conspire. Granted most conspiracy theories that you hear are pretty ridiculous, you know. But at the same time it kind of takes away from -- takes the attention away from, you know, the things that really need to be looked at. Like for example, if I were to tell you five years ago that the NSA was listening to, you know, all your phone calls and reading through your email and keeping track of that, a lot of people would say, wow that's a crazy conspiracy theory and just kind of lump it into the whole category of all the other crazy conspiracy theories.
SHANEBut, you know, it's kind of up to the individual to sort through it all. But I think to -- either way, to dismiss something 100 percent or to accept something 100 percent, a lot of time the answer lies somewhere in between.
WALKERAnd what do you find, Jesse Walker? Is the answer often in between?
WALKERSure. I mean, people do conspire. I mean, and as I said, I do talk about some real conspiracies in the book. Often there's sort of a -- you know, often when people talk or write about conspiracy theories they do this sort of to-be-sure statement at the beginning. Like to be sure Watergate and Iran contra happened, so there are some real conspiracies. And that's true but I actually would take it a step beyond that, that there's this kind of continuum.
WALKERBecause on the one hand, when you can point to something and you say that's the true conspiracy, often people then will create all sorts of add-ons to it, which are either more speculative in a way that could be believable or sometimes just, you know, not believable at all. And then the flipside is, often conspiracy stories that are absurd will have elements of truth to them. It's part of why they catch on is because people have had some sort of experience.
WALKEROr even -- I mean, getting back to what I was saying earlier about conspiracy theories that have no truth to them. I'll give you an example of when it, you know, still tells you something. There was, you know, a rumor that circulated in the 1980s that white doctors were injecting black babies with AIDS. Not true. I mean, I'm sure everybody -- there's no evidence for that. But this comes on the heels of a long history of high-handed and abusive treatment of, you know, black patients, you know, by white medical institutions...
WALKER...including conspiracies like the Tuskegee experiment. Which makes it -- it's easier to see how something like that could catch on. And it says something about -- the fact that people would believe that absurd story says something about the real kind of abuses that people went through.
MCCLESKEYWell, Shane mentioned there -- and thank you so much for your call, Shane -- he mentioned it's up to the individual to figure out what is and is not true. How do you go about determining what is and isn't true? What would you recommend for someone who hears whatever the theory is and wants to look into it a little further?
WALKERThe same way you judge any other theory. I mean, look at the evidence, how much corroboration there is, how believable the source is. Go over to snokes.com and see if they've already covered it which they probably have, or at least probably have if it's just a rumor that's circulating and it doesn't have much to it. I mean, you know, we're all -- it ultimately always is up to the individual to make sense of any truth claim that comes before them. And it's true as claims about conspiracies as anything else.
MCCLESKEYOne thing it seems like that is often a part of a conspiracy theory, it requires a great deal of organization to keep these things secret, whatever it might be. And it seems like the grander the conspiracy theory or the grander the scale of the conspiracy, it would require a greater degree of organization to keep it under wraps. In many cases that seems to be very unlikely of that...
WALKERYeah, I mean, especially when you have long periods of time. I mean, the classic sort of conspiracy theorist responds to what you just said. Well, look at the Manhattan Project, right. I mean, kept very quiet in vast numbers of people. And that's a good point. The flipside is the Manhattan Project did not last for, you know, decades and decades. With some conspiracy theories, you know, after a certain point you could say someone probably would've spoken up by now if you had to have this many hundreds of thousands of moving parts.
MCCLESKEYAnd I imagine that would be particularly true when you look at something like the "alien landing" in Roswell, N.M. And I'm making finger quotes around the alien landing.
WALKERYeah, just so everyone would...
MCCLESKEYTo let those listening know.
MCCLESKEYBut so do you address that in the book? I know the most popular is widely dispersed.
WALKERI don't talk about Roswell. I do talk about, you know, sort of extraterrestrial and UFO things in general. And, I mean, it actually does come up, as you were saying earlier, in the benevolent conspiracy section. I know a lot of -- there's this -- on the one hand a lot of old stories about sort of ascended masters or angels, you know, manipulating or helping people from affair were kind of secularized into these alien stories. And then in the 1990s some new stories were sort of re-sacralized into angel stories because there was a great big pop culture angle boom that we're still sort of running on the fumes of now.
WALKERAnd it's sort of interesting to look at the way some of these concepts hopped back and forth.
MCCLESKEYSure. And with the Roswell incident, it seemed like once -- the government was involved and the military, do you find that with conspiracy theories, do many of them contain that element of the structures of power to begin with or do they -- does that get incorporated at some point into the story and...
WALKERWell, if it's an enemy-above story. I mean, again -- and there's this tendency when people talk about conspiracy theories to only mean enemy-above stories. I mean, and part of what I'm doing -- and sometimes in this really sloppy way, I mean, some things will be called a conspiracy story -- conspiracy theory even if they don't involve conspiracies. If someone's trying to denigrate them and they involve being skeptical of somebody in office, you know, which is -- that's another topic.
WALKERBut there's -- I try to really stress the extent to which people in power have conspiracy theories too. The main stream embraces ideas that in retrospect you realize, oh that was a conspiracy story, often a conspiracy story that was insane. Like, you know, the great satanic panic of the 1980s, but was taken very seriously by, you know, mass media and politicians and juries, these claims that there's this vast network of satanic cults, you know, kidnapping and molesting and murdering kids, people going to jail.
WALKERI give a very intense -- or should I say, close reading of an episode of 20/20 in the 1980s. And I'm blanking on which year it was, like '86 or '87 or so. At the beginning of it, you know, Hugh Downs says, you know, we approach this skeptically. And I say by the end, apparently you did not interview a single skeptical voice. Or if you didn't, you didn't put them on screen, but you do have this guy who's sort of a notorious -- or, I mean, eventually became notorious as a fabricator of someone who had allegedly had a past as part of a member of this Illuminati and a satanic priest.
WALKERAnd you have him on as though he's just a regular former Satanist telling the way that they do things. So it's really worth pointing out, they don't all involve structures of power. Often there's a focus on the powerless. I talk about the conspiracy theories that white southerners -- and actually even when slavery was still legal in the north, you know, white northerners had about slave pots, revolutionary slave conspiracies.
WALKERHistorians of slavery often have trouble distinguishing real slave rebellions from just the whites freaking out because they think there was a rebellion of them cracking down. And you look back at these court records and you say like, what's a coerced confession and what's a real one? Was there actually an attempt to rebel here or was this just a panic? And sometimes, you know, it's not clear which it was.
MCCLESKEYAnd historians, I imagine, would have to wade through and try to weigh out what happened.
WALKERYeah, and often not come to a very conclusive answer.
MCCLESKEYWell, let's go back to the phones. Daniel calling from Crofton, Md. Daniel, you're on the line. Go ahead. Hello, Daniel, are you there? Oh, we must've lost Daniel.
WALKERHe's been disappeared by the...
MCCLESKEYOh, no, there he is. Daniel.
MCCLESKEYGood, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANIELThanks for taking my call. I was wondering if your guest could comment on conspiracies -- you were talking about positions of power a minute ago and that not all conspiracies necessarily operate in the darker end secrets. Things like the global economics conspiracy, the 500 or so richest companies and conglomerations all coming together and competing -- or helping each other in things like the global land grab. I mean, you see IMF and World Bank officials come into power in foreign countries, like Mario Draghi and Italy.
DANIELSo I was just wondering if you could just talk about conspiracies that don't necessarily take place in secret. And I'll take my answer off the air.
MCCLESKEYOkay. Well, thanks for your call, Daniel. Yeah, we certainly live in an age of globalization. Do we have transnational conspiracy theories?
WALKERWell, sure. I mean, I would say if it's happening publicly it's not a conspiracy exactly. But often conspiracy theories -- I mean, especially when we're talking about the ones that are just sort of focal or, you know, are sort of metaphorical ways of talking about that or building upon what you see what's happening in public. There's -- often when you hear people talk about what's happening behind closed scenes at the Bilderberg Group or the Bohemian Grove, you know, these are, you know, immensely powerful and influential people who are meeting there.
WALKERI imagine they're basically just sort of having something like their Davos Summit, but it's in private. But then again it's not a mistake to say these are powerful people who make decisions that affect and often, you know, ruin people's lives. So I don't blame people for being kind of suspicious.
MCCLESKEYBut really at those meetings it's just ten of them in a room deciding for everybody else, right? They're the ten who are the -- I'm kidding. It seems like there is often that idea of a very small group that controls everything. Is that an appealing -- why is that idea appealing? Why does it pop up over the years in conspiracy theories?
WALKERWell, I mean, it's appealing for different reasons. I mean, one is, again, when you -- it's one thing to have a free floating process of globalization. But when you can make it an external enemy with a name, you know, that can make it easier to talk about, it can make it easier to oppose. You know, direct your anger. There's also -- I mean, this is not always true. This is one of those things that people sometimes say about all conspiracy theorists. And I don't think it's true of all conspiracy theorists. But I think it is sometimes true that it can be comforting to imagine that it's just all one group.
WALKERI mean, I remember when I was first reading 9/11 conspiracy theories, you know, saying Bush was behind it all. I'd say, wow, geez, if that were the case it would be so much easier, you know, to end this terrorism problem. Just, you know, one small group in Washington as opposed to this far flung network of people with their own grievances and, you know, hiding in the mountains and, you know, opaque organizational structures. You know, just making it something that's sort of in this kind of easy-to-understand Washington environment. You know, that's -- it's sort of empowering in a way to be able to look at it that way.
MCCLESKEYI know your book focuses primarily on American conspiracy theories. You say there are others around the world. So this question is a little bit afield but it does involved America. It's an email from Jonathan in Washington. He asks, "How big a role does America play in other countries in the enemy from without scenario?" He says, "It seems to eclipse China and Russia, especially since the NSA disclosure was confirmed that it's okay for foreign countries to be," as he puts it, "a little paranoid." Does the U.S. pop up as the bad guy elsewhere?
WALKERYeah, you know, it's funny. I was talking with a Canadian just last week, I mean, about the book and related issues. And he told me Canada is very different from America because you guys are so much more suspicious of your government. And then we talked a bit more and we realized actually Canadians and Americans had a lot in common. We were both afraid of the U.S. government. Yes, I mean, there's -- the book is about U.S. history. I'm not claiming that America is uniquely paranoid but, I mean, it's just America is what I'm focused on. But I -- it's absolutely the case that other countries have conspiracy theories, and it's absolutely the case that the United States often looms large, and understandably. I mean, the United States is the most powerful nation in the world. It has a long history of intervening in other countries. American culture casts a long shadow.
WALKERIt would be very strange if people didn't tell conspiracy stories that involved America. And of course, there's a long history of America, you know, actively conspiring in other countries.
WALKERCIA overthrowing governments, or, you know, or just funding particular opposition figures, you know, and so on. So, I mean, it's -- now the NSA, you know, doing it's spying thing. I don't think it's at all innately wrong for people outside the U.S. to be suspicious of Washington.
MCCLESKEYI'm reminded of the old quote, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean someone's not out to get you.
MCCLESKEYWe're speaking with Jesse Walker. He's the books editor for Reason magazine and author of several books, the latest of which is "The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory." We're going to take a quick break now. When we come back on the other side, we'll take some more of your phone calls and continue this conversation about conspiracy theories. I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. Stay with us.
MCCLESKEYWelcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Matt McCleskey sitting in today for Kojo and we're speaking with Jesse Walker, the author of "The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory." Let's get right back to the phones now and go to Thomas who's calling us from Alexandria, Va. Thomas, you're on the air. Go ahead.
THOMASHi. You mentioned John F. K assassination earlier in the show.
THOMASI just want to draw an interesting parallel to that and Lincoln and Kennedy were the only two presidents who actually wanted to get rid of the federal reserve, and both of them have no similarity in that they were assassinated. So it just kind of plays into the hands of the whole conspiracy theory, new world order and that sort of thing.
WALKERAbraham Lincoln would be a little ahead of schedule to get rid of the Federal Reserve. That wasn't created for about 50 -- until like 1913, I think.
MCCLESKEYThere are a lot of similarities though that I've read over the years. Between the two it seems like it spanned a whole...
WALKERYeah. Well, the claim in general about the Lincoln and monetary thing has to do with the fact that he had been -- had gone on the greenback, and there was...
WALKERSo there is this -- a history of claims about banking conspiracies with him, and also Kennedy allegedly wanting to move away from the federal reserve towards, you know, direct printing of money which I don't think is -- I don't think he actually wanted to do, but that is a claim you hear. But yeah. And I'll say actually, the bigger similarity between the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations is that while every presidential death has inspired conspiracy theories, I mean, every single one, those are the two where they've really lasted a long time in the public consciousness. Now, of course, there was a...
MCCLESKEYA conspiracy to kill Lincoln.
WALKERNow, with Lincoln, I should hasten to add, Booth had co-conspirators. But even so, it makes to say a conspiracy killed Lincoln. Then, of course, there are also then the broader ones, you know, say people in his cabinet...
WALKER...were behind it and so on. And then, you know, and JFK, I mean, there are still some open questions about that. I'm not advocating any JFK conspiracy theories, but I don't think it's nutty for someone to be exploring it. Um, but I think that it has this sort -- I mean, we just -- the most recent polls have -- there have been three this year, having either -- depending on who look at, 51, 59, or 61 percent of the populace thinking that a conspiracy was behind the Kennedy assassination.
WALKERNot all agreeing on the same conspiracy, but believing that there was -- not Oswald acting alone. And on the one hand, that sounds surprisingly high to a lot of people since that's kind of a disreputable opinion. On the other hand, it's not nearly the size it used to be. I mean, we've had in the -- I mean, in 1983, ABC's poll had it at 80 percent. There have been gallop polls a couple times piping up about 81 percent.
WALKERSo there's this interesting idea, not only is why has it lasted so long, but why has it been, I mean, fallen off by, you know, depending on which poll you look at, about 10 or 20 percent in the last decade. Why is that? Um, I suspect it has to do with fading the intensity of memory, that it just doesn't cast the same shadow that it used to, and people aren't driven to look for evidence even, you know? It's starts becoming more like, you know, Arthur Bremer, did he act alone trying to kill George Wallace.
WALKERBut it's an interesting question, and one that I'm very interested to see how public opinion continues to move on that question over the next decades.
MCCLESKEYWell, thanks for your call, Thomas. And he mentioned a seeming similarity between Kennedy and Lincoln. I've seen lists over the years showing all sorts of similarities. It gets at that idea you mentioned at the beginning about finding patterns.
MCCLESKEYPeople are looking for patterns in the facts of history.
WALKERYeah. I mean, you're probably thinking like Kennedy had Mrs. Lincoln, and Lincoln had Mrs. Kennedy, yeah.
MCCLESKEYAnd I don't know how much of that is even true, but it seems like people are looking to make that connection for some reason.
WALKERYeah. Well, I mean, there was a novelty record actually of -- right after Kennedy died of someone reading off a list of these parallels over patriotic music, and clearly that was a part of the just the reaction to a president's death, and putting him on the same plane as someone like Abraham Lincoln who's a national hero, you know? I mean, the same sort of thing that had Kennedy put on a coin.
WALKERI mean, look, if Kennedy had served out his term, unless there had been a real severe change in what he was doing in office, I don't think he would have accumulated the kind of record that would have gotten his face on a coin, right?
WALKERIt's about the fact that he's, you know, become this martyr and that people imagine all the things that he could have done, you know. A person imagined him going off the fed. There's this persistent fantasy that he would have withdrawn from Vietnam and we could have avoided this horrible war, you know. There is -- he had given a quote, like, in this -- a couple of years before the assassination, or an alleged quote. It's one of those things where it's contested whether he said it, but it's where he said I want to tear up the CIA and scatter it to the wind.
WALKERNow, he didn't say that right before he died, you know. He was upset about -- I -- you know, this was earlier in the -- so you would think if he really wanted to tear up the CIA and scatter it to the winds, he would have made a move towards it before 1963. But at the same time though, that sort of -- especially when you hit the 1970s and you find out how many awful things the CIA was up to, you can imagine, wow, what if we had this guy instead of LBJ and Nixon in power, this guy that we imagine wanting to take on the powers that be.
MCCLESKEYAnd the '60s, of course, a very tumultuous era, both domestically, but also with the Vietnam war overseas.
MCCLESKEYAre people looking at what might have been, and that drives some of the conspiracy theories?
WALKERYeah. Yeah. I think -- and often it's a very different might have been. Yeah. You know, further assassinations, riots. I mean, I talk in the book about conspiracy theories about the Watts Riots and so on, which, you know, that has not -- that doesn't occupy the same place in American memory that the assassinations do these days because they don't have a personality at the center of them, you know, King, Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X.
WALKERBut, I mean, of course, that had a much bigger impact. You know, the -- seeing these cities go up in flames. And you want to talk about people in power, you know, believing conspiracy theories, LBJ was convinced that the communists were behind the riots, and he was pressing his cabinet -- pressing attorney general, pressing the FBI for evidence of this, and not taking no for an answer when they're saying, you know, we really don't see evidence of, you know, the Soviets pulling the strings here.
MCCLESKEYWell, the McCarthy era imagine and the -- worried about the communists doing various things and infiltrating into American society, would that qualify as a conspiracy theory?
MCCLESKEYComing from the highest levels of power looking down.
WALKERYeah, sure. I mean, it's -- now, of course, there was Soviet espionage, you know.
WALKERAnd several people who were considered -- widely considered innocent at the time, like Alger Hiss actually turned out to be probably guilty. So, but, you know, but obviously people like McCarthy were casting a much wider net than the actual evidence support and what happened was often people who just had, you know, non-conforming opinions or, you know, more left wing, but not pro-Soviet opinions still get tagged with this red label.
MCCLESKEYWho had friends perhaps who were more involved or seemed more involved.
WALKERYeah. But also, I mean, at the same time that the -- I mean, the Red Scare is just one, I mean, it was actually followed a Brown Scare of the late 1930s and the early forties which involved, you know, the year of fascists aversion, and some of the same things happened to conservatives who are not pro-Nazi. I mean, some of the same, like, laws and institutions that were later used against the left actually were created during the Roosevelt years, you know, to deal with the threat of pro-Nazi Fifth Column. So some people who supported the creation of certain laws came to regret it.
MCCLESKEYWe don't hear as much about that though. Is that because of World War II, because we eventually did go to war with the Nazis?
WALKERWell, no. I mean, but it went on during World War II as well. I think a lot of it has to do with, you know, the histories of McCarthyism are, you know, tend to be, you know, written by the victims understandably, you know, and often there's this desire not to sort of turn over those other stones. And also because a lot of the people who sort of are civil libertarians are also inclined to like, you know, someone like Franklin Roosevelt and not -- I mean, they're aware of things like the Japanese internment, but they're not aware of just actually how bad his civil liberties record was in a lot of ways.
WALKERBut I was going to get to at the same time as the Red Scare, there is something which historians call the Lavender Scare, which was this massive crackdown on gays and lesbians in the civil service which actually led to far more people losing their jobs than the Red Scare did, which, you know, makes sense. There's more gays that communists in America, you know. But the idea at the core of it was this assumption that gays and lesbians were innately security risks.
WALKERAnd the idea that they sort of innately tended to in some sense conspire. I mean, it's a -- subcultures are always sort of imagined by outsiders as conspiracies, and there is a quote in there, I don't have it in front of me, but it's in the book. The director of Central Intelligence testifying to Congress, I think it was 1950, right around there, calling them, you know, a government within the government. And there's this sort of subversive rhetoric being used at the -- at what was at the -- at its core, you know, a moral panic.
MCCLESKEYLet's go back to the phones. Hannah, calling us from Silver Spring in Maryland. You've been on the line quite a while. Thanks for waiting. Hannah, you're on the air. Go ahead.
HANNAHHi. I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about global warming, which I've been hearing a lot, by mostly conservative parties, even though it's something that scientists seem to widely regard as irrefutable, and there seems to be conspiracies from both ends. I mean, the arguments I've seen against global warming have been, I think, coming from like big energy companies thinking that it's like environmentalists trying to bring them down, and then environmentalists trying to -- thinking that oh, these big companies just want to keep making profits.
HANNAHAnd then I -- I think I may have missed this, but if you could just clarify -- excuse me, clarify the difference between conspiracies and myths. Thanks.
MCCLESKEYOkay. Thank you, Hannah. Thanks for your call. So around global warming, are there conspiracy theories developing there on either or both sides?
WALKERYeah, both sides. I mean, often when you have the hotly contested issue, you know, people will think in conspiratorial terms about what the other side is up to. And it -- so yes, absolutely. And then she asked about the difference between conspiracies and myths. There -- I'll give you two answers to that. Number one, a conspiracy theory could be mythical or could not be. It could -- there is genuine investigative journalism about real conspiracies. But beyond that, there's another meaning of the word myth, which is not about something which is necessarily untrue, but it's like sort of a culturally resonant narrative that, you know, it's -- it can absorb all kinds of allegations true or not and put them in a forum that people say yeah, you know.
WALKERBecause it fits, I mean, it's just a story you hear again and again and again. And what I sort of try to do, especially in the first half of this book, is to say what are those stories you hear again and again and again that are conspiracy stories. What are these sort of primal myths underlying the way we talk about conspiracies in America?
MCCLESKEYLet's go to Paul calling from Alexandria, Va. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead.
PAULHi. I wanted to talk about parsimony, not parsnips, but parsimony and the scientific myth allows for one theory if it can be explained in fewer parts to be a better theory than another theory that contains all sorts of complex moving parts. Occam's Razor is often cited as a good example of parsimony. I also wanted to say that it seems like conspiracy theories are disempowering, especially to those who entertain them, and they think you can't do anything about it.
PAULI often find that when I'm talking to the sometimes Arabs in the Middle East. They think, oh, Israel's -- is the whole point, and I also hear sometimes from Israelis too, and I find it disempowering, and I just wanted to say while conspiracy theories do exist sometimes, it's hard to pull off a bake sale sometimes. It's hard to get that many moving parts going, and I do believe that in general the truth will win out in the end.
MCCLESKEYWell, thanks for your call, Paul. That idea of parsimony and Occam's Razor, does that fly out the window with some of these increasing complex theories?
WALKERWell, sure. I mean, and this actually has, I think, in a way to do with the psychology of belief in general, because there's all kinds of things not even involving conspiracy theories, but what people want to -- when they're really attached to a narrative, they find ways to keep believing in it, and in the conspiracy context, well, anything can be dismissed as part of the cover up if you're really intent on -- as far as things being disempowering, I gotta say that's true often of the psychology of conspiracy theories.
WALKERBut also, people -- there's the flip side. People -- when you make something an external enemy with a name, that can become a focus. That can be something that people protest against. Certainly, I mean, the sort of Quixotic, the 9/11 truthers, but they get out there and they march and they wave their signs, and I'm not quite sure anything, you know, because it's so bizarrely directive. They're not sitting at home saying we can't do anything because of this -- and I'll -- beyond that, often politicians can get their supporters riled up.
WALKERI mean, they're embattled. They say, well, there's a conspiracy against me, you know? The -- the other side is conspiring against you by conspiring against me, and that's a way to rally the troops, not to get them to stay at home. So it cuts in different directions.
MCCLESKEYWe have a tweet from Lena who says, "I love conspiracies. They're usually a sign of inquisitive minds and desire to explain things beyond our knowledge and understanding." She says, "They can often be too much, but fun to observe the woven narratives and all the connected dots." She says, "Folklore is a good word for it." Now, we're coming up on the end of the hour, so in just a minute or so, where's the connection between conspiracy theories and folklore? Are they weaving our contemporary folklore as we go through...
WALKERYeah. This is a big part of folklore. I mean, folklore is a big part of what I'm talking about, and I deliberately sort of set out in writing this to say I'm not going to write a book that's a big debunking of everything people believe. I'm not going to write a book that's there to espouse the conspiracy theories that I find plausible. I'm going to write a book that says this is folklore. Some of it may be true. A lot of it's not true. There's a lot of half truths, but let's just take these as stories, do a history of these stories and then say what can we determine about the people who believe these things from the stories they tell.
MCCLESKEYAn email from Sarah as we wrap up the hour. She says, "I think one source of conspiracy theories among Americans is boredom. Life can be very mundane, so if you can grab hold of the conspiracy theory like Area 51 or Bigfoot, it makes life a little bit more interesting." Well, certainly an interesting book. Jesse Walker, he's the books editor for Reason magazine, and the author of several books, the latest of which is "The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory." Thanks so much for joining us.
MCCLESKEYAnd I'm Matt McCleskey sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks for listening.
Most Recent Shows
In the same month that the Women's World Cup pulled in record numbers of viewers, a study revealed that ESPN's SportsCenter spent 2 percent of airtime on women's sports, the same as in 1999. We explore the lack of media coverage of female athletics, and the broad effects of the amount and framing of that coverage.
The Washington Navy Yard was put on lockdown this morning after reports of possible gun shots. Federal officials have now issued an "all clear" for the area, but questions remain about what provoked the heavy response from law enforcement.
Have you ever popped open a bag of potato chips only to be disappointed by the number of crisps in your bag? It's not just you. To avoid raising prices, companies often increase their "nonfunctional slack fill" or the difference between the volume of product and its container. We talk about how food packaging affects your recipe and wallet.