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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Jesse Walker 'Paranoia' roundup

The Wall Street Journal's books section came out recently with its holiday books recommendations, and Jesse Walker's The United States of Paranoia made into Simon Winchester's roundup of recommended history books. I am having trouble getting the link to work, but Winchester, who had just finished recommending Philip Shenon's JFK assassination book, A Cruel and Shocking Act,  wrote, "The whirlwind of conspiracy theories attendant on this episode is far from a new phenomenon in America, as Jesse Walker reminds us in his imaginative survey of two centuries of belief in sinister dark forces, The United States of Paranoia (Harper, 433 pages, $25.99). In the 17th century, the Salem witches, for example, were believed to have perfidious Frenchmen among their allies, part of a conspiracy to besmirch colonial New England. And worse! Whiskeys drunk in the bars of Washington in 1868 were laced with malaria germs, courtesy of mad Democrat scientists! A century later communist troublemakers were stoking the 1968 urban riots! America has been rich with popular madnesses for all of its existence, something of which the supermarket tabloids still remind us today, each time we buy a quart of milk."

I've recommended the book as a must-read for RAW fans (see my interview with Jesse), but I thought it might be helpful to point out Winchester's recommendation. To quote Alexander Cockburn from another context, Walker's book is an attractive masterpiece, apt for the gift-giving season. (I've always wanted to recycle that quote).

Jesse has put in approximately 10,000 speaking engagements and interviews to promote the book. I haven't listened to them all, but I'm pretty sure that one of the best was his appearance at a Cato Institut event. It's available as a downloadable podcast and video.  Walker is ably supported by two other speakers. Gene Healy, one of my favorite libertarian writers, noted that Cass Sunstein has suggested having government employees hang out in chat rooms to rebut conspiracy theories. This could have the effect, Healy points out, of convincing the paranoid that anyone who makes a rational argument against a conspiracy theory must be a government agent. Walker is also joined by Daniel McCarthy, editor of the American Conservative, who despite being a last-minute fill-in contributes some good thoughts about the conspiracy obsessions of people on different points of the American political spectrum.

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