(Jonathan Bartlett / For…)
Along the stretch of U.S. highway where I live, there is a small sign announcing that the road has been "adopted" by the John Birch Society. This fringe group of yesteryear -- whose Dallas members distributed commie-baiting "Wanted for Treason" leaflets of President Kennedy prior to his visit and assassination there -- now sponsors litter removal like any other proper civic-minded organization. The Red-under-every-bed zealotry that Richard Hofstadter dissected in "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" and Bob Dylan satirized in "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" has been rehabilitated. Or maybe it's just been coyly rebranded, given a veneer of halfway respectable populism by the grass-rootsy Tea Party label, as an outlet for "angry minds" who get to cherry-pick among speculations that the president of the United States is a socialist traitor, a foreign agent/illegal immigrant, a secret Muslim, a tool of Jewish bankers, a black Hitler or all of the above.
The sources of such loopy emanations can be partly gleaned from David Aaronovitch's "Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History." With a nod to Hofstadter, but casting a wider, fuzzier net, "Voodoo Histories" runs the gamut from "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" -- the anti-Semitic mother of all modern conspiracy-mongering -- to the relatively benign crackpottery of "The Da Vinci Code" and its fraudulent inspiration, "Holy Blood, Holy Grail." Aaronovitch sets out to discredit junk knowledge, urban apocrypha and a slew of bunko artists: the con men and fantasists behind the disinformation and fake cabals. He also debunks charges Franklin Delano Roosevelt instigated or acquiesced to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, "Truther" assertions that the second Bush administration likewise carried out or at least permitted the Sept. 11 attacks, and claims that the Clintons operated as a de facto crime family -- the Sopranos of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
But if Aaronovitch does a decent job of exposing the lies underpinning these jerry-built myths, his peevish, plodding common sense is hardly a match for the burning near-religiosity that not only makes a Communion wafer of JFK's assassination, but also extends to the overdose death of one-time Kennedy paramour Marilyn Monroe. It's a writhing snake pit of incestuous connections: Did the mob whack Kennedy as payback, or stage the troublesome Monroe's death as a favor to the Kennedys? Was Oswald a brainwashed tool of the KGB or the CIA, a convenient patsy for the Cubans (either pro- or anti-Castro) or the Texans? How many sharpshooters could fit on a grassy knoll? (What about Monroe's ex-husband Joltin' Joe DiMaggio as the second gunman? A man who'd had a 56-game hitting streak certainly would have the eye-hand coordination for the job.) Excavating the visceral, reductive urges of the "I want to believe" mind-set -- the need to translate everything into the neat pieces of some gigantic X-File -- isn't Aaronovitch's strongest suit.
Scanning the milieu of "government by hallucination," Francis Wheen's "Strange Days Indeed: The 1970s: The Golden Age of Paranoia" more effectively captures how conspiracy theories and botched conspiracies such as Watergate entered the collective psyche. Throughout the decade, dark mutterings and dreadful events, like a backdoor form of pop culture, seemed to mutually reinforce everyone's worst suspicions. Moving at a detoxified Hunter Thompson clip, Wheen's travelogue frames the 1970s as an era of institutional collapse, unstable officials, general irrationalism (widespread interest in UFOs, psychic phenomena, mad cults) and terror: the Irish Republican Army's bombing campaign in Britain, the Black September massacre at the Munich Olympics, the Zippy the Pinhead antics of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, and the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Wheen cheekily plays off conceits such as Tom Wolfe's coinage "the 'Me' Decade" and Christopher Lasch's "The Culture of Narcissism," renaming the 1970s the "Them decade." Richard Nixon and his enemies list top the paranoiac charts, of course, lashing out in directions that inevitably intersect with Aaronovitch's voodoo-history practitioners. What Wheen calls "my beloved Watergate" was almost too good and circular to be true -- Nixon's conspiracy to wiretap his foes is ultimately confirmed because he also wiretapped himself, raising the notion of being your own worst enemy to a warped art form.