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JesseOkay, Mr. Walker, just say the first things that come to your mind.  KKK. 

Church’s Chicken is a front for the Ku Klux Klan, and it prepares its food in a special way that makes black men sterile. Or that’s what a tenacious urban legend said, anyway. When the folklorist Patricia Turner heard that story in the 1980s — a time when the real Klan had been reduced to a bunch of squabbling splinter groups — she asked her informant why the FDA didn’t stop the chain from doctoring its chicken. Aha, came the reply: How do you know the KKK doesn’t control the FDA too?

Ho ho, you laugh. But here’s the thing about conspiracy theories: Even the ones that aren’t true can tell us truths about the anxieties and the experiences of the people who believe them. The Church’s Chicken tale took hold in a country where many states really did sterilize low-income blacks without the patients’ permission. Virginia and California didn’t repeal their sterilization laws until 1979. That’s just seven years before Turner heard that chicken story, and she later determined that the rumor had been circulating since the ’70s.

 

THE ILLUMINATI.

The Bavarian Illuminati — the actual historical organization, not the all-powerful cabal of legend — were founded by Adam Weishaupt in 1776 and suppressed about a decade later. They weren’t the first group to call themselves Illuminati, and they weren’t the first Illuminati to appear in a New World conspiracy theory. In Chiapas in the 1580s, a bishop became convinced that some of the local Indians were “giving cult to the Devil and plotting against our Christian religion.” The secret sect’s beliefs, he added, resembled those of the Spanish heretics known as the Alumbrados, or Illuminati.

But the Bavarians were the biggies. Their alleged machinations set off a panic in Federalist circles at the end of the 1790s. The New England minister Jedidiah Morse sermonized that he had “an official, authenticated list of the names, ages, places of nativity, professions, &c. of the officers and members of a Society of *Illuminati*…consisting of *one hundred* members”; among other things, the plotters allegedly had a plan “to invade the southern states from [Haiti] with an army of blacks…to excite an insurrection among the negroes.” Another Federalist writer warned that Thomas Jefferson was an agent of the cabal. The order entered pop culture, too. In Sally Wood’s novel *Julia and the Illuminated Baron*, published in 1800 and set in prerevolutionary France, a lady Illuminatus describes their initiation ceremony: “disrobed of all coverings except a vest of silver gauze, I am to be exposed to the homage of all the society present upon a marble pedestal placed behind which sacrifices are to be offered.” She adds, “This sect increases daily. They will in a few years overturn Europe and lay France in ruins.”

In the 20th century the Illuminati became stock villains on the far right, appearing alternately as a revolutionary force and as the secret rulers of the world. In the 1960s they started cropping up in countercultural and leftist tales too, thanks partly to some pranksters who thought it would be fun to seed the underground press with stories about Illuminati activities. A couple of those pranksters wrote the cult novel *Illuminatus!* in the 1970s, and that helped re-inject the idea into mass culture. These days, of course, the Illuminati are everywhere. Er, I mean *stories about* the Illuminati are everywhere.

 

backmaskBACKMASKING.

There’s a weird poetry to the word salad that people think they hear when they play records backward.

So here’s to my sweet Satan/The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan/He will give those with him 666/There was a little tool shed where he made us suffer/Sad Satan.

That was supposed to be encoded in “Stairway to Heaven.” It’s nonsense, but it’s compelling nonsense: I’ve reached the point where I enjoy the spooky sensation of hearing the song backward more than the worn-out pleasure of listening to it the way it’s supposed to be heard.

There have always been rumors that something evil is lurking in popular music. If you look in the Monkees’ FBI file — yes, of course the Monkees had an FBI file — you’ll see that someone at the bureau’s Los Angeles field office got it into his head that the band had included left-wing “subliminal messages” in its live show. In the 1970s a man called John Todd traveled the circuit telling congregations that he was a defector from the Illuminati, that the Illuminati control the music industry, and that Elton John had never created a song that wasn’t written in “witch language.” These days half of hip hop is supposed to be under Illuminati control, and YouTube is filled with intricate analyses of the symbolism the secret society has supposedly concealed in pop videos.

But the most potent conspiracy story about music is this idea that backward Satanic messages have been inscribed in rock records. The fact that the bands have almost always denied that the incantations are there didn’t matter — even if they’re telling the truth, the story went, the Devil could have inserted the messages himself.

 

THE DEAD KENNEDYS.

Jello Biafra comes up when I write about the missing-children scare of the ’80s. When the police raided Biafra’s home in 1986, looking for evidence of obscenity, they saw the milk carton pictures that the singer’s roommate had put up as decorations. “What are all those pictures of missing milk carton kids doing on your kitchen wall?” a cop asked. “DO YOU KNOW WHERE THEY ARE?”

Oh, wait: You mean the other kind of dead Kennedy. Yes, I write about them too.

 

JACK CHICK.

Jack Chick is the man behind those little comic-book pamphlets you find in laundromats and public restrooms — the ones that tell you how to steer clear of Hell, and that warn you about the Satanic/Catholic/homosexual/etc. effort to claim your soul for Satan. He has a history of promoting purported defectors from the enemy conspiracy, including John Todd.

Dark Dungeons

CHRISTIAN ROCK.

In his Illuminati days, John Todd claimed, he personally delivered a $4 million check to Pastor Chuck Smith of Maranatha Music to infiltrate the churches with Christian rock. The lyrics to Christian rock songs might *seem* better than the secular stuff, he told his audiences, but it wasn’t the lyrics that gave the songs their demonic power. “It’s the music. The power’s in the music….They don’t produce rock music to make money. They don’t *need* that money. They own everything anyway! They do it to put demonic influence in your life. The music is a spell.

 

RAMBO.

For a movie bathed in patriotism it sure did have a conspiratorial view of the U.S. government. The bridge between the Watergate ’70s and the militia ’90s.

 

FEMA.

Rumors have circulated since the ’80s, initially on the left and more recently on the right, that FEMA is plotting to put dissidents in concentration camps. After 9/11, when it was absorbed by the Department of Homeland Security, the agency was afflicted by a different kind of paranoia, as the department’s preparations for terrorism overwhelmed preparations for more common sorts of disasters. That’s one reason the response to Katrina was so abysmal. (The Katrina response was also distorted by another sort of paranoid rumor: fictions in which mass rape and murder descended on the Superdome, men fired weapons at the helicopters coming to rescue them, and, in general, the people displaced by the storm were a violent threat to be subdued.)

 

FREEMASONS. 

So many Masonic conspiracy theories, so little time. I’ll quote just one famous Anti-Mason. As the campaign for the White House heated up in 1832, former president John Quincy Adams commented that the “dissolution of the Masonic institution in the United States” was “really more important to us and our posterity than the question whether [Henry] Clay or [Andrew] Jackson shall be the president.” Anti-Masonic governors were elected in Vermont and Pennsylvania that year, and many Anti-Masonic activists would later become important figures in Whig and Republican politics, including future secretary of state William Seward, future senator Charles Sumner, and future congressman Thaddeus Stevens. So Anti-Masonic conspiracy theories, like conspiracy theories in general, haven’t just been an obsession for the fringe. They found followers at the heart of power.

 

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TWIN TOWERS.

If you say “9/11″ and “political paranoia,” people think immediately of the truthers. But interesting as they can be, the truthers are ultimately a sideshow. The most prevalent form of paranoia after 9/11 was the mindset that prompted the Baltimore airport to shut down a concourse because someone mistook some powdered coffee creamer for anthrax spores. That prompted a Nevada man to call the police because he got a suspiciously lumpy package, which turned out to contain a pair of lace panties and a love letter. And — oh, yeah — that prompted Congress to pass the PATRIOT Act and get worried that there might be weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Fear isn’t just a fringe thing. It infects us all.

 

So how did we become the UNITED STATES OF PARANOIA?

The right question isn’t “Why is America so paranoid?” Every society has its native flavors of paranoia. The question to ask is, “What are ours?”

___________

US of PJesse Walker is a senior editor at Reason magazine and Reason.com. He has written on topics ranging from pirate radio to copyright law to political paranoia, and is author of the book Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (New York University Press, 2001). His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New Republic, and many other publications. He lives in Baltimore with his wife and two daughters.

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