Films

The horror and the humour

Andrew Clark,Brian Bethune August 2 1999
Films

The horror and the humour

Andrew Clark,Brian Bethune August 2 1999

Look who’s paranoid now

Nonfiction titles bring conspiracy theories in from the cold

Paranoia means having all the facts.

William S. Burroughs

Two-thirds of Americans believe their government is hiding evidence of a 1947 UFO crash near Roswell, N.M. Millions more around the world lend credence to claims that Diana, Princess of Wales, was murdered. Even U.S. First Lady Hillary Clinton feels free to denounce “avast right-wing conspiracy” out to get her husband. Paranoia, once the domain of the lunatic fringe, has clearly gone mainstream. And now four new books, including two serious academic works, examine how conspiracy theories have infiltrated daily life.

The most original of the four is Suspicious Minds: The Triumph of Paranoia in Everyday Life (Macfarlane Walter & Ross). Written by Ian Dowbiggin, a historian at the University of Prince Edward Island, Suspicious Minds radically expands the usual meaning of the term paranoia. Dowbiggin gives a nod to the familiar territory of fervent belief that conspiracies—whether of the CIA, alien visitors or Satan— secretly shape history. But most of his book is an attack on what is commonly called political correctness: university speech codes, repressed memory syndrome and the like. For the author, every self-described North American victim group indulges in the language of paranoia—and, inevitably, falls into its traps. When some University of British Columbia graduate engineering students accused their professors of racism, and then warned “the first symptom of racism is denial,” they were engaging in classic closed-loop paranoid thinking. There is no room for dialogue, for a solution based on compromise, in a situation so defined.

Suspicious Minds is a valuable book, well-written from a core of moral outrage. If it has a fault, it is that Dowbiggin only grudgingly acknowledges that governments and other institutions are often just reaping what they sow. Every scandal from Watergate to Monica Lewinsky in the United States, from RCMP dirty tricks to tainted blood in Canada, has been deepened by official obfuscation and outright lies. Governments have earned a rational level of skepticism.

Or even a lashing of derisive laughter. Comedian and actor Richard Beizer mocks everyone in his savagely hilarious UFOs, JFK and Elvis (Bailan tine Books). But he reserves his most vitriolic comments for the government side of things, especially for the Warren Commission report on the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. Beizers indiscriminate rantings on other topics, whether alien abductions or the truth of

X-Files scripts, make it impossible to tell what he actually believes about them. But no matter: his finest contribution is the large window he opens on a paranoid mind—his own.

A more sober guide to the conspiracy community is Denver writer Mark Fensters Conspiracy Theories (University of Minnesota Press). He provides a fine overview of the basic thinking patterns common to the theorists. Nothing can be accepted for what it purports to be, everything is linked behind the scenes. When George Bush—former CIA head and Yale Skull and Bones man—uttered the phrase “New World Order” during the Gulf War, he could not, for the paranoid, have made more clear his plans to crush American liberties.

Science-fiction novelist Mick Farren—paranoids will immediately note the uncanny resemblance of his name to Fensters—provides a useful A-Z guide in Conspiracies, Lies, and Hidden Agendas (Renaissance Books). A compendium of every strange fact or theory the author has encountered, it neady summarizes such conspiratorial mainstays as Area 31, the Nevada site where UFOs are supposedly based. The most noteworthy aspect of Farrens book, however, is its banal normality. Just another guide to the terminology of just another subculture. The triumph of paranoia, indeed. Probably someone, somewhere, wants it that way.

Brian Bethune