THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Alex Beam

The return of the black helicopters

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / June 30, 2008

My friend, the critic Katherine Powers, has spotted an interesting theme in books flowing across her desk for review - paranoia. Coming this fall: John Demos's "The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-hunting in the Western World." Demos is a Bancroft award-winning historian emeritus at the World's Second Greatest University (Yale), who once wrote a Wall Street Journal commentary suggesting that it might be time to pardon America's 17th-century witches. So soon?

Then arrives "Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11," by University of California history professor Kathryn Olmsted. Hot on its heels comes "Paranoia: The 21st Century Fear," by brothers Daniel and Jason Freeman. The Freemans published a self-help book in Britain called "Overcoming Paranoid & Suspicious Thoughts: A Self-Help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioral Techniques."

As part of their research, the Freemans circulated a "Paranoid Thoughts Questionnaire" to 1,200 people, inquiring how often they felt that "People are laughing at me," or if they "suspect that someone has it in for me." That's easy! All the time. They concluded that "about a third of the population are regularly bothered by suspicious or paranoid thoughts."

Did I mention that the new X-Files movie, "The X-Files: I Want to Believe" is coming out this month? Yes, Chris Carter, David Duchovny, and Gillian Anderson are back for another payday. You may know that the lynchpin of the entire galactic conspiracy, the Cigarette Smoking Man, passed away under mysterious circumstances a few years ago. I wonder what killed him? The coffin nails, or . . . the oil?

H.L. Mencken's famous definition of Puritanism was "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." The definition of modern American paranoia is: Someone, somewhere is out to get you. My favorite description of a paranoid, attributed in various forms to the writer William S. Burroughs, is: a man with all the facts at his disposal. So, on the one hand, actor Warren Beatty looks foolish railing about Google's power to record almost every Internet search in the world. On the other hand, well, you get the picture.

What are the great conspiracy theories of our time? Sept. 11 spawned a host of paranoid illusions, numerous enough to fill up the next edition of the psychiatrists' diagnostic manual. I see that the lunatic website 911truth.org, formerly ground zero for the most noxious "George Bush blew up the World Trade Center" myths, has moved on to new concerns. Among other things, they worry that the Bush administration plans to attack Iran before leaving office. I do, too.

The presidential campaign has served up plenty of catnip for conspiracy theorists. Fairly bonkers conspiracy monger, former BBC staffer David Icke, has asserted that the British royal family, George Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama are related to oversize, blood-drinking reptilians from the star system Alpha Draconis. What about Wolf Blitzer? He has that Draconis air about him. According to the always-reliable online encyclopedia Wikipedia, "Icke's speaking engagements can draw a substantial audience in Canada."

Another hallmark of Election-Conspiracy 2008: The twin Manchurian Candidate theories. The reference is to Richard Condon's 1959 novel, later moviefied, about a prisoner of war whom nefarious Asians program to enter American politics and become an assassin. One fringe theory has it that Indonesian Islamists programmed the young Barack Obama to reenter the United States as a "sleeper" agent for radical Islam. The parallel, disturbed-universe version holds that John McCain's North Vietnamese captors programmed him to return to the United States and destroy our body politic.

Wait! Wasn't "The Manchurian Candidate" re-released into theaters in 2004, the last year McCain stood for election? Coincidence, or something more?

Free plug

When you see one of these little encomia, you become suspicious. You think: These writers all know each other. They have the same agent or publisher. Stow that paranoia! Michael Dahlie was a cipher to me before I read his wonderful new novel, "A Gentleman's Guide to Graceful Living," and a cipher he shall remain. It's funny, but not Carl Hiaasen-Christopher Buckley funny. Dahlie takes bigger risks, not pushing down so hard on the pedals, not pulling out the comic stops. He trusts the reader to be smart, relax, and laugh. I did, a lot.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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