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Intelligent and witty, Aaronovitch takes on the conspiracy-delusion peddlers and is (mostly) on target
on 13 August 2009
You can be reasonably confident in advance that a book will be worth reading if it has conspiracy theorists in rant-mode and foaming with indignation: a raw nerve has obviously been poked. Such a book is David Aaronovitch's `Voodoo Histories' which exposes the delusional ideological framework at the heart of conspiracy-theorist psychology.
This original UK version of Aaronovitch's book, which includes the conspiracy theories surrounding the deaths of Dr. David Kelly and Hilda Morrell, doesn't disappoint - though it might have had more bite. Radical anti-establishment journalist Aaronovitch looks into why many otherwise sane and rational people buy into the more outlandish conspiracy theories which litter modern social history. From the fraudulent 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion,' manufactured by 19th century Czarist police to justify the persecution of Jewish people and enthusiastically promoted by Adolf Hitler and Henry Ford (of all people); to the '9/11 was an inside job' fantasists who employ ignorant pseudo-science to feed dogmatic belief-systems and multiple fringe political-propagandist agendas, Aaronovitch takes us on a fascinating, instructive and frequently amusing ride through a parade of delusional ideologies to be found just beneath the surface of contemporary society, and does a mostly effective job in deconstructing them.
In addition to those cited above, other conspiracy theories examined in the book are:
- the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s, where every failure of the Soviet industrial system was scape-goated onto 'conspiracists' singled out for persecution
- the conspiracy theory manufactured by the right-wing 'America First' political lobby to discredit FDR by claiming he had foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy in December 1941
- Senator McCarthy's witch-hunts in the 1950s against largely non-existent `communist conspirators' allegedly trying to wreck the USA from within
- attempts to 'conspiracize' the deaths of JFK, Marilyn Munro and Diana POW
- the highly profitable and surprisingly durable fantasy perpetrated by Baigent, Leigh et al about the alleged bloodline of Christ surviving through the Merovingians and the Templars up to modern times (which enabled fiction-writer Dan Brown to become a millionaire), side-tracking into the theories of such diverse and successful alternative-history authors as Erich Von Daniken and Graham Hancock
Aaronovitch is a thorough investigative journalist who takes the trouble to read and study all the pro-conspiracy books and attended the meetings; he understands his source material and has done his research. A list of common CT-components is identified: the citing of historical precedent and employment of flawed logic ("there were conspiracies before in history, so this must be one too"); parroting the weak and lazy "we're just asking questions" and "challenging the official version"; the focus on supposed `anomalies' in the absence of supporting evidence for the CT; and a determination to ignore, bury and discount all evidence which might prove the CT to be wrong. Promoters also ape the academic convention of citations and footnotes, but only cite each other in a closed loop which passes the gullible enquirer from one believer to the next, whilst brushing aside all the really hard evidence as "supporting the official story."
In attempting to explain why some otherwise apparently rational folks fall for this stuff, Aaronovitch has insight enough to see that the superficial subject of the theory (whether the death of Diana POW seen as a `murder by MI6' or `there were no planes on 9/11: it was all holograms') has little to do with the reason people cling to it so zealously. People hold on to these delusions for personal psychological reasons, so adherence to such dogmas cannot be effectively argued with because the normal rules of logic and evidence do not apply in the proponents' world. Like other writers before him (Professor Michael Barkun for example, or Peter Knight) Aaronovitch identifies a proneness to CT-thinking as a characteristic of political and economic losers; there is 'a quantum of solace' in adopting an ideology that 'THEY' (the so-called `New World Order', the Trilateral Commission or the `Bilderburgers', the UN, the `Secret World Government' or whatever) can be blamed for everything. It is more comforting to believe in evil puppet-masters flawlessly executing massive conspiracies to fool millions of people and further their own agendas than to work with the deeply nuanced complexities of the real world: no investment of work or time is needed to become part of a small band of heroes who `know the truth.'
So conspiracy theories, Aaronovitch argues, attempt to impose order on the random chaos of the real world and so `improve on reality.' Whilst inventing a more complex and improbable explanation and ignoring the principles embodied in the Occam's Razor rule, they infantilize adherents by explaining events in terms crafted to force-fit their limited paradigms, offering an easily digestible and dumbed-down narrative which can be sold to `believers'. Look at a website promoting a CT-view of the world, or watch a 10-minute video on youtube, and suddenly you can become privy to secret knowledge and understanding, superior to the 'sheeple' (a common CT pejorative, like 'shill') who haven't wasted their time with these things (or just as likely, have seen through their pretensions) and therefore don't understand the conspiracy like you do. You can now justify your own relative failures because the sinister `THEY' are responsible for everything; you have hate-figures to rail against, suddenly `everything is connected' and makes sense.
Far from heaping (often deserved?) scorn on conspiracy theorists, Aaronovitch exhibits generosity of spirit and seeks to understand rather than condemn. In fact, he lets CT-proponents off much more lightly than might be expected (an exception might be Mohammed Fayed who - together with his brother-in-law and Dodi's uncle, the notorious arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi - were responsible for manufacturing and disseminating ALL the Diana murder-conspiracy narratives to a gullible international constituency).
Even if you have little interest in the propagation of CT-ideologies, 'Voodoo Histories' can be recommended as a commendable piece of writing. It's witty, dispassionate and thought-provoking, and a fine - if not entirely original - analysis of an interesting modern phenomenon. The author does demonstrate that adherence to these delusional ideologies occasionally has serious consequences - i.e. the fraudulent `Protocols' were used by the Nazis to convince people that `(Jewish) bankers, financiers and internationalists' were planning a sinister conspiracy to `erode the borders between nation-states, bring in a single global currency, take over the world and enslave the people': legalized persecution and eventually mass human exterminations as official State policy were thus justified.
Readers genuinely interested in the psychology of the CT-phenomenon might also like to check out `The Nature and Purpose of Political Conspiracy Theories', 'Political Paranoia v. Political Realism: On Distinguishing between Bogus Conspiracy Theories and Genuine Conspiratorial Politics' and `Conspiracy Theories and Clandestine Politics' by Jeffrey M. Bale. Professor Michael Barkun's `A Cult of Conspiracy - Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America' in which the author analyses the historical development of pick-and-mix `Improvisational Millennialism' and categorizes conspiracy theories into distinct types which each perform a different psychological function, also makes a good (and more academically rigorous) companion to Aaronovitch's more populist work.