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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.
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VINE VOICEon 22 February 2015
To be frank, this is a three or four star book which doesn't quite hit the spot....apart from the chapter on Holy Blood and Holy Grail.

Although he is far far far too generous to Dan Brown, he fillets the Baignent, Lincoln and Leigh book with a handful of razor sharp swipes, each masterful stroke begging to be replayed (sorry, reread) over and over in almost sadistic pleasure.

Thing is, I can't enjoy guilty pleasure sloppy cod history books, like Patricia Cornwell's Jack the Ripper book, any more.

Curse you, Aaronovitch!
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on 18 November 2009
Well clearly Aaronovitch's book already has a number of conspiracy theorists slathering at the mouth at the debunking of a number of their sacred cows. I guess it's just further evidence to them that the world's media is run by giant lizards from Zarg bent on galactic domination via the printed word. Anyways, let's be grateful for a well researched and readable work which carefully dismantles a number of well know conspiracy theories (Diana, 9/11, JFK) and lesser known ones (e.g. Hilda Murrell). It also usefully provides thoughts on how these theories come about, both in general and in their specific context and what drives people to believe in them despite all the evidence and even post revelation (e.g. Priory of Sion).

So why only three stars?

Well mainly because he carefully selects targets that whilst well known, can also be easily dismantled - a quick check on Wikipedia would probably do enough for the average individual to throw these theories in the bin. So a book on these alone just isn't enough to my mind. A key thing here should be, to my mind, the extent to which governments and companies conspire in far less serious ways and therefore give credence to the possibility of these theories. As such, he doesn't touch on the many day to day collusions, frauds and deceits that governments and companies carry out all the time. These clearly range from the very minor (e. recent Parliamentary expenses), through the domestic (e.g. wire-tapping of political opponents like Scargill), to the international (e.g. French bombing of the Rainbow Warrior) and to the global (e.g. US support for Suharto in the 1960s). Whilst these are very different to traditional conspiracy theories, surely they form part of the broader spectrum, especially in terms of giving a reason to believe - "Well if they can blow up peace protestors' boats then surely they might bump off a peace activist". What makes a conspiracy theory a conspiracy theory? When do little collusions become big ones? How far would a government go to protect its interests?

Dismantling the big theories is easy. Understanding the detail is harder.
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on 2 January 2010
The author deals with a number of well-known conspiracy theories, from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the death of Dr David Kelly, by way of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the death of Marilyn Monroe, the assassinations of JFK and RFK, the moon landings, the Da Vinci code/bloodline of Jesus stuff, and 9/11 (among others) and to my mind demolishes them pretty thoroughly.
But he isn't just interested in debunking. He also examines why people believe in conspiracy theories and why they can exert such a strong grip on them. He points out that conspiracists tend to be on the "losing side" (politically, socially, or economically) of society, and that believing in conspiracies is therapeutic for them. They can explain why they are on the losing side ("we were robbed, deceived") salve their hurt ("the people who deceived us are so powerful, so evil, it's understandable that they appear to be the winners") and then restore their egos ("we have seen the truth, we are so much cleverer than ordinary people who are happy to be sheep-like in their acceptance of things; we are illuminated, in the know, we are special").
Interestingly he is able to develop this line in the light of some recent psychological and biological research which indicates we are genetically hard wired to look for causes and effects. This seems to be related to our developing tool-using capabilities; in order to develop and employ tools we need to think in cause and effect terms. (And of course while some animals to make occasional and specific use of natural objects as tools, humans are the only ones to do so extensively and develop the range of tools to use.) So we are uncomfortable with randomness - if something happens it must because someone caused it to, there's no such thing as an accident, someone must be to blame.
And the more prominent a person is, the more in the public eye, the greater the forces we feel must be needed to pull them down or kill them. Accidents and lone gunmen are for ordinary people, not special ones, and they certainly don't commit suicide.
Not only that but we have a fear of insignificance, of being ignored. If we feel we are being reduced to mere ciphers in a complex society believe in conspiracies is an effective therapy for us.
The author also takes a firm swing at the sort of relativism that exists in some circles and seems fashionable in certain academic circles, that says that one person's perception of what happened is as valid as another's, and that to insist on examining facts and evidence is not helpful.
An engrossing and informative read.
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Very simply, this the basis of this book is a number of alleged conspiracies. These include the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, US involvement in the attack on Pearl Harbour, secret service involvement in the killings of JFK, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana and others, and US and Israeli involvement in 9/11.

Aaronovitch describes how the conspiracy theories arose, how they were propogated and evidence which finally debunks each of them in turn. He also goes further in examining the long term, frequently disastrous effects of belief in the specious conspiracies (particularly the Protocols) and also how adherents frequently continue to cling to their beliefs often long after they have been discredited, employing frightening Looking Glass logic that the weight of opposition is proof of veracity.

Overall the book is a plea for rationality and enlightenment over woolly thinking and credulity. One highly amusing but slightly unsettling chapter deals with Christ's bloodline where we find the exponents stating that in order to prove their theories they need to go beyond normal scholarship. Sounds good ? Nope its just means that the application of rigourous analysis makes their house of cards come tumbling down..

The book is not as some (and some reviews) have claimed a call for total belief in the word of government and unquestioning acceptanve of what we are told. It is precisely the opposite of those things, it is a call to examine all evidence with a genuinely open and rigourously analytical mind.

Overall the book is excellent, easily readable, intelligent, thought provoking and highly entertaining.
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on 20 December 2009
The first part of this book was really enjoyable - a pretty detailed look at the anti-Semitic conspiracy Protocols, a fascinating account of the anti-Trotsky faction trials in Russia, some in-depth insight into Mccarthyism and its origins.....

then it goes somewhat downhill. The JFK/Marilyn Monroe stuff, fair enough, but to have an entire chapter devoted to the death of Hilda Murrell? How does this conspiracy in any way "shape modern history"? It's passed largely into obscurity. A chapter on the associated Da Vinci code conspiracies? It's just shooting not very interesting or important fish in a barrel. The chapter on 9-11 conspiracies would probably be of interest to people who haven't previously read of this in detail (though i expect many have). Ditto the Diana conspiracies - but i can't believe there are many people left in Britain not already sick to death of that one....

It's frustrating because the book never really delivers what it promises - evidence of how conspiracies have actually shaped modern history. And yet with less of a British focus there was some fantastic source material to be used - the Russian apartment bombings used as the pretext for the Chechen war. They warrant a genuinely interesting discussion of the facts. Ditto the poisoning of Litvinyenko or the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko.
Or the "HIV does not cause AIDS" conspiracy and associated beliefs that it was all a western imperialist conspracy. This led to SA president Mbeki dismissing the use of retro-virals and to the unnecessary deaths of tens (if not hundreds) of thousands. Or keeping with the British theme, a discussion on Lockerbie, probably the most interesting British conspiracy (in terms of political intrigue) of the last few decades. All in all I couldn't help thinking that this was a missed opportunity to create something special.

I've given the book 4 stars because i did enjoy it, but it could have been an exceptional book given the source material available. As it is it is a readable though slightly disappointingly flawed work....
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on 10 September 2009
Aaronovitch has written a useful summary of a number of conspiracy theories which are well known to the general public; Diana, JFK, 9/11 etc. he's also laid out some, though by no means all, of the debunking evidence. But really that's as far as he's gone. The subtitle of the book is 'The Role of the Conspiricy Theory in Shaping Modern History'. So, readers would expect an analysis of how history has been shaped and what effects this has had on government policy, public opinion and the discussion of history itself. Instead all we get is a few vague statistics on how many people believed a particular theory a few years after the event. Honestly, if you have access to any internet encyclopaedia you're probably wasting your money.

I was also disappointed that he dismissed (rightly) the Holy Blood and Holy Grail ideas but didn't use the same analysis on Christianity as a whole. There is as little evidence for the existance of Jesus as there is for a survival of this particular bloodline.
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on 7 May 2009
At one time I was a firm believer in the conspiracy theory of John F. Kennedy's assassination. But then new facts emerged, the ballistic evidence fell into its correct perspective, and it turned out that Oswald had fired all the shots after all. I then had to go through the strange, and strangely pleasurable, sensation of opening my mind and allowing myself to let go of a long-held opinion. In this book David Aaronovitch covers not only the Kennedy case, but a wide range of other conspiracy scenarios, debunking them with wit, intelligence and a refreshing dose of common sense, allowing innumerable readers the opportunity to experience that same pleasurable sense of opening their minds and letting go of long cherished `facts'. Voodoo Histories provides the tools for us to cut through the half truths, fantasies and wish fulfillment that lie behind the majority of conspiracy theories, and as a bonus it explores the question of why we feel the need to have conspiracy theories at all. On top of which, it is extremely well written. Very highly recommended.
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on 10 January 2014
First of all, this book is really easy to read. It is quite a tome in hardback (the format which I read it in) and the title gives it the polished air of an academic study (which it is in part) but its also highly amusing as Aaronovitch does get quite cross in places and you can see him in your minds eye, waving his arms about in frustration!!

It was really very interesting as a lot of the conspiracies written about I had never heard of. Even so, they are explained well enough and in good detail so that anyone wishing to learn about Russian politics or the myths surrounding the death of Marilyn Monroe can do so quite easily.

I have seen some of the referred to online theories about 9/11 so it was interesting to see another take and I suppose, an unraveling of what has been put out online. Aaronovitch has researched hard for this book and I feel has covered all the bases when he is discrediting the theories of the present and those of the past.

It was interesting to see that one particular theory (which actually came from a very unlikely source) became the basis of the hatred of the Jews and is cited as being fact and lead to a number of world crises.

Its very difficult to review this book without spoiling it but I would say that its a really good read for anyone interested in 'what really happened', to have the theories, however plausible, looked at in depth and debunked.

Again, I read this book for fun (not for research, but I would recommend it for research purposes as there is an extensive bibliography and footnotes for the student to be able to find out more) and spent many an evening laughing at Aaronovitch's exasperation and at times very blunt telling's off! It worth a look just for that!

I borrowed this from my local library and enjoyed it so much I was reluctant to return it. I will buy a copy at some point and read it again ( I read it about a month ago and therefore have forgotten things) because it not only is a good read in itself but is also a very good tool for pointing out to friends the real facts. Highly recommended.
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on 13 December 2009
This interesting book takes us through the 20th century and on to present day, showing the various political conspiracy theories that have emerged over the decades: Jews want to control the world, Trotskyites are why Stalinist Russia is failing, Oswald was framed, Marilyn and princess Diana were murdered, 9/11 was an inside job, and so on. Aaronovitch wisely does not spend too much time debunking these ideas: he's not writing this book to change anyone's mind. What he does do is show how some of these 'theories' are linked or similar.

In the final, and to me most interesting, chapter, he makes some attempts at explaining why conspiracies remain fascinating to so many. His answers: people love a good narrative; evil order is preferable to evil chaos, and makes more sense; it's form of attention-seeking. He also addresses the 'relativist' response, which says that the truth of conspiracy theories is not nearly as important or significant as their existence, revealing an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and fear. I agree with Aaronovitch when he argues that that might be true, but that conspiracy theories can nevertheless be truly dangerous.
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