Voodoo histories: conspiracy theories and theorists
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It is said that there are two main theories of history: the conspiracy theory and the cock-up theory. In this book the author examines some of the conspiracy theories of the last century or so, and comprehensively debunks them.
But debunking and refuting conspiracy theories is not the main purpose of the book. It rather shows that whether or not there are conspiracies, beliefs in conspiracy theories often do more to shape history than the conspiracies the theorists believe in. An example is the Priory of Sion, which, according to the conspiracy theorists, is a centuries-old secret society at the centre of a conspiracy to restore the Merovingian dynasty and thus to change European and possibly world history. In fact it is a hoax, but those who were taken in by the hoax made their fortunes out of it, and influenced the beliefs of millions while doing so.
Let me say at the outset that I tend to believe put more weight on the cock-up theory of history. Not that I don’t believe that there are conspiracies; there are lots of them. But most real conspirators also make cock ups, like Guy Fawkes.
And there is no shortage of conspiracy theoriesand theorists. You probably had dinner with one in the last week or two. You may even be one. Some of the blogs I read sometimes propagate conspiracy theories, including some of the ones mentioned in this book: see here, and here, and here. Maybe there are even some in this blog.
David Aaronovitch covers most of the better-known conspiracy theories of the 20th and early 21st centuries: the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s, the theory that US President Franklin Roosevelt deliberately provoked the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbour, the McCarthy witch-hunts, and the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy (with side trips on the deaths of Marilyn Monrow and Princess Diana).
Then there is the death of an elderly British rose grower, which a crusading MP tried to link to the sinking of the General Belgrano in the Falklands War.
And the Priory of Sion gets the full treatment too — how three British journalists fell for a hoax, hook, line and sinker, and wrote their book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail on the basis of it, and then sued Dan Brown for stealing their plot in The da Vinci code. Their suit failed, because they found themselves in an awkward dilemma. If their books were history, as they claimed, then there was nothing to prevent a novel writer from basing a novel on it.
There is the 9/11 conspiracy theory, which maintains that the US government conspired to murder its own citizens (rather like the Pearl Harbour theory), by bringing down the World Trade Center in New York in a controlled demolition. One version of the theory even maintained that the aircraft that flew into the buildings were elaborate optical illusions created by holography. It is at that point that one surely needs to apply Ockham’s razor, if not long before. Perhaps this illustrates something that G.K. Chesterton once said: that truth is always stranger than fiction because fiction is a product of the human mind and therefore congenial to it.
Unlike most of the other events that the book describes that gave rise to conspiracy theories, I watched much of this one live on TV. And what had me gobsmacked, while watching the twin towers burn before they collapsed, was not the scale of the conspiracy, but the scale of the cock-up. Of course at that stage nothing was known about the conspiracy, though it later transpired that a conspiracy there undoubtedly was. A group of men did conspire to hijack four aircraft and to fly them into buildings.
But what struck me watching the buildings burn, with hundreds of people in them, was that the United States Air Force, arguably the most powerful and well-equipped in the world, apparently made no effort at all to rescue anyone from the buildings. Yet our much smaller South African Air Force had successfully managed to rescue people from burning buildings and a sinking ship. At the time it really did seem like a monumental cock-up.
In some of the earlier instances David Aaronovitch shows that the real conspirators were actually the authors and disseminators of the conspiracy theories themselves. In the case of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion the real conspiracy was not that described in the document, but those who forged and distributed the document, including Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Henry Ford (both of whom later apologised).
In the case of the Stalin show trials the real conspirators were not those wccused, convicted and subsequently executed for masterminding a Trotskyist plot, but the Stalinist government and prosecution who made the bogus accusations.
Later in the book, however, this connection becomes less apparent — the comparison between the bogus conspiracies cooked up by the conspiracy theorists and actual conspiracies. And thinking about this, I begin to wonder why. The author deals with the conspiracy theories about the the sinking of the General Belgrano in the Falklands War, but says nothing of the conspiracy of the Argentine Generals that led to the war itself — and their regime was just as unpleasant as that of Saddam Hussein or Hosni Mubarak. And just over the Andes there was the conspiracy that toppled the elected government of Salvador Allende, and installed the unpleasant dictator Colonel Pinochet in his place.
While devoting much space to the bogus conspiracy theories about the Bush Administration attacking its own citizens in the twin towers, the author says little about the WMD conspiracy that was the Bush Administration’s excuse for the invasion of Iraq. Wasn’t that a conspiracy? Of course the author might say that that was a real conspiracy (though to all accounts it seems that he favoured the invasion of Iraq) while the other was a bogus conspiracy. But wouldn’t comparison be useful?
In specularing on why people actually believe conspiracy theories, and sometimes go to great lengths to promote and propagate them, the author mentions several theories, including one about paranoia. He notes that most of the people who believe and propagate these theories are middle-class educated people. Paranoia is defined as a mental disorder charactersed by persistent delusions, and often hallucinations. Sometimes these delusions may be of persecution. But, as someone once said, just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you. There used to be psychological tests that had statements that you had to give yes or no answers to, and some of them contained statements like “My telephone is tapped.” And if you answered “Yes” to it, it was scored as a symptom of paranoia, even if your telephone was tapped, as in South Africa in the 1960s-1980s it might well be.
I started this book thinking that I was a firm adherent of the cock-up theory of history. Now I’m not so sure. I’m no less convinced that there are lots of bogus conspiracy theories out there, including all the ones he mentioned. But what about the real ones?