April 13, 2010 10:27:00 AM
It may well have happened to you. You are chatting with a nice enough person, who seems sensible, but who suddenly reveals that the missions to the moon were faked, or that Princess Diana was killed by governmental agents, or that the towers of the World Trade Center were loaded with demolition explosives before the planes flew into them.
If you stay long enough, you may find that the speaker believes in all these ideas and more. If you are like me, you try to find an excuse to go talk with someone else; if you are more assertive and state your disbelief in such paranoid stories, you will not change the mind of the person telling the stories and you may well be considered a dupe at best and a conspirator at worst.
That’s surely what conspiracy fans of all sorts are going to think of David Aaronovitch, whose "Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History" (Riverhead Books) shows his refusal to buy into any of the surprising forms of paranoia spawned in the twentieth century.
Indeed, he himself was confronted with a moon landing denier who said the pictures from the moon were fake as were all the landing missions.
“My immediate reaction was one of skepticism,” writes Aaronovitch. “It wasn’t just that I was forearmed with arguments to disprove his theory; it was just that it offended my sense of plausibility.”
Even if he had had the arguments to hand, he probably could not have dissuaded the conspiracist, and spouting broad common sense objections (such as that it would take thousands of participants in such a conspiracy to make it work and all of them would have to resist any temptation to let the cat out of the bag) would not help either. It’s probably best to slink away.
Voodoo Histories represents resistance to such slinking, and though it may not change minds of true believers, it is a useful look at history. The conspiracies described here might be silly, might be without any evidence, might be completely delusional, but they made a difference. Just because you’re paranoid, the joke goes, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you; and just because your paranoia is delusional doesn’t mean it has no political or social effect.
The effect of the delusions, and Aaronovitch covers plenty of them, is always bad; making decisions based on erroneous thoughts of conspiracy inherently is going to produce problems. Take for instance one of the most influential books of the twentieth century, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
It is an 80-page manuscript that details a horrifying plot that would destroy governments and churches, and set up a world empire run by Jews. Supposedly the text of a secret plan hatched by Jews meeting in a graveyard in Prague in 1897, the book is a hoax. It was plagiarized from a French polemic that was directed at Napoleon III and didn’t even mention Jews.
The book, and the conspiracy it describes, was debunked as a fake before the Nazis came to power, but its ideas fit Hitler’s needs. In Mein Kampf he wrote that the surest proof that The Protocols were genuine was that the press kept moaning that they were fake.
(This is a demonstration of conspiracy “evidence” seen many times in this volume; if there is evidence against a conspiracy, that just shows how strong the conspiracy really is.)
Henry Ford, too, believed in the truth borne in The Protocols, and reprinted it in his newspaper, although he recanted a few years later, calling the book “gross forgeries.” Not only did The Protocols affect the vehemence by which World War II was waged, it continues to be cited by Christian groups and by Hamas.
A chapter titled “Dead Deities” considers together the early demises of John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and Princess Diana. We seem to be uncomfortable with the idea that a lone gunman killed Kennedy, and this feeling didn’t start with people wanting to deny the Warren Commission. A week after the assassination, only 29 percent of Americans thought that Oswald had acted alone.
There were so many books putting out one explanation after another (the explanations contradictory) that a conspiracy was “the default view among the young and educated.”
We don’t, for some reason, think that John Hinckley was part of a conspiracy when he shot Reagan, nor did conspiracy explanations loom when Garfield or McKinley were shot. And Oswald did attempt to kill an American general seven months before Kennedy, but no one supposes that he had conspirators helping him with that one.
Despite Oliver Stone’s movie (which Aaronovitch says got just about everything wrong), the timings and trajectories of bullets have been confirmed by the most recent computer reconstructions. The idea that there is something else going on, though, is just too hard to shake.
The sad death of Marilyn Monroe has enriched many conspiracy authors, some fingering Robert Kennedy, some the Mob, some her psychotherapist, some saying all of the above showed up together. There are forged diaries and forged transcripts of tapes Marilyn supposedly made explaining it all. It is interesting that each of the multiple conspiracies surrounding Marilyn’s death always has to do with politics or politicians connected to her. Politics of the darkest sort is also at the heart of most explanations for the death of Princess Diana.
To believe that there was a plot against her (most popular reason: she was carrying a Muslim fetus) requires that there were split second timing and coincidences that only happen in Hollywood movies. Aaronson’s common sense explanations often hinge on Ockham’s razor: the simplest explanation that gives an answer is the best one.
Here, it is pretty complicated to presume that Prince Philip (why he should be the mastermind I do not understand, but he is a favorite) somehow arranged that someone would know beforehand that Diana was going to be driven away, and knew the route, and had the Fiat sideswipe it on the way, all the time having filed down the catch pins of the seatbelts before she got in. It is simpler to remember that her driver was drunk and he was going too fast, and she had not put on the seatbelt that would have saved her. I’d chose the meaninglessness of sad bad luck and bad choices rather than an ostensibly explanatory but impossibly omniscient conspiracy anytime.
Writing of the birther proponents who won’t accept that President Obama is a U.S. citizen (but who often seem eager to accept flimsy evidence of his birth elsewhere), Aaronovitch says, “There is transparency, and then there is a perverse desire never to be satisfied.”
The interest in believing a conspiracy is so strong that evidence just doesn’t play a role in conspiracists’ evaluations.
The police, FBI, two Republican independent prosecutors, and others have all found that Clinton aide Vince Foster killed himself in 1993, but charges of murder still circulate among those who find it more agreeable to fret along those lines, and who were among the first to broadcast conspiracy frettings on the internet. Which brings up an interesting observation Aaronovitch makes and which I had not seen before: “... conspiracy theories originate and are largely circulated among the educated and the middle class.
The imagined model of an ignorant, priest-ridden peasantry or proletariat replacing religious and superstitious belief with equally far-fetched notions of how society works, turns out to be completely wrong.” Indeed, lights like mathematician A. K. Dewdney or author Gore Vidal make embarrassingly frequent appearances here to back up their pet conspiracies. Aaronovitch explains many of the most famous conspiracies, including the one portrayed fictionally in The Da Vinci Code or FDR’s arrangement that Pearl Harbor would be bombed so he could go to war. Also examined are less well known ones, such as the Stalinist obsessions that resulted in show trials against Trotsky’s supporters.
Aaronovitch shows that he has been steeped i
Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.