Agents of darkness

Voodoo Histories: the Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History
David Aaronovitch

In these straitened times, conspiracy theories remain one guaranteed growth industry. Historians will record the past 20 years as the period in which conspiracies migrated from the margins to the mainstream. Once the preserve of cranks and green-inkers, such theories now receive respectful treatment in the national newspapers, while the most vigorous proponent of the view that the government scientist Dr David Kelly was murdered in 2003 has been the hitherto unremarkable figure of Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP.

Given this lamentable trend, one might expect an acerbic social commentator like David Aaron­ovitch to have written a strident polemic in which he contemptuously despatched the conspiracists. Instead, although his stance is unambiguously hostile, Aaronovitch displays great patience and intellectual curiosity in guiding the reader through a dozen conspiracies, including those surrounding the Pearl Harbor and 11 September 2001 attacks as well as the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales, JFK and Marilyn Monroe. Voodoo Histories is as concerned with understanding conspiracies as it is with rebutting them, and Aaronovitch’s tone throughout is that of the sage psychologist, his method that of the forensic historian.

Yet if this approach is illuminating, it is also at times underwhelming. For instance, he extensively documents the Trotskyist sabotage that Stalin invented to provide political cover for the show trials of the 1930s. Unfortunately, the internecine warfare of the Soviet Communist Party is too rooted in time and place to be of more than passing interest. Thus, it is no coincidence that the most successful chapters – on Dr Kelly and the 9/11 attacks – are about the most up-to-date events.

Skilfully wielding Occam’s razor, Aaronovitch favours those explanations that rely on the fewest new assumptions. So, for example, it is far more likely that in 2001 the World Trade Center was brought down by jihadists (who, as the 1993 car-bombing attack of the same site demonstrated, had form in this area) than that it was destroyed by an opaque network of bureaucrats, CIA agents and demolition experts, all of whom apparently took a collective vow of silence. The extravagant assumptions involved drain such theories of all credibility.

In fairness to the conspiracists, however, one should note, as Aaronovitch does, the many genuine conspiracies – from state infiltration of the National Union of Mineworkers to the Iran-Contra scandal – that provide good reason to be suspicious of authority. But this, in fact, tells against them: the evidence shows that a combination of state incompetence and courageous whistleblowers ensures that real conspiracies are usually exposed.

Aaronovitch’s decision to select his subjects not “for their similarities, but for their outward differences” is a risky one, and occasionally Voodoo Histories feels more like a collection of historical essays than a unified work. However, his narrative is often redeemed by insightful analysis. He reminds us that conspiracy theories have no clear political character: they have emanated from left and right; have been religious as well as secular; and have flowed from the bottom up and the top down. This last insight is a useful corrective to the assumption that conspiracy theories inevitably pit the little man against Leviathan. Indeed, for authoritarian regimes, Aaronovitch writes, conspiracy theories offer “a painless explanation for massive failure”. Today, it is the Hamas-led government in Gaza and the Iranian theocracy which have resurrected the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Conspiracy theories, we find, are written by the losers. For weary protesters, the projection of an omnipotent and ruthless enemy offers a blissful release from the hard work of democratic politics, with its trade-offs and compromises. Furthermore, when, as Aaronovitch writes, “the opponent has magic powers . . . then the forces of good, though overwhelmed, have their excuse: we were robbed”. Those who believe – and their number includes that great man of letters, Gore Vidal – that President Roosevelt either allowed, or even planned, the assault on Pearl Harbor, thus prompting the entry into the Second World War of the United States, do so at least partly to avoid facing up to the fact that the non-interventionists simply lost the argument.

By far the most urgent objection to such delusions, surely, is that the extraordinary time and resources devoted to them (the part-time conspiracy theorist is a creature yet to be discovered) distracts believers from taking action against all-too-real horrors: environmental destruction, nuclear proliferation or corporate malfeasance. However, the author casually consigns this argument to the final pages of his book. Voodoo Histories says nothing about the kinds of political formation required to halt the forward march of conspiracy theories. The appeal to scepticism is insufficient in an age when the internet provides the cloak of anonymity necessary for conspiracies to flourish. Nonetheless, Voodoo Histories is a welcome reminder that the sleep of reason breeds monsters, and an elegant attempt to rouse misguided souls from their slumber.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Flu: Everything you need to know