Book review: Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch

Aaronovitch_VoodooHistoriesI first heard of Voodoo Histories when David Aaronovitch was part of a panel on the science of deception on BBC Radio 4’s Infinite Monkey Cage, which is always worth a listen. He made it sound interesting enough for me to go and read it, and I found it time well spent. Aaronovitch defines a conspiracy theory as ‘the attribution of deliberate agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended’. Voodoo Histories took me on a very readable tour of the modern world’s conspiracy theories, exploring both the theories and their proponents and the reasons why they were accepted as truth by so many people. It struck a balance between academic rigour and readability and ended up covering a lot of European and American history over the last century by exploring the mythologies that lurked in the background of events such as the attack on Pearl Harbour and the serial Kennedy assassinations.

He puts his conspiracy theories into the context of a consistent set of features that tend to surround them, such as believers’ sense have that they are the heroic guardians of the truth that power does not want spoken, and the tendency to adapt the supposed conspiracy to accommodate new revelations. They also tend to run into the same problems, in that they often assume the actions of a large number of skilled and amoral agents who take the secret of the conspiracy to their grave while making basic mistakes that reveal the existence of the conspiracy.

In the chapter devoted to the 9/11 truther movement, which believes that the World Trade Centre was actually brought down by explosives placed by the US government, the conspiracy states that government agents placed the explosives at considerable risk of exposure. Part of the supposed evidence is a charred passport, which the truthers insist must have been planted because no reasonable person could believe that a passport would survive the burning fuel of a crashed airliner.

In order to believe the theory, we are asked to believe that the conspirators simultaneously orchestrated an enormously complicated covert operation in one of the world’s busiest buildings and gave themselves away by planting evidence that no reasonable person would believe. We are further asked to believe that the organisation that pulled the operation off was unable to continue the justification by planting a single canister of sarin gas anywhere in Iraq.

Where I found myself parting company with Aaronovitch was in his dismissal of actual conspiracies. He uses Nixon’s inability to wipe a few incriminating tapes and the exposure of the Iran-Contra scandal to demonstrate the tendency of conspiracies to come to light. He then undermines his point in his first chapter, describing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Protocols purport to describe a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world, but were in fact forged by the Tsarist intelligence service as antisemitic propaganda. The widespread belief in the content of the Protocols, even after they were exposed as a forgery, fits Aaronovitch’s thesis. However, he does not address the fact that they are the product of an actual conspiracy to plant misinformation.

He then goes on to describe the discrediting and execution of Leon Trotsky and his allies in the power struggle following the Russian revolution. Once again, the conspiracy theory was manufactured by a genuine conspiracy, in this case by Lenin and his supporters.

A more recent example is the conspiracy theory around the death of Dr David Kelly in 2003, soon after he criticised the supposed evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Aaronovitch makes a convincing case for the coroner’s report stating he committed suicide, and against the suggestion that he was murdered by the security services. However, he does not address the broader conspiracy theory around Kelly’s death, which was that the ‘evidence’ that Kelly challenged was itself manufactured by a conspiracy.

In the UK, the Chilcott Report into the UK’s role in the Iraq war was apparently completed in 2011 and scheduled to be released to the public a year ago. The latest reason given for its delay is that it might prejudice the general election that was held in May. Two months after the election, no publication date has been named. Is it so far-fetched to suspect there may be a conspiracy at work?

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Posted in Book review: non-fiction

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