David Aaronnovitch’s survey of global conspiracy theories ably debunks chestnuts old and new, but avoids closer analysis of what inspires them in the first place.
One morning earlier this month, I was listening to Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie discuss their book Slow Death by Rubber Duck, a manifesto against the dangerous chemicals found in many everyday household items. It was a call-in show, and I knew what was coming next. Sure enough, a caller calmly suggested that the toxins were part of a “population control” campaign orchestrated by the government. The environmentalist authors politely demurred.
A strong undercurrent of conspiracist paranoia has long swept through the American psyche—and through that of the modern world. In Voodoo Histories: The Role of Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, British journalist David Aaronovitch lays out a long list of these theories and takes them down one by one, from the ever-resilient Protocols of the Elders of Zion, through 9/11 “truthers,” and anti-Obama “birthers.” Aaronovitch gives the conspiracists enough rope to hang themselves, carefully explaining their elaborate allegations of schemes and cover-ups—and detailing the ever-more farfetched implications these entail.
The surprisingly many people around the world who think 9/11 was “an inside job” usually suggest that explosives or a missile brought down the twin towers. Such a ploy would, as Aaronovitch points out, require the active involvement or complicity of “hundreds, if not thousands” and would perhaps give the U.S. government credit for more competence than it deserves. The theory, he writes, implies “that a cabal that couldn’t plant weapons of mass destruction in the vastness of the Iraqi desert could fly hologram-shrouded missiles [appearing to be planes] in plain daylight into one of the most public places in the world.”
Conspiracist cynicism is warped and uneven, insisting on total skepticism with regard to the official story but unmitigated credulity for the elaborate alt-theory. Take Flight 77, conventionally regarded as having crashed into the Pentagon on September 11. Conspiracists, of course, don’t buy it—just try googling “Flight 77.” Aaronovitch wryly grants them the “possibility,
however extraordinarily remote, that DNA might have been planted to the exact specifications of the missing passengers, crew and employees, that wreckage might somehow have been placed at the scene within minutes of the crash, and that the real occupants of the missing Flight 77 might have been spirited away to some unknown place, there to be butchered or to live in the world’s weirdest witness protection program.”
Real-life eyewitnesses are accused of being dupes, paid or bullied into toeing the official line. A left-wing scholar like Noam Chomsky—hardly one to protect the government—is attacked as a “‘gatekeeper,’ whose purpose was to police the dissident movement so that it didn’t do too much damage to the corrupt Establishment.”
According to Aaronovitch, conspiracies flourish because they are a convenient narrative for propagators and believers alike. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—purportedly a secret transcript from a meeting of Jews held in the late 19th century to plot global domination—was useful to everyone from Henry Ford to Wilhelm II. The latter must have been relieved “to discover that, contrary to Allied propaganda, it was not he who had started the First World War but somebody else.” And it would later help a young Adolf Hitler build a national history that made sense of his country’s failures.
In discussing theories about the deaths of JFK and Princess Diana, Aaronovitch susses out a morbid fascination, a “repressed sadism that seems to lurk behind a lot of assassination conspiracism: the descriptions of the death, the reports from the autopsy, the photographs of the body.” This fascination extends to the death of Marilyn Monroe, including one theory that postulates a mafia hit involving “medicines inserted into her anus.”
Conspiracists also tend to be fascinated with themselves, quick to credit their own intelligence and the expertise of their adherents—this hidden narcissism enables paranoiacs to claim persecution by huge, shadowy forces. This is a community of “lecturers and researchers” in alchemy and crop circles; theologians who confidently “lay claim to a large and rapidly acquired capacity… in the areas of physics, aerodynamics, and engineering.” And just as in a Tom Clancy novel, their use of “secret service and technical jargon”—like bated-breath descriptions of “false flag” and “psyops” missions—lend a veneer of realism and authority to their theories.
Unfortunately, Aaronovitch’s antipathy to conspiracists keeps him from taking them seriously enough to dissect the phenomenon with much success. He offers few explanations, and none too decisively. He posits that conspiracy theories are “history for losers,” from Bush-era liberals hawking 9/11 theories to Obama-presidency conservatives who fantasize he is a Manchurian candidate. There may be some truth to these easy explanations, but such narrow electoral analyses can’t fully explain the social and economic dimensions of conspiracism. And anyway, 9/11 theories flourish on the far right, as well as the far left, don’t they?
If he’d dug a little deeper, Aaronovitch would have found that the front-page conspiracies are connected to deeper distrust and alienation, nurtured by the overnight making and unmaking of wealth and war, rapidly metastasizing financial crises and violence. Our lives are subject to forces that are ever more inscrutable and abstract, and the resulting helplessness, according to University of Chicago anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff, leads people to see “the working of insidious forces, of potent magical technologies and mysterious modes of accumulation, of sorcery of one or another sort.”
Religions, myths, whatever—including, of course, the “voodoo” of Aaronovitch’s breezy title—are part and parcel of how people make sense of a confusing world. But the author seems to fear that comprehension could slip into empathy—or even collusion—warning against the notion that a conspiracy theory is “the fuzzy shadow cast by the hidden bulk of real oppression,” an interpretation he ascribes to contemporary intellectual trends in which “all accounts of events are essentially stories, and no single account ought to be privileged above another.” Such thinking, which Aaronovitch, in a bit of his own conspiracism, labels “postmodernist or post-structuralist,” is “a seductive and entirely worthless way of looking at the world.”
Still, how else can we address the roots of conspiracy theories positing that George W. Bush intentionally blew up the levees in New Orleans? Isn’t American military hubris partly to blame for global 9/11 conspiracism? Aaronovitch is a thorough and entertaining debunker. But in explaining conspiracy theories, he is as good a journalist as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens are historians of religion. Like these New Atheists’ obsession with the factual inaccuracy of religious belief, Aaronovitch doesn’t understand that the mission of social science and journalism is not merely to confirm or reject assertions, but to understand why they are made. Conspiracy theories are not merely the rantings of unhinged colleagues to debunk, but social phenomena to interpret. No, Jews do not rule the world. Al-Qaeda perpetrated 9/11 and Barack Obama was born in the United States. But by limiting Voodoo Histories to defense and reiteration of the facts, Aaronovitch misses the bigger truth.