Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History

Author: David Aaronovitch

Type of Book: Non-fiction, sociology, history, conspiracy theory

Why Did I Read This Book: I am an avid reader of the odd, as my other book discussion site should prove, and eat conspiracy theory with a spoon. When I saw this book as I wandered through a Barnes & Noble, it was a gimme that I would buy it. That conspiracy theory might actually shape contemporary historical belief seemed too interesting to pass up.

Availability: Published by Riverhead Books in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I liked this book but not for the reasons I purchased it. As someone who has spent a lot of time wallowing in conspiracy at different times in my life, there was little new for me in this book (though this is not to say there was not some content unfamiliar to me – there was and it was fascinating). Moreover, this book is more a debunking attempt than really a look at how conspiracy theory has shaped modern history for the average person. No one can walk away from this book and feel that any of the examples of conspiracy, their formation and later belief, has affected the modern canon of history, aside from the JFK assassination. Of course people whose personal beliefs lie on the fringe of reason hold conspiracy theory close to their hearts, but I think it is overblown to seriously suggest that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the “plot” to kill Princess Diana in a random car accident with a drunk driver, or Hillary Clinton supposedly murdering Vince Foster is ever going to achieve the level of mainstream belief that will reflect these fringe beliefs as history.

Of course there are always some who believe all manner of odd things. Michael Shermer has shown us that, as well as any other number of debunkers. It often seems as if those who have fringe beliefs are greater in number than they are because the proliferation of conspiracy theory sites on the Internet make the information seem more common place and because the press loves nothing more than a crank with a misspelled sign, wearing a costume and yelling about injustice. The Tea Party (Teabaggers, as they are known to people like me) has shown this in spades in the United States. Get some loud, bombastic, angry, and, in some instances, completely insane people in one place and the press is all over it because crazy is a close second to sales behind sex. But the numbers of Teabaggers are statistically insignificant and recent polls indicate that these people who have received so much press recently as a new force in politics don’t have enough numbers even to impact the 2010 midterm elections. Fringe beliefs among the Truthers and Birthers and Teabaggers will end up as a foot note to history, not history itself.

Aaronovitch does a relatively sound job of showing how, for the fringe, certain myths will not die and will always be a part of a certain zeitgeist regardless of the proof given to debunk these myths. Like the idea that Princess Diana was assassinated or that the Kennedys had Marilyn Monroe killed by an overdose of barbiturate suppositories. There are those who will believe this no matter what, and Aaronovitch shows clearly how the seemingly unbelievable, like the President of the United States is a foreign born citizen or that 9-11 was an inside job, gains some credence. Aaronovitch discovered similar traits that enable otherwise sane people to believe weird things.

1) Historical precedent: If you can show that other conspiracies happened in the past, it is easier to believe they happened now.
2) Elite them against us: All conspiracy theory at its heart shows actions of an elite few – rogue CIA agents killing JFK (which is not that unbelievable for some of us), Jews plotting a world takeover – against the mass of people. Those who do not believe are seen as sheep, people who are so mass deluded they cannot believe.
3) “Just Asking Questions”: Many purveyors of conspiracy theory assume the role of an innocent questioner instead of a provocateur.
4) A circle jerk of “experts” who all quote each other in order to give the theory legitimacy.
5) A veneer of academic credibility, much of which gets echoed by established media but when examined up close, credentials are always suspect.
6) Errors in the theory are explained as disinformation from the forces that the theory hopes to out.
7) Assumption of the role of an endangered victim – those who discuss the theory claim to be under constant surveillance. This assumption of persecution makes outsiders wonder what the subjects of the conspiracy have to hide.

But at it’s heart, this book never convinced me that aside from contemporary news media dropping the ball occasionally that conspiracy theory really is shaping how we perceive history. There may be a sizable minority who have bought into the propaganda of 9-11 conspiracy but where most of the sources are concerned, like the movie Loose Change, I have never heard a single sane person speak of it favorably, and the only places where it is discussed favorably is on sites where conspiracy is the sole topic. Most people (unlike me, for the record), do not think there was a CIA conspiracy to kill JFK, though the evidence in that case has been so muddied and mishandled that differing theories as to what happened were inevitable. Most people, despite the media attention Birthers get, do not think Barack Obama is a Muslim foreigner sent to destroy the United States. While the Kennedy assassination is a different kettle of fish in some respects and has, in fact, affected history, it is hard to see the connection between the actual history of this nation and fringe belief. I cannot say the same about the UK, where a couple of the theories in the book are germane, like the idea that Princess Diana was assassinated, an anti-nuke protester murdered in a conspiracy, or the details surrounding the likely suicide of a Parliament crank. I cannot make that leap mainly because my experience with conspiracy theory exists in an American realm.

But if you get past the notion that history has been deeply affected by conspiracy theory, let alone shaped by it, this book is an incredibly informative, fascinating read. I think anyone interested in conspiracy theory will find much to like in this book. Like many, I knew that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was fake, a scurrilous attempt to pass off fiction as a historical document exposing a Jewish plot to take over the world. Aaronovitch takes this one step further and shows that not only was it a fake, but it was a bad forgery as well, showing the original sources from which the PotEZ was taken, showing side by side analysis. Moreover, I did not know that the men at the heart of publicizing all the supposed crimes committed by President Bill Clinton are the same men behind the attempts to prove that Barack Obama is a Muslim, non-American, socialist/communist/fascist. Joseph Farah and Christopher Ruddy evidently got an 8-year break when George W. Bush took office after Clinton, but got back up to speed in a heartbeat when Democrats took the office back. There were also two British conspiracies that I was not as well-versed in. All in all, this book was worth it for the information I did not know, the connections that show how these conspiracies were created and managed for the new information age.

However, I think reason is not in as short supply as the evening news wants us to believe. Nor is it in as short supply as this book would lead one to think. People believe outrageous things, that cannot be denied. Conspiracy theory is, indeed, a cultural force. I just don’t think it is a force that shapes history and that in a large part comes from my personal experiences with conspiracy immersion, but if it were, the official line would be that Marilyn was murdered, Princess Diana was assassinated by the British royal family, Jews are out to get us and Obama is a Muslim foreign agent. If the fringe had anything more than Internet innuendo, Loose Change would not be derided in every sane circle for all the factual errors it makes. Affecting how elements of history may be perceived to certain individuals is not the same as shaping history as a whole. There is no denying that the fringe affects people who believe it and the history they subscribe to, but fringe belief has not shaped history, modern or otherwise, and in trying to prove it, this book fails.

But it succeeds in telling about some extraordinary delusions of the crowd and how they shaped perception for certain groups (and my local conspiracy expert Alex Jones gets a couple of shout outs). That it does not meet its thesis goal matters less to me than it should because it was simply so damned entertaining – Aaronovitch has an engaging writing style and an amusing, at times caustic wit, and the book is just fun to read. All in all, for a book that missed it’s mark, I can’t believe I am telling you to read it, but I am.

The Prankster and the Conspiracy by Adam Gorightly

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Prankster and the Conspiracy

Author: Adam Gorightly

Type of Book: Non-fiction, biography, conspiracy

Why I Consider This Book Odd: Well, Robert Anton Wilson wrote the foreword. That’s sort of a clue right there. But overall, this book covers almost all the bases of oddness: Kennedy assassination conspiracy, Jim Garrison, the 60s in general, Discordianism, CIA spooks, and, Jesus help us all, Sondra London.

Availability: Published in 2003 by Paraview press, you can get a copy here

Comments: You know, I still sort of love the Discordians, even though the whole riff often wears thin for me now. Twenty years ago, I was an avid member of a Discordian offshoot, The Church of the SubGenius. (My SubGenius names were Lady Helena Burningbush and later Lady Helena Burningbook, and Google away – I am lucky that most of my asshattery as a young person occurred before the Internet came to make sure our every act of silliness is recorded for eternity.) But as I got older, I just didn’t see the point anymore. I still see some value in the sort of social satire that such parodies permit, but in the final analysis, I’m pretty earnest and cloaking one’s self behind so many layers of sarcasm and inside jokes in order to make a point ultimately is more work than I am willing to do to prove I am not one of them.

But when Kerry Thornley (Lord Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst) and Greg Hill (Malaclypse the Younger) created Discordianism and co-wrote the Principia Discordia, it was a natural rebellion against the postwar rage for order that permeated life in the 1950s, and the tricksterism had a profound point, one that has become diluted over time, especially now that the Internet makes being a trickster almost mandatory. But 50 years ago, before 1960s rebellion embraced chaos and dissent, Discordianism was a precursor and perhaps catalyst for serious social change. Kerry Thornley, as described in this book, is a man who inspired and in many senses created the counterculture in the United States and while some of the assertions of Thornley’s influence seem overstated to me, he is a person whose role in creating the counterculture has been overlooked in many quarters, and one has to wonder how much his unwitting and unwilling role in the assassination of John F. Kennedy contributed to Thornley’s name being forgotten more than it is remembered.

This book is both Thornley’s biography and an examination of conspiracy theory, and I think that Gorightly’s refusal to settle on a specific opinion, to analyze and give the facts that he does, gives this book far more impact than had he just put on a tinfoil hat and delivered the standard “Warren report bad, Garrison good, Oswald patsy” line that has tarred those who truly worry that there was a CIA conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy (hi, I am one of them). According to Gorightly, Thornley, who served in the Marines with Lee Harvey Oswald and wrote a book about him before the JFK assassination, and lived in New Orleans during the appropriate times, may have been manipulated by the CIA, and he may not have. (As some may or may not know, the infamous picture of Oswald holding a rifle and a copy of a Communist rag, supposedly taken in his backyard, is very likely Oswald’s head grafted onto Thornley’s body.) Given how insane and paranoid Thornley became later in his life, it is hard to tell what really happened.

For example, Thornley knew a very creepy man, Gary Kirstein, whom he mostly called Brother-in-law, who was an unsettling influence in Thornley’s life, and planted ideas that made Thornley think that perhaps he was subject to mind manipulation by the CIA. Thornley specifically believed this because he somehow or another (if at all) picked up rogue radio waves with his mind, an activity that Brother-in-law seemed to know all about. However, the only person who could have proved that Brother-in-law really existed, Greg Hill, died before anyone could question him on the subject. Others who lived in New Orleans at the time and knew Thornley could not verify that Brother-in-law existed. Thornley later believed Kirstein was E. Howard Hunt and Gorightly is of the opinion that Brother-in-law could have been Hunt but does not stake his reputation on it.

And with the mention of E. Howard Hunt, creepiest of the creepiest of spooks, you can tell that this is one helluva fun conspiracy tome, and one of the better because the author, while clearly subject to interesting beliefs (aren’t we all) maintains an air of interested speculation without ever confirming or denying anything. I left the book with the feeling that Thornley was very likely on to something, that perhaps he was an unwitting participant in one of the darkest moments of history, but his subsequent mental illness makes it impossible to know the truth. One of his friends at the time, then Grace Caplinger, now better known to some as character actress Grace Zabriskie, adds to the idea that Thornley’s memory, or at least his interpretations of memory, are to be held in doubt. Thornley described himself as having a long affair with Grace. Grace recalls one incident of not-very interesting sex that never happened again. His ex-wife Cara said that she never experienced some of the things Thornley claimed, like three black helicopters flying over their home. As Thornley drifted further and further into psychosis, it is impossible to know what happened and Thornley’s life does not make it any easier to parse out.

Peripatetic, even when he remained in one city for a while he never seemed to live in the same place for long, Thornley was truly a man who both brought about change and was subject to it. Like a Whitman poem, his mind contained inconsistent multitudes. He initially believed the Lone Gunman theory of the JFK assassination and wrote a book, Oswald, explaining this theory. He later recanted this theory. He became convinced Oswald was a CIA plant who was assigned to ferret out Communist sympathizers in the military and was later a part of a fringe CIA conspiracy to assassinate JFK. Jim Garrison, no small loon himself, called Thornley to a grand jury in order to recount the testimony he gave to the Warren Commission, and was so angered with Thornley’s testimony that he charged Thornley with perjury, though the charges were later dropped.

Though this book does speak of a mentally healthy Thornley (relatively speaking), much of the book documents his decline into mental states even the odd like me find unnerving. Thornley, after his divorce from his wife Cara, went through an exhibitionist sexual phase, which seems normal enough in some quarters. People experiment with all forms of freedom when long term relationships end. But in the manner of many biographies these days, it is revealed that perhaps Thornley had pedophilic tendencies, though if he had them, they were of a short duration and he regained his sense of restraint and decency. One can see this man becoming so mentally adrift that the sexual freedom he in part helped herald in could, in a drug haze, cause him to misapply his sexual freedom to children. If it seems like I am using too many words and dancing around the topic, it’s because that’s exactly what I am doing. I hate the idea that even unhinged Thornley would become so far afield that he could not see the lack of morality in sexual interaction with children. Though this is a very small part of the book, it stuck with me. Everyone these days is either a pedophile or a closet Nazi when their biography finally comes out.

Thornley died in 1998 of complications from a rare disease called Wegener’s Granulomatosis, and though his madness cleared enough at times to permit him moments of humor and clarity, one of the ways I know he was probably deeply entrenched in psychosis is that in his last days, he evidently had a friendship, if not relationship, with Sondra London. My distaste for London runs hard and deep. She has become such a scourge in her by now routine attempts to cozy up to violent murderers for a chance at love, renown, and potential book fodder that she has caused death row inmates to call her a skeeve. She pissed on the memories of the brutally murdered as a self-admitted serial killer lovingly serenaded her in court as she beamed like a teen girl being courted for the first time. I never really saw her as a person much interested in telling the stories of the insane, the broken or the criminally violent as much as someone who would do anything for money, publicity or to satisfy her admitted hybristophilia (or, to paraphrase her, she likes bad boys).

She is a loathsome human being who has made a career out of manipulating deeply mentally ill or sociopathic if not psychotic killers into collaborating with her on books (her collaboration with the disturbed and completely ill Nicolas Claux is truly disturbing – asking that man to illustrate a book on vampire killers is in no way subversive or in the spirit of Discordianism – just exploitative and completely callous). That Brother-in-law set off Thornley’s creepometer but London did not speaks of deep psychological pathology on his part. Gorightly had her number though, stating that even though London has recordings of Thornley important for any biographer, her status as his one true love prevented her from sharing them. Until she was offered money. And poor Thornley, to be on that woman’s list of “true loves”: Gerard Schaeffer, Danny Rolling, Keith Jesperson… Interesting that even they revile her now.

Back to Thornley: No matter what your opinion is of the JFK assassination, or even Thornley’s role in it, it is safe to assert that the madness and paranoia that plagued him in his later life was sparked in no small part by those who were either involved in the assassination or used the assassination to push their personal agenda. He started off as a sparkling trickster and died sick and paranoid, a very sad ending to be sure. I think this was one of the finer biographies and conspiracy books I have read in a while. Complex, interesting, mildly skeptical and interested in the truth but willing to admit it may never be known, and most importantly, evenhanded, open, scrutinizing yet ultimately kind to its subject. I highly recommend it. Gorightly has a book about the Manson Family that I think I will give a go soon.