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.