Voodoo Histories

The Financial Times/May 4, 2009

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

At the end of Voodoo Histories, his book on conspiracy theories, David Aaronovitch quotes the US historian Stephen E Ambrose. Such theories should be viewed with concern as well as contempt, Ambrose says, for though they generally deal with the past, they "carry with them a political agenda for today". Nearly all the conspiracy theories from the past century that Aaronovitch debunks here carried or still carry a powerful charge.

For example, the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" was purportedly written by a secret group of Jews revealing a plan for world domination. In fact, it was a concoction by the Tsarist secret police in about 1900 that gave a large boost to the state-sponsored pogroms of Jews in early 20th-century Russia and in Nazi Germany. These "Protocols" were influential in stoking prejudice - and though repeatedly demonstrated to be false, they continue to be republished and quoted.

This was not the only Russian conspiracy with a bloody legacy. In the 1920s, the Soviet Secret Police manufactured a Trotskyite plot to sabotage Soviet economic life through the subornation of Communist officials. The conspiracy, a necessary prelude to mass incarceration and murder under Stalin, was designed to remove any challenge from the country he ruled.

Recent conspiracy theories include the widespread suspicion that George W Bush's administration trained operatives to blow up the World Trade Center in 2001 and blame it on al-Qaeda, to provide an excuse to attack Afghanistan and Iraq. The conspiracy arguably contributed to the movement against the administration and the US in general.

Britain has had its share too: for example the popular conviction that Tony Blair ordered the murder of weapons expert Dr David Kelly in 2003. This was allied to a complementary fantasy that Blair, having lied about WMD in Iraq, made Kelly's death look like suicide.

Aaronovitch, an elegantly pugnacious columnist for The Times, presents these theories at length. Often with a chapter to themselves, he allows their narratives to run so that one gets a clear sense of their inner logic and force. His tone alternates between the documentary and the mocking.

Although some have been state-sponsored, conspiracy theories nowadays are more often developed "from below". Certain individuals - whether opponents of the Iraq war, those who believe that the west is out to crush Islam, anti-Semites or grudge-bearers - are keen for such narratives to drop into the popular imagination.

The large question posed in this fluent and forensic book is why do people accept and develop such fantastic complex plots, surrounding events as diverse as the suicide of Marilyn Monroe or the attack on the Twin Towers?

State-sponsored conspiracies are rational, says Aaronovitch: they serve the state's purpose, usually a dark one. Conspiracies by individuals are less easily catalogued. He enlists a handful of psychoanalysts to propose that such cases may be a defence against indifference - "against the far more terrible thought that no one cares about you". They also give a focus to hate, an ever-useful emotion, unifying, comforting and stimulating. I would have wished for more consideration of these motives but Aaronovitch's strength lies in his detailed exposition of these fantasies, and the frighteningly wide acceptance of them by people who should have known better.

Conspiracies theories can, Aaronovitch reminds us, be soundly based. Paranoia is, in some societies, a useful possession. Authorities do occasionally plot against the public good and, where there are none of the checks of democratic institutions, free press and civil society institutions, can keep the truth obscured.

Where, in democratic states, there are such checks, elaborate conspiracies of the 9/11 - or even Dr Kelly - kind are impossible to conceal: but those with an interest in propagating them will spare no effort in proclaiming the hidden "truth". It is depressing to learn how many prominent journalists have endorsed such fantasies as serious works.

In a passage that could be the rubric of the book, Aaronovitch writes: "If all narratives are relative, we are lost ... relativism doesn't care to distinguish between the scholarly and the slapdash, the committed researcher and the careless loudmouth, the scrupulous and the demagogic." Relativism - my truth is as good as anyone's, no matter how I arrived at it - is a pernicious doctrine, hugely magnified by the internet. The great merit of this book is that it leaves us in no doubt that arriving at the truth is a vital matter - at times a matter of life and death.

John Lloyd is a contributing editor to the FT

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