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

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

I have mixed feelings about this book on conspiracy theories. I liked Voodoo Histories in some ways, but found it frustrating or unsatisfying in other ways.

One thing you need to do in a book like this is define just what you mean by a “conspiracy theory.” I give the author credit for opening with a decent definition:

The attribution of deliberate agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended….The attribution of secret action to one party that might far more reasonably be explained as the less covert and less complicated action of another,

though as a philosopher I’d like to have seen considerably more discussion and fine-tuning of this.

One of the problems I have with the book is that having decided that something counts as a “conspiracy theory” in his sense, he takes that as sufficient to establish that it is too absurd to need to be refuted. If I imagine myself in the shoes of someone who believes one or more of the theories in this book, but who at the same time is open-minded to counter-evidence, I see little to persuade me to change my views. It would read to me like the author is assuming I’m wrong rather than establishing that I’m wrong.

He admits that some conspiracies in history are real, but treats them as so well-known and obvious that they aren’t really “conspiracy theories” in the sense meant in this book. That’s too black and white for me. I would think that while some alleged conspiracies are obviously true and others are obvious nonsense not worth arguing against, most presumably exist on a continuum somewhere in between.

Also, I don’t think he adequately acknowledges how varied so-called conspiracy theories can be on a given topic, and how much they can differ in plausibility.

Consider the 9/11 skeptics, for instance. It’s not as if there’s some single monolithic (and absurd) position that they all share. Among the many, many positions that a 9/11 skeptic or “truther” might espouse are:

• The U.S. government itself carried out the attacks.
• The government had foreknowledge of the attacks.
• The government was negligent in not anticipating the attacks based on the available intelligence.
• The government inappropriately and dishonestly exploited the attacks to further its policy goals, such as reductions in civil liberties and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
• The airplanes that hit the Twin Towers were not sufficient by themselves to bring them down; explosives that had been placed in the buildings in advance were detonated that same day to finish the job.
• No airplanes hit the Twin Towers; it was all an illusion created by some hologram or fake video.
• Israel was involved in the attack, and that’s why so many Jews who worked in the Twin Towers didn’t go in to work that day.
• The supposed in-flight phone calls from the plane that supposedly crashed in Pennsylvania were faked.
• Investigations into 9/11 have fudged or danced around some things so as not to politically embarrass certain parties.

Some of these are very likely true (e.g., the fourth), some strike me as utterly ludicrous (e.g., the sixth), and some I would think reasonable people can disagree about but at the very least need to be argued against with evidence rather than dismissed out of hand.

So is 9/11 skepticism a conspiracy theory in the derogatory way the author is using the term? I don’t think you can give a simple yes or no to that. Some aspects of it are; some aspects of it are not. You’d have to examine the various skeptical claims and theories separately, and assess them on their merits.

I just don’t think the author consistently analyzes the theories in the book sufficiently, and respectfully and cogently argues against those he rejects.

When I reflect on the phenomenon of conspiracy theories, I’m intrigued by the psychology of them—how and why people come to believe them, how they respond to evidence against them, etc. While the author does address this, I’d like to have seen much more.

One of the things that marks conspiracy theories as flawed to me is the certainty with which they are routinely espoused.

When you have extraordinarily complex events, and lots of powerful people are allegedly lying about them and concocting alternative stories, and even the conspiracy theorists have allegedly been infiltrated by disinformation specialists, and evidence is purposely hidden and changed, etc., it seems like usually you wouldn’t be able to say much more than “This seems fishy. We’ll probably never know for sure, and certainly a lot of the details will never be clear, but I think there’s at least some realistic chance that what really happened differs from the ‘official’ version, and that what really happened had some kind of nefarious involvement by powerful people and institutions who had the means and motive to do this and more or less successfully cover it up.”

In other words, “Some kind of conspiracy seems plausible here, but I’ll be damned if I could explain the details of it.”

There are some ambiguous things in history about which I could probably go along with a modest expression of suspicion like that, but instead all too often conspiracy theorists are dogmatic and certain about what happened, sometimes down to the smallest detail, and they treat their ideas as so self-evident that anyone denying them must be liars or pathetic dupes (“sheeple”).

Indeed, part of what’s happening psychologically in these cases might be that many people like the feeling of being in the minority that knows what’s “really” going on, the minority that’s immune to being fooled or manipulated.

Another psychological factor might be that in fiction, routinely things are not as they seem. “It’s always the last person you expect.” So you learn that wherever the evidence is pointing, the truth is likely elsewhere. But reality isn’t an author playing tricks. Wherever the evidence points is where the truth most likely is.

It also seems to me that conspiracy theorists often operate under an assumption that if there is any way, however convoluted, that the “official” version could be false, then their conspiracy theory must be true. Never mind that it is almost always possible to find easier ways the conspiracy account could be false if that were held up to the same scrutiny. Somehow credulity is only laughable when applied to official accounts.

I won’t address all the conspiracy theories that the author chose to include in the book, but I thought the Elders of Zion chapter was particularly interesting and informative.

I would have guessed the British conspiracy theories would have been interesting to me since I was unfamiliar with them and so they were fresh to me, but actually I found they held my interest the least.

In the end, I just don’t think the author succeeds in justifying the dismissal of conspiracy theories. Does that make me a conspiracy theorist myself? Do I look at the world the way these conspiracy theorists seem to?

Mostly not, but maybe in small ways I do. Again I think it comes down to how you define your terms.

For example, I certainly believe that to a large degree the world does not work the way we’re more or less assured that it does by conventional schooling and by the bulk of the mainstream media. The powers that be don’t operate in a good-willed manner like you might expect from a junior high school civics textbook. A lot of things in life are consciously rigged; a lot of people who influence the worldviews of the majority of people are consciously lying.

That to me is not only true, but obviously true.

If that type of cynicism is a conspiracy theory, then yes, I’m a conspiracy theorist.

Maybe the author would say that’s not the kind of thing he means when he dismisses conspiracy theories. But I’m not sure.

Take, for instance, his discussion of the “vast right wing conspiracy” alluded to by Hillary Clinton in 1998. He rejects it, not so much because it’s untrue but because political donations and allegedly biased stories in the media and such are all part of the public record, and not some secret, underground thing that needs to be exposed.

Bullshit. These things may not be hidden in the same way that the details of certain conspiracy theories supposedly are, but that doesn’t mean they are widely known and understood. The contemporary political Right in this country routinely, intentionally, engages in blatant lies and propaganda, a lot of which is at least semi-organized and coordinated (e.g., certain “talking points” and even specific phrases are agreed upon, and then a suspiciously high percentage of conservative politicians and media figures stick to that script). In so doing they purposely manipulate people into having false beliefs and acting against their own self-interest for the benefit of those who already have the most money and power.

There is some amount of dishonesty and manipulation everywhere else on the political spectrum in America as well, but not to that degree. Not even close.

That’s a conspiracy of sorts, it’s a very real one, and—contrary to the author’s claims—it’s not one that doesn’t count because it’s all out in the open and everyone already knows about it. If everyone knew about it, it wouldn’t work. And boy does it work, unfortunately.

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