[18 April 2010]
William Occam, a French Roman Catholic thinker from the medieval period once enunciated a helpful principle that became known as Occam’s Razor. In simple English, it goes like this: “The simplest solution to any problem is usually the best one.” David Aaronovitch has written a book detailing a long parade of folks who for various reasons have ignored this principle in loud and foolish and often destructive ways. In his book, Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, Aaronovitch sets out to trace how conspiracies theories entrance and captivate so many into believing the most improbable and dangerous things, and why so often so many so willingly want to believe them.
Aaronovitch, a regular columnist for The Times, begins by telling the story of what led him to investigate conspiracy theories. He was filming a documentary about popular tourist countries with human rights abuses when his camera man, a well educated young person, began explaining how the Apollo moon landing in 1969 never really happened. It was a conspiracy. His frustration at not being able to dissuade his colleague from what he himself considered to be a nonsensical position led Aaronovitch to his research and his writing.
It is well done research and well done writing. He treats conspiracy theories and theorists with just the right touch. It is a tricky balance. Lean too hard on mockery and ridicule and the reader is no closer to understanding the origin and appeal of such theories. Give them too much credence and the reader is left to wonder if maybe there is something to idea that Princess Di was murdered or how strange it does seem that Oswald could have acted alone.
Aaronovitch instead carefully unpacks the manifold threads and mutations that conspiracy theories go through to adapt themselves to ever changing contexts and stubborn facts. The most famous and harmful theory Aaronovitch tackles, the Protocols of Zion, a 19th century forgery which imagines a gigantic Jewish attempt to rule the world, took a long and circuitous route into the hands of a young Adolf Hitler. It began as a little known 1860s satire dealing with obscure French politics during the reign of Napoleon III. It was cut and pasted into an anti-Semitic novel by a German author. From there it traveled to Russia as a separate pamphlet, seeped into Europe, was popularized by the educated and well off and soon found its way into America. Henry Ford popularized it in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent and the Nazis used it to indoctrinate children.
What is fascinating about this story is how willingly people are drawn in. They want to believe the most outlandish stories because it explains the turbulent and evil world they live in. The scapegoats they suspect turn out to really be devils. Aaronovitch quotes Henry Ford’s explanation of the appeal of the forgery: “They fit with what is going on. They are 16 years old and they have fitted the world situation up to this time. They fit it now.” Aaronovitch himself explains the appeal: “The Protocols confirm what I believe and what I think and see around me, therefore they are true in the most important sense, even if they themselves are forgeries.” So, The Protocols “fit”. They do not fit reality or history or truth. They match the preconceptions and hatred and prejudice people carried and so they believed. Hatred trumps rationalism.
It is unraveling the complicated historical threads and the changing shapes and connections that such conspiracy theories undergo that makes Aaronovitch’s book fun and important. In the Pearl Harbor theory in which FDR supposedly knew about the attack beforehand and assisted the Japanese in order to hasten America’s entry into the war, Aaronovitch traces its background and mutation into other theories and thus shows the connections with a large swath of American history.
The roots of that conspiracy fable reach to turn of the century populism and the muckraker tradition embodied in John Flynn. Flynn was a journalist who began the 1930s sympathetic with Roosevelt and the New Deal but turned against him as the decade wore on. He began a campaign against FDR that morphed into an isolationist, anti-war campaign (he was part of the famous America First movement) which further shifted into a crusade to convince the public ‘Roosevelt knew’ about the Pearl Harbor attacks beforehand. After the war Flynn carried his paranoia further in seeing a communist plot behind the failure of the isolationists to keep the US out of World War II. That latest Flynn conspiracy led straight to McCarthy.
This chapter which follows fringe thinking from populist farm anger to the New Deal to America First isolationism to Pearl Harbor to the Red Scare is easily the best in the book. Aaronovitch’s has an ability to trace and unravel the roots and development of conspiracy thinking over large lengths of time and distance. One reason it is so effective is that in this chapter and in others the subject matter is important. World War II and the Holocaust are worthy subjects.
However, not all the subjects Aaronovitch tackles are so compelling. The books tries to tackle too many cases. In trying to sketch out a complete accounting of how any conspiracy theory at all attracts and holds people, Aaronvoitch drags in too many examples that do not seem to matter much. The deaths of Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana and even that of an obscure British gardener Hilda Murrell are interesting but in the end not much depends on them. Bill Clinton is not Franklin Roosevelt. Whitewater is not Pearl Harbor.
Aaronovitch himself suggests the overall seriousness of his enterprise when he writes that he hoped to show that “belief in conspiracy theories is ... harmful in itself. It distorts our view of history and therefore of the present and, if widespread enough, leads to disastrous decisions”. Our present circumstances in the America of the second decade of the 21st century bears out his diagnosis well. We are awash in hysterical political and social arguments about how we got here. We seem more susceptible than ever to conspiracy theory. This book is a welcome tonic, carefully researched historical medicine, for an age prone to irrational and paranoid thinking.