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

This book is a welcome tonic, carefully researched historical medicine, for an age prone to irrational and paranoid thinking.

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

Publisher: Riverhead
Length: 400 pages
Author: David Aaronovitch
Price: 26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-02-04

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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