By: David Aaronovitch
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: January 2011
Reviewed by: Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D.
Review Date: January 17, 2011
Depending on how paranoid we feel, there’s a multitude of questions we may be asking about what’s going on in the world. Is the world really being secretly run by an international cabal of Jewish bankers? Are aliens (human or otherwise) really out to capture America and murder all the white people? Did the U.S. government really conspire to invent the AIDS virus? Mastermind Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attack? Kill Marilyn Monroe?
Aha—there’s the operative word. Conspire. In this age of too much information and too little personal power, there’s got to be someone running the show. Someone is sitting behind the great, giant head pulling the levers. And we can’t afford to ignore that guy behind the curtain. He’s out to get us.
David Aaronovitch, an award-winning British journalist and skeptic, take a very close look at conspiracy theories and the conspiracists who propagate them. His definition of conspiracy theory is “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,” or in other words, “the unnecessary assumption of conspiracy where other explanations are more probable. It is, for example, far more likely that men did actually land on the moon in 1969 than that thousands of people were enlisted to fabricate a deception that they did” (pg. 6). He gives seven characteristics that ensure the propagation of conspiracies:
- Historical precedent. “Conspiracies work hard to convince people that conspiracy is everywhere. An individual theory will seem less improbable if an entire history of similar cases can be cited.” (pg. 11)
- Skeptics and sheeple. A conspiracy theory “is likely to be politically populist, in that it usually claims to lay bare an action taken by a small power elite against the people.” (pg. 11)
- Just asking questions. “Since 2001, a primary technique employed by more respectable conspiracists has been the advocation of the ‘It’s not a theory’ theory. The theorist is just asking certain disturbing questions because of a desire to seek out truth…” (pg. 12)
- Expert witnesses. Conspiracists “draw upon the endorsement of celebrities and ‘experts’ to validate their theories” and at the same time exaggerate the status of their experts. (pg. 12)
- Academic credibility. They “work hard to give their written evidence the veneer of scholarship. This approach has been described as death by footnote [as] the exposition of the theory is a dense mass of detailed and often undifferentiated information … laid out as an academic text.” (pg. 13)
- Convenient inconvenient truths. Conspiracists “are always winners. Their arguments have a determined flexibility whereby any new and inconvenient truth can be accommodated.” It’s usually ascribed to disinformation “originating with the imagined plotters designed to throw activists off the scent.” (pg. 14)
- Under surveillance. “Those involved in spreading the theory are, even in the ‘safest’ of countries, somehow endangered.” (pg. 15)
Having defined what a conspiracy theory is, Aaronovitch devotes nine chapters to close (and enormously entertaining) examinations of some of the world’s most famous conspiracies, from the creation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was a favorite book of Adolph Hitler’s (and Henry Ford’s) to the “vast right-wing conspiracy” of the Clinton years and beyond.
Other conspiracy theories discussed are Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s, in which Trotskyites were tortured—and the description on pages 74 and 75 of the methods used by the Soviet secret police equally describes the methods still in use today at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp—and made astonishing confessions. Another chapter, “Dead Deities,” tells what conspiracists believe about the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and Princess Diana. They were all done in by government agents. The chapter titled “Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Holy Shit” concerns the famous book by Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln that tells how the Christian church has conspired for 2,000 years to convince us that Jesus was a bachelor and Mary Magdalen a whore. Also under Aaronovitch’s eagle eye here are Dan Brown and a whole bunch of revisionist historians, including Immanuel Velikovsky, Erich von Daniken, and Graham Hancock. (If you don’t know the works of these men, read them. They’re fascinating. Just don’t believe them. Although I must confess, it makes a lot of sense to me that Leonardo painted the face on the Shroud of Turin.) You want more conspiracies? Try these. Franklin D. Roosevelt let the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. Senator Joe McCarthy was right: the government was full of commies. Nobody ever landed on the moon; it was staged in Arizona (or somewhere). The Bush administration is responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And (of course) President Barrack Obama was born somewhere else and is not qualified to be president.
Where do all these conspiracy theories come from? Aaronovitch searches for an answer to this question in his final chapter, “A Bedtime Story.” It seems to come down, he writes, to a combination of paranoia and powerlessness and the human need to have stories. If we can somehow account for great and terrible events, then history is not random. We don’t like change, so we tell stories to explain change and promote the idea that underneath change there is still something that makes sense. Conspiracy theories are thus somehow comforting. “I have written this book,” he concludes, “because I believe that conspiracies aren’t powerful. It is instead the idea of conspiracies that has power” (pg. 372).
Quill says: Forget about vampires and zombies and aliens from outer space. This is one of the most authentically scary books you’ll ever read in your life. Help! The paranoids are after me!