At the beginning of his book Voodoo Histories, David Aaronovitch recounts the event which sparked off his research into conspiracy theories. He was in Tunisia, filming a documentary on countries popular with tourists which commit human rights abuses. Their work was necessarily secret, and involved avoiding the attention of the secret police, but for Aaronovitch the most significant aspect of the trip occurred
in a hire car on the road down from Tunis to the Roman amphitheatre at El-Jem (where I was to deliver one of those ‘behind this attractive facade’ pieces to camera) that Kevin [the cameraman-producer] told me about how the 1969 Apollo moon landings had been faked by NASA and the American government. This was a shock for me; unlike Kevin I was old enough to have watched the One Small Step For Man on the television, and it was part of my personal history, like England’s 1966 World Cup win. I wasn’t anxious to lose it.
Out of the frustration of not being able to refute an argument which Aaaronovitch found totally implausible, put forward by an articulate and intelligent young colleague, came Voodoo Histories.
It’s a good story, and it encapsulates many of the tensions which play out within the book. After all, the two men were in Tunisia for a secret purpose, interviewing victims of detention and torture which had not officially occurred, in order to reveal it to the public. And Aaronovitch freely admits that his attempts to refute Kevin’s argument didn’t stem from a deep commitment to an abstract truth, but from the place the moon landings had in his own personal history. Voodoo Histories isn’t an attempt to tell everyone to chill out and stop worrying about what people in authority are up to. Rather, it attempts the trickier task of explaining why a set of conspiracy theories do not hold water on close examination, and accounting for how they differ from traditional historical explanations – what is specifically “conspiracist” about them.
This is reflected in the targets he takes on. The book’s title might suggest we were in for a quick spin through the annals of the foil-hat brigade, a sort of anti-Fortean Times which would expose to our slightly superior amusement what passes for a reasonable view of the world on some of its weirder fringes. On the contrary, Aaronovitch includes the forgery of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, the show-trials of the Stalinist era, McCarthyism, through to contemporary cases such as the death of David Kelly and the “9/11 Truth Movement”. It’s true that he stops off along to the way to demolish the Dan Brown /Templars/ bloodline nonsense vortex, but that actually turns out to be a much more interesting case than the novels it spawned might suggest. (One of the paradoxes the book illuminates is just how much weirder, involved and deranged historical fact tends to be than fiction – though of course that might be part of the appeal of the conspiracy theory.)
Voodoo Histories provides an interesting parallel to another book published recently: Heresy by the theologian Alister McGrath. Both writers take on, via the terms “conspiracy” and “heresy”, notions which have become deeply fashionable as a means of critiquing existing and received authority. Strikingly, however, they both find that these approaches, which appear to offer a liberation from supposedly oppressive authorities, often replace them with more dubious intellectual structures. McGrath gives as his examples the “Marcionism” of the second century, whose desire to break with early Christianity’s Judaic elements led to some very unpleasant associations with anti-Semitism; and “Montanism”, which assumed an even more authoritarian and rigorous form than the orthodox church. In Aaronovitch’s case, the historical explanations which “conspiracy theories” present loop around alarmingly often to blaming “the Jews” for being “behind it all”.
This points up the serious nature of the question: conspiracy theories aren’t simply an intellectual quirk, but a whole different way of viewing power relations in the world, which can translate into action. Aaronovitch’s subtitle, The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History embraces a dual meaning of “history” as both a collection of events in the past, and the action of understanding and accounting for the past. Conspiracy theories have the capacity to affect, in some sense, both those meanings of “history”. As J.M. Roberts put it, whilst writing about the French Revolution:
Historical questions about its beginning and origins, its duration and end, have always included implicit or explicit demands for political and even philosophical statements about what the Revolution was or what it meant. Some of these demands and the answers they have called forth have become historical forces in their own right. In this way historians’ views about the Revolution are not merely interesting but demand our attention
Aaronovitch himself declares “I have written this book because I believe that conspiracies aren’t powerful. It is instead the idea of conspiracies that has power.” McCarthyism and belief in the forged “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” certainly had their effect upon the world, and the same can be said of modern arguments over what is or is not a conspiracy. Leaving aside any actual effect of the “9/11 Truth Movement”, or the various conspiracy theories bandied around in pubs about wars in the Middle East, the public argument over the status and validity of climate science is undoubtedly going to have a real effect on the world.
Voodoo Histories sets out to cover a great deal of ground, both relating historical cases of conspiracy theory and trying to analyse what marks them out – even, briefly, what might cause them. Inevitably, strains are evident, as telling a good story collides with potted accounts of historical method, and the temptation to digression becomes irresistible. However, these strains are less problematic than they might have been, and they certainly don’t get in the way of an exceptionally enjoyable and though-provoking read. Aaronovitch provides the reader with the jewels of what must have been some truly exhausting research, and combines with a pungent wit with a real sense that his subject matters on a practical and a moral level.
This article first appeared in California Literary Review in March 2010.