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Wednesday, October 27, 2010 

Book review: Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch.

(BenSix asked for my views on Voodoo Histories, so you've got him to blame for this rather hefty post. His own review, which I've tried not to overlap with too much, is here.)

Iraq only warrants 9 page references in the index of David Aaronovitch's Voodoo Histories, his contribution to the recent welcome if not entirely successful number of tomes aimed squarely at challenging conspiracy theories and other similarly unsound or lazy thinking, yet the war looms as large over the book as it did over the last decade's politics.

Fair or not, Aaronovitch simply can't escape from his ill-fated support for the invasion. In fact, it's not really his support for the invasion which he can't escape from, which was always a reasonable position to take, having stuck with the argument made by many other "decent" left-wing opponents of the war that the WMD and terrorism justifications were secondary to getting rid of a brutal dictator through the liberal interventionism most famously set out in Tony Blair's speech in Chicago in 1999, but rather one of his almost certainly now regretted formulations which he made shortly after the overthrow of Saddam. Responding to how American advocates of the war were already saying that it didn't matter much if WMD weren't found after all, Aaronovitch took the opposite view:

But it won't do.


But the weapons were the pretext on which the invasion was sold to a lot of people in this country, and was attempted to be sold to the people of the world.


These claims cannot be wished away in the light of a successful war. If nothing is eventually found, I - as a supporter of the war - will never believe another thing that I am told by our government, or that of the US ever again. And, more to the point, neither will anyone else. Those weapons had better be there somewhere.

It therefore feels legitimate to doubt whether it really was Kevin Jarvis, the cameraman-producer Aaronovitch was working with and who articulated his doubts about the legitimacy of the Apollo 11 moon landings which set "the hare running" and led inexorably to the publication of Voodoo Histories. Notably, he doesn't actually deal with the conspiracy theory that holds that we never went to the moon anywhere outside of the introduction, as you perhaps think he might have done, even if it was more the fact that such a well-educated young man could believe such egregious nonsense which really made him worried. Instead, it seems more of a reaction to that fated paragraph - if even he could never again believe anything the government said, how could anyone else? Voodoo Histories almost seems to be Aaronovitch attempting to convince himself that governments can be believed, by lining up a whole host of assorted conspiracy theories and knocking them down whilst putting them in their historical context.

Regardless of its origins, VH is not wholly successful due exactly to that slightly confused mix of aims. Neither a true debunker's handbook or a history of the development of the theories dealt with, it fails to satisfy on both counts. It also heads almost immediately into trouble: before he even sets out what he defines a conspiracy theory to be, he's quoting Daniel Pipes, "author of two books about conspiracy theories". Could this possibly be the same Daniel Pipes who set up Campus Watch, has been incredibly outspoken about the threat of radical Islam and has most recently suggested that Barack Obama used to be a Muslim, something that could definitely be categorised as a conspiracy theory? Why yes, it is. Shouldn't this have been mentioned, perhaps, considering how Campus Watch was described as McCarthyite, especially as Aaronovitch dedicates a decent section of a chapter to exactly the hysteria and conspiracy which a certain section of the American right fell into between the 30s and 50s? Apparently not.

On surer ground is Aaronovitch's introduction of Occam's razor, one of my own favourite implements and its ability to cut through to the simplest explanation, as is his recognition of Iran-Contra alongside Watergate as one of the few well established conspiracies which have been uncovered. Why though not dedicate a chapter to the former, rather than just a few lines, to show that governments are capable of such backhanded deviousness, putting it in its proper historical context? Or would that perhaps undermine the book's well structured argument and conclusion that conspiracies themselves are not powerful when it's the idea that in fact is?

Also dubious is one of the characteristics he defines as helping conspiracy theories propagate. While his first, historical precedent, is beyond doubt, as it nails how many conspiracy theorists don't just believe in one disconnected theory but often every single one going (proof of this if it was needed is this thread on of all places, dubstepforum.com, where I wasted my time trying to argue, increasingly desperately, with a whole load of 9/11 sceptics). Far less sinister is the practice Aaronovitch associates with those who set themselves up as expert witnesses, which is worth quoting:

Another aspect of this fudging is the tendency among conspiracists to quote each other as to suggest a wide spread of expertise lending support to the argument. Thus, over the events of 9/11, the French conspiracy author Thierry Meyssan cites American conspiracy author Webster Tarpley; Tarpley cites David Ray Griffin and David Ray Griffin cites Thierry Meyssan. It is a rather charming form of solidarity.

Err, yes. It's also what those who agree with each other tend to do normally. Bloggers of all shades link to those with similar views; those who prefer certain sources of information tend to disregard those who espouse the opposite. Hell, there's an approving quote on the inside cover of VH from Francis Wheen, himself partial to a bit of debunking as well as being a supporter of the invasion of Iraq. He also alongside Aaronovitch complained to the Guardian about an apology to Noam Chomksy following an interview in the paper in which Emma Brockes tackled him over his views on the genocide in Bosnia. A charming form of solidarity, or just like-minded folk sticking together?

This isn't to suggest that in its best chapters VH isn't an excellent contribution to the current number of books on conspiracies. The very first, on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is superb: tracing their progress from fiction to supposed non-fiction and the massive influence which the Chekist-forgery had across Europe and America, it almost justifies the book's arguments on its own of how dangerous such theories quickly become when combined with those who already have a grievance. It loses its way somewhat in the chapter on the Stalinist show-trials, which could perhaps have been pruned and seems to have been dug into mainly because you suspect Aaronvitch already knew much of the detail having come from a socialist family, as well as originally being something of a firebrand himself, before picking up again through the chapters on the origins of McCarthyism and the assassination of JFK, although even that one could have done without the meander onto Marilyn Monroe. Also fascinating is the delve into the now foolish looking theories surrounding the death of Hilda Murrell, capturing the spirit of the time effortlessly, although some of the judgements on those who suspected foul play (Tam Dalyell and Nick Davies among them) seem harsh when they had and continue to have got so much else right.

After a rather needless further kicking of the "facts" behind the Da Vinci Code, we come to the 9/11 chapter, which is also somewhat lacking. Not only does it not really engage in any actual debunking, although to be fair I myself find the idea that anyone other than al-Qaida carried out the attacks to be completely ludicrous, in it Aaronovitch launches a misguided attack on the use of asking "cui bono?" (who benefits?) when it comes to attempting to understand what has just happened and why. True, if you start out from a basis of highly questionable assertions when doing so it does lose its ability to see things clearly, yet it can also be used as another way of debunking conspiratorial thinking. Ask for instance who would have benefited from the death of Dr David Kelly, the topic the next chapter deals with, and you certainly wouldn't give the government as the first answer. Indeed, the Hutton inquiry, even though it placed most of the blame for the circumstances which led to Dr Kelly taking his own life on the BBC and not the government, resulted in most (rightly) taking the view that the entire exercise was a whitewash and that the government had behaved abysmally, so dedicated was it to maintaining the fiction that there had been no "sexing up" of intelligence dossiers.

Aaronovitch, despite even using "Cui bono?" as one of the chapter's headings, fails to challenge the alternative theory in such a way. It is however the most forensic and devastating of all the chapters in how it disparages those who believe there was foul play in Dr Kelly's death, to such an extent that you suspect he took great personal delight in the monstering given to Norman Baker MP, author of the main conspiratorial tome alleging such. Certainly Baker's casual, hurtful dismissal of Kelly's surviving relatives' views is risible, Aaronovitch deals with him with more venom than almost anyone else in the book, including those who have committed far worse offences, both real and intellectual. Again, you're left wondering whether this isn't all something to do with his own being taken in by the exact same government that left Kelly in such a terrible emotional state.

It isn't then the scattergun approach of the book which most lets it down, rather that which it passes over. As we have seen, Iraq is both everywhere and nowhere. Extraordinary rendition, the first major uncovered true conspiracy of the 21st century also doesn't receive a mention, even when the first allegations were made it was the politicians whom rubbished those investigating by claiming that it was all a conspiracy theory and therefore, by association, the ravings of lunatics. The United States of America operating a worldwide network of black site prisons, that detainees were transferred around and tortured at? Who could possibly believe such a thing? When governments tell such obtuse lies or get things so wrong (if we're being very, very charitable on the WMD fiasco), who can be surprised when conspiracy theories gain such currency and become almost more accepted than the reality? Try as he might, and boy does he try, Aaronovitch simply can't put the genie he himself unleashed back in its bottle.

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Good points! A few initial thoughts that it gave me to chew...

I'd guess Aaronovitch was unwilling to consider real conspiracies as they might demand some recognition of quite how many there have been. His airy insisistence that they "aren't powerful" is simply ludicrous; if he's being sincere then he's also uninformed.

I'm sceptical of Occam's blade's "ability to cut through to the simplest explanation". Firstly as it tends to be used in a bland, blithe manner that fails to appreciate all the data and second as it forces us to a erect a measure of simplicity. Thus, in the palms of Aaro and others it tends to mean a priori implausibility, which Splintered Sunrise dealt with...

Aaro would no doubt find it inherently implausible that a Masonic lodge could take over the secret service, police, military and judicial infrastructure of a major European country, or that in the same country a secret army of state-sponsored neo-Nazi terrorists would carry out false-flag bombings which the state would then blame on the left. Yet this did happen...

Basic parsimony can help to identify the most well-evidenced of theories, but the notion that it's usually good to plump for the best-attested thesis isn't much of a law!

According to this fellow Aaronovitch screws up his chapter on the JFK shootings. As he tends to confuse the details when he writes on 9/11 - about which I'm more informed - I'm loath to dismiss his critic.

Obviously Occam can't be used as an exact science, more as a general guide, as it can get things dead wrong. It does though at least provide a useful position from which to start any general inquiry, with there needing to be a lot of extenuating circumstances before you consider the "less simple" explanation.

Your Kennedy man I think says it best:

"If the author had truly been serious about writing an overview of conspiracies, he might have left behind the large package of straw men gathered in this book. He might have instead chosen from any number of real historical events, such as the 1846 invasion of Mexico led by Zachary Taylor, the 1898 bombing of the Maine leading to the Spanish-American War, Operation Paperclip, Operation Gladio, the Manhattan Project, the coup of Salvador Allende, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Iran Contra ... there are endless examples, of which these are but a few. In doing so, he might have been to construct a model of how such things are done and thus produced some valuable work."

That wasn't however his objective in writing the book, as soon becomes clear. Anything that detracts from his peculiar and flawed thesis that conspiracies aren't powerful or very often true is left out. It's very odd for someone who does so little actual debunking to have so suddenly become this "debunker-in-chief" and to have chosen the most obvious and most ludicrous of theories to knock down. I still can't tell whether or not the book is even intended to try to convince "truthers" or anyone else of just how wrong they are, although seeing as nothing will in the first place maybe any attempt to do so is pissing in the wind.

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