David Aaronvitch, Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History. Reviewed by MATTHEW DENTITH
Jonathan Cape, London, 2009
If you are a singer in the “Conspiracy Theories are bunk!” choir and you love being preached to, then you will love David Aaronvitch’s new book, Voodoo Histories. If, on the other hand, you are even just a little sceptical of “Conspiracy Theory Scepticism,” then odds are Aaronvitch’s book will ultimately cause you to engage in um-ing, ah-ing and copious sighing.
I don’t think there is much middle ground.
In Voodoo Histories Aaronovitch has set himself the task of showing up a selection of popular Conspiracy Theories. His intended audience is people like himself, who know that Conspiracy Theories are bunk and just need some ammunition to prove it.
Aaronvitch tries to show up these Conspiracy Theories as being implausible; I say ‘tries to show’ because as he is preaching to the choir he often glosses over material or relies upon humourous and condescending descriptions rather than engaging with the arguments put forward to defend particular Conspiracy Theories, and the feeling I got throughout the book was that he had quite specifically chosen his targets to fit with his thesis.
Now, tailoring a book around a thesis, especially in a field where everyone and their dog is trying to justify why their version of events is correct and the other side is just plain wrong, is not in itself a bad thing. There are too many Conspiracy Theories out there for any one book to adequately deal with them all, so it makes sense to narrow the pool of candidate Conspiracy Theories that you want to deal with. However – and this is one of the ‘howevers’ which needs to be said slowly and clearly – the actual thesis itself needs to be clear, concise and strong in order for the examples to do any work. Aaronvitch’s thesis is muddy at best.
Aaronvitch is, to put it crudely, a believer in Official Theories and a sceptic of Conspiracy Theories. Now, there is a debate to be had over whether Conspiracy Theories can be Official Theories, but Aaronvitch does not engage in that debate; he simply takes the term ‘Conspiracy Theory’ to be entirely pejorative, one that marks out implausible theories that suspect characters believe in. His definition of a Conspiracy Theory is laid out thus:
I think a better definition of a conspiracy theory might be: the attribution of deliberate agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended. And, as a sophistication of this definition, one might add: 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. So a conspiracy theory is the unnecessary assumption of conspiracy when other explanations are more probable. (p. 5)
Aaronvitch’s definition is interesting, to say the least, because rather than dealing with what I would take to be central to any theory about a Conspiracy – namely, the notion that there are agents working together to achieve their desired end – he focuses on a mere notion of agency. Given the kinds of examples Aaronvitch uses in Voodoo Histories, however, this all makes sense – it soon becomes clear that he is not so much talking about Conspiracy Theories as Conspiracy Theorists. His critique is squarely aimed at Conspiracism, the (supposedly) irrational belief in Conspiracy Theories, rather than at the warrant or justifiability of the particular Conspiracy Theories Conspiracy Theorists profess.
Yet Voodoo Histories wants us not only to be willing to accept the status quo, but also to question what we are being told. Aaronovitch’s dilemma comes from an intuition he has formed that history just does not work the way Conspiracy Theorists tell us it does. To quote:
[F]raught though the understanding of history is, and although there can be no science of historical probability, those who understand history develop an intuitive sense of likelihood and unlikelihood. This does not mean they are endorsing the status quo. As the great British historian Lewis Namier wrote, ‘The crowning attainment of historical study is a historical sense – an intuitive understanding of how things do’ not happen.’ Conspiracy theories are theories that, among other things, offend my understanding of how things happen by positing as a norm how they do not happen. (p. 7)
This leads to the first major problem I have with this book, which is that whilst this notion of the ‘historian’s sense’ is a noble sentiment it one which is incredibly controversial. Indeed, towards the end of the book Aaronvitch critiques the very notion, arguing that it can be symptomatic of a fallacy unique to historians:
The term ‘historian’s fallacy’ was coined in 1970 by the scholar David Hackett Fischer to describe the ‘ludicrous’ but common error in the assumption ‘that a man who has a given historical experience knows it, when he has it, to be all that a historian would know it to be, with the advantage of historical perspective’. Fischer is not talking about what we call the benefit of hindsight, but about the tendency to forget that the actors in a historical drama simply did not know, at the time, what was coming next. Subsequent to an event, we may recall the clues and warnings that it was about to happen, but, warns Fischer, ‘our memory does not extend with equal clarity to many other signs and signals which pointed unequivocally in the other direction’. (p. 256)
Aaronvitch fails to see that the very fallacy he accuses Conspiracy Theorists of committing may well be his own. His intuition, based upon his understanding of events, tells him that History does not work conspiratorially and so he thinks Conspiracy Theories are implausible, but to a large extent his intuition is formed on the basis that as many Conspiracies get found out their effectiveness is limited, if not non-existent – a position Karl Popper took in The Open Society and Its Enemies back in 1945. Whereas Popper argued for his position, Aaronvitch intuits it. Early in Voodoo Histories he dismisses the Moon Landing Hoax solely because it offends his intuition about how plausible such a conspiracy would be. Now, whilst I agree with him on this, the fact is that he then says:
Given the imbalance in probabilities I was therefore sure, without even scrutinising it, that Kevin’s evidence was wrong. (p. 2)
Such an intuition-based approach is likely to fail if it predisposes you to ignore the ‘evidence,’ whatever that may or may not be. For example, the intuition of the British and American Governments was that the Moscow Trials of the 1930s were genuine, and yet they have been revealed to be mere show trials with fabricated evidence and forced confessions used to reveal a conspiracy by Leon Trotsky that never happened, all because Stalin and his cronies wanted it.
Which leads me to the second major problem I have with Aaronvitch’s book. He argues that we can’t use the historical precedent of Conspiracies actually occurring to provide any argument for the likelihood of Conspiracies occurring now, yet he happily devotes the first two chapters of his book to a discussion of the Moscow Show Trials and of the Conspiracy to create and disseminate the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He wants to dismiss talk of historical Conspiracies setting precedents, but then uses examples of (at least) two historical conspiracies to show that people do conspire.
Aaronvitch does not seem to see the fabrication and dissemination of the Protocols as being particularly conspiratorial; nor does he seem to think that Stalin and his cronies were co-conspirators in the running of show trials. Aaronvitch treats the Official Theories – that the Protocols are fakes and the Moscow Show Trials were engineered to get a specific verdict – as conspiracy-like, but definitely not the kind of thing Conspiracy Theorists would believe in. He is obviously wrong.
Here’s the rub: if you define a Conspiracy Theory as a species of bad beliefs about the world, then you have to spend quite some considerable time defending those examples of beliefs about Conspiracies that you take to be warranted. Aaronvitch criticises other authors on the subject like Daniel Pipes and Mark Fenster for this manoeuvre, yet he too commits it. He takes the Official Theory (usually the theory good historians will agree to) as being right and treats the Conspiracy Theory as bunk, where the Conspiracy Theory is simply the theory that is at odds with the Official Theory. He seems oblivious to the fact that several Official Theories are themselves Conspiracy Theories. Stalin and his cronies conspired against the spectre of Trotsky sympathisers, the Czarist Secret Police conspired to create a document to get the Czar angry at the Jewish community in Russia; the Japanese, arguably, conspired to attack Pearl Harbour without being detected.
It’s not as if Aaronovitch’s intuition stands up to much scrutiny anyway. About the death of Princess Diana he writes:
The powers that be had to not only suborn the driver, know the route, organise and drive a white Fiat, have it side-swiped, create a flash, delay the ambulance, switch the blood samples, turn off the CCTV and corrupt the investigators, they now had to identify, tamper with and deliver the death vehicle too. There must surely be simpler methods of killing someone. (p. 151)
As I read this I thought ‘Yes, he’s right’ but then I thought ‘Hold on, what about Alexander Litvinenko’s death by polonium-210 poisoning?’
I don’t mean this to be a point in favour of the Conspiracy Theory that Diana was murdered; rather it’s a criticism of Aaronvitch. Yes, if you were organising the death of Diana there would be simpler ways to do it, but sometimes people don’t want or do simple. The death of Litvinenko is a case in point: his killers could have just shot him or arranged an accident but, whoever they were, they went for the weird and preposterous route of obtaining a difficult-to-produce rare radioactive isotope which would kill the target slowly and leave a trail that would be easy to follow. This isn’t a mere theory either – this really happened. Appealing to the intuition that the simplest story is the best is all very nice but it isn’t necessarily a marker of the truth of such theories. Sometimes people are weird and they do things in sub-optimal ways.
All of this sounds rather negative, but it’s not as if I didn’t enjoy parts of Voodoo Histories. It is very well-written – Aaronvitch has a turn of phrase that produces great jokes, usually at the expense of prominent Conspiracy Theorists, with comments about ‘guard cats’ and ‘rhythmically-named’ wives. When he touches on issues to do with how our current media culture credulously fosters Conspiracy Theories he sounds very plausible: Aaronvitch is a journalist after all, a media insider, and he knows something about how he and his kind sometimes allow the debate to be skewed in wacky and implausible directions.
But – and, like the ‘however’ at the beginning of this review, this ‘but’ deserves emphasis – Voodoo Histories really doesn’t have much to add to the debate around and about Conspiracy Theories. It is merely a collection of discussions of loosely connected Conspiracy Theories Aaronvitch finds interesting, with a brief little prologue and coda to make it look like he has something interesting to say. If Voodoo Histories was an essay it would get a B; it contains some interesting case studies but never actually uses them to illustrate the work’s central thesis. As a reader you are simply expected to agree with Aaronvitch and enjoy the ride.
I’m going to provide here some links to other reviews of Voodoo Histories by way of conclusion, in part to situate this review and in part to further my argument. I think that Aaronvitch’s book really says very little, and that the reviews reflect this. Their tone ranges from complimentary to exasperated, and (Conspiracy Theorist hat now on) I reckon that this is because some reviewers are the choir Aaronvitch is preaching to (and so they don’t need to notice his faults) whilst the others are the naughty altar servers who really don’t want to be there, and they’ve largely failed to note that it’s not really that Aaronvitch offends their point-of-view but rather that he doesn’t really have much to say as to why.
A pity really. It’s a big book with lots of words in it.