Thursday, June 7, 2018

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

Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

David Aaronovitch is a British journalist. The central theme of his book is that conspiracy theories often come about when a large group of people has suffered an emotional loss. The conspiracy theory provides a narrative that makes the loss more palatable, more understandable.

While Aaronovitch sympathizes with the psychological aspects of conspiracy theorizing, he also emphasizes the real-life consequences when large groups believe things that are factually inaccurate. The chapters of his book provide several historical examples of this. The most dramatic may be how the demonstrable fraud of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion influenced a century of virulent anti-Semitism, including the Holocaust. When conspiracy theory is linked with scapegoating, there's a good possibility that people will die as a result.

Please note that Aaronovitch's analysis of conspiracy theories has neither a liberal nor a conservative bias. In his historical survey, what he sees is that neither side of the political spectrum is more prone than the other to believing in dark forces at work behind the scenes. What matters more is not the political bent of the theorizer but whether they feel disempowered and at a loss at the historical moment of the theorizing.

For example, the liberal/progressive side of the United States felt it was under attack and at a loss with the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963. As of the writing of this book, approximately half of Americans believed in some kind of conspiracy theory regarding the president's assassination. Aaronovitch brought up a historical fact rarely mentioned in Kennedy conspiracy circles: That Lee Harvey Oswald had tried to assassinate another politician previously, although his shot missed and no one was hurt. The note Oswald wrote to his wife Marina confessing this deed, in case he didn't return home, is still extant. Since this fact is inconvenient to "Oswald was framed" theories, it's rarely brought up in conspiracy circles.

Omitting inconvenient facts is a common characteristic of conspiracy theories, Aaronovitch argues. He mentions the glaring inconsistencies and outright untruths in the popular documentary Loose Change, which alleges U.S. government conspiracy in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Another popular conspiracy theory in which popular narratives bend and twist the facts to fit the narrative is the suicide of Clinton White House aide Vincent Foster. Conspiracists, Aaronovitch demonstrates, take off-hand, non-professional, and uninformed statements made by those loosely attached to the incident, such as statements made by first responders, as if they were gospel truth.

This is called the Historian's Fallacy: The tendency to believe that a witness, having experienced an event that later turned out to have historical significance, must experience the event in the way that a historian would describe it. In reality, by definition, the witness can only know what they experienced at the time. They can't have foreknowledge of facts that will only become widely known after the event has been studied and investigations conducted. To expect a witness's offhand statement to be 100% accurate at the moment the witness is involved in an ongoing event is to fight the nature of reality itself.

And yet we see this all the time on YouTube. A tragic event such as a mass shooting (unfortunately common in the U.S.) happens and a witness, who may be a first responder, a child, or a person with no formal training in law enforcement, ballistics, etc. makes an offhand remark about the number of shooters, the number of gunshots, etc., and the conspiracy-minded YouTube video creator takes this statement as if it must be accurate. This is then conflated into the theory that there must be a cover-up of the "real" version of events that "they" don't want you to know.

If you've spent any time on YouTube at all, you probably know how common, and often disturbing, this is. It has led to lawsuits, in fact. Grieving relatives don't like being called liars or having non-experts with no connection to the event claiming that their dead relative is, in fact, a "crisis actor" who only pretended to be murdered so that Group X could try to get Law Z passed.

The fact is, for human societies to operate properly, there has to be a certain amount of agreement on what does and what does not constitute reality. Facts must be properly vetted and opinions must be grounded in facts that can withstand rigorous scrutiny. Otherwise we each live in our own fantasy worlds and none of those fantasies are compatible with each other.

This book was published in 2008, but even though it's a decade old, a thoughtful reader could easily apply what Aaronovitch lays out in his book to the U.S. election of 2016. In fact, he addresses the loss of power experienced by white American males as they perceive their world being threatened by advances made by women and by men of color. An antidote to the harmful scapegoating effect, Aaronovitch suggests, is for these men to gain the emotional literacy they would need to deal with their feelings as feelings, rather than externalizing them in a way that can have devastating consequences for the lives of the groups they see as the enemy.

I purchased a used copy of this book from Better World Books with my own funds and was not, in any way, obliged to review it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Books For Africa To Mark 30th Year By Shipping School Books to 54th African Country

Erin’s Note: This is a press release I’m sharing. I'm not personally affiliated with Better World Books in any way. I buy books from them and appreciate that they donate books to non-profit organizations, but I'm not endorsed by them in any way.

Celebration at Atlanta Warehouse June 9 to feature South African music sensation ShenFM and remarks from the Embassy of the Central African Republic

St. Paul, MN, June 05, 2018 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Books For Africa (BFA), which has shipped over 41 million books to students in Africa over the last 30 years, will celebrate a long-time goal on June 9 of sending books to every country on the continent when it ships books to the Central African Republic.

The shipment of the books will be part of a celebration from 1 to 4 p.m. at Books For Africa’s Atlanta warehouse, 3655 Atlanta Industrial Drive, Building 250, Atlanta, GA 30331. The Central African Republic is the last of the continent’s 54 countries to receive books from Books For Africa.


Michele Marie Claude Benzot, Counselor in Charge of Finances, Administration and Material at the Central African Republic Washington, D.C., embassy, will be on hand for the celebration. Better World Books is sponsoring the 22,000 book shipment.

“We are proud to celebrate this milestone for which Books For Africa has been working all these years,” said Patrick Plonski, BFA Executive Director. “There is no better place to mark the occasion than our Atlanta warehouse, from which every one of the more than 40 million books is sorted, packed and shipped.”

Plonski also praised the many volunteers in Atlanta and Minnesota, where BFA has its headquarters, who have helped over the years. The Atlanta warehouse is one of the top volunteer destinations in Atlanta. Last year 15,121 people volunteered at the warehouse.

The celebration is free and open to the public and will feature the South African music sensation ShenFM as well as the BFA Warehouse Band, along with African food and drinks.

Books For Africa remains the largest shipper of donated text and library books to Africa. Last year alone, BFA shipped over three million books, 93 computers and e-readers containing 223,000 digital books and 10 new law and human rights libraries to 18 African countries.


The nonprofit was founded in 1988 by Tom Warth, a British native who now lives in Minnesota. On a visit to a library in Uganda, he noticed that the shelves were nearly empty. He started BFA with a simple mission: To end the book famine in Africa.

“We’ve come a long way over the years, but we’ve still got a long way to go,” Warth said. “There are 450 million children in Africa and a total population of nearly 1 billion so there is still a need for more books.”

Doug Stone
Books For Africa
651-366-9907
stone7586@gmail.com

Patrick Plonski
Books For Africa
651-291-2713
patrick@booksforafrica.org

Friday, June 1, 2018

When Bedtime Reading Enters My Dreams

I had another one of those dreams last night, a dream I was caught in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. When this happened before, I turned the dream into the short story "The Wild Ones," which you can read in Love, Lust, and Zombies, edited by Mitzi Szereto.


I always love a good zombie story, and I still have crushes on SEVERAL cast members from The Walking Dead, but the specific reason for this zombie dream had to do with my choice of reading material before bed. It was TVTropes.org, which I have mentioned several times previously as a favorite resource.

Like Wikipedia, it's also a good place to follow a proverbial rabbit trail. As one writer on Tumblr once said, "Does anyone else go on Wikipedia to look something up and then click on a bunch of random links and then half an hour later you’re 10 articles deep into the inner workings of Vietnamese politics?"

I do; I suppose that's part of the life of the writer. The day I found Wikipedia's pseudohistory category was a pretty clear example of that.

My search into TVTropes last night began with Rihanna. I'd heard her song "What Now" on Spotify the other day. I hadn't seen the video in a while, but I remembered that I contained images of the singer doing some moves that involve contortions and other non-dance moves that may remind viewers of either a person with a mental illness or film depictions of a person who is possessed (by evil spirits, perhaps).

This is the official video from Rihanna's VEVO page on YouTube. It's not available for embedding as of this writing.

This screencap captures Rihanna as she begins to fall backward.
I wondered if anyone had commented about this on TVTropes. Music videos are written of and discussed on the site, and I wondered if anyone had added "demonic possession" or anything similar as a trope in the "What Now" video. Well, there isn't even a page for the "What Now" video. The single and its accompanying video are barely mentioned on TVTropes at all.

This caused me to wonder a very specific thing: When I imagine the trope of what "demonic possession" looks like visually, what am I actually thinking of?

A related question I'd been interested in the past month or so had to do with the origin of the zombie myth in pop culture. Wikipedia actually does a really good job of answering that one. When I think of a zombie, I'm largely thinking of the visual language created by George Romero in his Night of the Living Dead, which I watched as a child and have seen several times since. It premiered in 1968, before I was born.

A fascinating audio book I heard recently (having borrowed it from the library via the Libby app) was Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Dr. Monica Murphy. In it, the authors mention that George Romero's film was inspired by Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend. Matheson calls his infected, murderous undead "vampires," the book essentially inspired the modern myth of the zombie apocalypse.


In turn, the bloodthirsty, relentless vampires in the book and its subsequent adaptations resemble animals with rabies. The human fear of zombies is closely related to the human fears of disease transmission and the kind of loss of control associated with neurological diseases like rabies. (Note that in real life, rabies isn't transmittable from one human being to another - not easily, anyway.)

And all of that was interesting to me, but if you visit the page on demonic possession on Wikipedia, you get more of a religious and historical discussion than a pop culture one. So to dig a little deeper into the cultural history of film depictions of demonic possession, I visited the TVTropes page on The Exorcist. (You may remember this post about the ongoing cultural relevance of Pazuzu.)

But then somehow, from there, I ended up on the page for Jesus Christ Superstar, the 1970 rock opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. I've never seen the whole thing, only bits of it as a student in various Catholic schools. (I wanted to watch the TV version that aired earlier this year, but I missed it.)

If you go to TVTropes' Your Mileage May Vary (YMMV, i.e. opinions) page, you see there are versions of this musical in which Judas and Jesus are depicted with varying amounts of sexual tension between them. Now, when you say "Judas" to me, the first thing I think of is the Lady Gaga video. That is also unavailable for embedding, but it can be found here. Here's a little screencap:

Actor Rick Gonzalez (left) portrays Jesus, with Gaga as Mary Magdalene
That Judas? He's Norman Reedus, one of my Walking Dead crushes. I've been into him ever since my first viewing of Boondock Saints. And Judas x Jesus is the reason I had a dream about zombies last night.

It wasn't even a particularly scary dream; it mostly involved avoiding the darkness I Am Legend-style.

So if you're down to do a little wiki editing, someone could add some pop culture references to Wikipedia's demonic possession page and fill in some more of Rihanna's video tropes on TVTropes.org.

By the way, if you're really trying to give yourself nightmares, a good TV trope to explore is fold spindle mutilation. Read the real-life examples if you have a taste for gruesome reading, especially the Byford Dolphin diving bell accident story. It's both tragic and gross, if you're into that sort of thing. (And what human being doesn't have at least a little streak of morbid curiosity?)