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.

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