Voodoo Scholarship on Voodoo Histories

My review for the Scoop Review of Books. It hasn’t gone up there yet but I’m posting it here nonetheless.

David Aaronvitch, ‘Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History,’ Jonathan Cape, London, 2009

If you are a chorister 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 in turn frustrate, interest and ultimately cause you to engage in um-ing, ah-ing and copious sighing.

I don’t think there is much middle ground.

Aaronvitch, in Voodoo Histories, has set himself the task of showing up a selection of popular Conspiracy Theories. His intended audience are like-minded 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 so it makes sense that you have 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, all the syllables stressed and an almost patronising look affected on the part of the speaker, the actual thesis itself needs to be clear, concise and strong in order for the examples to do any work, and Aaronvitch’s thesis is muddy at best.

So, what is his thesis?

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 thusly:

“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 what I would take to be central to any theory about a Conspiracy, 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 becomes clear that he is not so much talking about Conspiracy Theories but rather Conspiracy Theorists. His critique is squarely aimed at Conspiracism, the (supposedly) irrational belief in Conspiracy Theories rather than the warrant or justifiability of the particular Conspiracy Theories Conspiracy Theorists profess.

Voodoo Histories is an exercise in wanting us to be not only willing to accept the status quo but also wanting us to question what we are being told. His dilemma, in this respect, 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 this 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 argued for in ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies’ back in 1945. However, 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 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 Conspiracy to create and disseminate the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Moscow Show Trials. 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.

Why is this problematic? Well, the answer is that 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 think Conspiracy Theorists would believe in, actual examples of Conspiracy Theories. Yet that was exactly what these two events were; the Official Theories concerning both these events were, at the time, that they were legitimate. Only Conspiracy Theorists thought there was something more to them.

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 precisely this maneuver, and yet Aaronvitch is committing it too. 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 invade Pearl Harbour without being detected; even though Aaronvitch discusses all three of his examples in quite some depth he fails to see that the Official Theories are descriptions of conspiratorial agency. They are, in some sense at least, Conspiracy Theories.

It’s not as if his intuition stands up to too much scrutiny anyway. On 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; they could have just shot him or arranged an accident but whoever his killers 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 an easy to follow trail.

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.

I think the problem with Voodoo Histories is Aaronvitch’s dogmatic insistence on the correctness of Official Theories; he never goes out of his way to explain why they are better explanations than their rival Conspiracy Theories. Now, it is relatively simple to construct such a story, referring to appropriately qualified experts, the reliable transmission of justified beliefs and the like, but whilst Aaronvitch hints at this he doesn’t make it explicit. He’s preaching to the choir.

Which is why, if your not a member of that group, the book is ultimately frustrating.

All of this sounds rather negative and it’s not as if I didn’t enjoy parts of the book. 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 all sounds very plausible; Aaronvitch is a journalist after all, a media insider, and 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 its emphasis, Voodoo Histories really doesn’t have much to add to the debate around and about Conspiracy Theories. It is merely a collection 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 the reviews reflect that. They range from complimentary to outright exasperation, 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 its 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.

Frank Furedi’s review in the ‘Spiked Review of Books’

Robin Ramsay’s review at ‘Aaronvitch Watch’

Bruschettaboy’s partial review (I was sure there was a follow-up to this but I can’t find it) also at ‘Aaronvitch Watch’

Giles Fogen at ‘The Guardian’

Rafael Behr at ‘The Observer’