Voodoo Histories

The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History

by David Aaronovitch

Riverhead, 400 pp., $26.95

To understand the conspiratorial mindset, it helps to be the subject of one.

I had that experience in early 2008, after publishing an article exposing newsletters published by the Texas congressman and gadfly presidential candidate Ron Paul in the late 1970s through the mid-’90s. At one point circulated to nearly a million subscribers in the pre-Internet age, the newsletters were characterized (I wrote) by an “obsession with conspiracies, sympathy for the right-wing militia movement, and deeply held bigotry against blacks, Jews, and gays.” Released on the day of the New Hampshire primary, the article caused a small tremor in the presidential race. Paul claimed that he was not their author, nor aware of their content. Most respectable libertarians at places such as the Cato Institute and Reason quickly disassociated themselves from a man they had formerly lauded as a standard-bearer.

But to Paul’s diehard supporters, there was something more nefarious at play. They wanted to know how I got my hands on these newsletters. The answer, as I had explained, was simple: I plugged Paul’s name into WorldCat, an online library catalogue, which led me to locate collections of the newsletters housed at the University of Kansas (where they are stored in one of the country’s most expansive collections of extreme right-wing political documents) and the Wisconsin Historical Society.

But the Paul obsessives were not satisfied by so prosaic an explanation and within a day of my article being posted online had devised their own theory. Individuals at the Cato Institute, corrupted by their exposure to power in Washington, and more committed to the attainment of filthy lucre than the realization of libertarian principles, had long held a grudge against Paul and saw a perfect accomplice in a young reporter at a center-left magazine. The Cato people tipped me off to the existence of the newsletters, the location of which they knew because both Cato and KU receive large donations from the Koch Foundation. One of the most generous backers of “Beltway Libertarian” organizations, Koch, in the eyes of true believers, is a sellout to the cause. (The term “Kochtopus,” which appeared in a recent New Yorker hit job on the Koch family, was devised by extreme libertarians, not left-wingers.) Paul supporters even came up with an epithet—the “Orange Line Mafia,” a reference to the Washington subway system—to describe the conspiracy.

The least that can be said of Paul’s defenders is that none of them claimed that the newsletters were somehow forged by Paul’s enemies. Had Ron Paul not eventually taken responsibility for the epistles, however, they probably would have accused me of counterfeiting. For the conspiracy theorist, should the initial counterexplanation prove untenable, there is always a handy alternative. This is a common tactic of the conspiracy theorist, as documented here by David Aaronovitch, a columnist for the Times of London. In this deeply researched and highly enjoyable study of conspiracy theories, he not only debunks several popular myths—ranging from the claim that Franklin Roosevelt knew of the Pearl Harbor attacks in advance and allowed them to happen as a pretext for American intervention in World War II, to the latter-day incarnation of that claim alleging similar perfidy on the part of George W. Bush—but examines what it is that makes conspiracy theorists tick.

Aaronovitch seeks to separate conspiracy—a legal definition characterizing work with others in the commission of a crime—from conspiracy theory. The plot to kill Abraham Lincoln, for instance, was a conspiracy in that it was a carefully devised plan—consisting of several actors—to assassinate the president. What Aaronovitch is concerned with are the array of alternative explanations to commonly held understandings of events and phenomena. Accordingly, he provides a handy definition of a conspiracy theory: “The attribution of deliberate agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended.”

Aaronovitch’s most useful insight—and the one which perhaps goes furthest into explaining why conspiracy theories are so prevalent throughout history—is his contention that conspiracy theories are ultimately about those who devise them rather than the events in contention. Claiming membership in a small community of people who really know how the world works allows one to be “part of a genuinely heroic elite group.” In this vein, conspiracy theories set the way for these “lonely custodians of the truth” to make martyrs of themselves while demonizing their intellectual adversaries as irredeemably evil.

The saga of Hilda Murrell, to which Aaronovitch devotes a chapter, exemplifies this tendency. Murrell was an elderly follower of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a Soviet-backed group the aim of which was to oppose the deployment of NATO nuclear missiles in Europe and bring about the end of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Her 1984 murder at the hands of a local laborer became the subject of righteous outrage for antinuclear activists, who intimated that she was really the target of a political hit job by the Anglo-American military-industrial complex. The septuagenarian spinster and rose-grower thus became their secular martyr.

Not all conspiracies are held by figures on the margins of society. One of the more popular theories—that a cabal of influential neoconservatives deceived the American people, Congress, the Pentagon, intelligence agencies, and a majority of the pundit class into supporting a war against Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in Iraq—is held by a plurality if not majority of liberals in America, has been endorsed by high-ranking Democratic politicians and left-wing editorialists, and is all but received wisdom among European elites. That it is a view so widely held in respectable quarters makes it no less a conspiracy theory. Similarly, the notion that the Israel Lobby controls the levers of American foreign policy—indeed, controls the world—has gained disturbing currency in recent years. Purveyors of the Israel Lobby thesis are frequent practitioners of one of the most irritating traits of conspiracy theorists, which is the vaunting of their own “courage” at “speaking truth to power” when, in actual fact, they are bringing upon themselves nothing more than the favor of elite media custodians, not to mention increased book sales.

What is it that makes conspiracy theories so protean? Why have people held to them throughout history? Some thrive on nothing more sophisticated than simple bigotry; The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a summation of millennia of crude theories about Jewish power. Aaronovitch believes the creation of conspiracy theories, and humanity’s belief in them, may be intrinsic: Believing in an all-encompassing theory gives the powerless a sense of being powerful and helps alleviate the individual’s insignificance in a world where technology can have a dehumanizing impact. Aaronovitch quotes David Mamet, who writes that “it is in our nature to dramatize”—that is, to spin stories about our lives and the world to make complicated and uncomfortable things easier to understand. They also put us at the center of the world, writes Aaronovitch, acting as a “defense against indifference, against the far more terrible thought that no one cares about you.”

A recent poll shows that nearly one in five Americans believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim. Much of this sentiment can probably be chalked up to frustration over the challenges facing the country, and ascribing failure to overcome them to the family origins of the president is a lot easier than owning up to their intractability. As this necessary book explains, the most pernicious effect of conspiracy theories is that they hinder us from confronting the truth.

James Kirchick is writer-at-large for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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