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They think not, neither do they know.

Dec 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 15 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
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Voodoo Histories


Photo Credit: Newscom

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.

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