The Magazine

Coincidence?

They think not, neither do they know.

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