Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory In Shaping Modern History
It was right around the time I found myself checking for bullet-chipped curb sections in Dealey plaza, on the 30th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, that I decided the Warren Commission was probably right.
It wasn’t a deductively reasoned conclusion. I was simply exhausted. After 25 years of casually poking around the labyrinthine back channels of Kennedy murder theories, I’d simply come down with a crushing case of conspiracy fatigue.
I realized that this was never going to end or be resolved, precisely because it wasn’t meant to. The questions surrounding the death of the president presented an end in itself, a mystery that draws one in because it has no end or solution.
The most enduring and seductive conspiracy theories are those that defy conclusion. As Joe Pesci’s conniving David Ferrie character puts it in Oliver Stone’s conspiracist epic JFK, “It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma!”
So it should be, at least for the casual amusement that a good conspiracy theory can provide.
The problem, as British author David Aaronovitch makes so unnervingly clear in his book Voodoo Histories, is that conspiracy theorizing isn’t always practiced merely for the sake of distraction. In the case of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamously fabricated chronicle of a Jewish conspiracy to rule the world, and perhaps the most persistent and insidious conspiracy text of the past century and a half, no amount of historical discrediting has managed to prevent those who need to believe it from doing so, including one Adolf Hitler.
Aaronovitch, a London radio and TV broadcaster and author of the travel narrative Paddling to Jerusalem, confronted the persistence of The Protocols in May 2003, as he prepared to interview a Hamas leader in Gaza City. In the party’s manifesto, known as The Covenant, Aaronovitch encountered certain all-too-familiar claims to the global threat posed by the international Zionist conspiracy. After all these years, following all this bloodshed, and even in the face of their utter discrediting, The Protocols were still exerting their sinister call to the faithful.
“It is like one of those novels in which the hero encounters an archaic or ancient legend which has somehow managed to survive, still potent, to the modern day,” Aaronovitch observes. “So, a Palestinian child in a Gazan class at the beginning of the twenty-first century may well be hearing things written by a Parisian lawyer about Napoleon III 140 years earlier, falsified by a Russian spy three decades later, and used as a pretext for racial mass murder in Germany.”
Clearly, we’re a long way now from Dallas, the bedroom of Marilyn Monroe, the Hawaiian hospital where Barack Obama might not really have been born and the Parisian tunnel where Princess Diana is thought by some people to have been murdered (by the Duke of Edinburgh, no less).
Or are we? While the persistence of The Protocols might serve as the most extreme example of how a conspiracy theory can supplant history with a form of fantasy sufficiently deadly to result in the deaths of millions, Aaronovitch insists that it’s really only a question of degree.
Beneath all conspiracy theories lie certain universal characteristics: a defiance of all evidence that disproves them; an insistence that all counterargument merely “proves” the conspiracy; the provision of tidy (if sinister) narrative scenarios in the place of history’s chronic chaos; and a sense of subversive power granted to the believer. If you want armchair (or, more likely today, laptop) activism, nothing satisfies like yet another exposé on “the truth” behind 9/11.
In his selective debunking of 150 or so years of conspiratorial thinking – roughly, from the first appearance of The Protocols to the Internet era’s explosion of viral alt-historical speculation – Aaronovitch’s ultimate purpose is hardly to supplant one form of amusement with another. (He does frequently wax sarcastic, as in calling the oft over-believed Da Vinci Code “a farrago of exciting nonsense involving psychotic albino monks and centuries-old secret societies.”)
He sees conspiracy not only as the enemy of history but, increasingly, its chief rival, especially for the attentions of those who think history owes them not just a good story, but one that confirms their prejudices. A good conspiracy theory exposes something that history allegedly hides; it reveals exactly what we want it to.
Most important, conspiracy theories offer a strangely reassuring sense of order. No matter how bizarre, paranoid or apocalyptic, they provide a kind of comfort: “They suggest that there is an explanation, that human agencies are powerful, and that there is order rather than chaos. This makes redemption possible,” Aaronovitch writes.
History, with its burdensome insistence on the interconnectedness of human endeavour, has an unpleasant tendency to implicate us as agents in world events. Conspiracy offers an easy way out.
Geoff Pevere is the Star‘s book columnist.
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