So, Aaro's got a book coming out
. Instead of waiting for the blessed thing to reach the bookshops, I thought I'd write my review ahead of time. Sort of get your retaliation in first; get it out there and let's get the debate moving - think how much time we wasted waiting for "What's Left", and it was just how we expected it to be. Some might object that this is something of an untraditional, nay avant-garde, nay even unethical book-reviewing practice, but I say pshaw. At the end of the day, this website has been going to five years now, and I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that I have read literally every single word Dave has published in that period, including several pieces on the subject at hand, as it evolved from the original lecture
on "Conspiracy Theories from JFK to Princess Diana". What I'm saying here is that I'm as well placed as it's possible to be to guess what Aaro is going to write, and significantly better placed when it comes to writing a critical essay on this book than most of the reviewers will be when it comes out, even spotting them the advantage of having read it. My disagreement with what I think is going to be in "Voodoo Histories" reflects a wider and fundamental political disagreement with Aaro's view of the world. So here goes.
In terms of the content of the book, I think that it will be pretty much run of the mill tomfoolery and bashing - I doubt that the "tin foil hats" joke will be spurned and fear that even the aphorism about "attributing to malice what can be explained by incompetence" might get a run out. Also inevitable is at least one reference to David Icke. Just as all of the "Mumbo Jumbo", "Counterknowledge" crowd who are blurbing Aaro tend to be much keener on bashing the crystals-n-incense crowed than on telling us how it was that the "Sound Science Coalition" happened to be formed under the aegis of Phillip Morris' PR department, I would expect some pretty shameless nutpicking and dirty-fucking-hippie bashing in Aaro's book too. There are quite a few paranoid schizophrenics attracted to parapolitical research, and it is true that people who suffer from that illness often have quite a powerful desire to feel like they understand the world around them. But this is about as interesting as a discussion of the symptoms of anorexia nervosa might be to an article about the Pritikin Nutrition Institute; I hope Aaro will avoid the sort of lazy and hurtful references to mental illness that the Guardian stylebook warns against, but it's a hope rather than a certainty. There's also surely at least a 50/50 chance that he'll libel Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer.
The history, I suspect, will be scrappy and the selection of "typical" conspiracies almost comically partial. Diana theories get in there, of course, as do lunar landing conspiracists, but Iran Contra will be tossed off in a couple of pages, Watergate in few more and the Gulf of Tonkin Incident most likely not mentioned at all. Oliver Stone's film is likely to get treated as if it were the definitive summary of assassinology (and I bet he gets the official line wrong, repeating the Warren Commission's "lone nut" conclusion and ommitting the House Committee on Assassinations). The whole subject of the 9/11 attacks will get represented by the wackiest end of holograms & thermite trooferism, and so on.
I suspect that on at least one occasion, our man will use as a punchline the ridiculousness of suspecting that the military and security infrastructure of a G7 country might have been co-opted by a single Masonic lodge (something which has definitely happened). The Freemasons! Controlling the secret police! Carrying out acts of domestic terrorism as a pretext for jailing their political enemies! Well it happened, and thirty years later, a member of that same lodge was elected Head of
(thanks, anonymous commenter!) on an anti-corruption ticket. Kind of puts in perspective all the friend-of-a-friend-of-someone-who-spoke-at-a-conference-which-invited-someone-who-once-wrote-a-pamphlet-for-an-organisation-that-grew-out-of-another-organisation-which-later-sponsored-HAMAS! stuff, doesn't it?
Of course the reason why it will be such a slapdash job is that the history isn't the point - the point is to construct a suitably pejorative psychological theory of anyone who might object to being given a record of important events which doesn't make sense. And, of course, to pussyfoot round the very obvious reason why Aaro got interested in the subject in the first place; the conspiracy to mislead the public, the Cabinet and the House of Commons over the ussue of nuclear, chemical and/or biological weapons in Iraq. Aaro's line
on this, recall, is that the Butler Review and Hutton Inquiry have shown that "Blair didn't lie", that this is all there is to it, and that anyone who objects that the absence of a "smoking gun memo" is hardly dispositive or that both inquiries were severely flawed in their terms of reference, is doing so out of pathological Blair Derangement Syndrome, or out of a wish to feel superior and knowing, or unwillingness to abandon that rhyming slogan, and so on.
But, of course, this is the whole question that this book ought to deal with and I bet it doesn't. We know that inquiries into matters of interest involving that nexus of politics, intelligence and crime which Peter Dale Scott christened "deep events", are almost always atrociously carried out. They're stacked (the stacking of commissions of inquiry through manipulation of their personnel is such a commonplace that it's quite literally a subject for situation comedy
), they're crippled by their terms of reference and they're censored. If, per Aaro's thesis, the world is not so exciting and few major events have "conspiracies" at the bottom, then why not set everyone's mind at rest and do the inquiry properly?
Of course there's two reasons (at least). The one that's most congenial to Aaro's point of view is that there are some people who are never satisifed with anything because they just fundamentally don't like or trust the machinery of justice. A subset of this group are the paranoid schizophrenics, who are also attracted to the making of lists and the other accidentalia of conspiracy theory. But there are also plenty of plain and simple stroppy buggers, plus a fair number whose criticism is not in good faith. People like this are always there to keep a conspiracy theory on the go, even in the absence of any evidence, or in the presence of substantial contrary evidence. You don't necessarily want to throw this crowd bones in the form of the ambiguities and loose ends that a full inquiry will always generate.
But that's clearly not the real reason; after all, it's not exactly difficult to marginalise and ridicule the awkward squad out of mainstream public debate, as Aaro proves exhaustively. The main reason why so many inquries are, to use the technical term, "for shit", is that they usually need to be constructed painstakingly to gerrymander round that protean category "Things Which Everyone Agrees It Would Be Wiser Not To Look At Too Closely".
Lee Harvey Oswald, for example, was a walking Thing Which Everyone Agrees &C. He had connections to US and Russian intelligence, to Cuba, to anti-Castro Cubans, and all manner of other interesting folks. Given that the Cuban Missile Crisis was only a short while ago, anyone wanting to find out that Oswald was anything other than a "lone nut" would have been advised to tread very carefully indeed. LBJ actually recruited people to the Warren Commission by telling them that "we've got to be taking this out of the arena where they're testifying that Khrushchev and Castro did this and did that, and kicking us into a war that can kill 40 million Americans in an hour". Jack Ruby also shared this most useful property of an assassin, of being someone who had a powerful coalition of interests militating against ever investigating him properly.
That's an exceptionally obvious case, of course (and of course, none of this is inconsistent with the "lone nut" theory being actually true; to deny this is to fall into a characteristic logical fallacy of the genre, which Aaro will of cours epick up on). But it does seem to be worthwhile to ask a question; why are there so bloody many
Damned Things Which Must Not Be Investigated, and doesn't their ubiquity say something rather worrying about our society?
Another interesting question to ask is why there are so bloody many opportunists hanging round the shop, waiting to attach their policy agenda to a massive and shocking event, practically before the bodies have cooled. This is a behavioural characteristic of policy entrepreneurs which is as ubiquitous as it is unattractive, and which is absolutely bound to attract uncharitable questions about whether they had advance notice to get their Powerpoint slides prepared. There is a structural tendency toward what might be called "bong session cui bono" in the conspiracy literature (as opposed to the sensible kind, where it's supported by evidence; in both the Iranian hostages case and the Tonkin Gulf, the people responsible for the conspiracy did in fact do it, and did it because of a benefit they hoped to get). But really, we should be asking no so much "who benefits?" as "who the fucking hell are you anyway, and how did you get yourself into a position where you were able to benefit from this?".
Example: the cui bono links between various PNAC groups, the companies Halliburton and Blackwater and the Bush administration, as unearthed by the 9/11 truthers, are pretty laughable if they're meant to serve as evidence of an "inside job". But, the fact is that within days of the attacks the USA was preparing to invade Iraq, there had been a massive expansion of the powers of the executive branch, and ungodly amounts of noncompetitive military supply contracts were being prepared. And in a number of cases, key stages in the decision processes had been convered up. How the heck that comes to happen, seems like an interesting question to be investigating, doesn't it?
Well, maybe not, not if you're Aaro. David Aaronovitch's consistent vice as a columnist, voluminously documented on our blog, is that he has much too much of a tendency to give the benefit of the doubt to people in government. The underlying theory is sort of pop-Rousseauism - the "left lobe theory
", under which we the people, if we were really thinking about things, rather than always being distracted by those horrible mediassess and rabble-rousers, would agree to all sorts of sensible-sounding technocratic policies which we don't actually want. And if that's your theory of government, then it would be perfectly natural for the poor beleaguered technocrats to use a crisis to clear out their bottom drawer of political desiderata, wouldn't it? For Dave, Naomi Klein's "Shock Doctrine" is pretty much an operations manual.
And this is the real dark psychological underbelly of "Voodoo Histories" - the portrait that this book keeps in its attic, to steal one of my co-author Chardonnay Chap's best lines. In acual fact, the "Voodoo Histories" view of the world is a pretty good description of how David Aaronovitch thinks things ought to operate. Recall that his thesis (which will be set out live! at the RSA on Thursday
) is, per the Random House blurb, that conspiracy theories "elevated their believers to membership of an elite – a group of people able to see beyond lies to a higher reality". Hahaha those conspiracy loons.
But on the other hand, Aaro was a close colleague of John Birt and an alumnus of Weekend World
and the "mission to explain". His entire philosophy of the media industry is that the public are, in fact, systematically ignorant of key policy debates, and that it is the job of a journalists to give them access to underlying reality - the famous "mission to explain". So Aaro does, in fact, believe that he is part of an elite, which is able to see beyond lies to a higher reality. It's just a matter of whose version of the truth you're going to pick. Aaro suggests that this choice ought to be made on the basis of " a thorough knowledge of history and a strong dose of common sense" (per the RSA blurb), but this bluff saloon-bar no-nonsense approach hasn't really done him very well in the single highest-profile piece of analysis in his columnistic career (listed under "That Bloody Prediction
in our sidebar).
This is the trouble with nearly all of the modern "sceptic" movement - they are very selective indeed about who they're going to be sceptical about. Dan Hind
wrote an entire (and very good) book about this strange failure to follow through on "Enlightenment Values" to their logical conclusion, and Aaronovitch's book is another fine example of the genre. In the final analysis, "Voodoo Histories" is the equivalent of a book on junk science which doesn't mention the tobacco/lung cancer or DDT/malaria scandals - it's a part of the problem disguised as part of the solution.