Thanks very much to Dan Hind
for sorting out for us this review of Aaro's book by Robin Ramsay
. Robin is cited in the index to "Voodoo Histories" and mildly slagged off in the concluding chapter for suggesting that there are sensible and silly versions of conspiracy theories, although I am not sure why as Aaro's argument became incoherent at this point.
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The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History
In his introduction Aaronovitch tells us he became interested in conspiracy theories when someone he was working with introduced him to the 'they-didn’t-go-to-the-moon' theory; and this offended his 'sense of plausibility'. He's right: we all have a kind of plausibility threshold, beyond which a proposition about the world has to get before our brains will take it seriously. And thus, he tells us, about the moon theory: 'Given the imbalance in probabilities I was therefore sure, without even scrutinising it
, that [his] evidence was wrong.' (emphasis added)
The moon theory is implausible – and for the reasons offered by Aaronovitch: an awful lot of people would have to know and keep quiet about it. But we should go a little way beyond that. Firstly, very large scale secrets have been kept. Most obvious is the Ultra secret, the British breaking of the German Enigma machine, an enormous secret, which was kept by hundreds and perhaps thousands of people between 1941 and J.C. Masterman's book which revealed it in 1972. So let us not be too certain about these things.
Secondly, had he thought to look at the photographs which are at the base of the moon theory he might have seen that there does appear to be deception involved in some of the pictures. He might then have realised that the mistake the moon theorists make is thinking that fake pictures entail fake moon landing. No, they don't. And a little thought about the position of NASA, qua federally-funded bureaucracy, might suggest why some nice studio shots may have been dummied-up just in case Armstrong and co. returned from the moon without decent pictures to give to the world's media. (I seem to remember that there was some doubt about photographic film surviving the transit of the Van Allen belts.)
What is wrong with most conspiracy theorists is not what
they think but the way
they think. The basic premise of conspiracy theorists is the bastards are lying to us. This is not only demonstrably true sometimes, since 1945 and the wartime experience of disinforming the Germans, lying to the population became an official policy of this state, as well as the normal behaviour of the British ruling class and its civil servants who had been in power for most of the preceding centuries.
Aaronovitch's 'plausibility threshold' is set too high and does not correspond with reality. Because his knowledge of recent history is limited, his 'plausibility threshold' falsely categories events as beyond plausibility – 'conspiracy theories'. There's no mystery here: he hasn't read the evidence. Nor, as a mainstream journalist and broadcaster, can he afford to do so. And so his account of the Kennedy assassination (and other assassinations) here is inadequate; as is his account of the Israeli assault on the USS Liberty in 1967, as is his account of America's entry into World War 2, as is.... I can't be bothered going through the whole thing in that kind of detail.
So what we have is a series of chapters in which Aaronovitch gives us his opinions of some high profile conspiracy theories: the aforementioned, plus 9/11, Princess Diana, David Kelly, Hilda Murrell, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, etc., in all of which the conspiracy theorists get it wrong in his opinion. As it happens I agree with his assessments in most of these. But that isn't the point. Aaronovitch wants these examples he has chosen to represent the wider world: these theories are wrong and thus all such theories are wrong. But since he doesn't know the subject matter in the big areas (assassinations, 9/11) well enough, his opinions on these are really of no interest. (The chapters on the smaller items are more convincing.) Nor is his mockery of the more incompetent end of the conspiracy theorist world amusing enough to be worth the read.
What is worth reading are the first two chapters, on the history and use of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and his account of some of the anti-war movement in America before World War 2. But even in the latter he gets it wrong. He discusses the American isolationist movement by concentrating on the career of John Flynn (whom I hadn't come across before) and quotes Flynn as saying (absurdly, in his view) at a meeting in December 1940: 'The plain and terrifying fact is that this great and peaceful nation is in the grip of one of the most subtle and successful conspiracies.......to embroil us in a foreign war.'
But, unknown to Aaronovitch, there was such a conspiracy (though not the one Flynn had in mind) – and it involved not just Flynn's hate figure, Roosevelt, but the British government. Part of the conspiracy was a series of covert operations in America run by the British secret state (as British Security Co-ordination) which sought to neutralise/seduce the isolationists in Congress and persuade the American population to support US entry. This rather large conspiracy – a secret that was kept for almost half a century – was the subject of a 1994 PhD thesis by Thomas Mahl, 48 Land, which became his 1999 book, Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States 1939-44.(US: Brassey's, 1999).