Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Aaro breaks America?

In publishing circles, being reviewed by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times is apparently a big deal - the review itself is rather drippy, but favourable. Does a glistening future as the thinking man's Niall Ferguson await?

154 Comments:

Anonymous pete said...

The cult of Michiko Kakutani is a weird one for a non-America. Sometimes she seems proper GSCE, like when Daphne Fugging Muerkin was doing the New Yorker's film reviews.

Also, I thought fiction was her thing; how come she's reviewing a book by someone she is quick to label a "journalist", and which she seems to endorse, if the quoted portions are anything to go by, as an expression of a position rather than an exercise in literary style.

I can't tell whether that makes it even more or mildly less depressing.

And I'm not a passionate enough conspiracy-monger to see if they share a US publisher or anything.

2/17/2010 02:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"And I'm not a passionate enough conspiracy-monger to see if they share a US publisher or anything." So you just gittishly imply it instead. But why google when you can insinuate?
Phil D'B

2/17/2010 03:59:00 PM  
Anonymous bruschettaboy said...

For those who care, Aaro is published in the USA by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin USA. Michiko Kakutani doesn't really publish many books, what with the reviewing and all that, but when she did in 1989 "Poet at the Piano" was published by Peter Bedrick Books, which isn't. Otoh, I would very much think that AW had failed in its mission if our readers were needing to rely on NYT book reviews for their information or opinions on Aaro or "Voodoo Histories".

2/17/2010 04:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Der Bruno Stroszek said...

Phil, not that I'm trying to discourage you from your ceaseless pursuit of low-hanging fruit, but I'm pretty sure pete was joking there. Still, someone insinuated something nasty about another person's vested interests, yes, I can see why someone who follows Decent journalism would be outraged by that tactic.

2/17/2010 04:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Otoh, I would very much think that AW had failed in its mission if our readers were needing to rely on NYT book reviews for their information or opinions on Aaro or "Voodoo Histories"." Or, indeed, on reading it themselves.
Phil D'B

2/17/2010 05:22:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

I've read it and it is embarassingly bad. The 'history' is one-sided to say the least, the commentary just bog standard cant, the thesis, insofar as I can make it out, unsupported by evidence.

There's a particularly charming passage from it here.

FWIW, I strongly recommend that no-one spend any money on it. BB's pre-emptive review was pretty much spot on.

What did you think the point of the book was, Phil? And how did the various chapters relate to that point? And have you tried showing it to a historian? (Not to mention a psychologist, or a philosopher other than the likes of a Grayling or Honderich.)

Unfortunately for Aaro, the wretched thing can never be depublished. It will not age well. I suspect - perhaps rather optimistically - that in 20 or 30 years public and even media attitudes to this stuff may be a lot more realistic (whatever the media will look like by then).

In fact the current era may well by then be regarded much as the McCarthy one is now - in which case Aaro's strange combined propaganda tract, potboiler and vanity project will be a curiosity at best. (Alternatively, things will be thoroughly nightmarish.)

Btw, heard a particularly scurrilous conspiracy theory on, er, the 6 o'clock news tonight. All about the Mossad's well-known habit of murdering people on stolen UK, NZ & Canadian passports, with only token protest from those countries.

2/17/2010 09:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tim Wilkinson:
1. Your link is to a long piece about Denis MacShane.
2.Andrew Roberts and Ian Kershaw are both historians who have praised Aaro's book, and Simon Montefiore arguably qualifies too. In fact, as far as I know, no historian has disparaged it. Are you a historian? One philosopher has reviewed it (favourably) but you have exempted him for no obvious or given reason. Explain.
3. You provide no examples of what you excoriate. In what way is the history one-sided? In what way is the commentary "standard cant"? Do you even know what you mean by that?
4. More to the point, you seem to be suggesting that conspiracy theorists are to 2010 what imagined fellow travellers were to early 50s America. Could you justify that?
5. Given Aaro's reviews it seems unlikely that he will regret the book unless he is proved wrong about the theories he covers. Tell us which theories you expect to be proved in the coming years?
Cheers,
P D'B

2/17/2010 10:07:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

The anchor link didn't work. Here's the relevant text:

...talking of nasty and unpleasant things here's a passage from the jawdroppingly handsome, charismatic and elegant Aaro, extracted from his CT book. He sets himself up perfectly for the final pratfall.

Chapter 8

MR POOTER FORMS A THEORY

A man of middle age and middle height with a receded chin and receding hairline, Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker is not a terribly arresting figure. He is distinguished neither in oratory nor dress sense, and his career before Parliament was almost exceptionally ordinary: he was a regional executive for a retail record chain, ran a wine shop, taught English as a second language, and was a local councillor in Sussex. It was the electoral car wreck involving the Conservative Party rather than any obvious leadership qualities that allowed Mr Baker, in 1997, to become the MP for Lewes, Sussex.

Having entered Parliament, however, Baker underwent an interesting transformation: he began to make himself un-ordinary. He did this by becoming one of the most prolific questioners in British parliamentary history. After three months in the job Baker had asked more parliamentary written questions of ministers than his Conservative predecessor had in twenty-three years. By the end of ten years it was estimated that he had asked 8,000 such questions, an average of more than two per day, including every weekend, holiday and bank holiday. Now, answering a written question requires some minimal amount of civil service time and a cautious estimate puts the cost of each query in the region of £150. It is therefore reasonable to cost Mr Baker's super-interrogatory decade at a minimum of £1.2 million. Though it is bad manners in a democracy to dwell on the price of information, and offensive to speculate on its cost-effectiveness, it is perhaps reasonable to comment that had every non-governmental member chosen to behave in the same way as Mr Baker, then the bill would have been over a half a billion pounds.

Nevertheless, Baker's questioning won him accolades. No matter that he was dull. 'You sit up in the middle of what he is talking about,' said one parliamentary sketch writer, 'stunned and amazed that anybody could be so boring.' But, he then added, 'You underestimate him at your peril . . . He has a habit of being right. He sticks to his guns and I think his constituents are very lucky to have him." In 200s the Spectator magazine named him Inquisitor of the Year, and in 2002 Channel 4 News awarded him the title Opposition MP of the Year. His support for complete disclosure of MP's allowances and expenditure won him fierce praise from those journalists who tend to see politics as something of a racket.

* Correct at the time, but Mr Baker had held a number of front-bench positions.

2/17/2010 10:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is the pratfall, Tim? And though parts of that passage are unflattering to Baker they are neither (a) untrue, nor (b) unaccompanied by compensatory third-party praise.
I note no reply to my other points.
Phil D'B

2/17/2010 10:20:00 PM  
Blogger Bruschettaboy said...

I think history will be unkind, as several reviewers already have been, to DA's decision to not discuss the "Saddam has WMD" conspiracy theory at all. Although maybe not - future scholars will presumably pick it up second hand or in paperback and thus will not be stung with the rage that afflicted me when I realised I'd spent £17.99 on a book that didn't even mention the only fucking reason for buying it.

2/17/2010 10:54:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

OK, D'B - I note you haven't replied to my questions. I will gladly address each of your points as my vibrant social, recreational and work life permits.

In fact I'll deal with your latest now, in reverse order:

D'B: What is the pratfall, Tim? And though parts of that passage are unflattering to Baker they are neither (a) untrue, nor (b) unaccompanied by compensatory third-party praise.

No playing the innocent. The Pooter intro is an irrelevant personal attack which you may think subtle but I certainly don't.

Of course, you don't want to be too heavy-handed or too obviously partial when making this kind of jury point, or it can backfire, can't it.

I'm not really convinced though that a balance is achieved by including six lines of positive 'third-party praise', especially since half of that consists of awards won.

Omitting such unambiguous, inescapable - and Wikiable - details would be a bit blatant, but at least if reported only cursorily they provide a rather technical, colourless - and contentless - form of 'third-party praise'.

But then there's (a): truth. DA's account doesn't contain anything that is factually disprovable, so the bad impression given of Baker must be accurate and his own fault.

Sounds a bit like helping yourself to a strong presumption of reputational suicide, despite the preponderance of evidence suggesting character assassination.

To assist the undecided, here's the rest:

A less idealistic observer of the Baker technique might note a somewhat scatter-gun approach to the business of accountability.

For example, in 2008 he asked how many people had been killed in a small earthquake bordering on Tibet, how much bottled water was consumed in Parliament and what progress was being made in reducing aircraft noise pollution in the national parks. The previous year he was eager for Prime Minister Tony Blair (something of an obsession with Mr Baker) to tell Parliament about his attendance at the Bilderberg conferences to discuss global economics and politics. Bilderberg, essentially an informal transatlantic elite networking group, is a favourite subject among those who believe that there is a global SMERSH-type organisation which attempts to run the affairs of the planet. Mr Blair replied that he had not attended such a conference. In January 2007 Mr Baker was asking the same question of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Gordon Brown.Mr Baker's main preoccupation in the years 2006 and 2007 was elsewhere. Between March 2006 and June 2007, fifty-four of Mr Baker's parliamentary written questions were on the subject of a man whose death in July 2003 had created a scandal which had threatened to bring the prime minister down: government scientist Dr David Kelly. For that period Mr Baker stood down from his responsibilities with
Correct at the time, but Mr Baker had held a number of front-bench positions.

the Liberal Democrat front bench in order to complete a book, The Strange Death of David Kelly, in which he claimed that Dr Kelly's death - presumed to have been suicide — was in fact murder.


And the pratfall is that the sneers about Baker's asking a lot of silly questions culminate in a dismissive remark (in the shape of backhanded "third-party praise") about his concerns over MPs' expenses:

His support for complete disclosure of MP's allowances and expenditure won him fierce praise from those journalists who tend to see politics as something of a racket.

i.e. he got 'fierce' praise from rather conspiracy-minded troublemakers, not sensible and moderate journos like Aaro.

2/18/2010 02:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

BB. What IS the "Saddam has WMD" conspiracy theory? Hari (the only reviewer that seems to fit your bill), who praised the book, seemed to be suggesting that there was a conspiracy to say that Saddam had WMD when (presumably) it was known that he didn't. Which is the "Falsely create the impression that Saddam had WMD" conspiracy theory. Since Aaro has written a number of times that he thinks that Blair firmly believed that Saddam DID have WMD, why on earth would you believe (which I don't think you did for a second) that the book would argue otherwise. No reason then to be "angry", fucking or otherwise, and I suspect that you are good for the £18. In fact as a prime Aaro-watcher you'd have looked a tit if you hadn't spent it.
As to Tim, what questions? You still haven't answered most of mine. Nor will you, I would guess. Can we dispense with some of the nonsense here? You think that many/several of the conspiracy theories that Aaro debunks are true, don't you? Isn't that the real issue?
Phil D'Bap

2/18/2010 06:43:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Cool your boots D'B.

If you can't find the questions I asked you, I'm not sure how much I can do to help. I won't insist you answer them, though. You must do what you think best.

I'm afraid I'd better not start answering new questions until I've done the original five, however endearing your childlike early rising eagerness to ask more.

I mean we wouldn't want those five to get forgotten about, or lost in a flustery panic of noisy name-calling, now would we.

You may be assured though that I will indeed - indeed relentlessly - answer each and every one of your points. In my own good time.

I think Q1 and its supplements has been dealt with to my satisfaction now. I'll move onto Q2 next then. Now I hope you can hold on for a bit, only I have a few things to do first. So maybe around lunchtime, then, for no 2.

No guarantees exactly when, though - but you may be assured that I will answer every one of those questions of yours...

2/18/2010 10:16:00 AM  
Anonymous darkhorse steak tartare said...

The "Saddam has WMD" conspiracy theory is exactly what it says on the tin.

It is the belief (firm in Blair's case) that Saddam had conspired to maintain his WMD for his own wicked ends, that their was an organised conspiracy in Iraq to hide from UN inspectors.

This theory was in the process of being comprehensively debunked by Hans Blix, just prior to the invasion.

It was fully debunked subsequent to the invasion.

2/18/2010 11:33:00 AM  
Anonymous darkhorse steak tartare said...

edit:

their = there

after 'hide' inset 'these WMDs'

2/18/2010 11:34:00 AM  
Anonymous bruschettaboy said...

I really don't think anyone, including Phil D'Bap, is really confused about what I mean by "the Saddam had WMDs conspiracy theory" and so I don't propose to continue what would obviously be a wholly unrewarding discussion.

2/18/2010 11:44:00 AM  
Anonymous darkhorse steak tartare said...

Well, if phil is being disingenuous, then that's his call.

Perhaps beliefs in the minds of conspiracy theorists are not of the 'firm' variety?

2/18/2010 12:08:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

You think that many/several of the conspiracy theories that Aaro debunks are true, don't you?

please provide a summary here of Aaro's account of the Gulf of Tonkin.

2/18/2010 12:17:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Just a bit more on Q1: the concentration on personal attacks and especially ad hominem arguments (i.e. arguments aimed at particular peoples' idiosyncratic positions) is a constant feature of the book which (to give a preview of point 3: one-sidedness) undermines its claim to be an impartial attempt at writing history.

It's a basic and obvious flaw of the book. Focussing on individual 'conspiracy theorists' and the flaws (real or imputed) in their arguments may be appropriate if the aim is to illustrate the psychological and cognitive flaws of 'conspiracy theorists' in general, but it is no way to do history.

This book often tries to do both and succeeds in neither. Not that the former is in my opinion a useful or sensible project in any case.

But then there's also another professed goal, isn't there:

Part of the motivation for writing this book was the light-hearted aim of providing a useful resource to the millions of men and women who have found themselves on the wrong side of a bar or dinner- party conversation that begins, 'I'll tell you the real reason...' and have sat there, knowing it was all likely to be nonsense, but rarely having the necessary arguments to hand. It is designed to offer users of the Internet something that can act as a counterpoint to the tens of thousands of websites that argue, post-in post-out, that They are most certainly out to get you.

So DA's book is intended to provide the other side of the argument for those who find themselves in the situation that we are told inspired DA to produce it:

Given the imbalance in probabilities I was therefore sure, without even scrutinising it, that Kevin's evidence was wrong.

DA was woken from his undogmatic slumber when, even though it offended [his] sense of plausibility he nonetheless found himself unable to counter Kevin's argument (reportedly amounting to 'staged photos therefore no moon landing'). One almost feels the prickle of angry tears at the intolerable injustice of this affront, doesn't one.

So, DA tells us, he went on a mission to understand the phenomenon.

Oh, yes, nearly forgot: by the way, DA adds as if in afterthought that he was interested in this 'phenomenon' not least because as he points out, with studiedly casual understatement: at the beginning of 2002 it wasn't just [sic] the events of 1969 that were under particular scrutiny. All sorts of conspiracy theories were springing up around the attack on the World Trade Center and the subsequent coalition invasion of Afghanistan, theories that seemed to me potentially dangerous in the world view they expounded.

And, I would add, a dangerous idea is dangerous whether true or not, and should - some may think - be suppressed in either case. Anyway, Q2, wasn't it. I'll need to follow up those reviews for that one - in the meantime, here's a piece about Cass Sunstein's views on dangerous conspiracy theories.

2/18/2010 12:21:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Funny, mention of Andrew Roberts. I read a piece the other day in which Simon Heffalump got terribly agitated because Richard Evans suggested he might be a rightwing hack rather than a proper historian.

2/18/2010 12:48:00 PM  
Anonymous magistra said...

Re Richard Evans and Andrew Roberts: as even Heffer admits, Evans describes Roberts' biographies of leading Tories, as "thoroughly researched, sympathetic, intelligently argued studies", in contrast to the "hastily written potboilers, widely criticized by reviewers for their inadequacies and inaccuracies". That doesn't sound like a hatchet job of Roberts as a whole.

But of course if a history professor who knows enough about WW2 to help nail down David Irving, criticises a book as being inadequate, that can only mean to Heffer that he's trying to suppress free speech. Because giving something a bad review is exactly the same as trying to prevent it being published, and it's the kind of thing that Cambridge history professors do all day.

2/18/2010 02:16:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Me: have you tried showing it to a historian? (Not to mention a psychologist, or a philosopher other than the likes of a Grayling or Honderich.)

D'B: 2.Andrew Roberts and Ian Kershaw are both historians who have praised Aaro's book, and Simon Montefiore arguably qualifies too. In fact, as far as I know, no historian has disparaged it. Are you a historian? One philosopher has reviewed it (favourably) but you have exempted him for no obvious or given reason. Explain.

As any fule no, book reviews in the mainstream press are often of rather poor quality. Here's an account of some examples, from DA's book:

Hancock has variously theorised that Atlantis was actually Antarctica, inhabited before the ice covered it, and that there are formations on Mars that also suggest the activities of ancient civilisations...[etc.]

...scepticism has not been universal. Hancock's books have been described as 'persuasive and scholarly' by the Observer. as containing 'an elegant theory that reads like a detective story' by the Daily Mai1, and as representing 'a discovery about the pyramids that could change our whole view of human history' by the London Evening Standard. Hancock's work has been expensively filmed and given prime-time airing on the BBC and Channel 4 in Britain...


You see, people often seem to write favourable reviews without engaging their critical faculties. Sometimes indeed it appears they haven't even read the book or have only skimmed it, yet still purport to give a review.

There is also a mutual-backscratching book review circuit of Decents, Eustonians and fellow-travelling media personalities like Grayling. (A bit like the merry-go-round of members of corporate remuneration committees.)

Which is why my question was 'have you shown it to any historians' rather 'have any historians given it a (superficially) good (or good but superficial) review?'. I was interested to know if any had given a detailed assessment of DA's argument, methodology, evidence base and his specific conclusions.

Unfortunately, getting a historian to go along with a general thesis that some event such as the murder of JFK is definitely non-conspiratorial is all too easy.

Jeffrey M Bale (who is quoted approvingly in DA's book) gives a good account of professional resistance to 'conspiracy theories' here. Robin Ramsay - I think in his excellent pocket essentials book - reports an anecdote about a graduate student told to drop his thesis because the subject matter (not any conclusion) was too close to the taboo area of conspiratorial politics.

But enough background: the beef is in the reviews themselves.

2/18/2010 02:52:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

I kept reading that piece thinking 'why is Simon Heffer dumbing-down so spectacularly' (as he would put it) and then was rewarded with the bit of the end when he admits he is Andrew Roberts' mate and godfather to his children.

2/18/2010 02:56:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

[Apologies for going on here, but I'm assuming other threadsters think it's worth me having this dialogue with D'B]

Andrew Roberts's review says:

David Aaronovitch is one of those few Britons who can be referred to as an intellectual without it being pejorative. He is also a master of the art of ridicule, as this reviewer once discovered to his cost at a public debate. [all very nice, but so far irrelevant to the merits of the book as a work of history] This superbly researched, wittily written and eminently sane book explodes conspiracy theories by the dozen, and highlights the psychological disorders from which their promoters often suffer. Best of all, however, it points out how dangerous conspiracy theories can be to society.

Now I agree DA has clearly done some research, and good research so far as it goes. 'Exploding conspiracy theories' I agree with too - though not so sure about 'by the dozen' which suggests Roberts is granting himself a certain amount of reviewer's licence - an impressionistic approach which seems misplaced in reviewing a detailed historical work. The sketchy approach is evident throughout the review: most of it (pas. 1, 3, 4 & 6 in their entirety, and a fair bit of the remainder) consists of boilerplate anti-CT fare that any establishment-minded person could run off without reference to DA's book. (I needn't go on about the nasty business of the 'psychological disorders' smear, which in fact I think DA actually avoids doing - again suggesting Roberts is not entirely familiar with the content of DA's book.)

Here's a sample of the free-standing Roberts commentary: Of course, it's perfectly true that sometimes in history there have indeed been genuine conspiracies. The Catiline conspiracy in Ancient Rome, the Gunpowder Plot, the Cato Street Conspiracy to blow up the British Cabinet in 1820, the Bolshevik conspiracy to overthrow the Kerensky government in Russia in October 1917, and the Iran-Contra conspiracy in Reagan's White House in 1985-6 are all cases in point. Generally, however, it is the cock-up explanation rather than the conspiracy that provides the best guide to what really happened. To believe that dark forces control our lives, and have done so for centuries, is a sure sign of weak-mindedness, akin to a belief in UFOs or that one's destiny is affected by the zodiac.

This is some of that bog-standard cant, purporting to draw a bright line between favoured (i.e. undeniable) and disfavoured CTs. The interesting thing about the first paragraph is that this is Roberts's own list, and doesn't correspond to any similar list in DA's book. DA does mention the gunpowder plot non-committally in passing, and says that not counting Watergate, which was a rather pitiful botched conspiracy to cover up an attempt at political espionage, the Iran-Contra affair of 1985-6 is the closest the US has come to a full-blown conspiracy. But apart from that convergence on common subject matter, Roberts is off on his own anti-CT essay rather than discussing DA's book. The rest of that paragraph is more boilerplate cant - the second sentence an implausible and unsupported generalisation neutered by qualification (and also not corresponding to a thesis proposed by DA), the third a grotesque combination of non-sequitur, smear and straw man, again I don't think corresponding very closely to the content of DA's book.

2/18/2010 04:03:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

(cont.)

Roberts does touch on the actual content of DA's book again:

as Aaronovitch points out, 'the belief in conspiracy theories is harmful in itself. It distorts our view of history and therefore of the present and - if widespread enough - leads to disastrous decisions.' The Nazis were helped to power by the conspiracy theory known as the Dolchstosslegende (the stab-in-the-back myth) by which Germany's defeat in the Great War was explained in terms not of the military debacle on the Western Front battlefields in 1918 but rather the treachery of Jews, bankers, socialists, trade unionists, pacifists, intellectuals and defeatists at home. Hitler and Goebbels trumpeted this absurd conspiracy theory until it was believed by a majority of Germans, who voted accordingly. Other conspiracy theories, such as one about responsibility for the Reichstag Fire, were also ruthlessly promoted.

Now here - and only here - the opinions of DA and Roberts can be compared on a historical topic. DA's flagship chapter, which establishes an ungodwinly mess of associations - primarily that between CTs and anti-semitism - is mostly about the Protocols of Zion, and provides a long account of how it was taken - right here in (1920s) Britain - to be a genuine record of a Jewish conspiracy. For about a year. But the stated aim is to show how the conspiracy theory promoted by the Protocols played an important - perhap even indispensible - role in the rise of Hitler and his anti-semitic Nazis regime.

The key point is this: Roberts, who whatever his other prejudices might be, is a specialist in the topic, comes up with a different list of other German anti-semitic CTs which does not include the Protocols of Zion, and none of which are mentioned by DA. He also stresses the top-down propaganda (conspiratorial) role of these rumours and outsider myths, rather than some power of the theory itself to cause terrible things, which is what DA seems to focus on (or rather gesture towards).

For completeness, here's the other mention of DA and his book:

Aaronovitch argues persuasively that conspiracy theories are often a psychological defence against the indifference of others. This book will not change the theorists' views, of course, but it will be invaluable in our refuting them logically. (1 nothing to do with history, 2. lacking any detail at all, 3. change from psychology to empty mention of logic.)

David Aaronovitch also posits the fascinating possibility that conspiracy theories might be a form of hysteria for men, the male equivalent of the health and food scares that preoccupy so many women. [No comment on that from Roberts] I fear they might also come as a result of our growing ignorance of genuine history, partly due to the weird choices made by the educational establishment over what the national curriculum should cover. [This is Roberts contining his own essay and not something DA mentions, I don't think.] Wheresover they derive [sic] they are a severe irritation at best, and at worst can be a genuine danger to the democratic process. [Again, some vague confluence of opinion with DA but no sign of a direct causal connection, such as Roberts having read and approved of DA's remarks about the dangers of CTs.]

In summary: Andrews's review largely runs parallel to the book it supposed to be reviewing; its endorsements are extremely sketchy, as are other reports of some of DA's more prominent remarks - which often go without any comment at all; but most of all, on the one issue on which Roberts is expert, he appears to take an entirely different line from DA, and doesn't remark on that fact.

I conclude this is not in fact the glowing endorsement of DA's historical efforts that he would have us believe.

2/18/2010 04:06:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

(2nd-to-last para: "Andrews's" s/b "Roberts's".)

2/18/2010 04:50:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

just a note - a government using a bogus conspiracy theory to get the public onside?

What can that ever remind anyone of? oh yeah:

OSAMA BIN LADEN and Saddam Hussein had an operational relationship from the early 1990s to 2003 that involved training in explosives and weapons of mass destruction, logistical support for terrorist attacks, al Qaeda training camps and safe haven in Iraq, and Iraqi financial support for al Qaeda--perhaps even for Mohamed Atta--according to a top secret U.S. government memorandum obtained by THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

I wonder why roberts doesn't mention that.

Equally I'm not at all convinced that Roberts is a serious historian (for example he does not, as far as i can tell, have either an MA or a PhD, nd his books are riddled with basic errors); and his politics (speaking at the Springbok club, for instance) are questionable in the extreme.

2/19/2010 09:19:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Quite possibly. I have no idea who he is, except the writer of that review.

I suppose that leaves Aaro the option of repudiating the review rather than accepting that his main historical thesis has been dismissed by an expert.

2/19/2010 10:01:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Well, not quite no idea - I had the impression he was a WW2/3rd Reich specialist, but not sure why now.

2/19/2010 10:04:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

I think D'B can be taaken to have capitulated and conceded the remaining points, so just a last bit on question 2:

Grayling's review - in the Times - seems similarly unconsidered:

Do the Protocols of the Elders of Zion show that there is a Jewish conspiracy aimed at world domination? Did Franklin D. Roosevelt conspire in the Pearl Harbor attack so that he could take the US into the Second World War? Was Hollywood a nest of communists in the 1940s? Was Marilyn Monroe murdered on the orders of Robert Kennedy? Was John F. Kennedy assassinated by the CIA? Are the Merovingians the descendants of Jesus? Was Robert Kennedy assassinated by the CIA? Was Hilda Murrell murdered by the British Government? Was there a cover-up about Ted Kennedy's car going into the water at Chappaquiddick Island?

Was Diana, Princess of Wasles, murdered on the orders of the Duke of Edinburgh? Was Dr David Kelly murdered on the orders of Tony Blair? Did Bush and Cheney arrange for the 9/11 twin towers attack so that they could start a war in the Middle East?

Yes, say the conspiracy theorists to all these questions

etc etc.

As a benchmark, for anyone familiar with Counterknowledge and not Voodoo Histories, Grayling ran off a similar - though more effusive review of that (with a reservation over Thompson's religion of course).

While Grayling offers diffuse and rather unphilosophical praise for DA's common sense and responsible reasoning, he also adds lots of padding - lists are good - and some of his own parallel opinions. He also avoids actually endorsing DA's cod-psychological theorising:

Aaronovitch hypothesises that conspiracy theories are “hysterias for men”. Add to this that the paranoia involved in the belief that bad people are conspiring to dupe, manipulate and harm us may paradoxically be a salve to a deeper wound, namely that we do not matter and that no one cares whether we exist or not, and the psychological mixture at work is even richer. This is a suggestion that Aaronovitch finds in the work of the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz: paranoia as a defence against feelings of worthlessness.

Doubtless there is a number of co-operating reasons for the origination and acceptance of conspiracy theories. Whatever.

Oops, sorry, he hasn't finished:

Whatever they are, Aaronovitch's concluding point is an important one: that conspiracy theories do harm, and can have dangerous effects on policy and international affairs, as illustrated by the Nazi determination to re-arm because of beliefs about alleged JewishBolshevik plans to take over the planet

Except not on Roberts's account of anti-semitic Nazi propaganda. BTW none of the other chapters establishes this either: where the CTs had any significant political consequence at all, they are basically examples of state propaganda: McCarthyism and, er, a Soviet show trial.

2/19/2010 10:09:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr Wilkinson doesn't seem to want to answer questions 3 and, more importantly, 4. Surely these are the crucial questions, rather than all this stuff about book reviews which isn't very informative for those who haven't read the book.

2/20/2010 07:45:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Served and witnessed, D'B. Keep watching for another helping - s/b Sunday night. Meanwhile, feel free to offer any rebuttals and do stop the transparent attempts to flog more copies.

2/20/2010 10:35:00 PM  
Anonymous magistra said...

I am a historian (but a medievalist, not a twentieth century expert) and though I haven’t read Aaronovitch’s book, his methodology stinks to me. As I understand it, he demonstrates that a dozen recent conspiracy theories are incorrect, and therefore concludes that all conspiracy theories are incorrect. But even if he is accurate about the specific conspiracies he debunks, that does not prove his wider point. By the same logic, you could write a book ‘proving’ that since there are a number of examples of military invasions failing, therefore invasions cannot possibly succeed.

If I wanted to write about how to tell if a conspiracy theory is plausible or not, I’d start with looking at as many genuine and substantial conspiracies as I could, possibly even going back as far as Philip IV suppressing the Templars and the Casket Letters. I’d focus, however, on the early and mid-twentieth century, where thanks to the 30 years rule, accounts of participants etc, we’ve got reasonably substantial evidence. And for different categories of actors (organized crime syndicates, terrorist groups, corporations, government secret services) I’d look at what illegal acts they actually carried out, successfully and unsuccessfully.

That gives you a good feel for the parameters of the possible. For example, it shows that there have been a lot of successful forging of documents, and these forgeries don’t necessarily have to be terribly good. For show trials, you really need a very tightly controlled judiciary (as Philip IV and Stalin had), but you can still get substantial miscarriages of justice with more theoretically independent judges, if you use torture to extract confessions, and have judges willing to ignore doubts about such procedures (Birmingham Six etc). Some countries (Italy etc) have traditions of suspicious deaths in custody. Both the British and the US secret service have a long history of spreading black propaganda (back to the Zinoviev letter in the UK case), and the CIA has certainly planned a number of assassinations abroad. There is also a history of states staging incidents to provoke wars (such as the Gulf of Tonkin and in the run-up to the Suez Crisis). Secret arms deals and sanctions busting for dodgy regimes have also been common actions of Western intelligence services. On the other hand, I don’t (off-hand) know of proven accounts of large-scale government biological warfare since giving smallpox infected blankets to 19th century Native Americans. There are a number of examples of companies conspiring to conceal the harm done by some of their products, and commission distorting science, but not of them being secretly run by Satanists.

Once you’d done this kind of fairly detailed examination of real conspiracies (far more substantial than the outline sketch I’ve given above), you’re in a better position to see what’s historically and technically plausible and what isn’t. Decade long conspiracies by vast groups of conspirators look intrinsically implausible, as do most reports about the UK and the US government assassinating its own citizens. On the other hand, attempts to coerce, frame and scapegoat those thought a danger to UK security have a long and inglorious history.

This kind of analysis can separate the plausible from the implausible, but it won’t substitute for looking at the individual details of some of the more plausible cases. The diaries of Roger Casement are thought now to be genuine, for example, even though it is obviously plausible that the British government had forged them.

There is interesting historical and sociological work on why people believe conspiracy theories (and on related topics like moral panics), and also on discussing specific alleged conspiracies. Both approaches are useful. But trying to combine them in this illogical way doesn’t sound to me helpful at all.

2/21/2010 07:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Solomon Hughes said...

I don't suppose I am telling anybody anything they don't know here, but as to David Aaaronovitch and the Iraq "conspiracy theory", this is the point, surely (this is a letter I wrote to the Observer, which they published in a somewhat edited form)

His book ignores on of the most successful conspiracy theory of modern times – the supposed conspiracy where Saddam developed weapons of mass destruction to pass on to his friends in Al Qaeda. This had the features of a classic conspiracy theory: Enemies who are secretly friends; a hidden plot against society; undercover meetings between Iraqi agents and 9/11 hijackers in Prague ; Iraqi’s training hijackers on a grounded plane ; Iraqi anthrax spread by Al Qaeda agents in America; Smersh style underground bases and mobile bio labs. But none of it was true: No WMD, no link between Saddam and Osama, no Prague meeting, no terrorist training at Iraq’s Salman Pak compound, neither Iraqi nor Al Qaeda involvement in the US anthrax attacks. David Aaronovitch’s “caustic rationality” does not attack this particularly conspiracy theory. It was not peddled by “small time hustlers” , but by leading politicians and national newspapers in the UK and US, with support from David Aaronovitch himself who he promised the Iraq war would stop “a future conjunction between anthrax and terrorism”. Those speculating on the Kennedy assassination or Marilyn Monroe’s death might waste ink. Those who peddled the Iraq-WMD- Terrorism conspiracy theory wasted hundreds of thousands of lives


Solomon Hughes

2/21/2010 10:26:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

There is also a history of states staging incidents to provoke wars (such as the Gulf of Tonkin [...]

Well, Aaro doesn't believe that the above-mentioned incident was staged, iirc...

2/21/2010 02:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry to disappoint Tim W., but I ain't Phil DB, and I'm not interested in promoting the book under discussion...Just asking for some cogent answers, that's all. Shame you presume so much about those merely asking questions. Look forward to your answers.

2/21/2010 03:46:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

*NON-SUBSTANTIVE COMMENT - YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!*

Anonymous troll #2:

Shame you presume so much about those merely asking questions.

I didn't presume anything about anyone except 'Phil D'Bap' himself.

Mr Wilkinson doesn't seem to want to answer questions 3 and, more importantly, 4. Surely these are the crucial questions, rather than all this stuff about book reviews which isn't very informative for those who haven't read the book is exactly how I would expect 'him' to respond to the (slightly mischievous) suggestion that I wasn't going to complete the relentless answering of his points.

Key features: 1. the (premature) crowing, and 2. the attempt to minimise the significance of my response to Q2, while avoiding any actual reference at all to its subtance. So D'B-like was the tone and content that I didn't spot at first that the comment was unsigned.

FWIW, the additional emphasis on 'those who haven't yet read the book' (perhaps they should pop out and pick up a copy?) and the overall impression of a less than casual interest (with no hint of a reason for such interest) tended to confirm my suspicions.

The attempt to shift attention from Q3 (i.e. 1. the biased approach to history and 2. the hackneyed and empty hypocrisy of the broader argument and analysis) onto Q4 (speculation about future perception of a similarity between the GWOT and the 50s Red Scare) gave further credibility to my (admittedly unproven) contention that you are D'B, rather than a mere DA groupy. I suppose I'd now give it a credence of about 70%.

Bottom line is you are entitled to your anonymity, and I'm entitled to speculate about your identity and motivation. I don;t really give a toss if you would portray this as of a piece with wild-eyed 'conspiracism'. The fact is, as a moment's reflection will confirm, people do very commonly dissemble and justify to themselves all kinds of minor venality. Any readers can reach their own assessment of the credibilities.

Having said that, I suppose it would be odd (which is not to say unlikely) for D'B to suggest that discrediting the content and impugning the integrity of the book reviews he relies on isn't very informative for those who haven't read the book.

'Presume so much about those merely asking questions' would be pretty rich coming from him, too, since anti-CT types like to portray tentative exploratory speculation as firm conviction, and usually to stuff plenty of straw in while they're at it.

*ENDS*

2/22/2010 04:03:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Anonymous troll #1 seems to share D'B's interest in Q4 and his apparent difficulty in understanding what I meant by the current era may well [in 20 or 30 years] be regarded much as the McCarthy one is now. He also prioritises it over Q3 (claims that one-sided history and hypocritical verbiage permeate DA's book). So let me deal with Q4 relatively quickly, before turning to what is very obviously the main issue (which I've been putting off because I have other things to do and I want to do justice to the flagrant deficiencies in DA's book).

D'B says 4. More to the point, you seem to be suggesting that conspiracy theorists are to 2010 what imagined fellow travellers were to early 50s America. Could you justify that?

I'm not suggesting that. My speculation was clearly flagged as such, and simply based on the rather obvious parallels between the Red Menace and the Islamofascism/Global War on Terror bullshit.

I don't think 'conspiracy theorists' denotes a useful, salient or real category, and it certainly isn'sut itable label for the generality of dissenters from GWOT orthodoxies (who are indeed treated as fellow-travellers of the Muslim Menace - and constantly harangued with demands to condemn, repudiate etc.)

But nothing else I say depends on this speculation. I'm not going to be diverted into a discussion which would be open-ended, off-topic and utterly unprofitable.

Similar considerations apply to my view that a primary function of the book is to damp and discredit public suspicion regarding such GWOT-related phenomena as 9/11, 7/7 and the death of David Kelly (currently back in the news - the Mail anyway) - not because they are true, but because they are so very dangerous (cf the Cass Sunstein link above).

I mention above that the book was supposedly prompted by a conversation about the moon landings - with 9/11 and 7/7-related theories mentioned as though an afterthought, and indeed as not significantly more prevalent in 2002 than moon-hoax theories. It's pellucidly evident that the relevance of the book at the present time is just those GWOT-challenging theories, and that rebutting, deflecting or discrediting them (in all their forms, from 'Mossad knew something was up' to full blown neo-Northwoods hypotheses) is a significant part of the still-ongoing GWOT.

That's as far as I'm willing to go down those sidetracks, Phil D'B - unless you want to start a dialogue of course.

2/22/2010 04:16:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

[I spent rather a lot of the scarce free time I was going to spend on this last night watching The most dangerous man in America on BBC4, and then "the great offices of state" about the FCO which has some slightly interesting interviews that get fairly close to the limits of polite discourse about conspiratorial politics.

Relevant quote from Daniel Ellsberg, subject of the former: "secrets can be held by men in the government whose careers have been spent learning how to keep their mouths shut".]

So to Q3:

D'B 3. You provide no examples of what you excoriate. In what way is the history one-sided? In what way is the commentary "standard cant"? Do you even know what you mean by that?

(Pedantry zone: I'm glad you agree that I'm getting some excoriating done - but I don't think DA is the kind of thing that has examples. At least you don't follow the recent strange trend of using 'coruscate'.)

I'll start with the mysterious phrase, which was actually 'bog-standard cant'. By 'bog standard' I meant: 'of the usual (poor-quality) kind; by 'cant': 'empty and hypocritical verbiage'. DA pays lip-service to ideals of rigour and balance by trotting out the same weary and gormless tropes as the likes of Daniel Pipes, Damian Thompson etc., which also feature in countless newspaper columns and magazine articles.

That bloody razor
The US review opens with a reference to Occam's Razor. The abuse of this rarely-used principle is a standard incident of the turdspeak that emanates from the anti-conspiracy-theory theorist camp (it is fairly reasonable to talk of such a camp, since unlike their putative opponents they are remarkable homegenous in their approach). It's a perfect encapsulatin of the arrogant stupidity of the stuff they come out with. How could they resist - it has everything. An association with no-nonsense nominalism, imagery redolent both of precision and ruthlesness, and a term used in (well, in talking about) theoretical science, to boot.

Basically, it's a way of certifying their own prejudices by relabelling 'plausible to me' as 'simple', then pretending that an abstract concern for simplicity per se has any bearing on investigation of empirical matters concerning the ordinary world of what philosophers have called 'medium-sized dry goods'.

I could rant on about this in far greater detail but there's a huge amount to get through and I am trying to keep this relatively brief(!). I'll try extra hard to keep to the key points in what follows...

2/22/2010 04:32:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

BThe preceding refers to the Kakutani review, just to illustrate what a headline act Ockham is.-

I may not have made clear that DA has a whole section dedicated to wittering on about the Razor, and refers to it throughout the book, stating at one point it is a contention of this book that conspiracists fail to apply the principle of Occam's razor to their arguments.

So this is not just more 'nonsense' about book reviews.

2/22/2010 04:56:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

From Voodoo Histories, pp4-5:

So what is a conspiracy?

If a conspiracy is defined as two or more people getting together to plot an illegal, secret or immoral action, then we can all agree that there are plenty of conspiracies. Many criminal acts are the conse¬quences of conspiracies; security agencies whose plans are necessarily confidential are continually conspiring; and companies who seek to preserve commercial confidentiality — while sometimes employing others to infiltrate the confidentiality of others — often act in a conspir¬atorial fashion. An agreement not to tell your mother that you are sleeping with your boyfriend would qualify. A conspiracy theory,

however, is something rather different, and it is the aim of this book to try to characterise what makes it so.
The American scholar and author of two books about conspiracy theories, Daniel Pipes, argues that, in essence, a conspiracy theory is simply a conspiracy that never happened, that it is 'the nonex¬istent version of a conspiracy'. For the US historian Richard Hofstadter, on the other hand, writing in the early 196os, what distin-guished the true 'paranoid' conspiracy theory was its scale, not that `its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a "vast" or "gigantic" conspiracy as the motive force in historical events'.'
These two definitions don't quite work for me. How, for example, can Pipes prove categorically that a conspiracy is 'nonexistent'? Obviously any conspiracy is a theory until it is substantiated; there¬fore those supporting a conspiracy theory might be entitled to observe, either that their own particular notion was simply awaiting definitive proof or, just as likely, that in their judgement such proof was already available. And I find it hard to accept Hofstadter's definition of conspiracy, which would, for example, include the idea — given play in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code — that the Church has for two millennia systematically suppressed the truth about the bloodline of Jesus (a truly vast deception), but not the smaller-scale accusation that British (or French) intelligence agencies had Diana, Princess of Wales, brutally done away with in Paris in 1997. It is important not to overlook the smaller theories, since if believed, it seems to me, they eventually add up to an idea of the world in which the authorities, including those who we elect, are systematically corrupt and untruthful.
I think a better definition of a conspiracy theory might be: the attri-bution of deliberate agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended. And, as a sophistication of this definition, one might add: the attribution of secret action to one party that might far more reasonably be explained as the less covert and less complicated action of another. So a conspiracy theory is the unnecessary assumption of conspiracy when other explanations are more probable. It is, for example, far more likely that men did actu¬ally land on the moon in 1969 than that thousands of people were enlisted to fabricate a deception that they did.

2/22/2010 05:05:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

The preceding represents a key moment in the analysis, such as it is. The first paragraph sets up the problem.

we can all agree that there are plenty of conspiracies...A conspiracy theory, however, is something rather different...

It's ridiculous to suggest that there are no conspiracies. The key is to get some subset of conspiracy scenarios which can be claimed with a high degree of apparent credibility to be uniformly false, or at least of very low credibility, and to make sure the ones you are aiming to discredit fall in there. Of course this is not always done properly - in many cases there's a delicate two-step ((c) Holbo of Crooked Timber) involved - so only grandiose or otherwise implausible theories are considered for the purposes of generalised rebuttal, but once the category as a whole has been discredited, relatively humdrum hypotheses are assumed to fall into it, and thus to be discounted, as for example here:

Tony Blair yesterday launched an extraordinary attack on the Iraq inquiry - as the chairman warned that he and others could be recalled over 'gaps' in their evidence. In an outspoken interview in the U.S., the former prime minister dismissed the inquiry as part of a ' continual desire to sort of uncover some great conspiracy'. Speaking on Fox News he said critics of the war were obsessed with conspiracy theories, and refused to accept that his motives were 'genuine'.

That's not DA's main method, though he does make use of a common variant of the tactic - use of carefully selected examples to serve as stereotypes - note the choice of Da Vinci Code (a fictional work about supernatural shenanigans for fuck's sake) and Diana assassination scenarios.

2/22/2010 09:08:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Instead, DA provides a pre-gerrymandered definition which amounts to little more than 'a conspiracy thesis which DA doesn't find plausible'. Of course the art of coming up with this sort of crap lies in dressing it up with a sufficient quantity of suitable verbiage, so he starts with something different:

the attribution of deliberate agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended.

Of course that's on its face utterly inadequate for his purposes since 1. many of the conspiracy theories he discusses are agreed to be the consequence of deliberate agency and the dispute is over who did it, e.g. 9/11,7/7,Kelly,JFK,RFK,MLK; and 2. the use of 'likely' is basically doing all the heavy lifting here; and he gives no indication of how it is supposed to be assessed

But it does have the virtue of sounding as though it is based on some well-thought out principle, and ties in with the bog-standard trope of 'imputing agency', which can be associated with plausible sounding cod-psychological theories about how humans are wired, or the rather dubious - and even more dubiously relevant - Fundamental Attribution Error - as well as bracketing conspiracy theories with belief in wood-sprites (I'm not sure that DA explicitly resorts to these tactics - but he is working within a tradition, even though he is at pains to set up an apparent opposition with Pipes's - in practical terms equivalent - definition.

At this point DA does make one innovatin: he uses a one-off two-step at the definitional stage - saving all the trouble of smuggling individual hypotheses into or out of the stated category:

as a sophistication of this definition, one might add: the attribution of secret action to one party that might far more reasonably be explained as the less covert and less complicated action of another

This is clearly not a sophistication of the definition, but a substitution of another one which is more useful in the cases mentioned above. But again the work is done by what it is 'reasonable' to explain - without any indication of what this is supposed to amount to. What a load of bollocks. One can always, of course argue that I'm nitpicking, that I know what he is getting at, the general idea is clear enough. To which the answers are: 'yes, because definitions are supposed to be reasonably precise'; 'yes, and I don;t like it one little bit and neither would his readers if it were made explicit'; and 'no it's not; it's the same murky concept whose careful manipulation has been so useful in distorting debate for some time'.

2/22/2010 09:08:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Correction: I said

the attribution of deliberate agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended....ties in with the bog-standard trope of 'imputing agency', which can be associated with plausible sounding cod-psychological theories about how humans are wired, or the rather dubious - and even more dubiously relevant - Fundamental Attribution Error - as well as bracketing conspiracy theories with belief in wood-sprites (I'm not sure that DA explicitly resorts to these tactics...


He does resort to them:

in 2006 the British human biologist Lewis Wolpert theorised that the compulsion to create a story, `to have drama in that spot', might actually be biological — that it represented a 'cognitive imperative', an innate need to have the world organised cognitively. Wolpert speculated that the requirement to establish causality was a necessity for an animal that made tools in order to survive, and had thus become instinctive. 'Once there were causal beliefs for tool use,' he argued, 'then our ancestors devel¬oped causal beliefs about all key events.'42 Impelled, therefore, to find causes, it follows that failure to do so created discomfort or anxiety. Consequently, human beings evolved with 'a strong tendency to make up a causal story to provide an explanation . . . ignorance about impor-tant causes is intolerable'.43 Wolpert's focus was on the universality of religious beliefs, a universality which prevailed even though the beliefs themselves were mutually incompatible. But his idea works rather well with conspiracism: 'We construct apparently coherent stories about what happened ... but where consistency and internal satisfaction have to compete with testing against the real world, we choose consistency.'"

If Wolpert is right, then a religious conspiracy theorist like David Ray Griffin represents the ultimate in the triumph of narrative. Meanwhile, all of us who argue for a living, including this author, might do well to consider Wolpert's observation of the tendency always to look for confirmation of pre-existing stories rather than their falsification.


Now that is cant if ever I heard it.

2/23/2010 12:24:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, this thread has blossomed like an unfounded rumour questioning the perspicacity of our leaders' actions.

Phil and your unsigned buddy, I was making a cheap joke. However, I would contend that it is accompanied by a sincere expression of confusion, that is a literary critic praising a hack's book which, in its excerpted bits (I'm not buying it, will read if you want to send me a copy; everything I know about it suggests to me its author set out signed up to an anti-conspiracy conspiracy before he penned a word, and therefore failed to be strong, rational, non-empirical, and all that) is entirely hackish and non-writerly. Will she do Clarkson's autobiography next?
xpete

2/23/2010 08:26:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

[Splendid, the relentless response is not being read only by a silent and cowering D'Bap! Hello pete - blossoming is about right. The fruit is still to come, in the shape of a demolition of DA's historiographical pretensions...but I haven't finished the 'bog standard cant' yet:]

As pointed out before, the amateur psychological gubbins reported above (viz. a strong tendency to make up a causal story to provide an explanation) could only apply to theories which supposedly impute causation to effectively stochastic events and could not 'explain' why people would blame one agent rather than another (again, see JFK,Kelly, 9/11 etc).

But more importantly, like all DA's cod-psych nonsense, it obeys the Third Law of Psychobabble:

for every theory there is an equal and opposite countertheory

In the instant case, the theory is DA's adopted claim that there is an imperative to find causation, which tends to overrun. The countertheory would be to posit an innate imperative not to impute causation since such imputation, when inaccurate, can be disastrous. Of course the two theories are equal insofar as they are both unsupported by evidence. If they can be got into testable form and tested, one or both may be found wanting. Or both may be accurate up to a point...

But DA is not too bothered about all that empiricism stuff. After all, the purpose of this stuff is 1. to obscure the rather obvious idiocy of trying to generalise about all conspiracy hypotheses with some plausible sounding bullshit, 2. to concentrate on explaining peoples' beliefs - thus reinforcing the idea that there is some unified phenomenon at work in need of explanation in the first place (because of course conspiracy theories are all ridiculous), and 3. to smear the 'conspiracy theorists' (itself a misnomer which suggests that conspiracy theories come as a package) with suggestions of some cognitive, psychological or even psychiatric defect.

2/23/2010 10:14:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

The First Law was actually applied by one objector, to another bit of Aaronovitch's armchair psychology in an article about 9-11 dissent which I can't trace, but is evidently along lines of the following extract from Voodoo Histories:

The catastrophe of indifference
So, we need story and may even be programmed to create it. But why are certain types and structures of story more successful, more satisfying than others? One possible answer is that a successful story either represents the way we think things should happen, or is the best explanation we can get of why they didn't. A New York fire chief asked to account for the various theories surrounding the collapse of buildings at the World Trade Center attributed them to the disappointment of people's belief in the omnipotence of the emergency services. 'In the movies,' he said, 'it's always wrapped up in the end.' Or, as Norman Cohn puts it when discussing paranoid thought in his history of apocalyptic movements, people cannot accept 'the ineluctable limitations and imperfections of human existence, such as transience, dissention, conflict, fallibility whether intellectual or moral'.45

The paradox is that, seen this way, conspiracy theories are actually reassuring. They suggest that there is an explanation, that human agencies are powerful and that there is order rather than chaos. This makes redemption possible. 'After all,' argues Dr Jeffrey M. Bale, an American academic specialising in the ideology of terrorism, 'if evil conspirators are consciously causing undesirable changes, the implication is that others, perhaps through the adoption of similar techniques, may also consciously intervene to protect a threatened way of life or otherwise alter the historical process.'46 There is, however, another possible form of reassurance of an altogether more personal kind. The classic view of paranoia, the unwarranted belief that one is being persecuted, is that it is a wholly negative state. But what if paranoia is actually the sticking plaster that we fix to an alto¬gether more painful wound? That of feeling ourselves to be of no importance whatsoever, and our lives (and especially our deaths) of little real significance except to ourselves.

The London-based American psychoanalyst Dr Stephen Grosz believes this may be the case. He argues, after twenty-five years of practice, that paranoia may often be a defence against indifference, against the far more terrible thought that no one cares about you. The elderly, at a time of their lives when no one very much wonders what they think, often become classically paranoid, believing that someone wishes to rob or hurt them. The lonely person fears that there is a burglar or a murderer in the empty house waiting for them. Indeed, they may often perceive the real symptoms of such threats — the noises, the shadows, the displaced objects. These fears disguise the truly obliterating disaster, the often well-founded fear that no one is thinking about them at all, what Grosz calls 'the catastrophe of indifference'.47

2/23/2010 10:17:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Notice the common-or-garden anti-conspiracy trick of introducing the notion of paranoia (after Hofstadter, whose conception of conspiracy theories as akin to persecutory delusions was rejected by Aaronovitch as only applying to McCarthy-style 'outsider' theories).

Most conspiracy theses have nothing to do with paranoia: those propounding them have no sense that anything is being aimed at them specifically.

But onto the Third Law as Aaronovitch reports its application by an objector to the 'relief of anxiety' schtick:

'There is perhaps,' he suggested, 'an even deeper anxiety that can lead us to dismiss possibilities that imply betrayal by those whom we expect to protect and care for us.' And as an abstract proposition one can see how this might be true. There are many examples of family members not being able to believe — denying — that a loved father or a respected grandfather was capable of sexual abuse. The reaction of Communists to the Moscow trials was to comfort themselves with the thought that, somehow, the party leadership in Russia must have known what they were doing.

This is a pretty good suggestion, isn't it; and in an empirical test-off with Aaronovitch's one might well suspect it would come off rather better. But it won't have a chance to do that in the pages of DA's book, for two reasons: first, he doesn't actually expound his own theory unti later on, after this one has been disposed of. Second the manner in which that disposal is done is deeply sneaky. It's presented entirely out of context, with no indicatio of what it's an objection to. Instead it appears to be a rather arbitrarily selected objection to the root idea that conspiracy theories in general are seductive (and of course some examples can be cherry-picked to suggest that). Not only that, but the objection is presented thus:

We should admit here that there is an objection to this entire line of enquiry. After an article I had authored in The Times criticising 9 /11 conspiracists, a British psychoanalyst wrote to me in very civil terms, questioning my own psychological motives.

Suddenly, instead of the countertheory it really is, this becomes a very specific attack on David Aaronovitch. And at this point, it becomes possible for DA to present what appears (to the very casual observer) to be an empirical refutation:

It is when we get down to practicalities that my critic's analysis begins to fray. The evidence that I might be suffering from such a denial lay in my specific rejection of the writings of David Ray Griffin, whose role in the 9/11 Truth movement is discussed in Chapter Seven of this book. Griffin's work was, argued the analyst, 'carefully and scholarly presented ... [and] a highly disciplined philosophical analysis of some of the questions that have arisen in relation to official accounts of 9/11'.8 The problem, of course, as we have seen, is that Griffin's account was no such thing, even if it maintained the outward limbs and flourishes of scholarship. Its evasions, half-truths and bad science suggested a pathology of a kind not displayed by those who pointed out where Griffin parted from scholarship.

So because, according to DA, the objector approved of an inadequate theory and, again accordig to DA, was basing a diagnosis on that evidence (which is pretty clearly not true), the whole thing can be forgotten about, and once the details of this 'refutation' have faded after 15 pages or so, he's in the clear to propound his own crappy speculation in the theoretical space he's cleared.

2/23/2010 10:28:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Here's another bit of bosh, riffing on a book by Elaine Showalter called Hystories. (DA provides quotes from the first 10 pages and the very last, and it's perhaps kinder to suggest that he hasn't read the thing than to suppose that his approach was adopted in full awareness of the contents of Chapter 5 - 'Hysterical Men' - whose message is: the hysteria diagnosis "became for a man ... the real injury, a sign of weakness, a castration in a word. To say to a man, 'You are hysterical,' became under these conditions a way of saying to him, 'You are not a man.'")

In this particular slab of theoretical grot, DA seems to argue that because interest in various conspiracy theories fluctuates, they cannot be 'based on the uncovering of hidden truths', but instead trots out a hopelessly misconceived allusion to the (already explanatorily inert - but fashionable) 'meme' catchword. I can't be bothered to try and reconstruct the argument in order to make it suspectible to reasoned analysis. I'll just mention the splendid use of 'I would [but don't] argue' as cover for a blatantly unsubstantiated - and quite implausible - assertion.

Voodoo Histories, pp304-5:

On fashion

In her work on hysteria, Showalter argues that 'like all narratives' her mass hysterias have 'their own conventions, stereotypes, and structures'." The more the specific thesis is talked about, the more people feel that they have had the same experience or are suffering the same symptoms, the more voluminous the literature becomes, the more aggressive in defence of their illness the victims become, and the more the idea is accepted into the mainstream.

Eventually, however, the panic dies down, to be replaced fairly soon by another, similar outbreak, though with a completely different focus. The same is true of conspiracy theories. The set of charges and allegations surrounding the 1984 Murrell death were, as we've seen, highly specific in type to the period between 1980 and 1987. During that time a large number of theories, or beliefs, or dramas, focused precisely on a supposed matrix 'composed of the nuclear industry, American and British intelligence and semi-corrupt politicians. After Mikhail Gorbachev's summit with Ronald Reagan in Iceland in late 1986 the nuclear matrix conspiracy all but ended.

Based as they supposedly are on the uncovering of hidden truths, conspiracy theories should not be subject to fashion, and yet they clearly are. As a result, one suspects that conspiracy theories also have a social function and that they could be classic examples of what the biologist Richard Dawkins has called memes, ideas that replicate themselves because of the utility of sharing notions but that are genuinely felt. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it was extremely rare to find someone outside the Arab press arguing that there had been a cover-up. That had changed by 2006, and what had altered was not, I would argue, the presentation of any new facts, but the widespread social acceptability of blaming the US administration.

2/23/2010 11:12:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

i remmeber reading that part. It's amazingly unconvincing; he's read a bit of Showalter (and as you say has cherrypicked the bits that suit him) and then we get the meme idea which has always seemed to me intensely dubious.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it was extremely rare to find someone outside the Arab press arguing that there had been a cover-up. That had changed by 2006, and what had altered was not, I would argue, the presentation of any new facts

... other than the US Government's own 9/11 report which had big chunks blacked out? this is exceptionally poor.

During that time a large number of theories, or beliefs, or dramas

what the hell is the last category doing there? jeez...

2/23/2010 11:23:00 AM  
Anonymous BenSix said...

... other than the US Government's own 9/11 report which had big chunks blacked out? this is exceptionally poor.

Indeed. One could add the FEMA report, the NIST report and the NORAD tapes.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it was extremely rare to find someone outside the Arab press arguing that there had been a cover-up.

Think how popular Thierry Meyssan's book was - long before Iraq, let alone 2006.

(Longer thoughts, if anyone's interested.)

2/23/2010 11:53:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Yes, the memes business is basically a picturesque nothingness. The disanalogies with genes are manifold: people change ideas themselves to make them better, and drop or take them on willy-nilly, memes aren't bound to a lineage and don't need their bearers to do anything very much, they don't have any identifiable physical manifestation at the micro level nor often in terms of behaviour, etc etc. The term might be of some use if it goves people a peg on which to hang a sociological or psychological study of the flow of ideas, but it doesn't have anything to add. Except perhaps the same tendency toward unsubstantiated just-so stories that plagues individual evolutionary explanations in, e.g., ev psych.

But Aaro doesn't even seem to understand the memes 'theory' in the first place:

one suspects that conspiracy theories also have a social function and that they could be classic examples of what the biologist Richard Dawkins has called memes ideas that replicate themselves because of the utility of sharing notions but that are genuinely felt.

The point (such as it is) of memes is that they are, like genes, 'selfish' - i.e. they 'seek' to replicate themselves (btw this unnecessary use of teleological metaphors is a major cause of error even in intelligent people, it seems). The idea is not that they have some social function, and certainly not that memes are differentially transmitted 'because of the utility of sharing notions'.

Also, the idea of a 'classic' example of a meme is misconceived. Memes are just memes.

And they needn't be 'felt'. Though admittedly it's not clear what exactly is to count as a meme (and I think there is a whole strand of argument about that), those who write about them include things like techniques.

Hmm. Sorry, that's all a bit sketchy and unclear, but I want to get on with the amply justified - and I hope slightly less unclear - demolition job on Voodoo sodding Histories.

BTW Elliott Sober has done an excellent book on evolutionary selection which I must read properly one of these days. I'd recommend strongly from what I have read.

(BenSix I'm interested but busy trying to knock this stuff out, I'm afraid.)

One more thing - if anyone has any comments on my criticisms of DA, please go ahead - I'm thinking I might try and turn all this stuff into a proper review and get it published somewhere for a US audience. That applies especially to Phil D'Bap, who has gone quiet recently - exactly how recently is unclear.

2/23/2010 01:17:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Aaronovitch on Robin Ramsay:

Robin Ramsay, British editor of the long-running journal of conspiracy theory, the Lobster, considers implausible the idea of a `Left—Right fusion . . . an ideologically neutral conspiracy mindset'.27 In his view, 'bad' conspiracism is essentially aimed at scapegoats, such as Jews and Communists, while the target of 'good' conspiracism is almost invariably authority: the state itself. 'The Right,' says Ramsay, `is interested in conspiracies . . . against the state . . . The liberal Left, on the other hand, is chiefly interested in conspiracies committed by the state.'28

Aaronovitch is a bit late with this, since in the 2006 edition of the book, Ramsay says that he now doesn't think that this holds in a straightforward way. In fact, I suppose Aaronovitch has manged to root out a slight (gasp!) imprecision among the voluminous writings of his better, but it's a common enough one, arising from the Protean nature of the terms 'left' and 'right'. Ramsay is clearly think of the right as being authoritarian, the left suspicious of centralised power. This is only one dimension which 'left' and 'right' can refer to. It's also apt to be outweighed by the more dominant economic or social dimensions: when the government is left-wing by those measures, left-wingers may tend to trust it, right wingers suspect it. And indeed the political spectrum has been drastically attenuated in the last 20 years or so. But the distinction between defenders of the powerful who disseminate top-down, scapegoating 'ousider' theories and their opponents who are interested in conspiratorial methods used by ruling confederations stands. Aaro however, grabs a handful of cases in which the terms 'left' and 'right' can be applied in one sense or another, and trots them out:

Ramsay's distinction does not survive scrutiny. John T. Flynn's Right-wing conspiracism was aimed at the state as represented by the treacherous Roosevelt, and at Owen Lattimore, the supposedly infil-trating pro-Mao Communist. Right-wing US militia movements are both anti-state and anti-minority. Liberal-Left defenders of the Soviet Union (and there were many) swallowed the idea of an international gang of infinitely wicked Trotskyites attempting to subvert the world's first socialist state.

2/23/2010 01:46:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

But there's more:

What we might call Ramsay's Problem is deliciously [Aaagh! What a smug twat!] evident in his musings on banking and Judaism. The radical leftist is impatient with the anti-Semite's attempt to bring the Jews into the equation, not least because it muddies the waters. 'The "Jewish conspiracy" nonsense,' writes Ramsay, las served for half a century in this country to make people nervous about researching the power of finance capital in this society' presumably lest they be associated with the far Right.29 Ramsay continues, 'There are bankers ripping us off, but few of them are Jewish.'

This is a flimsy objection to someone else's theory. What if many of the bankers — a third, say, or a half — were indeed Jewish? Would that constitute prima facie evidence that, in addition to the bankers being part of a conspiracy, their Judaism was a significant aspect of their quest for money and power? Attitudes may have changed since Ramsay's hopeful distinction was made. Ten years later, substitute 'Zionist' or 'pro-Israeli' for 'Jewish' and you will create a banking conspiracy that almost every modern-day conspiracist can agree upon.


Why this is evidence of a 'Ramsay's Problem' is not clear. In any case, is DA suggesting that Ramsay is going easy on the antisemite? Suspiciously so, even? What has Ramsay failed to deny or condemn that in this context he should have? Is DA trying to keep people nervous about researching the power of finance capital in this society? He's certainly saying that there has been a resurgence in antisemitism since 2000 (when his old edition was published), and he's certainly conflating criticism of Zionism or Israel with it. He also seems to be claiming that 'pro-Israeli'-ness is an important part of conspiracy theories about bankers - presumably, if his weird criticism of Ramsay is to be taken seriously, he is claiming that every modern-day conspiracist can agree that Zionism or pro-Israeli sentiment (by which he means rabid Likudnik belligerence, no doubt) is a significant aspect of bankers' quest for money and power. It's a baffling mess.

2/23/2010 01:52:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

Ten years later, substitute 'Zionist' or 'pro-Israeli' for 'Jewish' and you will create a banking conspiracy that almost every modern-day conspiracist can agree upon.

It's exactly this kind of lazy imprecision that marks this out as a fundamentally suspect work of 'history'. Where's the evidence?

This is all-too-Decent:

What if many of the bankers — a third, say, or a half — were indeed Jewish? Would that constitute prima facie evidence that, in addition to the bankers being part of a conspiracy, their Judaism was a significant aspect of their quest for money and power?

Well, maybe he could have actually emailed or written to Ramsay to ask? And the provenance is a bit worrying. If you google Aaro's phrase in inverted commas, you get http://www.serendipity.li/eden/laconspi.html, which isn't actually a discussion of Jewish conspiracies at all. longer Ramsay:

Some of the world's politics and economics is influenced — but not controlled — by little groups of people. The Bilderberg Group does exist, does meet. The Trilateral Commission does exist, does meet occasionally and discuss a new world order. After all, these are the guardians of capital, and disorder is what they don't want. Global investment likes order. There are bankers ripping us off — but few of them are Jewish.

While Ramsay might have imported certain phrases from the speech I link to (or, er, include the address of) up there in an earlier edition of his book, this fits right in with his cherrypicked citation of little bits of Elaine Showalter's book. And from an amazon 'search inside' of Ramsay's book, Aaro is either using an earlier edition of the book or is comflating two separate pieces of writing. Can anyone with VH to hand confirm?

2/23/2010 02:16:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

{Oh, woe: even Will Self is joining in the feeding frenzy with his own exercise in ill-considered generalisation, on a topic which any sensible person (e.g. Magistra, now several feet upthread) realises has to be considered on a case-by-case basis:

There are some genuine conspiracies afoot in the world. These tend to be restricted in their ambit; [the question being how restricted; restricted to what?] all too often [too often?] they cock up spectacularly [so far as they can given their resticted ambit, presumably. And given that being discovered seems to count as 'cocking up' - even when all the aims are achieved, the participants enjoy impunity and polite society dismisses it as a one-off - could there not be a certain selection bias in the data: I have not yet discovered any as-yet undiscovered plots?]. But with the large-scale events where the credulous see conspiracy, cock-up is invariably [invariably? Doesn't he realise how ridiculous this sounds?] the correct explanation.

Well that's that cleared up then. It's the Bruce Gold thesis again: Nothing succeeds as planned.

I find this shit surprisingly disappointing coming from Self - the grinding triteness alone seems unworthy of him. Quite a few esteem points docked accordingly.}

2/23/2010 02:18:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Yes, he must be using the 2000 edition instead of the 2006. All the page numbers are different, and a lot of the stuff he quotes is different from my copy.

2/23/2010 04:12:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

(That, and this, to organic cheeseboard)

He does cite Ramsay's book for the quotes, and the biblio in VH confirms he's using the 2000 edition (I now remember I had checked this before). I don't have a copy of the 2000 ed.

2/23/2010 04:31:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

BTW, before the grand finale dealig with DA's faux-historical elucubrations, a word on reviewers who don;'t read the book.

Here's an etrxact from an interview with Norman Baker by Rowena Thursby

RT: Amongst the many reviews of your book I've looked at, The Times' David Aaronovitch was dishearteningly dismissive. Personally I don’t even think he read your book. For one, he glossed over the fact that under one tablet of Copraxamol was found inside Kelly's body, whereas the official version spoke of 29 tablets. Now, I know in ten years he's never written a critical word, not a single one, about the Blair government, but whatever happened to investigative journalism?

NB: Investigative journalism is alive and kicking. Well, ok, not alive and kicking, perhaps more on a life support machine in fact. There's a book, 'Flat Earth News', written by one of my constituents, Nick Davies, analysing the weaknesses of the press. There are indeed plenty of good journalists out there, Anthony Barnett from The Observer, for example, and one or two papers who have the time or money to do it. The Sunday Times does it, the Mail on Sunday does it…they have got time and money. But the worst journalists are those who betray their profession by simply acting as promoters for those in power. What [Aaronovitch] wrote was a pre-emptive strike. At the time of his article, the book hadn’t even been published.

RT: But perhaps he got hold of sample copies, you know…made available to the press prior to publishing dates?

NB: No, no, there was no such thing! He just read one or two extracts from the Daily Mail and that was it!

(I haven't done any checking on this - perhaps Phil D'Bap, or his even more anonymous mouthpiece, could provide an explanation?)

2/23/2010 04:56:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

That reminds me - I meant to respond to magistra: I am a historian (but a medievalist, not a twentieth century expert) and though I haven’t read Aaronovitch’s book, his methodology stinks to me. As I understand it, he demonstrates that a dozen recent conspiracy theories are incorrect, and therefore concludes that all conspiracy theories are incorrect. But even if he is accurate about the specific conspiracies he debunks, that does not prove his wider point.

Yes, that is one thing he is trying to do, though he is slightly more subtle (and devious) than that. As suggested somewhere above he kind-of tries to make this true kind-of by definition.

Here's the most relevant passage from the book:

it has been argued that a coherent argument against conspiracism constitutes its own, and equally questionable, ideology `Contingency theory', as this way of thinking is called, essentially seeks to demobilise where conspiracy theory seeks to inflame. Instead of trying to find an explanation, as conspiracism does, of why power is concentrated in the hands of a few, and why society is riven by unre¬solved antagonisms, contingency theory pacifies its clients by telling them that there are no such antagonisms and that everything is funda¬mentally all right. It 'salvages the American status quo by turning a blind eye to the social relations underlying "large events" and spinning these often traumatic moments as the product of "addled individuals"' .5 Contingency theory, then, is supposed to be the ruling-class response to insurrectionary conspiracism. It is a way of thinking that has, say its critics, an 'equally ideological vision of historical causality'.6

My response is this: fraught though the understanding of history is, and although there can be no science of historical probability, those who understand history develop an intuitive sense of likelihood and unlikelihood. This does not mean they are endorsing the status quo. As the great British historian Lewis Namier wrote, 'The crowning attainment of historical study is a historical sense — an intuitive under-standing of how things do not happen.'' Conspiracy theories are theories that, among other things, offend my understanding of how things happen by positing as a norm how they do not happen.


Note that now, apparently, 'conpiracism' tries to find an explanation of why power is concentrated in the hands of a few, and why society is riven by unre¬solved antagonisms.

Aside from his arrogance in imagining that he has reached the 'crowning attainment of historical study', DA is doing a little two-step shuffle here, keeping it deliberately unclear whether he's saying all conspiracy theories are wrong as a matter of definition or of empirical fact. That's why he has the clumsy 'conspiracy theories are theories that' locution. He also claims that a given conspiracy theory must 'posit as a norm' that things (all things?) happen by conspiratorial means. This is typical of his MO - polarise everything, in a 'with us or with the trrists' stylee. Either accept DA's generalisations, or some supposed 'conspiracy theory of history'. On individual cases, either accept some nut-picked or misrepresented theory selected by DA, or agree with him.

2/23/2010 05:18:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

He continues:

Plots through history
In his very entertaining little book on conspiracies, the doyen of British theorists Robin Ramsay takes a very different approach to historical causality: 'By far the most significant factor in the recent rise of conspiracy theories is the existence of real conspiracies,' he writes. `People believe conspiracy theories because they see the world full of conspiracies.'8 Ramsay goes on to cite the following as offering prima facie evidence of a string of political conspiracies: the assassination of President Kennedy, of his brother Robert, of Martin Luther King, of Malcolm X, of the corrupt leader of the teamsters' union Jimmy Hoffa, and the shooting and wounding of former Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace 'when he appeared to threaten Richard Nixon's chances of winning the 1968 presidential election'.

Since each one of these conspiracies is, to say the least, question¬able, Ramsay is saying no more in effect than that conspiracist ideas create more conspiracist ideas.


Or that when there is credible evidence for a number of conspiracies, and every appearance that the authorities have, for whatever reason, covered them up or at least not investigated them properly, the taboo against speaking ill of the great and the good may be expected to break down, and the possibility of conspiratorial politics take on greater salience. 'To say the least' in this context is a dodgy one, too. Why say the least, if you could say more, especially when the least is so very little: 'questionable'.

If these views are merely questionable, what is so bloody mental about that part of the population who think that on balance they are probably true, that means we have to start calling them girly hysterics and paranoids rather than accepting a difference of opinion?

2/23/2010 05:19:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Ok, here we go:

HISTORY, AARONOVITCH STYLE
PART 1: The ‘Protocols’

I've suggested above, using the example of DA's touted review by Andrew Roberts, that DA is distinctly monocular in constructing his account of the influence of the Protocols of Zion. Specifically, on the topic of its supposed influence on 1. Hitler and the Nazi leadership, 2. the German population, DA simply strings together a few quotes and other references to the supposed influence of this fantastical document, providing nothing approaching an overall assessment of the complex interplay of factors which were clearly involved. Basically, this undermines the entire book. This is chapter 1, and critical, because as I've also suggested above, it is effectively a massive Godwin's law violation, which has a number of unique functions:

1. The idea that the Protocols are a genuine record of a Jewish conspiracy requires no refutation
2. It is the prime example of the book's title conceit: that 'conspiracy theories' cause catastrophic events. Just about every review refers to it as illustrating the book's headline thesis - because it is really the only putative example DA gives. (And note, by the way, what a huge generalisation is involved - one which is rendered highly implausible when one also considers DA's other examples of CTs - most which he doesn't even try to suggest had significant untoward consequences.
3. Because of its Godwinian aspect, the casual reader is deflected from dissenting to any part of DA's claims. It seems somehow pusillanimous, even perhaps as C Hitchens's would say, 'faintly but distinctly smelly', to quibble with the idea that approval of the Protocols were a cause, rather than a symptom, of anti-Semitism and of German Nationalist belligerence.
4. It firmly establishes an association between 'conspiracy theories' and anti-semitism - which if deliberate would be a really dirty trick - and one which DA constantly reinforces throughout the book. (barruel, quote about Eurosceptic loons, etc)

DA doesn't present anything resembling a convincing case for his thesis, and much of his evidence is not even relevant. He cites an (at least) third-hand fragment of a sentence from the 1919 diaries of a juvenile Himmler - This book...explained "all and tells us against whom we must fight" which refers to a different book, which he mistitles "The World War, World Freemasonry, World Revolution", by a Friedrich Wichtl, and which we are told was also about Jews, (it does appear to have one chapter entitled 'the role of the jews in freemasonry'), but is predominantly concerned of course with the Freemasons. DA, however is in full flight, building up the vague impression that conspiracy theories in general are antisemitic (rather than containing the usual amount of ambient antisemitism prevalent at the time).

2/23/2010 09:04:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

It's perhaps worth adding in connection with this that later in the book, DA mentions the Abbé Barruel as another proponent of anti-semitic grandiose theories (in the course of doing the important work of refuting some load of old tosh called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail):

One of the great early figures of conspiracism was a nineteenth- century French priest, the Abbe Barruel. Appalled by the French Revolution, Barruel decided that Jacobinism, and indeed most of the ills of the world, were the product of a great, historic plot. For Barruel, as Norman Cohn put it, 'A revolutionary conspiracy has existed down the ages, from Mani to the medieval Templars and thence to the Freemasons. As for the Jews, he believed them to have made common cause with the Templars.'26

Readers of The Holy Blood. . . have, in a reduced fashion, bought into Barruel's view of history. True, there is no blaming of the Jews in the work of Lincoln, Baigent and Leigh: what there is instead is an adaptation for their own purposes of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Holy Blood.



There are a couple of points to make here.

First, the impression Aaronovitch gives is highly misleading, and it's hard to see this as anything but a deliberate attempt to fit Barruel into a lineage of antisemitic literature which will later give rise to the Protocols. A bit more context from Cohn's Warrant for Genocidemakes this pretty clear:

2/23/2010 09:06:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

at the time when he wrote his five volumes Barruel still imposed certain limits on his imagination. Though he was more than willing to blame the revolution on the Freemasons, he scarcely mentioned the Jews...In 1806 he received a...letter from Florence ostensibly written by an army officer called J. B. Simonini, of whom nothing else is known and with whom Barruel himself failed to establish contact. After congratulating Barruel on having 'unmasked the hellish sects which are preparing the way for Antichrist' he draws his attention to 'the Judaic sect' - surely 'the most formidable power, if one considers its great wealth and the protection it enjoys in almost all European countries'...[etc.]

Barruel once remarked that if the Simonini letter were published it might provoke a massacre of Jews, and on that occasion he was talking sense; for in embryo the letter does indeed contain the whole myth of the Judeo-Masonic conspiracy...

Those who identified themselves with the ancien regime had to account somehow for the collapse of a social order which they regarded as ordained by God. The myth of the Judeo-Masonic conspiracy supplied the explanation they craved.

Then, in 1806, Napoleon summoned an assembly of prominent French Jews - mostly rabbis and scholars - at Paris. The Emperor's motives were of course purely political and administrative...But he called the assembly 'the Great Sanhedrin', after the supreme Jewish court of antiquity - and this automatically suggested that a Jewish government had been secretly in existence down the centuries. Above all, in the eyes of many of Napoleon's enemies the calling of this 'Sanhedrin' established him once and for all as that Antichrist who, in the last days of this earth, is to appear as the Messiah of the Jews...

The Simonini letter, with its mention of Antichrist and its prophetic tone, fitted perfectly into such an atmosphere. Barruel duly passed it round in influential circles in France, with the express object 'of forestalling the effect which might be produced by the "Sanhedrin".'


This seems to be the extent of Barruel's involvement in any conspiracy-theorising about 'the Jews'. And it's not even clear what the 'effect' in question was. I'm told that according to Michel Ricquet in the actually scholarly work Augustin de Barruel: un Jesuite face aux Jacobins Francs-Macons 1741-1820, Barruel sent a copy - as a suspected attempt to foment unrest - to the secret police, and also to the Pope inquiring if there was anything in it. The Pope then confirmed its truth(!), but Barruel decided to suppress it anyway. Ricquet (I am told) then quotes Barruel as writing 'I guarded the contents of the letter with a profound silence, convinced it would lead to a massacre of the Jews'.

The picture here is rather different from that painted by DA. I have no idea what the truth is, but I don't think DA does either. The difference is that I know it and say so.

2/23/2010 09:07:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

And here's the passage from Cohn from which DA culls his slim quote:

The Simonini letter seems in fact to have given a new direction to Barruel's own thinking. Just before his death in 1820, at the age of seventy-nine, Barruel opened his mind to a certain Father Grivel - and what emerged was the myth of the Judeo-Masonic conspiracy, elaborated far beyond the hints in the Simonini letter. He had written a vast manuscript, which he destroyed two days before his death, to show how a revolutionary conspiracy has existed down the ages, from Mani to the medieval Templars and thence to the Freemasons. As for the Jews; he believed them to have made common cause with the Templars and to have occupied commanding positions in the conspiracy ever since.

Again, I am in no position to draw any firm conclusions, but there is no indication that Barruel was responsible for disseminating any antisemitic literature, and it's not clear how much Jewish influence or power was posited even during this rapidly-repented flirtation with the matter. The point is, DA has his ideas about Barruel (perhaps gleaned from Wikipedia) and grabs a quote or two to support them before moving on. Some historian.

The second point is that the whole premise is a bit odd - the conspiracy in question is support for Jacobinism and the French Revolution, and it's far from clear that this is even a sinister thing to be accusing the Freemasons (or the Jews) of in reality. This underlines the fact that like the origin and later influence of the Protocols, like McCarthyism, and like Stalin's show trial of supposed Trotsyite subversives, this is - even if his accounts are accurate which for all I know they may be, and for all DA knows they may not be - a top-down propaganda exercise in scapegoating. But as we've seen DA rejects the distinction between this kind of CT and the 'bottom up' allegation of criminality in ruling institutions.

When he mentions the distinction as raised by Ramsay, Aaronovitch deflects any serious consideration of it by changing the subject to some flimsy - and in parts barely comprehensible - ad hominem objections to Ramsay's exposition.

2/23/2010 09:10:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

The influence of the Protocols on Hitler (the man who was to become the most important and active supporter of the Protocols) is likewise based on slender evidence, consisting of this passage from Mein Kampf:

The extent to which the whole existence of the people is based on a continual lie is shown in an incomparable manner in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which the Jews hate so tremendously. The Frankfurter Zeitung is forever moaning to the people that they are supposed to be a forgery; which is the surest proof that they are genuine. What many Jews do perhaps unconsciously is here consciously exposed. But that is not what matters . . . What matters is that they uncover, with really horrifying reliability, the nature and activity of the Jewish people, and expose them in their inner logic and their final aims. But reality provides the best commentary. Whoever examines the historical development of the last hundred years from the standpoint of the book will at once understand why the Jewish press makes such an uproar. For once this book becomes generally familiar to a people, the Jewish menace can be regarded as already vanquished

DA points out, The argument is undefeatable: the Protocols confirm what I believe and what I think I see around me, therefore they are true in the most important sense, even if they themselves are forgeries. Furthermore, whether they are forgeries or not does not matter; because they confirm what we see around us, they will help people better under¬stand what is going on. As Henry Ford had suggested, they fitted in the past, they fitted now..

He's obviously pleased with the 'it fits' formula, presumably because it illustrates the evidence-proof eagerness to believe that he supposes to be a general feature of the acceptance of conspiracy theories (seen as a homogenous class). He certainly stresses it as a running theme in the acceptance of the Protocols.

With his eye on the goals suggested above, he has apparently no inclination to reflect that the 'it fits' formula might be taken to suggest that such acceptance was no more than an expression of a pre-existing conviction, and causally inert. But since the subject matter is so sensitive and the exact details pale into insignificance next to the events of the Holocaust, his flagship argument is pretty well-insulated from scrutiny.

DA also refers to Dietrich Eckart, Rudolf Hess (himself the subject of a rather more interesting conspiracy theory concerning just what he was doing visiting Britain in 1942) were members of the Thule society, a Group of Germanic occultists and racial mystics who had funded the first zur Beek version of the Protocols. And, er, Alfred Rosenberg had a copy in his luggage in 1918. This is all very well, but a few tenuous examples like this don't really establish anything. As DA himself elsewhere observes, given the desire to believe, it is easy to confuse detail with thought

2/23/2010 09:11:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

DA also claims that the Protocols were authored by a senior member of the Tzar's secret police, a certain Rachovsky. DA's account of the document's authorship is worth quoting:

Rachkovsky was not a bureaucrat by nature. He was a speculator, a politician, an author, a provocateur, an employer of assassins and, most notably, a forger. In 1892 he forged a newspaper letter from the Russian radical exile Plekhanov, and the following week some letters supposedly from other radicals attacking Plekhanov. And in the same year, under the pseudonym Jehan-Preval, he published a book called Anarchism and Nihilism, which argued among other things that following the French Revolution the Jews had become the masters of the Continent, `governing by discreet means both monarchies and republics'. This understanding, wrote Rachkovsky / Prêval 'provides the key to a host of disturbing and seemingly insoluble riddles'. 22
Subsequently at least two colleagues of Rachkovsky were to testify that he had caused the Protocols to be concocted, creating evidence for the assertion he'd already made in the forged Anarchism and Nihilism. If this is true (and these people were, after all, police agents) it would seem that the forgers went about the business of creating their text by borrowing material that was already to hand but a bit obscure: a whole lot of Joly here, a dollop of Goedsche there.

The Rachkovsky Protocols were originally designed for the domestic Russian market — a weapon in the battle between those who wanted the absolutist regime to stay much the same and those who wished to reform it. As ever, the reform party was identified with the Jews, and Jews indeed supported it. The reactionaries therefore used the Jewish connection as part of their crusade against change, adding a religious and mystical dimension to an argument about power. And early appearances of the Protocols had a way of coinciding with anti- Jewish and anti-reform campaigns. A pre-Nilus version was published in southern Russia in 1903 around the time an anti-Jewish pogrom took place in the area. Nilus's own first effort appeared as the tsar was being forced into his October Manifesto of reforms, which created a constitution and a parliament. The head of the Tsarist Party was also the minister of police, D. F. Trepov, who responded by instigating a series of pogroms in the Jewish Pale of Settlement, local peasants being told that the Jews had coerced the tsar into this devilish work. His assistant director of police was one Piotr Ivanovich Rachkovsky.


The only direct evidence here is unreferenced: at least two colleagues of Rachkovsky were to testify that he had caused the Protocols to be concocted...If this is true (and these people were, after all, police agents...

Since no reference is provided, it's not possible to assess this evidence in context, or to assess the relevance and impact of the witnesses' being police agents (I took itas ironic at first). Maybe DA's right, but he certainly doesn;t seem justified in calling them the 'Rachovsky Protocols'. And Charles A. Ruud and Sergei Stepanov Fontanka 16: The Tsars' Secret Police (Google books link) seem to take a different view. The reader of Voodoo Histories is left to rely on Aaronovitch's 'intuitive understanding of how things do not happen', 'sense of plausibility' and on what are just about his only two sources, Norman Cohn's Warrant for Genocide and Binjamin Segel's A Lie and a Libel, as well as his willingness and ability to correctly interpret those. I don't know about any readers, but I'm not inclined to do that.

2/23/2010 09:12:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Part 2: The Zinoviev Letter

Aaronovitch, thus:

The great British conspiracy is the Zinoviev letter of 1924. The conventional story for years was that British security, wanting to remove the first ever Labour government, led by Ramsay MacDonald,
* The shooting in fact took place in the run-up to the 1972 presidential election.

forged a letter ostensibly written by the head of the Communist International, Grigori Zinoviev. This letter, apparently approving of the pro-Bolshevik stance of Labour, was leaked to the Daily Mail, which — four days before the date for the October 1924 general elec¬tion — ran it under the headline 'Civil War Plot by Socialists' Masters: Moscow Orders To Our Reds; Great Plot Disclosed'. Labour lost the election by a landslide.
Wn January 1999, at the behest of the new Labour government of Tony Blair, the chief historian at the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett, conducted an investigation into the affair. She concluded that the letter had originally been forged by anti-Communist White Russians in Latvia so as to derail new treaties concluded between Britain and the young Soviet Union. The letter was then passed to MI6, certain members of which leaked it to the Daily Mail. Bennett found that, while the Foreign Office probably regarded the letter as genuine, the officers at MI6, themselves mostly Conservatives, may have had doubts, doubts that it was in their interests to suppress. She also concluded that high-level intelligence responsibility for forging and disseminating the letter was 'inherently unlikely', because such a responsibility would suggest 'a degree of cohesion and control, not to mention political will, which simply did not exist'.
Writing in the Guardian newspaper, the Labour foreign secretary, the late Robin Cook, allowed that 'there is no evidence that MI6 forged the letter. There is no evidence of an organised conspiracy against Labour by the intelligence agencies."' Nor, as Bennett also pointed out in her report, did the letter lose Labour the election. Labour's problem was that it depended upon the dwindling Liberal Party for support. In fact, in October 1924 the Labour vote actually increased.


Ramsay, thus

2/23/2010 09:26:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Correction: Hess travelled to Britain in 1941, not 1942.

2/23/2010 10:45:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Digression: a bit more psychobabble - which the close-ish reading above shows even Grayling was not so careless of his reputation as to endorse.

It's premised on the shabby tactic of suggesting that certain beliefs or attitudes to conspiratorial politics, however remote the events involved, are symptomatic of that self-centred pathology, paranoia:

The classic view of paranoia, the unwarranted belief that one is being persecuted, is that it is a wholly negative state. But what if paranoia is actually the sticking plaster that we fix to an alto¬gether more painful wound? That of feeling ourselves to be of no importance whatsoever, and our lives (and especially our deaths) of little real significance except to ourselves.

The London-based American psychoanalyst Dr Stephen Grosz believes this may be the case. He argues, after twenty-five years of practice, that paranoia may often be a defence against indifference, against the far more terrible thought that no one cares about you. The elderly, at a time of their lives when no one very much wonders what they think, often become classically paranoid, believing that someone wishes to rob or hurt them. The lonely person fears that there is a burglar or a murderer in the empty house waiting for them. Indeed, they may often perceive the real symptoms of such threats — the noises, the shadows, the displaced objects. These fears disguise the truly obliterating disaster, the often well-founded fear that no one is thinking about them at all, what Grosz calls 'the catastrophe of indifference'.


This gem seems purpose-made for DA's purposes. A psycho-smear which is not too OTT, novel enough for reviewers to pick up, belittling, and suggestive of Walter Mittyish confabulation (remember David Kelly?). Just what the doctor ordered. But a bit tenuous, even counter-intuitive, isn't it? It's certainly not a view held widely, or AFAIK at all, among psychopathologists or psychiatrists.

One might well invoke the Third Law of Psychobabble here, and point out that if you want comforting delusions of importance to assuage feelings of insignificance, why not go the full Napoleon, and imagine that you are safe and powerful, rather than under threat?

But DA has already, in the run up to this final dénoument, invoked a moderately ingenious method for forestalling that: 'The paradox is that, seen this way, conspiracy theories are actually reassuring.' It's not stupid, it's a paradox. Interesting, diverting and rather clever and subtle, we're supposed to think. Real colour supplement stuff.

Finally, there's a bit in the acknowledgements that I happened to notice: DA thanks one of his friends, a certain Stephen Grosz, who dipped deep into his own discipline, psychoanalysis, to bring things to a conclusion. Amazingly, much of this was achieved while eating porridge! The refs confirm 'conversation with author' as the source for Grosz's contribution. So this guff wasn't something Grosz had put his name to in his own writing, but instead some speculation cooked up to order to meet the requirements of DA's own book. A conspiracy, you might even say.

(Coming up when I get time: Aaro on the US 40s-50s Red Scare, commonly but misleadingly known as McCarthyism.)

2/24/2010 12:30:00 PM  
Blogger Andrew Bartlett said...

Not sure if anyone is still reading the comments on this post, but if they are, how does Aaro explain away genuine conspiracies of the vilest kind:

"The latest men to be charged were arrested over the so-called "sledgehammer" plot, which reportedly dates back to 2003.

Reports of the alleged plot first surfaced in the liberal Taraf newspaper, which said it had discovered documents detailing plans to bomb two Istanbul mosques and provoke Greece into shooting down a Turkish plane over the Aegean Sea.

The army has said the scenarios were discussed but only as part of a planning exercise at a military seminar.

The alleged plot is similar, and possibly linked, to the reported Ergenekon conspiracy, in which military figures and staunch secularists allegedly planned to foment unrest, leading to a coup.

Scores of people, including military officers, journalists and academics, are on trial in connection with that case."

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/8536216.stm

So massive conspiracies, involving black flag mass casualty terrorism, appear to exist. Does Aaro simply say, 'ah, but this one was discovered, which shows that conspiracy theories cannot be kept secret', or does he do what a lot of people in Britain do - accept that governments, police, companies etc. are corrupt and conspiratorial *in other, lesser countries*. But not in the UK or the US.

2/25/2010 09:00:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

I'm still reading Andrew. I think you can assume that because this post has become so long that it'll turn into a resource on conspiracy theories in the future. Not many people will read it, and most of those who do will probably be students looking for material to lift for essays, but it'll get read.

Has anyone yet said that the plot to forge the 'Protocols' to encourage anti-Semitism itself sounds like a conspiracy theory? As does the idea that there is a co-ordinated group of people called '9/11 truthers' disseminating disinformation also to encourage anti-Semitism. If you're going to talk about CTs as shared delusions or plots (as opposed to schizoid hallucinations), then you are forming a CT of sorts.

If this thread gets any longer, I've got a wonderful John Kenneth Galbraith quote which isn't entirely apposite, but I'll share when I remember where my copy of the 'Great Crash of 1929' is.

2/25/2010 09:31:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

AB - Interesting - hadn't come across that one before.

Cc - it will get longer! I may as well finish the job, + posting in comments keeps some momentum where a solo effort would flag. Also planning to work it up into a long review for publication elsewhere ont net. Description of this thread's likely future readership sounds quite pleasing really. I've done some similarly unleavened efforts about dershowitz and damian Thompson function of which I saw being basically much as you describe, though dersh on the Iraq war has been cited in print a couple of times I know of. If you write it, they will come innit.

2/26/2010 02:17:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Forgot to to add:

AB - yes, the challenge to provide counter egs to the thesis 'all CTs have been discovered'. There's an epistemology paper there.

+ CC aaro's stalinist fitup thesis is a CT too. And for a knockdown example of a CT, you can't do better than the Wannsee Conspiracy of course.

2/26/2010 02:28:00 PM  
Blogger paul said...

I'm certainly enjoying it,and I've been derided as a 'truther' here, whatever that means.

Not much news about this small victory in the GWOT

2/26/2010 05:51:00 PM  
Anonymous magistra said...

As counter examples to the thesis that 'all CTs have been discovered', the best place to start is some of the British WW2 operations. For example, Bletchley Park operations were kept secret for more than 25 years after the war, and that was a big project, with a lot of people involved.

WW2 also gives a nice counter-example for Aaronovitch's Razor. It is 1943 and you are the German high command. The corpse of a British Major is washed up in Spain with information about Britain's forthcoming invasion plans. What is the simplest (and more likely) explanation? That these documents have fallen into your hands as a result of British incompetence? Or that British intelligence have been carrying out an elaborate operation, which involved creating multiple false documents and then shipping the body of a Welsh alcoholic in a submarine to Spain?

Aaronovitch's discussions of likelihood and probability also completely ignore the issue of conditional probability. In the abstract, there may be a low probability that a policeman is bent, for example. But if you have knowledge that the person's already tampered with evidence twice before, how much reliance should you put on any claims by them? In the same way, a lot of the assumptions that particular organisations cannot be trusted or are likely to be conspiring is due to hard evidence that they have done so in the past. Conspiracy theories may be subject to 'fashionable' changes, but any rational view of the likelihood of secret government activities will also change if more evidence of previous conspiracies comes to light.

2/27/2010 06:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anthony S. McCarthy said...

It's worth pointing out that not a few conspiracies that are revealed, documented etc. still swiftly disappear down the memory- hole. Two examples from Israeli history (I don't dount many other countries will have done similar things) - the Lavon Affair and the accounts of how the Hagganah and Mossad killed Jews in Iraq and blamed it on Arabs (Naeim Giladi wrote about this first hand). Now, both events, esp. the first, are very very well-known in Israel. Yet any suggestion that curious events occuring in subsequent decades that might be the result of similar plotting is greeted with the usual execration. The point is not so much that past conspiracies have been revealed and disregarded by many- but that past conspiracies of a very similar kind, carried out by very similar/identical organisation, are also ignored.

2/28/2010 10:38:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Magistra: yes, Aaronovitch doesn't actually discuss probability at all. He seemingly has no notion of subjective probability & partial credence. He (implicitly) insists on full-blooded belief in one fully-specified scenario or a selected alternative. Anything else would just be too messy and spoil his simplistic generalisations.

The closest hje gets to any such concept is 'plausibility' which is functionally just a shorthand for what he thinks everyone should accept.

3/01/2010 03:41:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

A quick note on the Gulf of Tonkin, which a couple of people have referred to. The only mentions in Voodoo histories appear to be these:

First, a cursory mention, lumped in with a number of others all of which (except the gunpowder plot) he claims to be false:

As has already been noted, conspiracists work hard to convince people that conspiracy is everywhere. An individual theory will seem less improbable if an entire history of similar cases can be cited. These can be as ancient as the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and today may include references to Pearl Harbor, the Reichstag fire and the 1965 Gulf of Tonkin incident. The plot to murder JFK is first base if you want to convince people that RFK and MLK were also murdered by arms of the American state.

The second mention is much the same, though with some (minimal, equivocal and dismissive) detail. It occurs in the course of a tiringly sarcastic account of a speaker on 9/11 CTs:

...a series of historical events that might have been taken from the Ladybird Book of Conspiracies under 'Plots to Get Us into War'. Her timeline starts in 1898 with the sinking in Havana harbour of the USS Maine. Then she cites 1941 and Pearl Harbor, a 'subtly engineered ploy by Roosevelt', followed by the 1965 Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which President Lyndon Johnson used an alleged attack on a US destroyer as a pretext to begin the bombing of North Vietnam, thus providing much fodder for conspiracy theorists.

3/01/2010 03:42:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Before I get to (buggeration, is it really only) Ch. 3, a quick summation, and a very short comment on Ch 2.

DA is opposed to my own view (which is close to and consistent with Ramsay's) that of those conspiracy theories that are primarily political (and not about, say, aliens plus an incidental government coverup), it's possible to divide them roughly and unexceptionlessly into two stylised categories or clusters:

(1) bottom-up theories generated by the powerless and implicating the visibly powerful - which tend to be responses to actual events (often genuinely suspicious ones) and which tend to ascribe (often tentatively) fairly ordinary motives and methods to the conspirators, who are also often identified only tentatively.

(2) top-down theories generated by the visibly powerful as propaganda - which tend to focus on an 'outsider' group with outlandish motives, and to ascribe an ongoing plot which has not yet come to fruition. Often what exactly would amount to fruition is unclear, as are the details of actual events for which the 'conspiracy' is or will be responsible.

[It must be pretty clear which one I think is more likely to be justified. It does seem right (so far as such a crude distinction could be), but I'm conscious there may be some bias here, so any objections to this especially welcome.]

In preference to this characterisation of (1), DA clearly wants to portray bottom-up 'conspiracy theories' as free-floating phenomena, based on some psychological whassname. And he basically doesn't really want to acknowledge (2).

So far in ch. 1, I take Aaro to misrepresent the 'outsider' conspiracy theory contained in the 'Protocols' publications as an important influence on, rather than a convenient tool for, the Nazis.

On Barruel: Aaro is far too eager to fit him into a pre-established narrative and to ascribe an antisemitic conspiracy theory to him instead of the anti-Masonic one he actually seems to have propounded. But I also point out both that Barruel was denouncing left-wing subversion against the ruling elite, among which he himself belonged, and that the Simonini letter appears on the accounts to which he subscribes to have been an attempt to feed him scapegoating propaganda and emanated from permanent, hidden and by their nature unaccountable parts of the state.

In addition, I challenged his near-certainty that the Protocols were devised by a particular secret policeman. I didn't challenge that thesis itself - what do I know? In fact it fits with my rough categorisation if it should turn out that Russian authorities devised them as political scapegoating propaganda. (I'm not trying to impose that categorisation: it's meant to be a statement of an observed trend more than a predictive generalisation about how things happen.)

But DA's account denies a type-2 conspiracy theory. First we have Rachkovsky painted as a kind of rogue operator, with form involving this kind of thing, apparently as a personal project:

Rachkovsky was not a bureaucrat by nature. He was a speculator, a politician, an author, a provocateur, an employer of assassins and, most notably, a forger. In 1892 he forged a newspaper letter from the Russian radical exile Plekhanov, and the following week some letters supposedly from other radicals attacking Plekhanov. And in the same year, under the pseudonym Jehan-Preval, he published a book called Anarchism and Nihilism...

3/01/2010 03:43:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

DA then provides a weird description of the political conflict in which the 'Protocols' were intended to be a propaganda tool:

The Rachkovsky Protocols were originally designed for the domestic Russian market — a weapon in the battle between those who wanted the absolutist regime to stay much the same and those who wished to reform it. As ever, the reform party was identified with the Jews, and Jews indeed supported it. The reactionaries therefore used the Jewish connection as part of their crusade against change, adding a religious and mystical dimension to an argument about power. And early appearances of the Protocols had a way of coinciding with anti- Jewish and anti-reform campaigns.

Why on earth should he be so mealy-mouthed about saying that they were a propaganda tool put out by the Imperial regime in order to discredit the revolutionaries who threatened it? Just because saying that would be to posit a type 2 conspiracy theory. Note also the archly suggestive 'had a way of coinciding with' locution, which involves exactly the kind of unsupported inference to intentional action that DA, mostly unfairly, accuses the 'conspiracist' of. He even has the gall to ephasise the ostensible coindicences involved - the tone of course suggesting that he actually means this couldn't possibly be coincidence. FWIW, I'd tend to agree that such a correlation - if it were established - would very plausibly be seen as non-coincidental, but DA doesn't give any grounds for this view.

3/01/2010 03:44:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

CC has already pointed out that DA's theory is a type 1 (suspect events explained by state crime) conspiracy theory, concerning the use of the Protocols in disseminating a type 2 (sweeping xenophobic propaganda) CT. A point worth making here is that 'the state' is not a single unified actor. Aaro's theory about the Protocols implicates a secret police guy. Members of permanent, hidden and unaccountable elements of the state mentioned above in connection with Barruel are often the prime suspects or the evident perpetrators of clandestine criminal/unethical/apparently subversive operations. These secret organisations which don't simply follow routine processes, are able to circumvent Plod, have a training and a culture geared toward keeping secrets (vide Ellsberg quote above and the documentary it comes from) are obviously excellent candidates for the subject of type 1 CTs.

Of course some or all of their personnel may be serving other interests - no doubt more or less ingenuously identified with those of The Nation - and their services may be more or less explicitly requested, planned and supervised. In the standard case they serve the National Interest as conceived by elected representatives, but in other cases they may be acting on other loyalties, and even directly against elected politicians e.g. MI5 and Wilson, or - it seems according to Chomsky, the CIA/FBI/similar and Nixon. The latter example features in another lengthy, and less amply justified, BB/DD threadjack at Crooked Timber.

There may be genuinely 'rogue' lone operators within clandestine 'security' services of course, and DA takes that route, depicting the forgery as a sort of idiosyncratic hobby of Rachkovsky's - albeit perhaps an 'on message' one - rather than as part of any wider conspiracy. He takes the incremental concessions one step beyond the preferred 'lone nut' scenario, but no further. This is similar to other 'rogue operator' theories, such as the current position regarding the false-flag terrorist mass-murders in 1970s Italy which where blamed on Red Brigade leftists but in fact carried out by fascist Operation Gladio operatives intertwined with a corrupt Masonic lodge and aimed to influence mainstream Italian politics (they also seem to have killed an Italian politician). Here a 'small group of nuts' position has given way to a larger and mre powerful group of nuts theory, but investigations and official acknowledgements stop short of recognising the involvement of NATO command in this aspect of the 'Strategy of tension'. See, for example, Daniele Ganser's book on the subject.

3/01/2010 03:45:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Chapter 2, quickly. It's about some Stalin show trial. DA romps enjoyably (I assume he enjoyed it) through a load of rather dull material (I took an hour's refuge in the mending of a long-bust orange squeezer) which I suspect he has romped through before. Basically he posits a (false) conspiracy theory put out as state propaganda, i.e. he reports an instance of a type 2 CT. At the end DA provides this:

Most modern theories have been conceived as a kind of historical revolt against the official version of events, but for authoritarian regimes in transitional periods the idea of conspiracy becomes convenient for the authorities themselves [emph mine]

A forlorn attempt to devise some reason why this is an unusual aberration - even the exception that proves the rule - due to a special combination of circumstances. Other fit-ups such as that of Colin Stagg or Dhiren Barot (who manifested false-confessing behaviour similar to that described at length by DA) are not mentioned. No doubt they are too small-scale or ordinary to fit DA's elastic characterisation of conspiracy theories, which extends almost exclusively only the very zany (to frame the issue), those he is out to discredit.

(That's enough chapter 2)

3/01/2010 03:45:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Ch 3 is slightly less by-numbers than the easy Hitler and Stalin stuff that Aaro sets the tone with, though it's still part of the issue-framing and stereotype-setting phase, which is aimed at building up enough momentum to steamroller the type 1 conspiracy theories that are attacked later. It's also a terrible mess, and takes some unpicking. (It reminded me of Tony McNulty's particular brand of obuscation. McNulty doesn't just rely on boring or confusing the audience. He has perfected a way of combining mangled logic, syntax and narrative with a delivery so peculiarly intoned and with pauses and emphasis so misplaced, that within about 10 seconds the audience is actually forced to stop listening by some involuntary defence mechanism. I suspect that if he ever told a joke, there is a real danger that it would be of the Monty Python lethal variety.)

Chapter 3, like much of the rest of the book, comprises a slew of anticonspiratorial themes pegged to a random assortment of themes ranging from Populism, US isolationism, Pearl Harbour, HUAC & McCarthy. First, Populism.

Aaronovitch seems to elide Populism (a strand in US politics) and populism (general rabble-rousing, in UK usage). The resulting chimera appears to contain those aspects of each that happen to suit his narrative. He arranges all this stuff around the person of a John T Flynn, whom neither I nor Robin Ramsay had heard of before. It's hard to tell if Flynn is just a convenient (and perhaps conveniently obscure) symbol or actually of some importance in US political history.


The chapter starts:

This is the story of how the idea of conspiracy at the very heart of government took root in the American psyche. It takes us from the US Midwest to Pearl Harbor and on to Hollywood, but it begins in the early 1930s with the activities of one John T. Flynn, a muckraking financial journalist with a speciality in attacking government links to big business.
In the 193os the term muckraker wasn't necessarily pejorative. It was used first in 1906 by US President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt to describe the new breed of reporter that had risen with the expan¬sion of newspapers at the end of the nineteenth century. who performed valuable work in exposing and attacking abuses of power by unregulated corporations and corrupt politicians. Roosevelt did, however. have certain reservations about the role. 'The men with the muck-rakes.' he said. 'are often indispensable to the well-being of society: but only if they know when to stop raking the muck, and to look upward to the celestial crown above them, to the crown of worthy endeavor. There are beautiful things above and round about them: and if they gradually grow to feel that the whole world is nothing but muck. their power of usefulness is gone.'
Muckraking journalism appealed hugely to the ever-growing number of newspaper and magazine readers in America, boosting the profits of the newspaper magnates...


and quickly descends into caricature, heavily laced with DA's brand of psychological speculation:

At this time [30s] America was a frontier and an immigrant nation. Its foundation had been based on rebellion against oppression, its devel-opment upon pioneering and its essential myth on the fulfilment of individual dreams. Its people tended to see themselves as having escaped persecution or poverty to make a new life for themselves almost entirely through their own efforts. Their successes, therefore, were their own; their failures were another matter altogether. When things went wrong or when times were difficult, it was natural to look around for an external culprit. Or culprits, because populism typically imagined a loose and infernal alliance of multiple foes.

3/01/2010 03:46:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

[captcha: 'ranter'!]

DA continues his sneers about the populists with a Chomskyesque dismissal:

The problem for populism was that the forces it was battling against — those of economic change and mass migration — were problematically impersonal. Marxists, with their detailed world view, might be satisfied with the ideas of historical process and class war, but less holistic ideologies required something more immediate, and therefore fluid. From the 182os onwards there was a remarkable consistency in the language used to describe the threat to Americanism. but there was also a remarkable diversity of threats. These started with the Freemasons, against whose machinations the inventor of the tele¬graph, Samuel Morse, wrote an entire book in 1835. By the 189os the conspiracy was led by a group of bankers.

This is great stuff, which shares common ground not only with Chomksy but the worst excesses of Popper's laissez-faire polemic, found not only in his pulp offerings The Open Society and its enemies and The Povety of Historicism, vbut even in his serious work, Conjectures and Refutations. Popper's low-grade propaganda seems to be the origin of the 'conspiracy theory of history' strawman. DA makes use of that from time to time, if not always by name. In particular he enlists the idea to mock those who offer examples to rebut the idiotic claim that there have never been any sucessful conspiracies.

(DA et al: All is coincidence, or abstract historical forces, or unintended consequences or something, therefore no successful conspiracies, ever.'

Ingenue: 'That sounds a bit odd. I mean what about x, y and z?'

DA: 'Ha! You clearly think that everything is a grandiose conspiracy made up of smaller conspiracies. And you wear a tinfoil hat, I bet!'

Ingenue: '?')

This theme crops up in Hofstadter, Age of Reform, too, this time in connection with Populism:

3/01/2010 03:47:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Ch II: The Folklore of Populism

ii History as Conspiracy
Both sides of Donnelly's struggle, the Council of governing plutocrats and the Brotherhood of Destruction, are significantly portrayed as secret organizations—this despite the fact that the Brotherhood has millions of members. There was something about the Populist imagination that loved the secret plot and the conspiratorial meeting. There was in fact a widespread Populist idea that all American history since the Civil War could be understood as a sus, tained conspiracy of the international money power.
The pervasiveness of this way of looking at things may be attributed to the common feeling that farmers and workers were not simply oppressed but oppressed deliberately, consciously, continuously, and with wanton malice by "the interests." It would of course be misleading to imply that the Populists stand alone in thinking of the events of their time as the results of a conspiracy.

This kind of thinking frequently occurs when political and social antagonisms are sharp. Certain audiences are especially susceptible to it—particularly, I believe, those who have attained only a low level of education, whose access to information is poor,9 and who are so completely shut out from access to the centers of power that they feel themselves completely deprived of self-defense and subjected to unlimited manipulation by those who wield power. There are, moreover, certain types of popular movements of dissent that offer special opportunities to agitators with paranoid tendencies, who are able to make a vocational asset out of their psychic disturbances.' Such persons have an opportunity to impose their own style of thought upon the movements they lead. It would of course be misleading to imply that there are no such things as conspiracies in history. Anything that partakes of political strategy may need, for a time at least, an element of secrecy, and is thus vulnerable to being dubbed conspiratorial. Corruption itself has the character of conspiracy. In this sense the Credit Mobilier was a conspiracy, as was the Teapot Dome affair. If we tend to be too condescending to the Populists at this point, it may be necessary to remind ourselves that they had seen so much bribery and corruption, particularly on the part of the railroads, that they had before them a convincing model of the management of affairs through conspiratorial behavior. Indeed, what makes conspiracy theories so widely acceptable is that they usually contain a germ of truth. But there is a great difference between locating conspiracies in history and saying that history is, in effect, a conspiracy, between singling out those conspiratorial acts that do on occasion occur and weaving a vast fabric of social explanation out of nothing but skeins of evil plots.

3/01/2010 03:48:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

[cont.]


When conspiracies do not exist it is necessary for those who think in this fashion to invent them. Among the most celebrated instances in modern history are the forgery of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the grandiose fabrication under Stalin's regime of the Trotzkyite-Bukharinite-Zinovievite center. These inventions were cynical. In the history of American political controversy there is a tradition of conspiratorial accusations which seem to have been sincerely believed. Jefferson appears really to have believed, at one time, that the Federalists were conspiring to re-establish monarchy. Some Federalists believed that the Jeffersonians were conspiring to subvert Christianity. The movement to annex Texas and the war with Mexico were alleged by many Northerners to be a slaveholders conspiracy. The early Republican leaders, including Lincoln, charged that there was a conspiracy on the part of Stephen A. Douglas to make slavery a nationwide institution. Such pre-Civil War parties as the Know-Nothing and Anti-Masonic movements were based almost entirely upon conspiratorial ideology. The Nye Committee, years ago, tried to prove that our entry into the first World War was the work of a conspiracy of bankers and munitions- makers. And now not only our entry into the second World War, but the entire history of the past twenty years or so is being given the color of conspiracy by the cranks and political fakirs of our own age.

3/01/2010 03:48:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

As the preceding suggests, Aaronovitch owes a lot to Hofstadter. On starting to read the firt pages of Chapter 3, I confidently expected to see quite a few references to H's stuff from the start, in particular The Paranoid Style - which continues the above theme but tones down the reference to paranioa, presenting it as semi-metaphorical. I was proved wrong, though there is one reference towards the end of the chapter. DA is perhaps a bit too modest about the care and attention with which he's read TPS, though: the reference to Morse, who is DA's sole exemplar for anti-Masonic CTs among populists, is eerily prefigured there, as is his Namier quote (somewhere above) about the historical 'sense of how things don't happen'.

In any case, Hofstadter is coming from a similar angle to DA, basically running together 1. those who dissent from his cosy consensus and even object to its cosiness, and 2. peddlers of vague, xenophobic conspiracy theories.

DA appears to have done a bit of cherrypicking, for example: ...the Freemasons, against whose machinations the inventor of the tele¬graph, Samuel Morse, wrote an entire book in 1835.
I suspect this was magpied up from the pages of TPS primarily for its celebrity content. The use of the word 'whole' is well done, too. Without those two elements, we have 'a man wrote a book about it'.

Then, a different kind of potentially misleading statement: By the 1890s the conspiracy was led by a group of bankers. He continues in a distinctly 'conspiracist' style: the populists, he seems to think, were casting around for someone they could blame for 'impersonal' economic forces, and picked on the financiers:

Financiers who lent but never laboured, and who foreclosed on farmers and small businesses. were the perfect target for populists.

The perfect target, indeed.

To them might be added the railroad owners. the mining companies, other big corporate battalions and politicians. especially those from the east of the country These relatively few powerful people. were. it was argued. holding a whole nation to ransom, a view expressed thus by the late-nineteenth-century Minnesota populist Ignatius Donnelly:

The newspapers are largely subsidised or muzzled: public opinion silenced; business prostrated, our homes covered with mortgages: labour impoverished and the land concentrating in the hands of the capitalists . The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for the few, unprecedented in the history of mankind.


This appears to be a fairly unremarkable political opinion of a left-wing stripe, but DA presents it as some grandiose paranoid theory - and presumably 'right-wing' pattern his chapter's title. DA lets the reader peep through his conspiracy goggles at a few other ordinary peoples' views. But first, a look at the optician: Richard Hofstadter. He at least took the trouble to scan his sources for paragraphs in which the term 'conspiracy' occurs before serving them up as illustrations of populist 'paranoia':

3/01/2010 03:49:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

The Paranoid Style, Pt I: Studies in the American Right, pp 7-9:

We may begin with a few American examples. Here is Senator McCarthy, speaking in June 1951 about the parlous situation of the United States:

How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men. ... What can be made of this unbroken series of decisions and acts contributing to the strategy of defeat? They cannot be attributed to incompetence. ... The laws of probability would dictate that part of [the] decisions would serve this country's interest.6

Now let us turn back fifty years to a manifesto signed in 1895 by a number of leaders of the Populist party:

As early as 1865-66 a conspiracy was entered into between the gold gamblers of Europe and America. ... For nearly thirty years these conspirators have kept the people quarreling over less important matters, while they have pursued with unrelenting zeal their one central purpose. ... Every device of treachery, every resource of statecraft, and every artifice known to the secret cabals of the international gold ring are being made use of to deal a blow to the prosperity of the people and the financial and commercial independence of the country.7

Next, a Texas newspaper article of 1855:

... It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions. We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber, and that our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism. ... The Pope has recently sent his ambassador of state to this country on a secret commission, the effect of which is an extraordinary boldness of the Catholic Church throughout the United States. ... These minions of the Pope are boldly insulting our Senators; reprimanding our Statesmen; propagating the adulterous union of Church and state; abusing with foul calumny all governments but Catholic; and spewing out the bitterest execrations on all Protestantism. The Catholics in the United States receive from abroad more than $200,000 annually for the propagation of their creed. Add to this the vast revenue collected here. ...8

Finally, this from a sermon preached in Massachusetts in 1798:

Secret and systematic means have been adopted and pursued, with zeal and activity, by wicked and artful men, in foreign countries, to undermine the foundations of this Religion [Christianity), and to overthrow its Altars, and thus to deprive the world of its benign influence on society. ... These impious conspirators and philosophists have completely effected their purposes in a large portion of Europe, and boast of their means of accomplishing their plans in all parts of Christendom, glory in the certainty of their success, and set opposition at defiance. ...9

These quotations, taken from intervals of half a century, give the keynote of the style of thought. In the history of the United States one finds it, for example, in the anti-Masonic movement, the nativist and anti-Catholic movement, in certain spokesmen for abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders' conspiracy, in many writers alarmed by Mormonism, in some Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers, in the exposure of a munitions makers' conspiracy of the First World War, in the popular left-wing press, in the contemporary American right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today, among White Citizens Councils and Black Muslims.

3/01/2010 03:50:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

(notes:
6 Congressional Record, 8:nd Cong, ist sess. (June 14, 1951), P. 6602; for a similar passage, see McCarthy's book McCartbyinn: The Fight for America (New York, 1952), p. 2.
7 The manifesto is reprinted in Frank McVey: "The Populist Movement," Economic Studies, I (August 1896), 201-2; the platform of the Populist party for 1892 asserts: "A vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized on two continents, and it is rapidly taking possession of the world. If not met and overthrown at once, it forbodes terrible social convulsions, the destruction of civilization, or the establishment of an absolute despotism."
8 Quoted by Sister Paul of the Cross McGrath: Political Nativism in Texas, 1825-186o (Washington, 193o), pp. 114-15, from Texas State Times, September 15, 1855.
9 Jedidiah Morse: A Sermon Preached at Clarkstown, November 29, 1798 . . . (Worcester, Mass., 1799), pp. 20-1)

3/01/2010 03:50:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

The actual views in question may be uncongenial to Hofstadter, but they aren't especially sinister nor outré. DA's

breathless quote taken from TPS is actually just an example of political dissent (or as he oddly terms it, 'electoral

revolt'):

For the vaguely delineated villains of the anti-Masons, for the obscure and disguised Jesuit agents, the little-known

papal delegates of the anti-Catholics, for the shadowy international bankers of the monetary conspiracies, we may now

substitute eminent public figures like Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower, Secretaries of State like Marshall,

Acheson, and Dulles, justices of the Supreme Court like Frankfurter and Warren, and the whole battery of lesser but still

famous and vivid conspirators headed by Alger Hiss.8


Again, this is glaringly weak when it omes to actually describing any conspiracy. DA follows the Hofstadter tradition of

sneering at popular dissent, and confusing denunciation of politicians with feverish conspiracy-mongering.

(Note the only explicit example of a real or imagined conspirator is Alger Hiss. His name will appear again later, in the

context of DA's howler regarding McCarthy.)

Further paranoid fantasies include Gen. Smedley Butler's 'war is a racket', which DA presumably chooses to interpret as 'wars

are cooked up and initiated solely for profit, by a secret cabal etc.', and a range of rather unexceptional political views:

progressive as it could be, American populism also lent itself to more reactionary impulses. Suspicious of big capital, it

was equally hostile to the big state;...It was also a fairly natural step from anti-big-business populism to protectionism.

and almost as natural to progress from there to isolationism. The early-twentieth¬century populists — unlike British

jingoists were largely unimpressed by anything smacking of imperialism or what Thomas Jefferson termed 'entangling

alliances'. Big business might require empires and foreign policies, but prairie farmers certainly did not.

3/01/2010 03:59:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

DA adds some generalised and unsourced reference to anti-immigration sentiment, again unremarkable, not notably

conspiratorial, and not particularly associated with Populism in any case. If he were to compare the Populist position with

that of the other parties, he might notice that it was the mainstream Democrats who introduced disenfranchisement in the

1900s.

Flynn, DA's new-found bête noir, is another great example of his selective, ad hominem approach. He's introduced as

though in some way connected to Populism, and the reader is taken through his changing political views as if they represented

a general trend. In fact they represent a particular person's er, changing political views. These include: initial support

for Roosevelt's candidacy in 1932, followed by disillusion with what DA describes as the 'New Deal' but which in fact has as

much to do with non-economic factors (DA himself mentions the strengthening of the FBI):

Where most on the centre Left were glad to see such action, others like Flynn were dismayed. Their initial support became

disillusion, which hardened into an oppos-ition that at times began to sound like fanaticism. Not only was the New Deal

mistaken, Flynn came later to argue, it was very close to being evil:

This is the complete negation of liberalism. It is, in fact, the essence 0f fascism . . . When you can put your finger on the

men or the groups that urge for America the debt-supported state, the autarchial corpor¬ative state, the state bent on the

socialization of investment and the bureaucratic government of industry and society, the establishment of the institution of

militarism as the great glamorous public-works project of the nation and the institution of imperialism under which it

proposes to regulate and rule the world and, along with this, proposes to alter the forms of our government to approach as

closely as possible the unrestrained, absolute government — then you will know you have located the authentic fascist.'

How frustrating then that what was all too apparent to Flynn was so hidden from his colleagues and, more importantly, from

the voters, who in 1936 compounded their forgivable error of 1932 by choosing to re-elect Roosevelt by a landslide.

3/01/2010 04:00:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

So far, no conspiracy - and apparently no influece for Flynn (and the unnamed 'others like him'). All this is just an attempt

to prime the reader to accept DA's story about the Paranoid Myth of the War Conspiracy. Flynn's opposition to war in 1934 led

him to become the cheif researcher for a congessional Munitions Investigation Committee:

The conclusion of its report, published in February 1936, was. however, too nebulous to be of any direct benefit to what

would become known as the isolationist cause: 'While the evidence before this committee does not show that wars have been

started solely because of the activities of munitions makers and their agents.' it stated, 'it is also true that wars rarely

have one single cause, and the committee finds it to be against the peace of the world for selfishly interested organizations

to be left free to goad and frighten nations into military activity.' More helpfully, the committee noted that in the two

vears before entering the Great War the US had lent S27 million to Germany, compared with S2.5 billion to the Allies. The

inference was obvious: 58,000 Americans had lost their lives for the cause of American banking. Nve himself said as much in a

speech later that year. claiming. 'the record of facts makes it altogether fair to say that these bankers were in the

heart and center of a system
that made our going to war inevitable'
[emph mine]

Crazy, eh?

3/01/2010 04:01:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Flynn continued his opposition to war and was a founder of the organisation which was to become the America First Committee

in 1941. The tenor of DA's discussion seems to subscribe to the Tony Blair version of events (he said in an interview that Britain entered the war 'to save the Jews from the Holocaust' or words to that effect), and his outrage

at the isolationist cause seems to be fuelled by what he elsewhere trumps up as the "Historian's Fallacy",

coined in 1970 by the scholar David Hackett Fischer to describe the 'ludicrous' but common error in the assumption 'that a

man who has a given historical experience knows it, when he has it, to be all that a historian would know it to be, with the

advantage of historical perspective'. Fischer is not talking about what we call the benefit of hindsight,
[er,actually it

appears that he is] but about the tendency to forget that the actors in a historical drama simply did not know, at the

time, what was coming next. Subsequent to an event, we may recall the clues and warnings that it was about to happen, but,

warns Fischer, 'our memory does not extend with equal clarity to many other signs and signals which pointed unequivocally in

the other direction'


Populism is bad and, er, racist. Isolationism. But the Holocaust! See? Disgraceful! Never mind the fresh memory of the Great

War. But the really important point is that even if you agree that DA is presenting a political freakshow, it is also a

sideshow: where's the paranoid conspiracy theorising, Aaro? Surely you're not imagining it?

Next, DA gets his fix of antisemitism:

In September 1.941 Charles Lindbergh, the effective leader of America First, fought back with a speech in Iowa. It

expressed, in the most developed way, his sense of who exactly was behind the disastrous slide into armed confrontation:
The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British,
[who were indeed

conspiring - understandably of course - to disseminate pro-intervention propaganda] the Jewish and the Roosevelt

administration. Behind these groups, but of lesser importance, are a number of capitalists, Anglophiles and intellectuals who

believe that their future, and the future of mankind, depends upon the domination of the British Empire ... These war

agitators comprise only a small minority of our people: but they control a tremendous influence ... It is not difficult to

understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany . . . But no person of honesty and vision can look on their

pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy, both for us and for them. Instead of

agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way, for they will be among the

first to feel its consequences.'


This is certainly a repellent view - but it appears callous rather than approving about Nazi antisemitism (and again note

that of course nothing was known of the Holocaust at this time - Nazi Germany presumaby looked rather like, say, Apartheid

South Africa at this time). Of course I'm not trying to defend this speech, just to question DA's use of evidence. And

certainly, the last line sounds distinctly suspect - what are these consequences? Most importantly, the speech in full and in

context was certainly taken to imply some quite shocking opinions. Note though that it doesn't seem to imply any sinister

conspiracy, Jewish or otherwise. Jewish support for entry to the war is a decidely unsinister thing, and it's far from clear

that Lindbergh thougt such support to be hidden or pursued by underhand means.

3/01/2010 04:01:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

For the avoidance of doubt the point of this is not to defend Lindbergh, but to pointing out that DA is as ever overreaching

in the ensuing attempt to smear Flynn (the arbitrarily selected standard bearer fo whatever it is DA is getting at in this

chapter):

the American writer, academic and muscular liberal Arthur Schlesinger was asked whether in his opinion the Des Moines

speech had destroyed America First. He replied that the movement had been shaken 'very severely'. He went on, 'There are a

lot of people in the America First Committee, like John T. Flynn for example, Norman Thomas, others who were really shocked

by that speech and by its implications.'

Shocked perhaps, but not necessarily by the sentiments. Lindbergh's own journals, published in 1970, suggest that his

colleagues weren't as far away from sharing his opinions as Schlesinger suggests. Take this paragraph from the entry for

Thursday 18 September:
John Flynn came at tr.00, and we talked the situation over for an hour. Flynn says he does not question the truth of what I

said at Des Moines, but feels it was inadvisable to mention the Jewish problem.
[NB this is Lindbergh's phrase] It is

difficult for me to understand Flynn's attitude. He feels as strongly as I do that the Jews are among the major influences

pushing this country toward war. He has said so frequently, and he says so now. He is perfectly willing to talk about it

among a small group of people in private. But apparently he would rather see us get into the war than mention in public what

the Jews are doing, no matter how tolerantly and moderately it is done."'

Flvnn's dissent from Lindbergh's demonology then was not about the facts, but about the advisability of stating them

publicly.


Yes, perhaps because he feared that they would inflame anti-semitic opinion, or create a false appearance of

anti-semitic sentiment among the isolationists, or because he di not approve of actual antisemitic attitudes that he saw

overlaid on the unexceptional fact that Jewish opinion - and advocacy - was generally in favour (who'd a thought it?) of

overthrowing the Nazis. But mud sticks, and antisemitic mud is perhaps the stickiest of all, so when DA finds te word

'conspiracy' in a passage from a speech made by Flynn nine months earlier, he redacts the details beind and ellipsis,

juxtaposes it with the foregoing and it's case closed:

'The plain and terrifying fact that this great and peaceful nation is in the grip of one of the not subtle and successful

conspiracies ... to embroil us in a foreign war.

3/01/2010 04:02:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Then we get another, speculative, passage from Lindbergh's (not Flynn's) journal: 'regardless of the attitude of our

people, it is a questidn as to whether the president will force us into war by actions and incidents which will make it

unavoidable. He is in a position where he can force war on us whether we want it or not


and at long last, Aaronovitch feels ready to get to the point, with nine polemical pages devoted to settling the Pearl

Harbour controversy. Passing over the details - which are clearly inadequate in terms of word count alone - I'll just note

that DA doesn't even pin the charge of full-blown Pearl Harbour conspiracy theory on Flynn:

Flynn charged:

By January I, 1941, Roosevelt had decided to go to war with Japan. But he had solemnly pledged the people he would not take

their sons to foreign wars unless attacked. Hence he dared not attack and so decided to provoke the Japanese to do so.

He kept all this a secret from the Army and Navy.

He felt the moment to provoke the attack had come by November. He ended negotiations abruptly November 26 by handing the

Japanese an ultimatum which he knew they dared not comply with.

Immediately he knew his ruse would succeed, that the Japanese looked upon relations as ended and were preparing for the

assault. He knew this from the intercepted messages.19

In Flynn's mind Roosevelt had miscalculated where the attack might fall. Flynn speculated — albeit in terms suggesting

certainty — that Roosevelt had anticipated a first Japanese assault against Singapore or just possibly the American bases on

the Philippines or Guam. 'But if only British territory were attacked,' Flynn asked, `could he [Roosevelt] safely start

shooting? He decided he could arid committed himself to the British government.' Not wanting to appear overprepared for war

lest this spoil his case, Roosevelt decided to keep his military chiefs in the dark. But when Pearl Harbor and so many ships

were lost, the president was 'appalled and frightened'.


DA brings in 'revisionism' and Harry Elmer Barnes (as in the Barnes Review) to add some more unfocussed smears to his

anti-conspiracy polemic. Ironically of course, the charge of Holocaust-denial involves Barnes's failure to recognise the

Wannsee Conspiracy, a true conspiracy theory.

Perhaps, as well as providing more fuel for the general association between 'conspiracy theory' and antisemitism, this stuff

is supposed in some vague way to stand in for a bad consequence of Pearl Harbour foreknowledge or provocation allegations.

Certainly Aaronovitch doesn't provide any evidence that Pearl Harbour 'conspiracy theories' have had any serious bad

consequences, which he ught to do if the chapter is to support the central thesis of Voodoo Histories.


The tortuous chapter then turns to the Red Scare, linking it to the previous themes by way of the handy Flynn, who in 1944

happens apparently to have strted blaming Commies for the earlier smears against the America First organisation. Having done

his job of providing this segue, Flynn is consigned to peripheral bit parts, ineffectually supporting this that and the

other, so there need be no more on him. In fact the McCarthy era Red Scares have nothing really to do with DA's random

Populism-bashing nor with isolationism nor with the specific - at long last actually conspiracy-theory-related - Pearl

Harbour business.

That section went on a lot longer than I planned - but it's hard to criticise a rambling and allusive argument like DA's

without oneself getting caught up in the rambling and the allusions. The Red Scare stuff can be done comparatively briefly.

3/01/2010 04:02:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

The Red Scare - Aaronovitch's Howler

'McCarthyism' is supposedly (1) a conspiracy theory, (2) with - presumably - significant bad consequences, and (3) a

'populist' grassroots phenomenon.

In other words, it is supposed to be an example of a dangerous type 1 conspiracy theory. The facts don't support this. First,

the conspiracy theory element has the vague, perpetrator-based aspect which I've broadly suggested is characteristsic of type

2 CTs. Second, the bad consequences, primarily the Hollywood blacklist and the resulting censorship of dissent and upsurge in

Cold War propaganda, involved a state agency (The House Committee on UnAmerican Activies; 'HUAC').

The key to DA's confusion is that he takes the generic name 'McCarthyism' seriously, and runs together the work of HUAC,

which had startedbefore the war and was most virulent in the five or so years immedately following it, with that of McCarthy,

who started off adopting the pre-existing Red Scare for partisan electoral purposes, and seems then to have got caught up in

his own propaganda and begun to make increasingly grandiose accusations, eventually turning on his own side, after which he

was officially censured and his career ended.

[on 14 Jun 1951]McCarthy delivered an address to the Senate that stands as the perfect encapsulation of the Red Scare

proposition and its psychology:

How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us

to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such

venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be

forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men."

McCarthy's rhetorical question could have been answered by an analysis of twentieth-century history and any number of

plausible hypotheses. But rather than attempt such a discussion, McCarthy begins his answer, 'This must be . The situation

couldn't be the culmination of the effects of huge political, economic and other forces, of mistakes and accidents; it 'must

be' the result of a deliberate and infernal calculation on the part of people whose avowed position — that they were trying

to achieve the opposite result — was all a blind- siding lie.
The occasional Alger Hiss would not suffice. In his speech McCarthy insinuated the involvement in the conspiracy of men like

the secretary of defense, author of the Marshall Plan and wartime chief of staff General George C. Marshall, who had made a

'baffling pattern of decisions' which always ended up serving the 'world policy of the Kremlin'. The aim of the conspirators,

said the senator, was to make certain that America would 'finally fall victim to Soviet intrigue from within and Russian

military might from without'.

This formulation recommended itself to Flynn, who was to endorse McCarthy's opposition 'to admitting Americans who are

enemies of our American system of government — Communists or Socialists — into the government of the United States'.

Unfortunately for Flynn, the Red Scare burned itself out over the next few years, with McCarthy himself being largely

marginalised by the end of 1954.

3/01/2010 04:03:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

McCarthy's speech wasnot the perfect encapsulation of the Red Scare, which had been used as a tool of oppression by the state

until he came along. Basically, McCarthy was 'blowback' from HUAC's activities. His allegations of top-level Communist

infiltration had no very serious consequences - except, perhaps the arather welcome one of ending the grimmest period of the

Red Scare. DA's assertio that the Red Scare burned itself out over the next few years, with McCarthy himself being largely

marginalised by the end of 1954
can only be seen as disingenuous - he fails to mention that the cause of this 'burrning

itself out' was that the Senate had finally resolved that McCarthy's turning the Scare on politicians could no longer be

tolerated, and that the monster the politicians had created must be destroyed. They censured him in August 1954, three years

after the speech DA quotes.

The reason this took so long was probably that the Repulicans in opposition had been gaining from McCarthy's rhetoric aimed

at their opponents in government. When Eisenhower was elected, he denounced McCarthy's methods, and according to Wikipedia

(it takes some serious research to counter DA's arguments): With the beginning of his second term as senator in 1953,

McCarthy was made chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations. According to some reports, Republican leaders

were growing wary of McCarthy's methods and gave him this relatively mundane panel rather than the Internal Security

Subcommittee—the committee normally involved with investigating Communists—thus putting McCarthy "where he can't do any

harm," in the words of Senate Majority Leader Robert Taft.[Fried, Richard M. (1990). Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in

Perspective. Oxford University Press. pp. 134. ISBN 0-19-504361-8.]


OK that's enough Chapter three. I think I might leave it there actually. The rest is CT 'debunking' which is far too much

trouble to refute, though the fact that DA does his debunking so quickly should be evidence that he doesn't give these

matters adequate consideration. If you wanted to look into the JFK assassination, for example, you would probaly want to read

several books on the subject, not a few pages from Aaronovitch's evidently biased offering.

3/01/2010 04:03:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Sorry, in the course of mass posting I missed the problem with hard line breaks being added somehow.

Now who wants to be 100th poster? Phil D'Bap perhaps?

3/01/2010 04:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

the current position regarding the false-flag terrorist mass-murders in 1970s Italy which where blamed on Red Brigade leftists but in fact carried out by fascist Operation Gladio operatives intertwined with a corrupt Masonic lodge and aimed to influence mainstream Italian politics (they also seem to have killed an Italian politician)

Just wanted to get back to Italy for a moment. The above seems a bit confused. Basically there were two types of terrorist killing in Italy between 1969 and 1980: a few unclaimed mass killings carried out by neo-fascists with dodgy connections, and a larger number of targeted assassinations carried out by left-wing groups including but not limited to the Red Brigades. The state did try to lay the mass killings off on anarchists, but not on the Red Brigades as far as I know; in most cases the timing is wrong. As for the Italian politician, if this is a reference to Aldo Moro I think the worst the state can be convicted of is letting it happen. Surviving Red Brigadists have been quite indignant about suggestions that they didn't do it or couldn't have done it.

3/01/2010 11:05:00 PM  
Blogger paul said...

These started with the Freemasons, against whose machinations the inventor of the tele¬graph, Samuel Morse, wrote an entire book in 1835.

Ha ha, I wonder why mr A chose, of all things in this vale of tears, to devote a whole book to the largely harmless minority interest that is CT.

Is it really that big a problem?

Did that fateful encounter with a researcher shake him so much his sense of perspective rattled loose?

3/02/2010 03:14:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Phil - yes, sorry that was a too hasty summary was done from memory, and rather irresponsible even for blog comments. I'll have to check in e.g. Ganser when I get home, but IIRC, the Red Brigades were 'infiltrated at the top' , i.e. being run by, the NATO/Gladio/P2/Fascist lot - not to be confused with the (Italian) State.

3/02/2010 04:52:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Minor correction: I said above that I thought Aaronovitch might have cribbed his Namier quote (reproduced again below) from Hofstadter. In fact he cites Daniel Pipes's citation of this old favourite. Pipes sources it to a different, though contemporary, collection from that cited by Hofstadter. Not that it carries any significant weight in any case, but I haven't looked at the context to see whether it has anything to do with conspiratorial themes at all (I don't have either volume on my bookshelves, and buggered if I'm going to the trouble of getting hold of a copy). For all I know Namier could be saying that well-laid plans of men gang not that oft aglee, when they are well-funded and trained, being very careful, using proven methodologies and techniques to achieve a modest and well-defined goal, and including plenty of contingency plans.

3/02/2010 05:45:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Magistra's point about conditional probabilities reminded me I wanted to do a bit on that. It's true that DA doesn't deal (explicitly) with probability, but in fact he obviously understands at least the psychological counterpart of conditional probability, which I suppose could be dubbed 'conditional plausibility'. That's is one way of looking at the way he plans the trajectory of his exposition so as to start with the easiest targets. Having provided examples of crazed, all-encompassing (and antisemitic) conspiracy theories, he increase the plausibility of his attempts to smear those other less grandiose conspiracy theories that are his main target.

Here's a relevant passage from the intro, in which Aaronovitch starts off by selecting a strawman version of an obvious criticism (this first bit not exactly on-topic vis-à-vis conditional probability, but related, and the subsequent bits arev. relevant.

Of course, definitions of historical likelihood and unlikelihood can be argued about. So it was possibly inevitable that any strenuous argument against conspiracy theories should come to be described — by certain academics — as being as flawed as the theories themselves. [of course DA should just say 'seriously flawed' - but he wants to (a) take every chance to reinforce the presumption against 'CTs', (b) make the general point out to be a bit of flippant academic concept-play] Writers like Daniel Pipes [and now David Aaronovitch], argues Peter Knight in his book Conspiracy Culture, seem to see a belief in conspiracy theories as a 'mysterious force with a hidden agenda that takes over individual minds and even whole societies'. This is a neat inversion, [not an inversion of any truth I know of] but Pipes's systematic attempt to show how conspiracist thinking can contaminate political argument seems hardly to merit this rather lurid description.

Aaronovitch's certainly does, though. He could have quoted Knight's remarks further down the page: In effect, conspiracism here becomes a demonized and reified entity on which most of the ills of history can be blamed. While this does to some extent resemble the oversimplified hyperbole of the anticonspiratorial camp, given Aaronivitch's subtitle: 'The role of the conspiracy theory in shaping modern history', and given that he basically blames Nazism, Stalinist totalitarianism and 'McCarthyism' on 'conspiracy theories', it's not too far from the mark in his case at least.

And a strenuous argument against conspiracy theories will inevitably be flawed, simply because 'conspiracy theories' are, on any reasonable definition, sometimes true.

3/02/2010 05:46:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

In a similar way, it has been argued that a coherent argument against conspiracism constitutes its own, and equally questionable, ideology. `Contingency theory', as this way of thinking is called, essentially seeks to demobilise where conspiracy theory seeks to inflame...It is a way of thinking that has, say its critics, an 'equally ideological vision of historical causality'.

My response is this: fraught though the understanding of history is, and although there can be no science of historical probability, those who understand history develop an intuitive sense of likelihood and unlikelihood. This does not mean they are endorsing the status quo. As the great British historian Lewis Namier wrote, 'The crowning attainment of historical study is a historical sense — an intuitive understanding of how things do not happen.' Conspiracy theories are theories that, among other things, offend my understanding of how things happen by positing as a norm how they do not happen.


DA is probably right that there can be no science of historical probability, since we lack numbers, a basis on which to decide which propositions to select for framing our priors, and probably sufficient processing power to carry out the calculations. But an appeal to a cherry-picked authority - especially one of questionable relevance and unclear applicability - is an inadequate basis on which to retreat to ineffable intuitions of plausibility, beyond the reach of even schematic applications of probability theory.

3/02/2010 05:47:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

He continues:

Plots through history
In his very entertaining little book on conspiracies, the doyen of British theorists Robin Ramsay takes a very different approach to historical causality: 'By far the most significant factor in the recent rise of conspiracy theories is the existence of real conspiracies,' he writes. `People believe conspiracy theories because they see the world full of conspiracies.'8 Ramsay goes on to cite the following as offering prima facie evidence of a string of political conspiracies: the assassination of President Kennedy, of his brother Robert, of Martin Luther King, of Malcolm X, of the corrupt leader of the teamsters' union Jimmy Hoffa, and the shooting and wounding of former Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace 'when he appeared to threaten Richard Nixon's chances of winning the 1968 presidential election'.


Since each one of these conspiracies is, to say the least, questionable, Ramsay is saying no more in effect than that conspiracist ideas create more conspiracist ideas.

Perhaps if he were to be talking about the conspiracy theories of the Middle East rather than those of the Western and English-speaking worlds, he might have a point...


Here, in response to Pipes's observations - which incidentally were made when he was still a credible Mideast expert rather than the neocon propagandist he has since become - DA makes an ad hoc exemption for brown-skinned foreigners - who have indeed, he accepts, been the victims of conspiratorial politics acarried on by Western powers (presumably the unwashed plebs of Britain and the UK are not held in quite so much contempt, so that the elite conspirators feel sufficient compunction about misleading them, or indeed sacrificing a few of them to further a conveniently self-serving conception of the 'greater good', to refrain from domestic conspiracies.

But the important point is that DA's remark seems to imply that 'questionable' precedents (those accorded subjective probability <1) can't function to condition subsequent assessments of credibility (subjective probability). This must be wrong. I'm no mathematician, but I'm sure that's wrong. Intuitively, probability doesn't work like that. I'll have to mug up on my probability theory to confirm that the formal axioms agree, but looking at it through halfclosed eyes, that one can conditionalise on uncertain propositions looks like the kind of thing that could be proved (i.e. a theorem), for whatever that's worth.

3/02/2010 05:49:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Not counting Watergate, which was a rather pitiful botched conspiracy to cover up an attempt at political espionage, the Iran—Contra affair of 1985-6 is the closest the US has come to a full-blown conspiracy. Here, senior members of the Reagan administration sought to thwart a congressional prohibition on financial support to anti-Communist Nicaraguan insurgents (the Contras) by procuring weapons and selling them to America's sworn enemy Iran. The entire business unravelled; there were two inquiries; and two National Security Council employees were found guilty of minor felonies, their convictions being overturned on appeal on the grounds that they had been promised immunity from prosecution through testifying to Congress.

Note that DA says the conspiracy 'unravelled': this is supposed to suggest that it failed, but in fact the only real failure on DA's account was in the publicity. Nothing was undone, no 'lessons' were learned (except how to be more careful in future) - and, crucially, impunity reigned. This is a classic example of how 'failure', as in 'all conspiracies fail' is achieved simply by being discovered. Hence my only slightly stylised remark above, alluding to the impossibility of discovering successful conspiracies: if they are discovered, they are ipso facto deemed to have failed. (For a philosophical reference: this is similar to the point made by Frank Jackson in his article 'Grue'.) This seems too easy a point to be credible as a genuine refutation, but the arguments (token qualifications aside) emanating from the anticonspiratorial camp really are that stupid.

...Then an utterly inadequate 'debunking' of the Zinoviev Letter affair (as reported somewhere above), then this:

3/02/2010 05:50:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...


The ties that bind
What is evident from these examples is that true conspiracies are either elevated in their significance through exaggeration, or are in reality seemingly dogged by failure and discovery. That Richard Nixon, the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, could not even manage to get a few incriminating tapes wiped clean exemplifies most real conspiracies. Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are often more successful at achieving their aims. As I researched the dozen major conspiracy theories that form the body of this book, I began to see that they shared certain characteristics that ensured their widespread propagation.


1. Historical precedent
As has already been noted, conspiracists work hard to convince people that conspiracy is everywhere. An individual theory will seem less improbable if an entire history of similar cases can be cited. These can be as ancient as the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and today may include references to Pearl Harbor, the Reichstag fire and the 1965 Gulf of Tonkin incident. The plot to murder JFK is first base if you want to convince people that RFK and MLK were also murdered by arms of the American state.


I was struck when examining some of the biographies of those involved in the 9/ 11 Truth movement by how this normalisation works over time. One energetic woman in her forties, who had become an indefatigable activist in the Californian branch of the lobby [sic], described how she had become convinced of the 9/11 conspiracy. In her youth, she told her sympathisers, she had sailed around the world, but her `political activism' had only begun in 1992, when she saw a film 'which disturbed her' and as a consequence of which she began to do her own research on the government and media. The film was Oliver Stone's JFK.

This seems to be an attempt to discredit the idea that the truth or otherwise of a JFK conspiracy thesis could be relevant to the credibility of an RFK thesis - that it's a direputable rhetorical stratagem ('normalisation') to pretend so. That's pretty clearly wrong, though operating at this level of abstraction is unrealistic in any case, and you'd want be more specific about what kind of conspiracy was being mooted, and to decompose the probabilities to directly address things like: the resources to do it do/don't exist, there is/isn't an absolute taboo against killing/killing a citizen, politician, president, etc.

It's also perhaps undermines Aaronovitch's denunciation of the tactic that in the same breath he takes the point well enough to take up the challenge of showing that all the examples are false.

3/02/2010 05:50:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Another bit from later in the book:


Griffin's second defence — linked to the first — was that the arguments of 9/11 Truth activists somehow belonged in a different ontological category from those of their critics. Challenged on radio by a Left-wing American conspiracy-sceptic, Griffin reasoned, 'What I have presented is a cumulative argument which relies on a massive amount of evidence that I do take to be prima facie reliable . . . If you're presenting a deductive argument, that's when we say that no chain is stronger than its weakest link, then it is important to point out if there are a couple premises of the argument that are at fault, then the whole thing falls. But with the cumulative argument that isn't the case.'47

As we've seen, Griffin's evidence was far from reliable to say the least, but even so, for his argument to fail one would have to refute specifically almost every single element of it. This supposed separation between deductive and cumulative arguments is reminiscent of the Holy Blood... authors' scholarship of synthesis, which explicitly didn't require the old, more academic way of looking at evidence, but a new willingness to make impossible connections between disparate phenomena. Both have the same quality — the need for a leap of faith.


Griffin's use of the term 'cumulative' is clearly intended as a way of explaining that he's using a kind of inductive argument - a probabilistic one. He's right to point out that unlike deduction it is not an all-or nothing affair. He's also right to use this kind of reasoning when discussing historical matters and generally assessing evidence. I'm not sure whether Aaronovitch's response is entirely disingenuous or partly due to a failure to understand the ideas of probability and inductive inference.

3/02/2010 05:51:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

There's nother relevant passage in relation to Norman Baker MP and his book on the death of David Kelly. But first, this is a convenient point for a quick digression on a couple of points I forgot to mention about Baker.

We've already seen some of DA's onslaught on Norman Baker, which as we've seen includes a withering personal attack based on his insufficiently urbane persona, and habit of asking too many questions. DA adds the suggestion that Baker was elected only due to the 1997 Con meltdown (ignoring the fact that Baker had overcome what I imagine were some misgivings about the luridly hyper-traditionalist and reactionary Lewes constituency to adopt it and steadily build on its initial promise to gain support over many years through old-fashioned representative-democracy constituency work). I don't think this is an entirely opportunist attack: DA probably shares the views of the Westminster press and political establishment that Baker is a bit of a troublemaker, not really one of us, doesn't accept the unwritten rules of what may and may not be said in public, etc.

Anyway, the earnest Baker has included a number of infelicities in his book, and at times is insufficently explict in qualifying his speculative points. DA, of course, trawls up every one of those and triumphantly displays them in a flagrantly one-sided hit job. But he also quotes Baker:

In case one should dismiss his hypothesis as a mere conspiracy theory, Baker devotes considerable time in his preface to previous examples of government deceit. 'Does such a concept deserve to be dismissed out of hand?' he asks. 'History teaches us otherwise.' And he points to events through history that corroborate his view.

DA then takes up the challenge and proceeds to 'debunk' all of Baker's examples. Note that Baker explains that the reason for providing these examples is that the likes of Aaronivitch have devoted much effort to, and been reasonably successful in, promulgating the ridiculous idea that all conspiracy theses do indeed 'deserve to be dismissed out of hand.

Baker - and others who do the same - is thus not even trying to 'prime' his readers with suggestive precedents (though this wouldn't be an illicit move if done honestly rather than by DA's preferred method of ridicule and innuendo). Still less is he in the sense DA intends He is just trying to counter the hegemonic view of 'how things don't happen' often pushed - with only temporary and forgettable concessions to reality - as a lawlike generalisation on the lines of 'Nothing succeeds as planned'.

Seen in this way, Baker's point is a deductive argument (the kind of argument Aaro seemingly requires) - supplying a counterexample to a universal generalisation.

3/02/2010 05:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

Tim - anyone who asserts that the Red Brigades were infiltrated at the top forfeits any claim on my attention, I'm afraid. It's possible but very far from proven.

3/02/2010 07:19:00 PM  
Anonymous bensix said...

Griffin's logic is simple: A, B and C are all suggestive of D, so if you knock out one the others remain standing. I don't understand Aaronovitch's response; all I'm getting is "bwah ha hah - puny loony".

3/02/2010 07:34:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Truncated sentence about Baker a couple or three posts up should read:

Still less is he in the sense DA intends [working] hard to convince people that conspiracy is everywhere.

3/03/2010 03:38:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Re: history of the Italian branch of the Western European secret NATO/CIA armies.

On Ganser's account which represents AFAICT the state of the art on Gladio, I was about right in my initial remarks referring to the false-flag terrorist mass-murders in 1970s Italy which where blamed on Red Brigade leftists but in fact carried out by fascist Operation Gladio operatives intertwined with a corrupt Masonic lodge and aimed to influence mainstream Italian politics, and I think justified in my assessment that they also seem to have killed an Italian politician

Ganser mostly agrees with that, rather than Phil's claims that 1. (the most that can be said is) a few unclaimed mass killings [were] carried out by neo-fascists with dodgy connections and that 2. The state did try to lay the mass killings off on anarchists, but not on the Red Brigades as far as I know; in most cases the timing is wrong. Still going by Ganser's account, As for the Italian politician, if this is a reference to Aldo Moro I think the worst the state can be convicted of is letting it happen. is probably right, assuming - I think rightly - that the Gladio network was acting independently of and often in opposition to the (visible, democratic, traditionally-conceived) state.

The fact that as Phil says, Surviving Red Brigadists have been quite indignant about suggestions that they didn't do it [kill Moro] or couldn't have done it is, of course, consistent with the Red Brigades being 'instruments of a larger political framework as the first, less prosecutorial, Italian Senate investigation concluded they probably were. (And, for DA's benefit since he has such trouble with this kind of reasoning, also consistent with them not being!)

Equally obviously, that may not be the same as their being infiltrated at the top, as I tentatively suggested that on Ganser's account they had been: I'll have to check in e.g. Ganser when I get home, but IIRC, the Red Brigades were 'infiltrated at the top'. All this stuff is still coming out and little could be called 'proved'. I may have been a bit short on caveats, but then I was (for once) being short tout court.

(BTW on a 2nd-degree sidetrack, I'm not clear on how unitary the 'Brigades' were. Any clarification welcomed gratefully.)

Anyway I've checked now, and I don't think my comments were that far awry, nor much more confused than the best information currently available. (When this level of intrigue is involved, and each round of investigation seems to reveal that little was as it seemed on the previous iteration, a lot depends on where your presumptions/onus probandi lies. (There is some relevant and very silly stuff about scepticism in Voodoo Histories which could do with a few verbal slaps if I get round to it.) Western secret services have a track record of infiltrating actually or supposedly subversive groups to the extent that they end up more or less running them, which fact goes into the balance but can't really compete with more conrcrete evidence.

About the only certainty is that the whole thing is an almost unfathomably intricate and convoluted - and certainly at present impenetrable - tangle, which if nothing else exposes the ridiculous nature of Aaronovitch's nominal invocation of a 'simplicity' heuristic, along with just about every other aspect of his approach. (Daniele Ganser: The London-based Imperial War Museum in July 1995 opened a new permanent exhibition called 'Secret Wars'. 'What you are about to see in the exhibition has for years been part of the country's most closely guarded secrets'' the visitors were greeted at the entrance. 'It has been made available to the public for the first time here. And most important of all' it's the truth ... Fact is more incredible and exciting than fiction.')

3/03/2010 03:41:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

So (for general consumption rather than directed at Phil, whose criticisms I will happily take on the chin with indicated reservations) some snippets from Ganser's densely scandalous NATO's Secret Armies: Operation Gladio and Terrorism in Western Europe(ISBN 0-7146-8500-3) follow. For the references and the bits in between, buy the book. I haven't edited it in such a way as to mislead.

The closely-sourced account does seem to implicate the Flemingishly-named SHAPE (Supreme HQ Allied Powers in Europe) and related NATO and US agencies in the false-flag terrorist slaughter of Italian citizens with the connivance of their own security services. This stuff must offend Aaro's sense of plausibility and intuitive understanding of how things do not happen to the point of apoplexy. To understate the situation by misquoting a fictitious President of the USA (something I try to do once or twice a month): I am becoming less and less interested in his estimates of what is and is not plausible.

(On the issue of precedents and plausibility, 'the way things happen', and Bayesian priors:

1. the secret war was ideological and concerned with domestic politics in Western Europe. It was was not a geostrategic military operation. The Cold War had approximately the same degree of reality as the War on Terror (and for that matter, the War on Drugs that served as an unsatisfactory stand-in in the brief interregnum.) The perennial 'that was then [i.e. long enough ago for secrecy to be relaxed somewhat], this is now' stuff is pretty thin, and doesn't gain any more plausibility from invocation of the unique circumstances of a Titanic struggle between Communism and Democratic Liberalism.

2. This stuff is relevant to assessments of credibility not merely via some generalisation about how history works, e.g. the dazzlingly obvious finding that conspiracies are, after all, possible. Propositions on that level of generality are, on any realistic assessment of their scope and credibility, going to have a pretty feeble impact on specific empirical investigations in which there is any usable evidence at all. This is information relating to the MO of organisations like MI6, the CIA and NATO command, which continue to exist and operate largely unchanged since the 70s.)

3/03/2010 03:43:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Terrorist bombing blamed on Red Brigades, actually a Gladio op. Similar ops briefly described.

In a forest near the Italian village Peteano a car bomb exploded on May 31, 1972. The bomb gravely wounded one and killed three members of the Carabinieri; Italy's paramilitary police force. The Carabinieri had been lured to the spot by an anonymous phone call. Inspecting the abandoned Fiat 500, one of the Carabinieri had opened the hood of the car that triggered the bomb. An anonymous call to the police two days later implicated the Red Brigades, a Communist terrorist group attempting to change the balance of power in Italy at the time through hostage- takings and cold-blooded assassinations of exponents of the state. The police immediately cracked down on the Italian left and rounded up some 200 Communists. For more than a decade the Italian population believed that the Red Brigades had committed the Peteano terrorist attack.

Then, in 1984, young Italian Judge Felice Casson reopened the long dormant case after having discovered with surprise an entire series of blunders and fabrications surrounding the Peteano atrocity. Judge Casson found that there had been no police investigation on the scene. He also discovered that the report which at the time claimed that the explosive used in Peteano had been the one traditionally used by the Red Brigades was a forgery. Marco Morin, an expert for explosives of the Italian police, had deliberately provided fake expertise. He was a member of the Italian right-wing organisation `Ordine Nuovo' and within the Cold War context contributed his part to what he thought was a legitimate way of combating the influence of the Italian Communists. Judge Casson was able to prove that the explosive used in Peteano contrary to Morin's expertise was C4, the most powerful explosive available at the time, used also by NATO.
...
In Italy the network included secret Gladio soldiers, the military secret services and fascist organisations such as Ordine Nuovo. Contrary to the terror of the left, the terror of the right aimed to strike fear to the bones of the entire society and hence secretly planted its bombs among the population to kill large numbers indiscriminately in order to wrongly blame the Communists. The Peteano terror, as judge Casson found, belonged to this sort of crime and continued a sequence that had started in 1969. In that year, shortly before Christmas four bombs had exploded in public places in Rome and Milan. The bombs killed 16 and maimed and wounded 80, most of which were farmers who after a day on the market had deposited their modest earnings in the Farmer's Bank on the Piazza Fontana in Milan. According to an evil strategy the terror was wrongly blamed on the Communists and the extreme left, traces were covered up and arrests followed immediately. The population at large had title chances to find out the truth, as the military secret service went to great lengths to cover up the crime. In Milan one of the deadly bombs had not gone due to timer failure, but in an immediate cover-up the bomb was destroyed on the scene by the secret service, while parts of a bomb were planted in the villa of well-known leftist editor Giangiacomo Feltrinelli.3

3/03/2010 03:44:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Evidence of direct CIA involvement in massacres

In March 2001 General Giandelio Maletti, former head of Italian counterintelligence, suggested that next to the Gladio secret army, the Italian secret service and a group of Italian right-wing terrorists, the massacres which had discredited the Italian Communists had also been supported by the White House in Washington and the US secret service CIA. At a trial of right-wing extremists accused to have been involved in the Piazza Fontana massacre, Maletti testified: 'The CIA, following the directives of its government, wanted to create an Italian nationalism capable of halting what it saw as a slide to the left, and, for this purpose, it may have made use of right-wing terrorism.'
...
the Pentagon ordered in a top-secret directive that in 'Operation Demagnetize' the CIA together with the military secret services in Italy and in France start 'political, paramilitary and psychological operations' in order to weaken the Communists in the two countries. The directive of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff dated May 14, 1952 insisted sensitively enough that 'The limitation of the strength of the Communists in Italy and France is a top priority objective. This objective has to be reached by the employment of all means' including by implication a secret war and terrorist operations. 'The Italian and French government may know nothing of the plan "Demagnetize", for it is clear that the plan can interfere with their respective national sovereignty.'

3/03/2010 03:44:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Evidence of direct CIA/Gladio involvement in military coup:

Kennedy had allowed Italy to shift to the left. As the Socialists were given cabinet posts the Italian Communists, due to their performance at the polls, also demanded to be rewarded with posts in the cabinet and in May 1963 the large union of the construction workers demonstrated in Rome. The CIA was alarmed and members of the secret Gladio army disguised as police and civilians smashed the demonstration leaving more than 200 demonstrators injured.46 But for Italy the worst was yet to come. In November 1963, US President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, under mysterious circumstances. And five months later the CIA with the SIFAR, the Gladio secret army and the paramilitary police carried out a right-wing coup d'etat which forced the Italian Socialists to leave their cabinet posts they had held only for such a short period.

Code-named 'Piano Solo' the coup was directed by General Giovanni De Lorenzo whom Defence Minister Giulio Andreotti of the DCI had transferred from chief of SIFAR to chief of the Italian paramilitary police, the Carabinieri. In close cooperation with CIA secret warfare expert Vernon Walters, William Harvey, chief of the CIA station in Rome, and Renzo Rocca, Director of the Gladio units within the military secret service SID, De Lorenzo escalated the secret war. Rocca first used his secret Gladio army to bomb the offices of the DCI and the offices of a few daily newspapers and thereafter blamed the terror on the left in order to discredit both Communists and Socialists.47 As the government was not shaken, De Lorenzo in Rome on March 25, 1964 instructed his secret soldiers that upon his signal they were to 'occupy government offices, the most important communication centres, the headquarters of the leftist parties and the seats of the newspapers closest to the left, as well as the radio and television centres. Newspaper agencies were to be occupied strictly for the time only that it takes to destroy the printing machines and to generally make the publication of newspapers impossible.'48
...

3/03/2010 03:46:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

[cont.]
...
The Gladiators equipped with proscription lists naming several hundred persons had the explicit order to track down designated Socialists and Communists, arrest and deport them to the island of Sardinia where the secret Gladio centre was to serve as a prison. The document on 'The Special Forces of SIFAR and Operation Gladio' had specified that 'As for the operating headquarters, the Saboteur's Training CAG is being protected by a particularly sensitive security system and equipped with installations and equipment designed to be useful in case of an emergency.' 50...on June 14, 1964, De Lorenzo gave the go-ahead and with his troops entered Rome with tanks, armoured personnel carriers, jeeps and grenade launchers while NATO forces staged a large military manoeuvre in the area to intimidate the Italian government. Cunningly the General claimed that the show of muscle was taking place on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Carabinieri and, together with feverishly anti-Communist Italian President Antonio Segni of the right-wing of the DCI, saluted the troops with a smile. The Italian Socialists noted that somewhat unusually for a parade the tanks and grenade launchers were not withdrawn after the show but stayed in Rome during May and most of June 1964.51

Prime Minister Aldo Moro was alarmed and secretly met with General De Lorenzo in Rome. It was of course a 'highly unusual meeting between a Prime Minister in the midst of a political crisis and a General planning to replace him with a sterner regime'.52 After the meeting the Socialists silently abandoned their Ministerial posts and sent their most moderate Socialists for a second government under Moro...After the coup the Gladio traces were covered up. Several years later, in July 1968, investigators wanted to question Gladio commander Renzo Rocca. The Gladiator was willing to cooperate but the day before his testimony was found dead, shot with a pistol through his head, in his private apartment in Rome. A judge who started to follow the assassination track was taken off from the case by higher authorities.54...

3/03/2010 03:46:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Pervasiveness of Gladio-related network in Italian institutions

Years later it was revealed how much P2 Director Licio Gelli and the CIA had manipulated Italian politics in order to keep the Communists out of power...Frank Gigliotti of the US Masonic Lodge personally recruited Gelli and instructed him to set up an anti-Communist parallel government in Italy in close cooperation with the CIA station in Rome. 'It was Ted Shackley, director of all covert actions of the CIA in Italy in the 1970s,' an internal report of the Italian anti-terrorism unit confirmed, 'who presented the chief of the Masonic Lodge to Alexander Haig'. According to the document Nixon's Military adviser General Haig, who had commanded US troops in Vietnam, and thereafter from 1974 to 1979 served as NATO's SACEUR, and Nixon's National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger 'authorized Gelli in the fall of 1969 to recruit 400 high ranking Italian and NATO officers into his Lodge'.60 Gelli's contacts with the United States remained excellent throughout the Cold War. As a sign of trust and respect Gelli was invited in 1974 to the Presidential inauguration ceremonies of Gerald Ford and again in 1977 was present at the inauguration ceremony of President Carter. When Ronald Reagan became President in 1981 Gelli was proud to sit in the first row in Washington. He was Washington's man in Italy and, as he saw, it saved the country from the left: 'I deserve a medal.'61

In April 1981, Milan magistrates in the context of a criminal investigation broke into the villa of Licio Gelli in Arezzo and discovered the files of the P2 the existence of which had been unknown. A parliamentary investigation under Tina Anselmi thereafter to the massive surprise of most Italians revealed that the secretive anti-Communist P2 member lists confiscated counted at least 962 members, with total membership estimated at 2,500. The available member list read like a 'Who is Who in Italy' and included not only the most conservative but also some of the most powerful members of the Italian society...The most prominent member was Silvio Berlusconi...

3/03/2010 03:47:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Second coup called off at last minute, apparently by US. Impunity for all conspirators.

Junio Valerio Borghese, a leading Italian fascist saved by CIA agent James Angleton after the Second World War, in close collaboration with the CIA in Rome on the night of December 7, 1970 started the second right-wing Gladio coup d'état in Italy. The secret operation was code-named 'Operation Tora Tora' after the Japanese attack on the US ships in Pearl Harbour which had led the United States to enter the Second World War on December 7, 1941. The plan of the coup in its final phase envisaged the involvement of US and NATO warships which were on alert in the Mediterranean.

Exactly like Piano Solo in 1964 the operation called for the arrest of left-wing political and trade union leaders as well as leading journalists and political activists who were to be shipped away and locked up in the Gladio prison on Sardinia. Several hundred armed men under Borghese's commando spread across the country with elite units gathered in Rome...one paramilitary unit succeeded in entering the Interior Ministry through the complicity of the police guards. The conspirators sized a consignment of 180 machine guns and sent them out from the ministry in a lorry for their associates. A second unit...A third armed group...A clandestine unit under the command of General Casero...A squad of fully armed men under the command of General Berti...A group of conspirators under Colonel Amos Spiazzi...

Italy was on the brink of a right-wing coup d'état. But it did not come. Shortly before one o'clock in the dark morning hours of December 8, coup leader Borghese received a mysterious phone call and the Gladio coup was stopped. The conspirators returned to their barracks, and strategic posts already occupied were abandoned. In Chile and in Greece, right-wing governments were installed with a coup d'etat after the political left had significantly increased its power. Why had the right-wing coup been stopped in Italy? Members of the Italian Mafia, which the OA had recruited to support the conspirators, later testified on trial that Soviet intelligence had learned about the planned coup whereupon both Washington and NATO had noticed that numerous Soviet ships were cruising in the Mediterranean. 'Nothing was done and the coup came to nothing' partly because there were a lot of Soviet ships cruising in the Mediterranean at the time' Mafia super grass Tommaso Buscetta testified to anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone in 1984...

Who had made the mysterious phone call after midnight that had stopped the Gladio army? CIA Director William Colby implicitly suggested that it had been President Nixon himself. Colby in his memoirs confirmed that 'Certainly' in Track II in 1970 it [the CIA] sought a military coup' at the direct order of President Nixon.'76..The involvement of Nixon was also alleged in Italy by Remo Orlandini' a right- wing wealthy Italian businessman closely involved in the Tora Tora operation.

...

In the end 145 Tora Tora conspirators were charged with crimes' of which only 78 were actually brought to trial' of which again only 46 were convicted by a Roman court' only to be acquitted on appeal by a higher court. In what amounted to a massive juridical scandal all Gladiators walked free.

3/03/2010 03:48:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Murder of Aldo Moro - CIA suspected but official records destroyed wholesale; Red Brigades 'most probably...instruments of a larger political framework'

As the Italian Communists and Socialists remained very strong at the polls and controlled large segments of the Italian parliament' it was obvious that they should have been included in the government. Yet...In a heavy confrontation with Henry Kissinger who under Nixon had served as the President's National Security Advisor and now under Ford held the powerful position of Foreign Minister, the Italian representatives were told that under no circumstances must the Italian left be included in the Italian government...

...acting president of the DCI Aldo Moro found the courage to defeat the USA's veto. On March 16, 1978 he packed the documents of the 'historical compromise' (compromesso storico) into his suitcase and ordered his driver as well as his bodyguards to bring him to the palace of the Italian parliament in Rome where he was determined to present the plan to include the Italian Communists in the executive...

...Moro after his return from Washington had become uneasy and had asked for a bulletproof car, yet the request had been turned down...his bodyguards were killed right away...Moro himself was captured and held hostage in central Rome for 55 days. Thereafter Moro's bullet ridden body was found in the boot of an abandoned car in central Rome symbolically parked halfway between the headquarters of the DCI and the headquarters of the PCI.

Italy was in shock. The military secret service and acting Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti immediately blamed the left-wing terrorist organisation Red Brigades for the crime and cracked down on the left. 72,000 roadblocks were erected and 37,000 houses were searched. More than 6 million people were questioned in less than two months...

The Senate commission investigating Gladio and the massacres suspected the CIA and the Italian military secret service including its Gladio hit squads to have organised the Moro crime. It therefore reopened the case but found with much surprise that almost all files on the Moro kidnapping and murder had mysteriously disappeared from the archives of the Ministry of the Interior. The files contained all official logs of phone calls, letters which had been exchanged between Moro and the government, contacts with the security forces and minutes of meetings made during the 55 days of Moro's kidnapping. The Senate commission sharply criticised that 'the documents of the crisis committee of the Interior Ministry disappeared', highlighted that `the reflection on the Moro affair must be seen inserted in an evaluation of a broader contest' as 'the phenomena must he considered in the historical reality of the period' and concluded that the Moro assassination was 'a criminal project in which the Red Brigades most probably were instruments of a larger political framework.'91 The Senate observed with criticism that in 1978 'the administration of the United States first refused to help at all in the investigations on the hostage taking, and later sent one single expert on hostage taking who worked under the direction of the Interior Ministry.'92

3/03/2010 03:48:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Further evidence of CIA/US control over secret Gladio army. US give classic 'these allegations are old' defence.

The tragic history of Italy reached its climax when during Nixon's time in office the political right spread terrorism, blood and panic in Italy and brought the country to the brink of civil war. The terrorists planted bombs in public places and blamed them on the Italian Communists...in 1991 the Italian parliamentary commission investigating Gladio and the massacres had received an anonymous memorandum which suggested that the Bologna bomb had come from a Gladio arsenal.93 General Gerardo Serravalle, who had commanded the Gladio units within the SID in Italy from 1971 to 1974, later confirmed with much regret that at times some Gladio members 'could pass from a defensive' post-invasion logic' to one of attack' of civil war'.94 When in a BBC interview he was asked why' given this manifest danger, he did not decide to close down the network' Serravalle replied: 'Well' closing down is a political decision' it is not in my sphere of competence to close down the Gladio operation.' 95

It was the CIA that controlled the Italian secret army and as General Serravalle raised his concerns regarding the domestic operations of the secret army, he met the fierce opposition of the Chief of the CIA station in Rome, Howard Stone, who stopped [sending] CIA supplies...Thereafter he realised 'that the CIA interests, as represented by these officials weren't really concerned with the level we had reached in training but rather on the subject of internal control. That is, our level of readiness to counter street disturbances, handling nation-wide strikes and above all any eventual rise of the Communist Party. Mr Stone stated, quite clearly, that the financial support of the CIA was wholly dependent on our willingness to put into action, to program and plan these other — shall we call them — internal measures.'96

'It emerges without the shadow of a doubt that elements of the CIA started in the second half of the 1960s a massive operation in order to counter by the use of all means the spreading of groups and movements of the left on a European level', the official Italian Senate investigation into Gladio and the massacres concluded in 1995...In June 2000 they concluded that 'those massacres, those bombs, those military actions had been organized or promoted or supported by men inside Italian state institutions and, as has been discovered more recently, by men linked to the structures of United States intelligence.'98

In order to support this far-reaching conclusion' the Gladio report 2000 included the testimonies of selected Gladiators. Secret soldier Giuseppe Tarullo' who had entered the SIFAR in 1961, had testified to the Senators that next to the invasion preparations it had been their task to control the Italian Communists: 'We among us also spoke of the internal task of Gladio. It was said that the structure and its foreign connections would also have been activated against a domestic subversion by support of the Special Forces. By domestic subversion we understood a change of government which did not respect the will of the ruling authority.'99

...member of the commission Senator Valter Bielli drew the conclusion: 'I am convinced that the intervention of the Americans in Italy is now a historically proven fact.' The Clinton administration in Washington was embarrassed and in summer 2000 refused to comment while in Rome at the US embassy a source which wished to remain unnamed declared: 'These are allegations that have come up over the last 20 years and there is absolutely nothing to them.' 102

3/03/2010 03:49:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Ganser provides pretty convincing sources for his claims but if anyone knows of countervailing evidence I'd be v. interested.

Or any other sources at all in fact - I have one or two but they're less detailed than Ganser, and their substantiated claims mostly constitute subsets of his.

3/03/2010 04:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

BTW on a 2nd-degree sidetrack, I'm not clear on how unitary the 'Brigades' were.

So who exactly do you think was infiltrated? I know you've read some bloke saying it happened that way, but what grounds have you got for believing they're credible?

I've read a lot about armed struggle groups in Italy - a long and complex story, which isn't all about the Red Brigades (in any of their different forms) - and the number of times I've thought "that's a bit odd, I wonder if something else was going on?" can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Piano Solo didn't happen. The Borghese coup didn't happen (and probably couldn't have happened). The Moro assassination did happen; it could have been prevented, and it could have done a lot more damage to the Christian Democrats than it did. But the idea that the Red Brigades were somehow working under orders simply defies belief. Apart from anything else, the supposed link-man with Gladio was arrested in 1981 and given six life-sentences; he was released from prison in 1994 and has been under house arrest ever since. Not looking after their own very well, are they?

3/03/2010 04:45:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Sources? For all I know you may be an expert on Gladio, but I don't know that, do I.

Are you familiar with Ganser? He is, FWIW, Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, not merely some bloke.

I'm interested in this supposed 'link man' though - any further reading on that (or any of this stuff)?

3/03/2010 04:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

And this

acting president of the DCI Aldo Moro found the courage to defeat the USA's veto

and this

The military secret service and acting Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti immediately blamed the left-wing terrorist organisation Red Brigades for the crime

...ugh. (Of course they blamed the BR - the BR (a) claimed responsibility for it and (b) did in fact do it (or so say multiple first-person accounts by ex-members).) One-dimensional accounts of motivation, massive over-reading of any dissent from the official account and omission of awkward facts - this really is conspiracy theory, and not in a good way. (There was no such thing as the DCI, by the way - the name of the party was Democrazia Cristiana.)

What really irritates me about accounts like this is their over-simplification. It reminds me of what William Blum says about the 1948 Italian election in his first CIA book, essentially saying that US interests didn't want the Communists to win so they bought the result they wanted. What you don't get from that is that the DC (which the US did fund lavishly) enjoyed enormous popularity in post-war Italy, for principled as well as unprincipled reasons; that the Communist/Socialist alliance never had a chance of gaining an overall majority (indeed, a Left alliance never has done); and that the Communists were well aware of this fact, and never even intended to form a government on their own. What Blum says isn't actually untrue, but it's terribly misleading - not least because it tends to reduce a complex and often tragic history to a tale of heroes (the locals) and villains (the US). I feel similarly about Ganser's account, judging from your extracts.

3/03/2010 05:05:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Re 'infiltrated at the top': as I've already pointed out, I actually wrote 'I'll have to check, but IIRC...' and I did check, and I hadn't recalled quite correctly. So there's not much more to say there.

I need to look at the Senate reports to get more info on why they concluded that the Red Brigades had been manipulated (not 'ordered'), but if you can shed any light, let me know.

3/03/2010 05:07:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

('Most probably' manipulated, that is, of course.)

3/03/2010 05:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

I'm not an expert on Gladio and don't claim to be. I'm the author of a book on the Italian radical left in the 1970s (see link), which includes quite a lot about the armed struggle groups.

If you're interested in those, I can recommend a few books. But I think there's a danger of fetishising "sources" - to take my example from my previous comment, Blum may well have a ton of sources saying things like "the US didn't want to take the risk of a Communist government in Italy" or "US funding of the Christian Democrats ensured them a landslide victory", and the statements they make may all be correct. The existence of the sources doesn't prove his interpretation of those sources correct - a point which I think goes in spades for Ganser.

3/03/2010 05:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

He is, FWIW, Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, not merely some bloke.

I was unclear. My point was that if you don't already have some kind of grounding in what the Red Brigades were and did, you've got no way of applying a reality-check or a bullshit-detector to statements about the Red Brigades. It's not about whether or not Ganser has qualifications or whether or not he shows his sources; it's about whether you can rely on what Ganser (or anyone) tells you about a subject you don't know about. Clearly, I don't believe you can.

3/03/2010 11:54:00 PM  
Blogger Jeremy W. said...

But you apparently don't know about the author's knowledge of the Red Brigades or his sources etc. So your knowledge of the subject may well be defective/incomplete (he may have new sources you have never read for example). I might know a fair bit about a period of history but that doesn't mean I can dismiss out-of-the-blue a work by an apparently serious scholar (or at least one with an academic apparatus surrounding it) without actually examining it - not least when the conclusion is not obviously ridiculous! And in any case, Tim Wilkinson's statements were highly qualified and cautious.

3/04/2010 11:04:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Bloody hell. You go offline for a couple of days and come back to this.

Phil: it's about whether you can rely on what Ganser (or anyone) tells you about a subject you don't know about.

How rude! Well, what Jeremy W said, for a start - but only a start:

1. I'm not relying solely on Ganser, nor at all on unsupported assertions of his. Other spources I had used include a numebr of widely-available documentaries and news items. Of the books on my shelves, the recent collection Government of the Shadows: Parapolitics and Criminal Sovereignty (ed. Eric Wilson), in particular Ola Tunander's contribution, reports some relevant info. There may well be some selection bias in my choice of reading (I don't have unlimited time and patience to trawl through official histories etc), but I'm at least well-aware of that possibility and try not to fall prey to it. I'm more interested in 'conspiracy' discourse itself, not least because researching clandestine politics is so bloody difficult.

2. how else are you supposed to find out about remote events except by listening to what other people say about it? How did you find out about this stuff? I'm sure you didn't interview the RBs yourself. Of course one can always read and find out more, and subsequent info may change one's credences, but there is no magic threshhold that distinguishes the fully- from the ill- informed (and on Gladio, I'm not sufre you would fall into the former category anyway).

I think there's a danger of fetishising "sources" - the statements they make may all be correct. The existence of the sources doesn't prove his interpretation of those sources correct

Are you saying sources of information are sources of the information they are sources of, and not of some other information that they are not sources of? If so, and if anyone were in danger of losing track of that fact, and if that's what you mean by 'fetishising 'sources', then I'd agree with you. Otherwise, I'd just think you were blowing some rather insulting hot air.

3/07/2010 02:58:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

In fact, chum, I've finally had enough of humouring your petulant and supercilious intervention. You seem in your own mind to be pulling rank:

TW: I'll have to check in e.g. Ganser when I get home, but IIRC, the Red Brigades were 'infiltrated at the top' , i.e. being run by, the NATO/Gladio/P2/Fascist lot - not to be confused with the (Italian) State.

PH: anyone who asserts that the Red Brigades were infiltrated at the top forfeits any claim on my attention, I'm afraid.

and more importantly, the casual observer may have got the impression you have established a right to do so. I've been as conciliatory as in good conscience I can:

yes, sorry that was a too hasty summary was done from memory, and rather irresponsible even for blog comments

and perhaps a bit too ready to give the appearance of deferring to your ex cathedra pronouncements:

I did check, and I hadn't recalled quite correctly.

largely because I didn't want to have to go off on this tangent. I think I'll have to now, because your perfunctory and contemptuous remarks, left unchallenged will leave me looking like a bit of a Phil D'Bap, which I can cope with personally but would tend to undermine the efforts I've put in so far here in particular, and in general what I laughingly call my web reputation management strategy. Particularly since you've included the explicit accusation of uncritically accepting Conspiracy Theory. (At least had the good grace to accept the need to specify - if only formally - that you meant CT in a bad way).

I'm aware, even if you're not, that there's always the possibility of learning more and even changing one's view. I've asked for further information several times (not something it has seemingly occurred to you to do):

if anyone knows of countervailing evidence I'd be v. interested. Or any other sources at all in fact

Sources? For all I know you may be an expert on Gladio, but I don't know that, do I. Are you familiar with Ganser?...I'm interested in this supposed 'link man' though - any further reading on that (or any of this stuff)?

I need to look at the Senate reports to get more info on why they concluded that the Red Brigades had ['Most probably'] been manipulated (not 'ordered'), but if you can shed any light, let me know...

Little constructive comment has been forthcoming, and when I've been earnest enough to actually (gasp!) admit that there's something I don't know:

I'm not clear on how unitary the 'Brigades' were. Any clarification welcomed gratefully.

You've treated it as a sign of weakness to be expoited as though you'd extracted a terribly damaging admission:

So who exactly do you think was infiltrated? I know you've read some bloke saying it happened that way, but what grounds have you got for believing they're credible?

I'll have to go to the trouble of providing some further grounds now, beside the ones already offered (and unacknowledged by you).

3/07/2010 03:00:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

The point of all this is not to whinge but to explain why I take you to be behaving like an Aaronovitch and therefore intend to treat you like one. They don't, as the example of the silent 'Phil D'Bap' demonstrates, like it up 'em.

(I am fucking annoyed actually. I'm not pretending that my contribution to the thread constitutes a great achievement, but I've gone to a lot more trouble over it than I initially intended, and you have now turned up and curled off a steaming great spoiler all over it, just as I was about to add a few afterthoughts before retiring reasonably satisfied with my work.)

So by way of explaining how my attitude could possibly be justified, let me make it quite clear where I think you're coming from, before I take apart your comments, in particular those traducing a book you haven't read.

3/07/2010 03:02:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

This passage from Jeffrey M. Bale pretty well sets the scene:

The mere mention of the word 'conspiracy' seems to set off an internal alarm bell which causes scholars to close their minds in order to avoid cognitive dissonance and possible unpleasantness, since the popular image of conspiracy both fundamentally challenges the conception most educated, sophisticated people have about how the world operates and reminds them of the horrible persecutions that absurd and unfounded conspiracy theories have precipitated or sustained in the past. So strong is this prejudice among academics that even when clear evidence of a plot is inadvertently discovered in the course of their own research, they frequently feel compelled, either out of a sense of embarrassment or a desire to defuse anticipated criticism, to preface their account of it by ostentatiously disclaiming a belief in conspiracies. (1)

They then often attempt to downplay the significance of the plotting they have uncovered. To do otherwise, that is, to make a serious effort to incorporate the documented activities of conspiratorial groups into their general political or historical analyses, would force them to stretch their mental horizons beyond customary bounds and, not infrequently, delve even further into certain sordid and politically sensitive topics. Most academic researchers clearly prefer to ignore the implications of conspiratorial politics altogether rather than deal directly with such controversial matters.

A number of complex cultural and historical factors contribute to this reflexive and unwarranted reaction, but it is perhaps most often the direct result of a simple failure to distinguish between 'conspiracy theories' in the strict sense of the term, which are essentially elaborate fables even though they may well be based upon a kernel of truth, and the activities of actual clandestine and covert political groups, which are a common feature of modern politics. For this and other reasons, serious research into genuine conspiratorial networks has at worst been suppressed, as a rule been discouraged, and at best been looked upon with condescension by the academic community. (2) An entire dimension of political history and contemporary politics has thus been consistently neglected. (3)

For decades scholars interested in politics have directed their attention toward explicating and evaluating the merits of various political theories, or toward analyzing the more conventional, formal, and overt aspects of practical politics. Even a cursory examination of standard social science bibliographies reveals that tens of thousands of books and articles have been written about staple subjects such as the structure and functioning of government bureaucracies, voting patterns and electoral results, parliamentary procedures and activities, party organizations and factions, the impact of constitutional provisions or laws, and the like. In marked contrast, only a handful of scholarly publications have been devoted to the general theme of political conspiracies--as opposed to popular anti-conspiracy treatises, which are very numerous, and specific case studies of events in which conspiratorial groups have played some role -- and virtually all of these concern themselves with the deleterious social impact of the 'paranoid style' of thought manifested in classic conspiracy theories rather than the characteristic features of real conspiratorial politics. (4)

Only the academic literature dealing with specialized topics like espionage, covert action, political corruption, terrorism, and revolutionary warfare touches upon clandestine and covert political activities on a more or less regular basis, probably because such activities cannot be avoided when dealing with these topics. But the analyses and information contained therein are rarely incorporated into standard works of history and social science, and much of that specialized literature is itself unsatisfactory.

3/07/2010 03:03:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

(selected notes, the first being the anecdote I mentioned earlier but couldn't place and tentatively attributed to Ramsay):

2. The word 'suppress' is not too strong here. I personally know of at least one case in which a very bright graduate student at a prestigious East Coast university was unceremoniously told by his advisor that if he wanted to write a Ph.D. thesis on an interesting historical example of conspiratorial politics he would have to go elsewhere to do so. He ended up leaving academia altogether and became a professional journalist, in which capacity he has produced a number of interesting books and articles.

3. Complaints about this general academic neglect have often been made by those few scholars who have done research on key aspects of covert and clandestine politics which are directly relevant to this study. See, for example, Gary Marx, 'Thoughts on a Neglected Category of Social Movement Participant: The Agent Provocateur and the Informant', American Journal of Sociology 80:2 (September 1974), especially pp. 402-3. One of the few dissertations dealing directly with this topic, though not in a particularly skilful fashion, is Frederick A. Hoffman, 'Secret Roles and Provocation: Covert Operations in Movements for social Change' (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation: UCLA Sociology Department, 1979). There are, of course, some excellent academic studies which have given due weight to these matters--for example, Nurit Schleifman, Undercover Agents in the Russian Revolutionary Movement: The SR Party, 1902-1914 (Basingstoke: Macmillan/ St. Anthony's College, 1988); and Jean-Paul Brunet, La police de l'ombre: Indicateurs et provocateurs dans la France contemporaine (Paris: Seuil, 1990)--but such studies are unfortunately few and far between.

3/07/2010 03:03:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

That's the milieu you're operating in, and the kind of tendency you're exhibiting. Now you are obviously not an expert on Gladio, nor it would appear even very well-acquainted with the subject. How can this be, when you've read a lot about armed struggle groups in Italy?

Well, you describe that as a long and complex story, which isn't all about the Red Brigades (in any of their different forms. The 'story' you're interested in (and committed to) is made clear in the preface to your book:

3/07/2010 03:04:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

FARE FIGHT IN MILAN

A tube occupation one Saturday in October went like this ... On arrival one comrade walked through the ticket barrier, to be stopped by the ticket controller. Several others appeared to give support to the first, and this exchange took place: 'This is a demonstration against the proposed fare increases. It is not a violent demonstration so please stay calm.' 'All right, but I must go and report it.' 'Look! we said a peaceful demonstration, but not a pacifist one, so just make yourself comfortable and stay put.' By now other comrades had succeeded in blocking all the ticket machines with bits of metal, plastic and generous helpings of glue. Others were giving out leaflets and others inviting people through the barriers for free.
...
While the Lega Libertaria recognise many other areas of struggle that need to be fought and won, Milan's anarchists and libertarians are determined to make these liberatory actions a daily feature of the city's life until everyone rides for free.

I first read this news story in December 1977, when it appeared in the 'anarchist/anarca-feminist monthly' Zero. Even in that context it seemed like a bulletin from another planet. I was taken aback by the group's unapologetically forceful version of non-violent direct action, and by its goal, which seemed at once surprisingly mundane and wildly utopian. At the same time I was fascinated by the glimpse of a seething pool of competing radical groups, from Leninists to the enigmatic 'Indians', all united in the cause of cutting the cost of living through wildcat sabotage.

Years later, studying Italian politics, I remembered the Milan tube action and wondered if the literature could tell me how things had turned out. I couldn't find much on the period in English,[not a problem Ganser probably suffers from since he reads five European languages] but my attention was caught by Sidney Tarrow's study of an earlier Italian 'protest cycle'. Tarrow showed how, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a wave of contentious and disorderly activism spread across the country before being neutralised and absorbed into the political mainstream.

3/07/2010 03:04:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

That is not the 'story' Ganser (nor Willan, Rowse, Francovitch, Ferraresi, Müller, Sen. Pellegrino, Faenza, Coglitore, Collin, Brozzu-Gentile, etc. etc.) is interested in, which is concerned with a less parochial story of the serious professionals in political violence who were involved in the US/NATO intervention (if that is not too feeble a word) in domestic politics across Europe. Ganser deals with 'stay-behinds' in 13 European countries - leaving the neutrals for another book).

(BTW, the international dimension may explain Ganser's use of 'DCI', expanded in the glossary of abbreviations as 'Democrazia Christiania Italiana' (yes, he or someone has used a 'CH' there though Ganser doesn't - nor the clarifying 'Italia[na]' when introducing the abbreviation ) for 'Christian Democratic Party', the correct verbose form he occasionally uses.)

Your book - and relevant expertise - is (AFAICT) centred on the whole range of leftist agititators and protestors, with the red brigades lying at one extreme of the spectrum. The 'story' you are telling is a sociological model overlaid on what you seem to take to be (and, for your purposes, most of the time may as well be) transparent political and social processes. You're at least as interested in arranging the facts inside a 'cycle of protest' outline as in discovering what those facts really are. This looks to me like an instance of the trend (seen in Chomsky and Marxian analyses, as well as Popper's 'Invisible Hand' propaganda) for theorists to reject conspiratorial explanations in part because they upset the attempt to impose unified models.

Of course your subject matter involves conspiratorial activity by protestors, but it's a case of the 'thus far and no further' approach in connection with which I mentioned Gladio in the first place. The Cops-and-Robbers brand of conspiratorial behaviour you are interested in is quite straighforward and doesn;t involve the kind of convoluted intrigues that are the norm in clandestine politics. Facts which would reveal aspects of anti-communist action to take a form other than fairly openly observable repression or co-option by (relatively) surface-level political actors are going to be rather unwelcome and certainly not something to be sought out.

That would explain how you could provide this account:

basically there were two types of terrorist killing in Italy between 1969 and 1980: a few unclaimed mass killings carried out by neo-fascists with dodgy connections, and a larger number of targeted assassinations carried out by left-wing groups including but not limited to the Red Brigades. The state did try to lay the mass killings off on anarchists, but not on the Red Brigades as far as I know

Which appears to be blatantly wrong on almost any half-way reasonable understanding of the burden and standard of proof involved, as well as misleading (neo-fascists with dodgy connections?). And this appears to arise from the assumption of a massively oversimplified 'story'.


Given what is known about P2/ON/Gladio/etc to a degree of certainty which must if anything can qualify it as 'proven' (again, the presumption/burden of proof/'scepticism about what?' issue looms here, though you don't seem to recognise it), and given the degree of intrigue and criminality endemic in Italian politics since long before the state of Italy existed, I'm afraid your comment the number of times I've thought "that's a bit odd, I wonder if something else was going on?" can be counted on the fingers of one hand tells us more about you than about any wider reality.

3/07/2010 03:06:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Perhaps because you are coming from the perspective of the Italian Left, and judging by the above, with perhaps a rather superficial (pre)conception of the processes involved in Italian politics-in-the-broad-sense, your points are in many cases ill-conceived and inadequate. For example, (1) bona fide members of the PCI and RB (a) would not necessarily be in a better position than anyone else to know about Gladio, and (b) are highly unlikely to have been aware of any (successful) infiltrators at the time - by the very nature of infiltration.

On your targeting of Blum as a proxy for Ganser (a point which I think goes in spades for Ganser...I feel similarly about Ganser's account, judging from your extracts), I'll just point out first that my extracts were explicitly not intended to put a case, for Ganser or anything else (for general consumption rather than directed at Phil...some snippets from Ganser's densely scandalous NATO's Secret Armies follow. For the references and the bits in between, buy the book.) but then you don't seem to be very sensitive to this kind of caveat or qualification.

Specifically and substantively: you object to Blum in terms which I can identify as inadequate without reference to Blum's work itself:

It reminds me of what William Blum says about the 1948 Italian election in his first CIA book, essentially saying that US interests didn't want the Communists to win so they bought the result they wanted. What you don't get from that is that the DC (which the US did fund lavishly) enjoyed enormous popularity in post-war Italy, for principled as well as unprincipled reasons; that the Communist/Socialist alliance never had a chance of gaining an overall majority (indeed, a Left alliance never has done); and that the Communists were well aware of this fact, and never even intended to form a government on their own. What Blum says isn't actually untrue, but it's terribly misleading - not least because it tends to reduce a complex and often tragic history to a tale of heroes (the locals) and villains (the US)


A. Maybe Blum does 'essentially' say that - i.e. your simplified interpretation of his thrust does. Unfortunately there is no clear 'essence' described here: 'buying' the result they wanted might mean: buying a way round the ballot box - which you, at least, suggest wasn't adequately done - or by using bribery or other appeal to 'unprincipled' reasons to engender support, or just by lavishly funding the party, thus enabling it to push 'principled' reasons. Or a combination of the last two which you seem to suggest was the method used. "Buying the result they wanted' is also ambiguous since it doesn't specify whether the purchase was in the event instrumental in the result's coming about. If you're primarily pursueing a parochial interest in Italian politics the main question may be whether the CIA successfully altered its course; if in the methods, motives and global strategy of NATO powers, the question is whether they tried to. But the basic point is that it looks very much as though you are first simplifying the position, then criticising it as too simple. (So far, that is, as it's possible to tell given your complacent failure to provide any detail, as if giving a basic introductory lecture to a class of note-scribblers.)

B. PCI et al might not have expected to be able to gain power 'on their own', but (1) the CIA under e.g. Angleton were (a) subject to some pretty feverish worse-case-ism, (b) clearly regarded any communist element in the government as a serious threat (and btw continued to do so in 1974) and (c) are not inclined to take chances; (2) for all I know, or you have said, this might have been because they were realistic about the strength of the forces ranged against them, including the CIA creature that I'll call the DCI.

3/07/2010 03:07:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

There's a general point here about motive, one which Aaronovitch makes some reasonable points about (though not particularly well, and of course restricting the scope of his remarks to the caricatured Conspiracist):

Cui bono?

...the conspiracy theorist's use of the cui bono? (who benefits?) question to establish motive. If you can make a case that X, in some way and at some time, derived some benefit out of an event, no matter how much X may have declared their opposition to it, then you are justified in asking whether X might not have been in some way involved. That's the way the planets move, the way the world is...

'cui bono?' is a well-established and useful investigatory device in many circumstances (because of course lots of things do succeed as planned). When a crime has evidently been committed, actual beneficiaries may be considered to be among the suspects. The tentative suspicion generated by the heuristic can of course be defeated very quickly in many cases (though not normally simply on the grounds that the suspect has declared their opposition to the crime!)

Suspicion generated will stand only if an actual motive can be made out, which means that the outcome must be beneficial by the suspect's own lights, must be something that the suspect would have expected to arise from the suspected actions, and must not be outweighed by costs, also subjective, of said action. Apparent benefit is a rough guide to motive, but neither necessary nor sufficient for it.

Aaronovitch then goes off track for a bit, attacking a dictum of a George Seldes (one which I, at any rate, have never seen quoted before) on the topic of actual discernible motive, rather than the bare fact of receiving a benefit:

An agreeably simple and often-quoted cui bono? sentiment was formulated by the late George Seldes, an American muckraking jour-nalist. 'If you look for the social-economic motive,' Seldes wrote, 'you will not have to wait for history to tell you what was propaganda and what was truth.' The problem with this seductive proposition is that it is hopelessly reductionist, completely failing to appreciate that people act from many other motives. It rejects the accidental, the complex, the unforeseen or the ideological, substituting an unpredictable economic outcome as the test of a subjective intention...

It's not clear from this uncontextualised fragment that Seldes means to suggest that all motives are 'social-economic' or 'economic'. Aaronovitch is correct though in the points he is trying to make, however misplaced they may be in this context.

That is where over-schematising gets you. A further problem with the cui bono? line is that it assumes the supposed protagonist knows at the outset what is going to happen.

Let Aaronovitch, the arch-prioritiser of dubious principles over hard evidence, get away with his 'schematising' dig, and ignore the double-counting involved in adding this 'further' point. Instead marvel briefly in his achievement in making a broadly correct observation...

But as one would expect given his single-minded attack on 'conspiracism', he fails to note that the failure to approach motive from a subjective perspective can be exhibited by those seeking to eliminate suspects, too. And Phil's arguments about the CIA (supposedly) not needing (on an objective assessment and with the benefit of hindsight) to 'intervene' in Italian electoral politics are a good example.

3/07/2010 03:09:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

BTW just to provide another passage from Ganser's book that I hadn't immediately retrieved, showing that the Senate commission did specifically suspect (or were very thorough in pretending to) that the Red Brigades had been infiltrated, though not from this account necessarily at the top:

In March 1995 the Italian Senate commission headed by Senator Giovanni Pellegrino after having investigated Gladio and the massacres in Italy placed a FOIA request with the CIA. The Italian Senators asked the CIA for all records relating to the Red Brigades and the Moro affair in order to find out whether the CIA according to the Gladio domestic control task had indeed infiltrated the Red Brigades before they killed former Italian Prime Minister and leader of the DCI Aldo Moro in 1978. Refusing to cooperate, the CIA raised FOIA exemptions BI and B3 and in May 1995 declined all data and responded that it ,can neither confirm nor deny the existence of CIA documentation concerning your inquiry'. The Italian press stressed how 'embarrassing' this was and headlined: 'The CIA has rejected the request to collaborate with the Parliamentary Commission on the mysteries of the kidnapping. Moro, a state secret for the USA.'49

3/07/2010 03:10:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

On Moretti (I have assumed he means Moretti since he hasn't responded to my request for clarification)Phil says: Apart from anything else, the supposed link-man with Gladio was arrested in 1981 and given six life-sentences; he was released from prison in 1994 and has been under house arrest ever since. Not looking after their own very well, are they?

First this seems to manifest the kind of doxastic inflation common enough from the anti-CT tendency in pursuit of straw men. "There is no all-powerful conspiracy, because look, a failure". (Of course the all-powerful have no need for secrecy either, as Bill Burroughs of all people points out: "Don't let them see us; don't tell them what we are doing": are these the words of the all-powerful boards and syndicates?)

Second, it's a weak point - there are all kinds of reasons why a faithful servant of the CIA et al might be hung out to dry, so his imprisonment is not good evidence against Moretti's being such. Vinciguerra undoubtedly was a faihtful servant of the Gladio et al. axis, and he had the book thrown at him (unusually for someone in such a position, for whom impunity was the rule) - probably among other possible reasons because his protection was withdrawn after he shot his mouth off about Gladio in 1982, revelations which were largely ignored until 1990.

In fact I should have thought the fact that a man (Moretti) with a number of life sentences for muredring the head of government would spend only ten years or so in gaol, including time served pre-conviction, is at least as odd as the idea that the parallel state might not protect him completely.

But all such speculation is tenuous and doesn't carry much weight beside more direct evidence such as reports that special forces ammo and an outside assassin were used, Moretti's choice of HQ in a Secret Service building, the testimony of Maletti and D'Amato, the BR's apparent knowledge of Moro's route, and much more...

3/07/2010 03:11:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Just a few more specific points:

Your utterly unfounded criticism of Ganser: One-dimensional accounts of motivation, massive over-reading of any dissent from the official account and omission of awkward facts - this really is conspiracy theory, and not in a good way. is, er, utterly unfounded.

Your objection to this: acting president of the DCI Aldo Moro found the courage to defeat the USA's veto seems to suppose it's just made up. In fact there is a good deal of evidence for this reading, including but not limited to Ganser's report of the testimony of Moro's wife about the relevant conversation. And whether the implication about Moro's motive is 'one-dimensional' or not, that has no relevance to the important issues about Gladio, has it.

The military secret service and acting Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti immediately blamed the left-wing terrorist organisation Red Brigades for the crime

...ugh. (Of course they blamed the BR - the BR (a) claimed responsibility for it and (b) did in fact do it (or so say multiple first-person accounts by ex-members).


(a): I'm not sure about this and haven't checked whether it holds up, but I read the operative word as being immediately - i.e., perhaps before the RB had claimed such responsibility. (b) this is irrelevant as well as misleading. Ganser does not suggest that the kidnap was not carried out by the RB.

Piano Solo didn't happen. The Borghese coup didn't happen (and probably couldn't have happened). The Moro assassination did happen; it could have been prevented, and it could have done a lot more damage to the Christian Democrats than it did. But the idea that the Red Brigades were somehow working under orders simply defies belief.

Piano Solo 'didn't happen' in the sense that the threatened force didn't need to be used. People who are mugged at knifepoint don't usually get stabbed either.

The Borghese coup indeed by all accounts didn't happen, but it was, it seems, poised to happen and apparently called off at the last minute - probably by a US controller.

And by 'defies belief' you seem to mean that you defy any such belief. That the Red Brigades were being used in order to end the Historic Compromise is a quite reasonable position and one I happen to subscribe to based on what I have been able to discover. You haven't provided any information to change that view.

3/07/2010 03:13:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Back on Voodoo Histories:

Spot the deliberate mistake in this anti-CT chestnut, pretty obviously ridiculous but surprisingly common. DA repeats it with only token qualification.

For example, hazarded Griffin, on the problem of why none of the thousands [Aaro's estimate - another favourite move] of conspirators had spoken out, 'the revisionists could reply, people raising this question have probably never experienced the kind of intimidation that can be brought to bear on individuals by threats of prosecution, or worse'.46 Here, of course, he was entering that inevitable circular plea of conspiracism, that the objections to the theory tended, if anything, to prove the theory right. The very fact that no one had talked could almost be seen as evidence of the sheer ruthlessness of the plotters. [emph mine]

3/07/2010 03:13:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

re: Tarrow's model.

RAND find it useful, at least as harmless padding, in assembling their 'terrorism' narrative. I think this suggests that it doesn't transgress the unspoken boundaries described by Bale, for example by examining the role of the secret or 'deep' state in provoking and carrying out violence for its own 'false flag' purposes.

Not a particularly strong point but I think it tends to locate Tarrow's account within the acceptable Gladio-ignoring tradition of terrorism scholarship.

3/07/2010 03:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

Bloody hell. You go offline for a couple of days and come back to this.

Couldn't have put it better myself.

Just to clarify, I'm not a conspiracy-denier in any shape or form. I've been reading Lobster (and occasionally contributing) since the late 80s. On the Italian scene more specifically, the first book I read was Willan's Puppetmasters - and before I read that I was well versed in the conspiracist reading of the Moro kidnapping, thanks to Debord and Sanguinetti. It's because of what I've read since then that I've come to the conclusion that it doesn't stand up.

And of course I'm aware that BR members were highly unlikely to have been aware of any (successful) infiltrators at the time - by the very nature of infiltration. My point wasn't that no BR members ever denounced an infiltrator - in fact one of the people who has been loudest in denouncing Moretti as an infiltrator is Alberto Franceschini, one of the founders of the BR (arrested in 1974). My point was simply that the history of the BR doesn't have a conspiracy-shaped hole in it.

Tarrow's an establishment liberal; his 'cycle of contention' is a model of how intransigent radical movements can do the world some good despite themselves, thanks to the the respectable political groups which sell them out. I've argued that the sociological mechanics of the cycle can be made to work, but without the implicit teleology - and in particular without the implicit assumption that anyone who got excluded must have been inherently unacceptable. (In short, I don't agree with Tarrow.)

A question for you:

basically there were two types of terrorist killing in Italy between 1969 and 1980: a few unclaimed mass killings carried out by neo-fascists with dodgy connections, and a larger number of targeted assassinations carried out by left-wing groups including but not limited to the Red Brigades.

In what way is that "blatantly wrong"? Were the mass killings of the period not carried out by neo-fascists with dodgy connections? Were (for instance) Alessandro Floris, Claudio Graziosi and Enrico Donati not killed by members of left-wing armed struggle groups? What's your proposition here?

3/07/2010 05:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

On reflection only one of those three was a 'targeted assassination' - the other two were people who got in the way - so you can have that point if you want it.

3/07/2010 05:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

My point was simply that the history of the BR doesn't have a conspiracy-shaped hole in it.

A couple of necessary qualifications:

The history of the BR doesn't in my opinion have a conspiracy-shaped hole in it. My opinion is based on fairly wide and reasonably open-minded reading, in the course of which I have come across several episodes which only really make sense on a conspiracist or parapolitical interpretation. I've also come across numerous allegations that a particular piece of evidence proves state complicity with the armed groups, and more than one complete theory of how the Red Brigades weren't what they seemed. I'm sceptical of any claim that a piece of evidence proves anything, and see no reason to believe any of the big theories. (Other people will tell you that the BR were part of a 'Red Gladio', organised by a clandestine section of the Communist Party with funding from Eastern Europe. They can cite evidence as well.)

Of course, anyone can say that their understanding of a particular event shows that there's no need for conspiracy theory; it's precisely the approach mainstream historians use to dismiss conspiracy theories in their pet areas. (Aaro takes this to a slightly self-parodic extreme, by defining 'conspiracy theory' as 'that which there is no need for in order to understand a historical event'.) But I'm not calling for less parapolitics, but better parapolitics. The Christian Democrat party machine was a rat's nest of parapolitics; there is a conspiracy-shaped hole in post-war Italian history, consisting of the conspiracy (or rather conspiracies) by which the Italian political class perpetuated itself, fought off competition & shared out the spoils (with a little help, and sometimes more than a little, from abroad).

To me, the test of a conspiracy theory (I don't use the term pejoratively) is whether it leaves the story simpler or more complicated. More complicated is good. What I react against in the big theories about the Red Brigades is precisely their tendency to simplify - some theories seem to start by finding an inconsistency in the official story, and end up by explaining away all the inconsistencies in their alternative story.

3/08/2010 10:57:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

I said: this account:

"basically there were two types of terrorist killing in Italy between 1969 and 1980: a few unclaimed mass killings carried out by neo-fascists with dodgy connections, and a larger number of targeted assassinations carried out by left-wing groups including but not limited to the Red Brigades. The state did try to lay the mass killings off on anarchists, but not on the Red Brigades as far as I know"

...appears to be blatantly wrong on almost any half-way reasonable understanding of the burden and standard of proof involved, as well as misleading (neo-fascists with dodgy connections?).


Billing for those points should probably have been reversed since the misleadingness of 'neo-fascists with dodgy connections' is probably more important than the less temperately expressed and in fact perhaps mildly tricky point about terrorist violence.

Re: the latter. I was thinking of the Sicilian Mafia, specifically the 1979 killings of Boris Giuliano and Cesare Terranova (and Giuseppe Russo in 1977). Tricky because (a) they're right at the edge of the specified period, and the campaign they were part of continued into the early 80s. (B) you might not consider them terrorist but instead Ordinary Decent Criminal activity, aimed at disrupting investigations. I don't think that's right, esp. if the BR murders are to count as terrorist.

You might say that the Giuliano murder was aimed at the non-terrorist goal of replacing him with a Mafia-friendly substitute. All the killings, though, had a generally deterrent as well as a disruptive function. The fact that Giuliano's replacement was a P2 member (as, it seems, was the superintendent both reported to) also btw tends to confirm the interconnections between the various politico-criminal organisations (Gelli reportedly was in direct contact with Stefano Bontate, high preist of another covered (lodge, The CIA it seems co-operated with both American and Sicilian Mafia connections for various purposes, e.g. the heroin trade out of Afghanistan in the 80s...this stuff just goes on and on...

There are also reports (most originating with the Ganser account given above) that secret state actors - specifically a bent forensic scientist - made some attempt to implicate the BR at least in supplying explosives for the Peteano attack, but this might be a garbled account of Casson's findings. Certainly the halfhearted attempt at a fit up was aimed at alleged members of a different group.

OK enough of the unedifying (and marginal) point-scoring. Sorry to have engaged in it at all.

3/09/2010 08:39:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

More interestingly (and less combatively):

The history of the BR doesn't in my opinion have a conspiracy-shaped hole in it.

But as you point out, Of course, anyone can say that their understanding of a particular event shows that there's no need for conspiracy theory; it's precisely the approach mainstream historians use to dismiss conspiracy theories in their pet areas. And I think part of the problem is a tendency to see conspiracy theses as performing an explanatory rather than merely descriptive function: if nothing to explain then no need for a conspiracy 'theory'. I think that's a mistake that tends to encourage all the usual psychobabble, false accusations of mythmaking, etc. It also plays a part in the presumption (sometimes expressed in the false guise of Occam's Razor) against conspiratorial accounts.

I'm sceptical of any claim that a piece of evidence proves anything I'm not sure about this: there's a difference between, on the one hand, the logico-semantic relationship between evidence and the facts it's evidence for and, on the other, the general fact that all empirical knowledge is, for all one knows, vulnerable to being undermined or defeated by further discoveries.

It may be that evidence never constitutes 'proof' in some (unrealistically) demanding sense, but that doesn't mean that some bits of evidence don't have fairly clear-cut consequences if accepted. The Holmes dictum about eliminating the impossible is a pretty good one, and is certainly implicitly used very widely (and correctly by all kinds of professional inference-drawers (in legal, scientific, historiographical contexts etc.). But if this scepticism just reflects a more modest observation about the common tendency to infer more than the evidence will bear, fair enough of course.

To me, the test of a conspiracy theory (I don't use the term pejoratively) is whether it leaves the story simpler or more complicated. More complicated is good. Again I don't think this kind of general approach can really be justified as a hard-and-fast rule. There are also sometimes problems with determining what is to be considered simple and what complex for these purposes: calling something a 'coincidence' for example sounds simple but if cashed out may involve an incredibly complicated combination of events. (Simple description does not indicate a simple underlying reality.) In any case and by (almost) any standard, reality is sometimes simple and sometimes complex. I suppose the observation may provide a reasonable rule of thumb for identifying silly theories, but I suspect it's more likely to mislead than help much (silly or plainly unjustified theories can generally be identified as silly etc. without reference to their simplicity or otherwise)

some theories seem to start by finding an inconsistency in the official story, and end up by explaining away all the inconsistencies in their alternative story.

Well certainly agree that's one tendency and (obviously, I suppose) not a good one. It's generally a case of trying to provide consplusions [typo retained] or a 'story' that's more detailed or firmly drawn than the evidence permits.

(btw I grant that my speculation about your possible skewed perspective etc has not reaqlly been borne out, so apologies so far as they're appropriate.)

3/09/2010 09:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

Fair - and interesting - point about the Mafia. I see the left-wing armed groups essentially as a rather specialised social movement - it's a useful & in some ways obvious perspective, given their personal, organisational & ideological connections with less violent radical movements - so I do tend to bracket out 'terrorist' attacks by organised crime. But they're very interesting & (of course) very, very dodgy.

Holmes was wrong, though - once you've eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however unlikely, must be... possible. It may be the only possibility, or there may be a range of possibilities that you haven't yet thought of. I take the point about reality sometimes being simple, but I do think that neat theories are a terrible temptation. Robin Ramsay has said that he got started on this stuff with the Gemstone File - Ari Onassis killed Kennedy, basically; dreadful pile of nonsense, but it all fits!

3/09/2010 09:56:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

On the Mafia, I would regard them as a (group of) political organisation(s) - size and power alone guarantee that. Certainly the original Sicilian version was a feudal power on the island, with entrenched ideology and all.

Relegating them to the category 'organised crime' doesn't really do it for me - after all, they're doing very political things by 'replacing' and 'removing' politicians, officials, etc. And there is an ideological (e.g. anti-communist) side to the mafia too. The fact that they are after filthy lucre doesn't achnge much - lots of politics (e.g. various business lobbies) is motivated by that, and even the most assiduous Cold Warriors got paid for their efforts.

-----

I agree about the dangers/temptations to oversimplification but basically the 'it's too simple' shortcut is still a shortcut - and I think the one basic principle of conspiracy (And any) research has to be there are no shortcuts.

(And the 'tendency to oversimplify' theory, regarded as positing a psychological fact that needs to be corrected for, is open to the Third Law - after all, stereotypically 'conspiratorial' thinking is as often accused of overcomplicating things ('there must be more to it than that'; 'ah, but what was really going on?').

--------------

Re Holmes - depends how finely you cut your possibilities. If P is impossible, not-P must be the case, but one can't necessarily infer any more detailed proposition. One example of a Holmes-like inference, which even has its own word, is the alibi.

A more general point I suppose is that not all evidence is equal - so speculation about motives etc isn't normally going to trump relatively 'hard' physical evidence for ordinary facts about what happened.

E.g. if David Kelly (say) couldn't have cut his own wrist then (given various standing facts) someone else must have - even if no-one can come up with a good explanation of why or exactly how.

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BTW - can you sghed any light on the Casson findings re Marco Morin's false testimony and whether BR were blamed at all? I think Ganser may have that wrong, but I can't find any corroboration either way.

3/10/2010 12:42:00 PM  

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