Friday, May 15, 2009

Two chapters in ...

... and it's actually quite a good book. I think readers ought to be aware that, which might not have come over from my preview and snap reaction, this is definitely not an unstructured rant like "What's Left?" or a cuttings job like "Waiting for the Etonians". It is actually a proper book. Aaro is a good writer and he has clearly done a lot of research on it over the last three years - I am still as concerned as I said I was about the non-appearance of any sensible conspiracy literature references, but he's done at least some hard time in the British Library checking up primary sources (I own three books about the Maud Allan Affair[1], but had not previously been aware of Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas's fascist newspaper, "Plain English", for example). I don't know how many AW readers are able to spend £17.99 on a book without wincing, but I think I would actually recommend it when it comes out in paperback.

The introduction is, frankly, embarrassing - it's the bit where Aaro sets out his general theory of conspiracies, favourably cites Daniel Pipes and gives his definition of what distinguishes a "conspiracy theory" from a genuine history of a conspiracy - the definition is quite literally, something where it subjectively seems unlikely to Aaro that a conspiratorial explanation is the right one. But then it gets onto the actual stuff and that's much better.

I'd forgotten that Aaro is a history buff - and is in general a much more rounded and less one-dimensional character than yer average Decent, and he knows how to build a story. The chapter on the origins and dissemination of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is excellent and has more or less everything in it that you might need to know. Particularly, Aaro is generous enough to provide you with ample evidence to undermine his whole thesis - in that although the Protocols is a story of a clearly fake conspiracy, the way in which it was brought into general circulation was by the specific and purposeful actions of individuals who concealed their actions.

This phenomenon whereby Aaro aims to demonstrate that there are no conspiracies by describing a big conspiracy becomes parodic in the next chapter, on the Soviet show trials. This one's such a hoolie of a counterexample that he does have to put a little bit of caveating at the end (basically, Stalin really did (probably) believe that there were Trotskyite plotters, so there's nothing conspiratorial about a massive operation to invent meetings which never happened, falsify confessions, brainwash and create the illusion of a vast international network which never existed). The chapter itself, though, rattles along and once more, gives about as good a capsule introduction to this secret politics episode as you're going to get.

Aaro even at one point describes the reaction of altogether too many western liberals, which was to say that the show trials were obviously genuine because, well, hey, how could anyone falsify so much evidence? It is an almost perfect template for the later invention of Decency, right down to the repulsive cheerleading for a foreign imperial power which "invents its own reality".

All of which sounds like I'm having a go at Aaro, which I am, because I still don't like his thesis or his politics. But I'm not being sarcastic or trying to damn the book with faint praise; I do think that, if approached critically rather than credulously and in awareness of its agenda, it's a very good piece of work. And frankly, in anything to do with the conspiracy literature, you had better read everything "critically rather than credulous and in awareness of its agenda", or you'll end up believing an awful lot of crap.

I am now halfway through the third chapter and it's not as good - I don't really know very much about the Pearl Harbor debates, but I get the strong impression that Aaro is portraying the controversy over Robert Stinnett's book as more one-sided than it really was - he certainly takes a rather partial view of how widespread US popular support for entry into the Second World War was. But now he's started on the HUAC and McCarthy redhunts and I expect that this will be much better.

[1] A wee belter of a conspiracy story btw - it is a bit obscure and I don't want to come over like one of those guys who can't believe that "Kooks" wasn't on the Bowie Greatest Hits album, but any AW readers interested in this sort of thing ought to keep an eye out for "Oscar Wilde's Last Stand" by Philip Hoare, in second hand bookshops. It has everything - Lloyd George, a maniac MP who built his own aeroplane, secret books of treason, the Cult of the Clitoris, General Haig and an attempt to carry out a coup through the unusual method of libelling the world's most famous stripper. Everyone in wartime London was intriguing to try and destroy everyone else.


Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

Just a little thing, which I knoiw I've said repeatedly on here:

I'd forgotten that Aaro is a history buff but crucially, he's not a historian, even after the publication of this book.

5/15/2009 01:52:00 PM  
Blogger the management said...

He's not a professional historian, but he did, for example, write that series on the Romans. In any case, very few proper historians write on conspiracy matters (Kathy Olmsted is the only one I can think of).

5/15/2009 02:12:00 PM  
Anonymous belle le triste said...

is that philip hoare conspiracy the one that shapes the second book in the pat barker "regeneration" trilogy? ("the eye in the door" i think it's called: the MP had a "little black book" with the names of all the homosexuals who were running and ruining england for the "other side") (this is from memory, as if i don't have access to google)

5/15/2009 02:33:00 PM  
Anonymous belle le triste said...

ooh i'm right -- well done my friday-afternoon memory: noel pemberton billing was the mp's name and the plane he built was called "nighthawk" (also the name of a character in watchmen: plot is thickening...)

5/15/2009 02:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill Rubenstein's another. Also an object-lesson in why not to do it: the abyss stared him out, intelligent-design stylee.

By the way, the career of the "maniac MP who built his own aeroplane" is often alluded to on Brett Holman's blog, Airminded. Forex:

Chris Williams

5/15/2009 03:18:00 PM  
Blogger ydue said...

Aaro's book promotional talk at the LSE is available as a podcast now, if anyone is interested.

5/15/2009 03:41:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Noted ironically:

David Aaronovitch, not for the first time, a lone voice of sanity.
Dave, London, UK
DA's comments. I know a 'Dave' in London.

"a lone voice of sanity" is perhaps overstating things a bit.

BTW, does DA's book mention that DA actually is - literally - "Son of Sam"?

5/15/2009 09:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

Why the irrelevant Normblog link? And - as I've looked at it now - why does Norm have to be such a violator of the Prime Directive? Margolyes fairly clearly isn't saying that her willingness to get involved with it is how she knows the play isn't anti-semitic.

5/15/2009 10:13:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew R. X. Dentith said...

In re Roman Conspiracies I would recommend Victoria Pagan's 'Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History.'

5/16/2009 05:46:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5/17/2009 03:51:00 AM  
Blogger the management said...

I've finished it now. To be honest it got a bit meh as it went on. The Kennedy stuff relied very heavily on testimony from Oswald's wife, who is generally regarded by nearly everyone except Gerald Posner as not being a very reliable witness. And he did a whole big deal about all the other would-be Presidential assassins which really wasn't convincing - yes, there are a lot of nuts out there who want to shoot Presidents, but there really wasn't a massive great thick CIA file on John Hinckley. Then it's blah blah Diana, the Beatles, the Sex Pistols the end. I do think that Diana and Marilyn conspiracy theories were given an absolutely undue prominence (and Hilda Murrell too, which is fucking inconsequential compared to, say, the Wilson Plots and the Peter Wright affair), given what was left out. And the chapter about Norman Baker was unbelievably wankerish.

5/17/2009 12:35:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

I still haven't managed to find a copy in a single bookshop in london, to leaf through (I'd like to read the relativism stuff, though I'm sure you've done a good job of summarizing it).

He's not a professional historian, but he did, for example, write that series on the Romans. In any case, very few proper historians write on conspiracy matters (Kathy Olmsted is the only one I can think of).
I guess the reason why I keep coming back to this is because no serious, professional historian in the present day would be allowed to get away with such obvious sleight of hand about, for example, relativism, and they'd have to work a bit harder on an actual definition of 'conspiracy theory'.

And i guess that links to the other thing you say - that very few historians work on conspiracy in and of itself, because it is, essentially, impossible to pin down (as the Protocols example makes apparent), and also because the actual destructive influence of genuinely untrue conspiracy theories on the study of history (as opposed to the understanding of history of particular individuals with no real trainnig in it) is, contrary to what Aaro might claim, not all that big.

Does he mention much about the role of the media in all of this? I know he mentions a historical documentary on 'The Holy Blood' nonsense, but to use the Iraq example, aren't the media traditionally meant to question the Official Narratives? I know Aaro's made a career out of not doing that, but still...

Also, I wonder where this leaves us with a news story i heard about on the radio today - Madeline McCann...

5/17/2009 01:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

the Beatles,Paul is dead?

the Sex PistolsBut Sid is dead.

Speaking of dead musicians, I don't suppose he mentioned my namesake?

(Captcha: '4real'.)

(No, not really.)

5/17/2009 02:12:00 PM  
Blogger the management said...

No, sorry, that was a private joke of mine - when Ken Burns mammoth "Jazz" miniseries was on television, my wife used to express frustration with its glacial pace by occasionally saying "andthentherewasthebeatlesandthesexpistolstheend", which I have since taken up as a useful term for anything that basically need to be skimmed through because it's not all that interesting.

5/17/2009 02:24:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

BB, I hope you're not going to let your final assessment remain confined to a comment. I'd hate to think that someone might be persuaded to buy the thing on the basis of the opening sentence of your post, which is as misleadingly unrepresentative as an A. Campbell exec summary.

(Note to those 'vulgar' CTists preoccupied with private intention and motive: that last remark doesn't - obviously - mean I am accusing BB of metanoiac false headlining a la Campbell, Dersh on the Iraq war etc. I think it's just the localised deflationary effect whereby low expectations can lead to lowered standards.)

BTW any comment on the snide ad hom stuff about hysteria, paranoia etc?

5/17/2009 05:34:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

P.S. Will you now please rethink re "I would actually recommend it when it comes out in paperback", if only to couterbalance the uniformly good (and uniformly uniform) reviews in all the old familiar places...

5/17/2009 05:39:00 PM  
Anonymous belle le triste said...

hilda murrell was actually a friend of my family -- i met her several times when i was small -- and to be honest the family feeling was absolutely that the "deep politics" reading was pure rubbish... hm had a very distraught relative who (out of grief and/or rage)* pushed a conspiracy line very heavily, and was the sort of articulate and obsessive person who knew how to get journalists juiced, but most local people really did feel it was just a weird and horrible but otherwise common-or-garden opportunistic burglary/assault**

*there was a LOT to be angry about re the lamentably unprofessional police investigation, but it was all utterly pro forma police uselessness
**ok plainly the above is anecdata wildly skewed by personal subjectivity (plus i was a kid at the time, and the relevant family are no longer around to ask), plus it happened in a part of the country not known for its anti-establishment radicalism, but colour me utterly unconvinced she was "taken out", even by by mistake, as some kind of threat to something

5/17/2009 05:48:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

Didn't something come out recently that suggested she might have been offed, though?

5/17/2009 07:41:00 PM  
Blogger the management said...

No, not really - the thing is though that as always with these things, the interesting bit is not the whodunnit (which turned out to be, as blt says, a pretty sad and ordinary affair), but the stuff that got turned up in the process of looking for it. Nobody's really trying to suggest that there weren't all sorts of illegal investigations of CND members by the security services, or that the Windscale popwer plant didn't employ private detective agencies owned by South African nazis and perverts - it's just that because Tam Dalyell was apparently wrong about this one murder, we're all meant to just think the rest of the stuff was OK.

Tom - I don't know, I'm going to read it again. I think that the quality did drop off quite noticeably after the first two chapters, but maybe I was just in a frustrated mood while reading it. I'm going to write a proper review but it might be a week or two in coming.

5/17/2009 08:09:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Talk of Mrs Oswald and the Murrell family reminds me of the Fry & Laurie sketch in which (if I remember the details correctly) the relative of a crime victim upbraids a reporter for asking him about sentencing (or something), on the grounds that he is about the least objective person you could ask.

Not quite the same thing, of course, but certainly relatives (and neighbours!) don't necessarily have any special insight into whether someone was killed.

BL is willing to attribute conspiracy suspicions to emotion. But as with attempts to discredit so-called CTs using cod psychology, a corresponding explanation can be generated which cuts the other way. Why not ascribe a relative's rejection of a conspiracy explanation to emotional/extra-rational factors?
An obvious and plausible example: the understandable desire (conscious or not, or partly) to 'draw a line' under the death of a close relative. That certainly seems a plausible account of, e.g. Mrs David Kelly's motivation - whether she happens to be correct or not.

Another factor of course is that if someone did suspect foul play, they would (and should) be extremely concerned for their own well-being.

5/17/2009 08:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

*there was a LOT to be angry about re the lamentably unprofessional police investigation, but it was all utterly pro forma police uselessnessFWIW I've seen exactly that claim made about the Stephen Lawrence investigation - a bit of digging turned up a young white kid who'd been killed in non-racist but otherwise similar circumstances at around the same time, and whose murder investigation was ballsed up in very similar ways. Macpherson could easily not have happened. (Or perhaps not 'easily' - the time was right for Macpherson or something like it.)

5/17/2009 08:16:00 PM  
Blogger the management said...

sorry, by "Tom", I mean "Tim" - profoundest apologies.

5/17/2009 08:24:00 PM  
Blogger the management said...

the Stephen Lawrence investigationa minor piece of conspiracy theory here - reading between the lines of that trial, it's clear that the Met were prepared to take on the Macpherson critique, partly because as Phil says, the time was right, but partly because it was a lot less embarrassing to cop to a charge of "institutional" racism that wasn't really anybody's fault, than to seriously address the total corruption of the South East London force by the Kenneth Noyes gang.

5/17/2009 08:26:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

BB - no prob re moniker.

Agree on the "institutional racism" cop-out. Seems they meant something more like "widespread and habitual racism manifested largely through lack of concern." Certainly no systemic factor was identified which could give rise to 'emergent' or 'merely functional' racism, i.e. racism which occurs only at the organisational and not the individual level.

A similar issue arises with 'radical left' critics of CTs like Chomsky, who regard them 1. as a distraction, 2. as inaccurate, because the real cause of various ills lies in the system. C has said 'who cares' about 9-11 CTs (or 'covert action hypotheses' as I like to call them).

This (especially 2) is of course bollocks, because so-called conspiracies - including subtle quasi-conspiracies that proceed by nods, winks and instinctive understanding of which side one's bread is buttered - are part of the way in which the 'system' operates.

But then the whole topic of CTs is riddled with false dichotomies like this - and Eustonovitch plays on them as much as anyone.

I've only found three books about general aspects of CTs that (largely) avoid lazy/disingenuous pandering to the usual preconceptions (all have the obvious title):

1. the estimable Mr Ramsay's Pocket Essentials offering;

2. to a lesser extent, Mark Fenster's more wide-ranging (and more bollocky) study;

and 3. for a philosophical treatment, David Coady's collection which, though it gives equal time to talkers of crap including Karl Popper, comes out on the side of sanity overall.

5/17/2009 09:08:00 PM  
Blogger the management said...

Kathy Olmsted's "Real Enemies" is also very good, and Amazon is currently doing it for £10.49, much cheaper than Aaro's book.

5/17/2009 09:25:00 PM  
Anonymous belle le triste said...

actually -- if i remember correctly* -- my family's rejection of the murrell relative's CT was less to do with said relative's emotional investment or response than the fact that they felt said relative was a bit of a fool: the point about emotion cutting both ways is good, and very likely applies to my family as well -- it was locally a very traumatic event, she was well liked

*caveat repeated: i wasn't that old when all this happened, and am not in any sense an expert in the literature (except here's an actual fact to take away: we all used to wince when her name was said on the news with the stress on the last syllable; as she said it, it was on the first)

5/17/2009 09:30:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

BB - yes thanks for the tip, I'd already put it on my 'to buy' list as a result of the Olmsted namecheck above.

BL - fair enough. Daresay your comment was the wrong peg on which to hang my pre-existing gripe.

5/17/2009 09:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aaro's book is available for £10.79 on Amazon. A whopping 30p more than Olmsted's. Phil D'Bap

5/17/2009 09:50:00 PM  
Anonymous belle le triste said...

don't worry tim, it's a valid gripe

5/17/2009 09:58:00 PM  
Anonymous belle le triste said...

everyone knows amazon is just a front for the trilateral commission, the little devil tail in the logo is a sigil derived from the statue of asmodeus at rennes le chateau

5/17/2009 10:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re Lawrence:
"it was a lot less embarrassing to cop to a charge of "institutional" racism that wasn't really anybody's fault, than to seriously address the total corruption of the South East London force by the Kenneth Noyes gang."
Well, there was that, but worse than either would have been to try and front out the utter mess that DCS Barker made of defending his internal report into the case. It was this thing which made MacPherson angry, and once he'd accused Barker of lying ('Not a credible witness"), the Met needed to come up with something big for him. So they coughed to 'institutional racism'. Then the panel let them off the corruption thing, by noting all the evidence that DS wossiname was corrupt, and in the critical path, but deciding on no evidence whatsoever that this had nothing to do with the investigation stalling. At all.

But I think that the Met had to put up their hands to inst. racism, or they'd have been accused of inst. failure.

Chris Williams

Chris Williams

5/17/2009 10:14:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

PD'B: But I'm pretty sure the difference in value for money is substantially bigger in favour of the history book. Don't believe me: sit down with a cup of coffee and listen to the LSE talk. No need for a saucer - you can stand your spoon up in the ambient smugness...

Or here's my summary: Aaro says that the book is, and was conceived as, basically a crib sheet for people who already know what they think but don't want to research the issues. Why we should think that Aaro has distilled the truth from the vast literature on so many topics, given that he approached the task with extreme prejudice, is a mystery to me.

As for his pop-psychological theorising, he preempts critics with splendidly impudent metanoia: "there is absolutely no provability to what I've just said: it is entirely hypothetical and speculative".

BL: Queensbury rules, please...

5/17/2009 10:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But Tim, you haven't read either book. Do you not think that this fact should in any way mitigate your certainty? BTW Olmsted also debunks every CT she comes across, but blames US governments (hers is a book specifically about American CTs) for creating the climate within which such theories flourish. Phil D'Bap

5/18/2009 06:42:00 AM  
Blogger the management said...

BTW Olmsted also debunks every CT she comes acrossThis isn't true, Phil. Thinking about it for five seconds would reveal that she is bound to have mentioned Iran/Contra and that she's hardly likely to "debunk" that. Have you read "Real Enemies", or just the single Amazon review of it?

5/18/2009 07:17:00 AM  
Blogger the management said...

For readers who don't want to cough up £10.49 plus delivery, here's an interview with Kathy O, in which she specifically says that she doesn't get involved in "adjudicating" the truth of the conspiracy theories discussed in "Real Enemies".

Would you care to say sorry for that one, Phil'D?

(I note from looking in the bibliog at the back that KO doesn't cite Peter Dale Scott either, which is a shame).

5/18/2009 07:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wouldn't care to say sorry because (an unfair advantage here, it seems) I've actually read her book. Phil

5/18/2009 10:10:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

P D'B - perhaps I should have explicitly ramped up the mitigation and said: "I am pretty sure, given that as I've made clear I haven't read one of the books,..." before adding "but don't believe me..." etc.

It is a perennial problem isn't it - how do you judge a book without reading (and buying!) the bloomin' thing. There's even a rather unhelpful proverb on the subject.

We now have some sort of answer, in addition to asking someone who has read it and whose opinion you have some confidence in (that's BB by the way), you can listen to an interview with the author about it.

People buy so few books that I like to do my tiny bit to help resist the publishing industry's attempts to choose their summer reading for them, especially when its a self-proclaimed work of quietist propaganda like this.

5/18/2009 10:15:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

I will say sorry - for comma in place of colon. Ugly. In my defence it was due to an edit.

5/18/2009 10:18:00 AM  
Blogger the management said...

I've read the book, Phil, and I frankly don't think you're telling the truth (this wouldn't be the first time you'd tried to bullshit me about a book you hadn't read). Kathy Olmsted's book does not "debunk every CT she comes across". That's not true. As it happens, I've got my copy of "Real Enemies" right here by my computer, so I've just been able to look on pp147-8, where she more or less explicitly endorses the Castro-Cuban assassination conspiracy theory.

5/18/2009 10:35:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

But BB you forget that CT has a protean definition. The story of the Castro assassination campaign isn't a CT because (this is the best one, pace Aaro) it is true; or because it was covert-action-as-usual, or because it was justified, or...suggestions on a beermat.

I notice, looking at the interview with O, that she says: "If I really wanted to get into adjudicating each one of these conspiracy theories, it would be a tremendously long book." Clearly Aaro is rather more economical with, er, something or other.

5/18/2009 10:48:00 AM  
Blogger the management said...

Aaro's view on the JFK assassination is that LHO was a lone nut and that's all there is to it. Olmsted points out that LBJ's first priority in setting up the Warren Commission was to make sure that it was established that there was no connection between the Cuba-obsessed member of pro-Castro organisations who had visited the Cuban Embassy in Mexico two months earlier, and Cuba. This was necessary because (among other reasons) if it were generally believed that Castro had decided to retaliate for the numerous assassination attempts against him (which he had threatened to do), LBJ might have found himself politically railroaded into invading Cuba, which might have brought the USA face to face with Russia.

5/18/2009 10:57:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Sorry, another mis-hung gripe - thought you were referring to persistent attempts on Castro's life by CIA and assets.

Still, as we're all grown-ups here I expect we can cope with the hypothetical possibility that LBJ wasn't covering up what he thought he was.

Such a possibility exemplifies one of many obvious defects in Aaronoid categorical assertions along "this would have required thousands of psychopaths to be in on the whole plot from the start and keep quiet forever" lines.

5/18/2009 11:39:00 AM  
Anonymous andrew adams said...

BTW, great piece of Aaro watching in the Indie today by the estimable Matthew Norman.

Leading the rearguard in the defence of MPs (and who would have predicted this?) is David Aaronovitch of The Times. Aarono travels a path not entirely unworn, to quote Macaulay, on periodic fits of morality, and affects his familiar "must-I-forever-be-the-only-grown-up-in-town?" tone to dismiss the public outrage as "wearying" and "tossing the rattle out of the pram". None of these trivial revelations, he reassures us, constitute a "sordid culture of abuse or justify the assertion that Parliament's 'moral authority' is at the lowest ebb in living memory".Although it is easy for him to be unshocked after declaring a while ago that if no WMD were found in Iraq he'd never trust a word a politician said again, hats off all the same for swimming so bravely against the surging tide. We'll check up on how his analysis is bearing up a week or two from now.

5/18/2009 10:25:00 PM  
Anonymous andrew adams said...

Oh, and even Stephen glover has a pop

The Times has several columnists who automatically jump to the defence of the political class, and assure us we have the most honest politicians in the world.

5/18/2009 10:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Notting Hillbilly said...

And John Crace does a nice "Digested Read" today too:

(Can't do teh MTHL, sorry)

5/19/2009 07:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Digested Read link[redpesto]

5/19/2009 09:13:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris Ames also has some rude comments to make about Aaro. Do you think that we've been too nice to him on Aaro Watch?


5/20/2009 11:38:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

If so, it might be due to an understandable disinclination to hold forth on the bleedin' obvious. Trouble is, omitting same does give a skewed impression to the casual reader.

BTW, this geezer seems to think the pre-emptive review was a spoof by the great man himself. I suppose that must be down to the (just about) ambiguous title.

'You should watch that - you could confuse a stupid person.'

5/20/2009 01:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Hunding said...

Actually, I don't think Aaro is a good writer at all. Nor is he particularly bright. And as for his pro-Zionist and pro-New Labour spiel I thnk he is a complete cunt. So yes I think this blog is way too nice to him most of the time.

5/21/2009 05:01:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Late note: if we're going to abuse people on this blog it probably shouldn't be anonymously.

5/27/2009 11:10:00 AM  

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