Friday, June 12, 2009

Guest Post: A Review of "Voodoo Histories" by Robin Ramsay

Thanks very much to Dan Hind for sorting out for us this review of Aaro's book by Robin Ramsay. Robin is cited in the index to "Voodoo Histories" and mildly slagged off in the concluding chapter for suggesting that there are sensible and silly versions of conspiracy theories, although I am not sure why as Aaro's argument became incoherent at this point.

Aaronovitch Watch endorses the following products: The Threat to Reason, Politics & Paranoia and Lobster Magazine. Update: Also Dan's latest project.

Voodoo Histories
The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History

David Aaronovitch

In his introduction Aaronovitch tells us he became interested in conspiracy theories when someone he was working with introduced him to the 'they-didn’t-go-to-the-moon' theory; and this offended his 'sense of plausibility'. He's right: we all have a kind of plausibility threshold, beyond which a proposition about the world has to get before our brains will take it seriously. And thus, he tells us, about the moon theory: 'Given the imbalance in probabilities I was therefore sure, without even scrutinising it, that [his] evidence was wrong.' (emphasis added)

The moon theory is implausible – and for the reasons offered by Aaronovitch: an awful lot of people would have to know and keep quiet about it. But we should go a little way beyond that. Firstly, very large scale secrets have been kept. Most obvious is the Ultra secret, the British breaking of the German Enigma machine, an enormous secret, which was kept by hundreds and perhaps thousands of people between 1941 and J.C. Masterman's book which revealed it in 1972. So let us not be too certain about these things.

Secondly, had he thought to look at the photographs which are at the base of the moon theory he might have seen that there does appear to be deception involved in some of the pictures. He might then have realised that the mistake the moon theorists make is thinking that fake pictures entail fake moon landing. No, they don't. And a little thought about the position of NASA, qua federally-funded bureaucracy, might suggest why some nice studio shots may have been dummied-up just in case Armstrong and co. returned from the moon without decent pictures to give to the world's media. (I seem to remember that there was some doubt about photographic film surviving the transit of the Van Allen belts.)

What is wrong with most conspiracy theorists is not what they think but the way they think. The basic premise of conspiracy theorists is the bastards are lying to us. This is not only demonstrably true sometimes, since 1945 and the wartime experience of disinforming the Germans, lying to the population became an official policy of this state, as well as the normal behaviour of the British ruling class and its civil servants who had been in power for most of the preceding centuries.

Aaronovitch's 'plausibility threshold' is set too high and does not correspond with reality. Because his knowledge of recent history is limited, his 'plausibility threshold' falsely categories events as beyond plausibility – 'conspiracy theories'. There's no mystery here: he hasn't read the evidence. Nor, as a mainstream journalist and broadcaster, can he afford to do so. And so his account of the Kennedy assassination (and other assassinations) here is inadequate; as is his account of the Israeli assault on the USS Liberty in 1967, as is his account of America's entry into World War 2, as is.... I can't be bothered going through the whole thing in that kind of detail.

So what we have is a series of chapters in which Aaronovitch gives us his opinions of some high profile conspiracy theories: the aforementioned, plus 9/11, Princess Diana, David Kelly, Hilda Murrell, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, etc., in all of which the conspiracy theorists get it wrong in his opinion. As it happens I agree with his assessments in most of these. But that isn't the point. Aaronovitch wants these examples he has chosen to represent the wider world: these theories are wrong and thus all such theories are wrong. But since he doesn't know the subject matter in the big areas (assassinations, 9/11) well enough, his opinions on these are really of no interest. (The chapters on the smaller items are more convincing.) Nor is his mockery of the more incompetent end of the conspiracy theorist world amusing enough to be worth the read.

What is worth reading are the first two chapters, on the history and use of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and his account of some of the anti-war movement in America before World War 2. But even in the latter he gets it wrong. He discusses the American isolationist movement by concentrating on the career of John Flynn (whom I hadn't come across before) and quotes Flynn as saying (absurdly, in his view) at a meeting in December 1940: 'The plain and terrifying fact is that this great and peaceful nation is in the grip of one of the most subtle and successful embroil us in a foreign war.'

But, unknown to Aaronovitch, there was such a conspiracy (though not the one Flynn had in mind) – and it involved not just Flynn's hate figure, Roosevelt, but the British government. Part of the conspiracy was a series of covert operations in America run by the British secret state (as British Security Co-ordination) which sought to neutralise/seduce the isolationists in Congress and persuade the American population to support US entry. This rather large conspiracy – a secret that was kept for almost half a century – was the subject of a 1994 PhD thesis by Thomas Mahl, 48 Land, which became his 1999 book, Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States 1939-44.(US: Brassey's, 1999).


Anonymous Richard J said...

Very trivial point, but fascinatingly, Roald Dahl was one of the people involved in the pre-Pearl Harbour propaganda efforts. Which involved, apparently, sleeping with Clare Luce Booth.

6/12/2009 04:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

I was intending to post a comment about this review (which I saw first in Lobster), which I was going to describe as polite, constructive and devastating (with particular reference to the final paragraph). But now you can read it for yourself so I don't have to.

Dan Hind's not City of Sound, is he - that would be too weird.

6/12/2009 06:23:00 PM  
Blogger Mr Kitty said...

@ Phil.

I've written a review of the book which I had tailored for the book review section of the Socialist Worker.

It's a bastardised version of a longer piece I have proposed to the New Left Review.

As it stands, the SW are running it in their commentary section next week. I wanted to plug AWatch but understandably they may have felt drawn into a debate that was not of their inception.

It's a not-so-well-disguised-polemic rant at Aaro under the guise of a review. It doesn't take him to task on his actual book, as it were, but more on his hypocrisy.

6/12/2009 07:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another trivial point - while Dahl was doing it, he showed some writing to C S Forester (who was also doing it), whose response was "You should publish this".

If the bottom ever drops out of the History business I intend to eke out my time between giros and the allotment researching Forester's career and output as a propagandist.

Chris Williams

6/12/2009 07:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Der Bruno Stroszek said...

Off-topic, but I haven't seen this mentioned here: minor stuff, but another step in Nick Cohen's journey into an all-encompassing paranoia.

Robin Ramsay's column in Fortean Times is very good stuff indeed.

6/13/2009 09:59:00 AM  
Blogger Mr Kitty said...

IIRC I think the episode was covered at AW.

It's classic Nick though. He's about as comfortable as a nun at an orgy when he has to defend himself.

6/13/2009 10:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick in the Observer (16th June). The Holocoaust Memrial murderer was inspired by conspiracy theorists!


6/14/2009 06:44:00 AM  
Blogger Mr Kitty said...

Nick's taking a hiding on the comments section of that article. Nothing I can add and he doesn't read them so what's the point.

Of course, my comment would be that he is Aaro's gimp and a denial-denier and that would be removed as quick as a flash.

6/14/2009 09:11:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

I knew there was something I wanted to say on conspiracy theories. Does anybody else remember hate-figure-for-some-of-us Gavin Esler performing a hatchet job on JFK assassination theories on Newsnight a fair few years ago?

6/14/2009 05:57:00 PM  
Anonymous belle le triste said...

the esler thing was a stand-alone doc i think -- at least it was on a sunday night, which newsnight generally isn't, though it might have been a special of some sort

6/14/2009 09:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

EJH: I think that you are thinking of a programme in November 2003, the 40th anniversary of the assassination.

Google "Gavin Esler JFK"

6/15/2009 10:14:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

That's a most unusual name.

6/15/2009 05:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Indeed it is, but it brings you up an article about the TV programme yuo seem to be interested in.


6/15/2009 05:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A theme of Voodoo Histories is that conspiracy advocates seize upon small 'justifications' and use the oxygen of abstract uncertainty to magnify their significance. I'm not sure the fact that a conservative, compliant establishment in the 40s to 60s, bound by the official secrets act, not revealing a not particularly exciting secret (that the allies had an enigma machine)is quite the same thing as thousands and thousands of NASA (and other) employees sitting on top of a world-shattering conspiracy to...err... maintain NASA's funding level (?), is quite the same thing.

6/17/2009 07:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any good book on conspiracies that actually worked?

6/18/2009 08:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

See if you don't have time to read all 7 of Dr D R Griffin's authorative books on the 911 'Inside Job' crime of the century

6/19/2009 10:20:00 PM  
Anonymous the spanish prisoner said...

What?! You mean that you Brits have carried out covert operations here in the USA? Well, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. After all, our own government has carried out covert operations against us.

9/02/2009 10:17:00 AM  
Blogger iwishcheneywasmydad said...

Late post, but enjoyed the article. DA sounds like a jolly smug man. Very Times. It's a presumptuous premise, a book about CTs; assuming one can tell the difference between these and hypothesis drawn from information, be they drawn by law enforcers, military planners, disbelieving voters or doubting Thomases. It wouldn't surprise me if the COI was involved in the release of this little tome, but perhaps DA doesn't need the guidance.

9/03/2009 01:59:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Ya... Really the moon theory is implausible... Your post is so nice. I was really intended to post comments for your site..
by thoi trang

9/05/2009 06:39:00 AM  
Blogger llewelly said...

"(I seem to remember that there was some doubt about photographic film surviving the transit of the Van Allen belts.) "
Apollo 8 demonstrated that photographic film, appropriately shielded, could be transported through the Van Allen belts, almost 8 months prior.

9/17/2009 12:00:00 AM  
Blogger llewelly said...

"Secondly, had he thought to look at the photographs which are at the base of the moon theory he might have seen that there does appear to be deception involved in some of the pictures."
To quote Phil Plait:
"I'll say this here now, and return to it many times: the Moon is not the Earth. Conditions there are weird, and our common sense is likely to fail us. "
There is no deception in any of the photographs (although a few photographs were mislabeled, or misinterpreted by NASA); there "appears to be deception" because the photographs were not taken under earthly conditions.

9/17/2009 12:11:00 AM  
Anonymous James Heartfield said...

Richard J said " involved, apparently, sleeping with Clare Luce Booth"

It is surprising just how much geo-politics did involve sleeping with Clare Luce Booth

11/26/2009 04:23:00 PM  

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