Right, it’s been a while since I’ve done any book reviews, so it’s a good enough time to start an overview of the summer’s reading. And where better to start than with Dave Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories, which has become quite the talking point. In fact, Decent Dave has now established himself as the commentariat’s conspiracy theory man, in the same way as his mate Francis Wheen became the mumbo-jumbo man. This is not necessarily a good thing, for reasons I’ll get into presently.
The book itself has been sharply dissected elsewhere, so I’ll keep my remarks on the text fairly brief before moving onto some more general political and methodological points. Firstly, what’s right with it is that it’s not badly written – certainly it’s not a scattergun rant like What’s Left?, but then Aaro doesn’t really do rant. And while he doesn’t know enough about the key issues like the JFK assassination to convince experienced conspiratologists, they aren’t the audience. There’s enough there for the general reader – Aaro is particularly good on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which he’s evidently studied in detail – and most of his judgements are sensible. He even cites Chomsky positively, which is usually treif for Decents.
So that’s what’s right about Voodoo Histories, which is by no means an unenjoyable read. Now for what’s wrong with it. First is the question of what a conspiracy theory actually is, something that Lobster magazine has never been able to definitively answer. Yet, Aaro has succeeded in making an exact science of conspiratology. He defines a conspiracy theory quite simply and precisely as an explanation of events that seems unlikely to David Aaronovitch. Having set up his plausibility threshold, Aaro doesn’t even need to examine the evidence to dismiss a conspiracy theory. What’s the matter with this? I quote from Robin Ramsay’s review:
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.
Robin makes his case well, and there is good reason why Aaro’s reliance on the test of plausibility is not good enough. Aaro’s dismissal of 9/11 conspiracy theories, for instance, is based on the idea that it is wildly implausible that the US government could have brought down the Twin Towers. Yet if nineteen jihadis with limited resources could bring down the Twin Towers, why is it inherently implausible that the US government, with all its resources, could do so? Want to fake a moon landing? Give me a couple of actors, some convincing-looking props, a movie camera and put me in Iceland’s volcanic desert and I can give you footage of a moon landing. Now you want to tell me it’s inherently implausible that NASA could have done it?
Let me digress a little. Many readers will have seen and enjoyed the movie Conspiracy Theory. You will recall the basic dramatic device, which is that the Mel Gibson character – and this may not have been too much of a stretch for Mel – believes just about every far-fetched conspiracy theory going. However, his researches rattle some bad guys, and soon it turns out that, even though Mel is deeply paranoid, they really are out to get him. The problem Mel faces, given his demonstrated paranoia, is convincing people that he isn’t talking rubbish. It works pretty well as a metaphor for conspiratology.
Look, when it comes to 9/11, my position is that al-Qaeda did it, because they said they did it, and the evidence points in that direction. In terms of the 7/7 London bombings, it’s fairly clear that Mohammad Sidique Khan and his mates did it, because they said they did it, and the evidence points in that direction. Which is not to say that there aren’t unanswered questions that the powers that be would prefer not to talk about – at the very least in terms of the security services’ failure to see what was coming – and that conspiracy theorists, whatever about their faulty frameworks, may not turn up some interesting things. Aaro’s approach – to engage in shameless nutpicking of the most outlandish conspiracy theories and then to huff that the spooks couldn’t possibly have had the ability to do it – is about as unconvincing as you can get.
(Parenthetically, the Decents’ Occam’s razor seems to malfunction when it comes to 7/7. We have a fair idea why Mohammad Sidique Khan did what he did, because he told us in his suicide video. Mostly, he spoke about Iraq. Yet the standard Decent line on radicalisation of young Muslims is that this has nothing to do with British foreign policy, but is entirely due to the works of Sayyid Qutb being available in some mosque bookshops, and the government not giving enough money to Ed Husain.)
At this point, the reader will probably be thinking of Aaro’s previous as a WMD Truther, and the author of That Bloody Prediction. But this is just the flip side of Aaro’s plausibility threshold. Aaro’s complaint – and you can see here the influence of Birt’s Mission to Explain – is that conspiratism takes hold because the broad masses are systematically mistrustful of their rulers. The trouble is that Aaro systematically gives our rulers the benefit of the doubt. It was inherently implausible that Mr Tony Blair, a pretty straight guy after all, would lie his head off to take Britain into a war of aggression. And what of the revelations that have emerged since? The US and Britain playing silly buggers with the UN weapons inspectors so as to provide a pretext for war? The escalation of bombing raids over Iraq in the second half of 2002, aimed at provoking Saddam into hostilities? These things pass Aaro by – they are beneath his notice, and if we pay attention to them, that’s just a sign of our own moral delinquency.
There are a couple of other points I’d like to make. The most obvious one is that there is a difference between Conspiracy and conspiracies. Aaro actually illustrates this in his opening chapters – The Protocols of the Elders of Zion invented a spurious conspiracy, but there was certainly a conspiracy to circulate the document. As for the Moscow show trials, well, it was clear the great Trotsky-fascist saboteur conspiracy didn’t exist, but the Stalin government conspired to create a mountain of forged evidence to prove that it did. (And managed to convince lots of British Fabians, who took a never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width approach to the evidence.) The appeal of the Grand Conspiracy Theory – that a cabal of Masons or Jews or Illuminati or Communists are secretly pulling all our strings – is that it gives us an easy framework for understanding the world, and a defined group to either blame or join.
But while the Grand Conspiracy doesn’t exist, there are plenty of conspiracies about, and some of them are pretty big. Aaro would no doubt find it inherently implausible that a Masonic lodge could take over the secret service, police, military and judicial infrastructure of a major European country, or that in the same country a secret army of state-sponsored neo-Nazi terrorists would carry out false-flag bombings which the state would then blame on the left. Yet this did happen, and is very well documented. To bring things closer to home, there are lots and lots of conspiracies in the north of Ireland. This can lead one to a generalised conspiratism – this guy is an entertaining example – but it would be foolish in the extreme to say that, for instance, it is inherently improbable that Robin Jackson and Billy Wright were British agents of long standing. There are certainly persistent stories pointing in that direction, although it’s unlikely that we’ll ever have unimpeachable documentary evidence.
On a more prosaic level, as any political scientist since Machiavelli can tell you, all politics is conspiracy – as long as you’re prepared to have a flexible definition of conspiracy. If you ever go to a meeting of the Socialist Workers Party, you might think that a dozen people meeting in a room above a pub to discuss how to overthrow the government is pretty conspiratorial, even if it appears to be on the Mickey Mouse scale. I direct readers to Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers by Annie Machon, who surveilled the SWP on behalf of MI5 (a conspiratorial organisation itself):
It was a moot point whether the SWP had ever posed a realistic threat to the state. But after I’d carried out months of painstaking research, I was in no doubt. Although individual members of the party were committed, the SWP was small, relatively poor, and their politics fell outside MI5’s criteria for investigation – they neither had links to a foreign power, like the communists, nor did they practice entryism, like [Militant]. Their policies advocated educating people so that they could take part in a democratic movement to replace the existing political system. This was hardly the stuff of revolutionary nightmare.
Which kind of calls into question why the organisation just described has an internal regime that would be more suited to operating illegally under a military dictatorship, but I suppose if that’s the regime you want, fair enough. Militant of course spent decades pretending not to exist, constructing an elaborate fiction whereby the party was simply a paper, the members were “readers”, the Central Committee was the “editorial board”, and the annual conference was a “readers’ rally”. The CPGB, with which Aaro had some acquaintance, had lots of secrets, many of which Andrew Rothstein and Reuben Falber took to their graves.
Let’s take it out of the further left and into the political mainstream. Here is Peter Hitchens, in his entertaining new book The Broken Compass, on collaboration between the political and media classes:
The word ‘conspiracy’ suggests conclaves of sinister armed men in great cloaks and Guy Fawkes hats whispering in taverns by rushlight, with their hands on the hilt of daggers – a scene which seems ridiculously far removed from our world. How can anyone suggest that such things happen in our time? Actually it is this antiquated picture which is ridiculous, and misleading. The confidential co-operation of which I speak is far less picturesque, and a good deal more effective, than anything Guy Fawkes ever did. Those engaged in it wear well-tailored suits, sit in modish, well-lit London restaurants and carry BlackBerries, not daggers. Even so, they do not like others to know what they are up to and are careful to conceal it from the great mass of people who are unaware that it is going on.
The Hitch goes on to explain, mainly by reference to the mysterious bonding ritual known as “lunch”, how politicians, journalists and spin doctors collaborate in matters ranging from the artifice of a PR stunt to the spinning of a policy announcement to (perhaps the most important) the way in which certain politicians get a much better press than others. In The Triumph of the Political Class Peter Oborne details how, when the Tory leadership fell vacant, the press began to talk up Alan Duncan as a realistic contender. Eventually Duncan withdrew after failing to secure the support of even one fellow Tory MP. How was this? Well, Duncan was known for giving very good lunches, he assiduously courted and was courted by the press, and had his original support base extended beyond himself, that could have taken him a long way.
It’s conspiracy, yes, if you are prepared to leave the cloaks and funny hats aside and accept a more prosaic type of conspiracy. How, for instance, are we to explain the last fifteen years of Labour Party history if not in terms of the Blair and Brown factions conspiring against each other, the factional warfare all the more rancorous for the lack of policy differences. This is why, if I’m interested in the machinations of Labour insiders, I turn to Jackie Ashley in the op-ed pages, because Jackie has some feel for the actual Labour Party and is cynical enough to know factional conspiring when she sees it. Polly Toynbee is still waiting for New Labour to turn into the SDP in her head, and holds to a quaint idea of public-spirited politicians who just aren’t selling their policies well enough. Aaro, with his toxic mix of Eurocommunism and Birtism, wants us to accept policies devised by our benevolent rulers that we don’t like but will be good for us anyway.
And here’s the final irony about Voodoo Histories. Aaro gives us his usual matey style, setting himself up as the fearless wielder of Occam’s razor, the tribune of common sense. (I must admit, in my jaundiced way, that Aaro’s record with common sense is not self-evidently brilliant enough for me to find this wholly convincing. And his curt dismissal of Iraq is a bit too much like the way Wheen chortles about chiropractors and crystal healers without mentioning Sound Science.) But the strange thing is that the Decents, as a group, do see themselves as Illuminati, Dave more than most. They believe themselves an enlightened vanguard preaching the truth to the befuddled masses. They have their own revealed truths that make little or no sense to outsiders. (Aaro’s favourite blog, Harry’s Place, is full of puffs for Bat Ye’or’s Eurabia thesis, aka The Protocols of the Elders of Islam.) They see things that ordinary people can’t see, such as the horrific levels of anti-Semitism at those Islington dinner parties that Nick Cohen keeps getting invited to. They delight in uncovering webs of sinister associations amongst their enemies, most of which associations don’t even exist. Rather often, they manifest some of the same traits of group psychology as, well, conspiracy theorists.
And now, here is Decent Dave popping up all over the place, assuring us that things are basically for the best, and we need to trust the powers that be, and any narratives that he finds implausible are conspiracy theories and therefore inherently absurd, and anyone putting such narratives forward must be a paranoid crank. If Aaro didn’t exist, some propagandist would have had to invent him.