An Incurious Man: David Aaronovitch's Voodoo Histories
On June 10, 1963, John F. Kennedy explained the foreign policy of the United States like so:
World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor – it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement. And history teaches us that enmities between nations, as between individuals, do not last forever. However fixed our likes and dislikes may seem, the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations and neighbors. 
On November 26, 1963, Lyndon Johnson expressed American foreign policy a little differently:
It remains the central object of the United States in South Vietnam to assist the people and Government of that country to win their contest against the externally directed and supported Communist conspiracy ...
We should concentrate our own efforts, and insofar as possible we should persuade the Government of South Vietnam to concentrate its efforts, on the critical situation in the Mekong Delta. This concentration should include not only military but political, economic, social, educational and informational effort. We should seek to turn the tide not only of battle but of belief, and we should seek to increase not only the control of hamlets but the productivity of this area, especially where the proceeds can be held for the advantage of anti-Communist forces. 
As historians, we might ask ourselves if there were any significant events that occurred in between these two events that might explain the difference. And we might, after a moment, think of the Kennedy assassination. However, if we were to do so, as logical as that might seem, we would be placing ourselves in opposition to most mainstream history of the last 47 years. Mainstream historians tend to ignore the significance of these changes, and some (like Noam Chomsky) have even argued that Kennedy was simply lying on June 10th and that JFK's foreign policy would have been the same as Johnson. Recent revelations from various members of Kennedy's cabinet have given the lie to this viewpoint, however.
There is another possible position to take on this issue. One could, in principle, say that it is simply insanity to even ask the question. Asking the question is already to take leave of one's senses, to lose touch with reality. That is David Aaronovitch's position.
His book Voodoo Histories: the Role of Conspiracy Theory in Modern History has a contradiction built right into the title. According to Aaronovitch, conspiracy theories play no role in modern history, except as diversion and nonsense. In order to make his case, the author discusses several different conspiracy theories from all over the world. And it is here where we find the real problem of his book.
Books of this type (Gerald Posner's Case Closed, Vincent Bugliosi's Reclaiming History and so forth) generally rely on amateur psychology, failure to address the evidence, omission and falsification, and just plain illogic. Voodoo Histories has elements of all these things, although it far surpasses those works in terms of literary execution. However, the most important thing to note about the book is its organizational structure. In succession, the main topics of each chapter are the following: (1) The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, (2) Leon Trotsky and the Moscow Trials; (3) McCarthyism; (4) JFK; (5) the murder of Hilda Murrell; (6) the Da Vinci code; (7) 9/11 Truth; (8) the suicide or murder of Dr. David Kelly; and (9) the Obama birth certificate flap.
Let us first note that these topics are, to put it mildly, eccentric. Mixed into these various broad topics are: the alleged murder of Princess Diana, the moon landing hoax, Holocaust denial, etc. He does show restraint in not discussing UFOs or Elvis, but virtually every other conspiracy theory gets addressed at some point. This is quite clever. With an assortment like this, one's head is likely to be nodding in agreement at some point – maybe most of them. And there is the occasional fact that one might find intriguing; for example, I was surprised to learn that two-thirds of alien abduction "victims" are women. Granted, I'd never given the matter any thought before, but that is sociologically interesting.
Most of these chosen targets are easy. The Protocols, among other things, were enthusiastically endorsed by Henry Ford. Ford's anti-Semitism was such that he received the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the highest honor that could be given to a non-German, by Adolf Hitler in 1938.  Unfortunately, this document remains relevant in our time, as there are some right-wing groups who cling to it, sometimes with the caveat that they don't really mean the Jews as such, or not all Jews, or only the international banking Jews. People like Henry Makow and Alex Jones take the documents seriously, as did the late William Cooper.  In a case like this, the "conspiracy" plays second fiddle to the real issue, which is pure anti-Semitism. And though Aaronovitch's discussion of the Protocols brings nothing new to the table, the subject matter is certainly worthy of attention.
However, of the other topics addressed in his book, there are really only two that concern the vast majority of political researchers: JFK and 9/11. The Obama birth certificate flap is an extension of various right-wing fantasies, although calling this a "conspiracy theory" is a bit of a stretch. I'm not sure how many people believed that the birth certificate had been manipulated with the foreknowledge that one day Obama would be a presidential candidate – hopefully very few. The Moscow Trials, while interesting historically, are not terribly relevant to today's world. McCarthyism is a curious topic for the author to address, but dealing with it in any detail would require a much longer essay in itself. However, there are many contradictions and problems in dealing with McCarthy, and Aaronovitch doesn't really go into them; he takes the standard position that McCarthy's delusionary conspiracy theory ran out of control. There are two British murder investigations, into Hilda Murrell, an activist, and Dr. David Kelly, who had inconvenient information. While the interest in both cases is understandable (Murrell's body was allegedly in her garden for four days before being found, and Dr. Kelly's death had numerous curious details), the historical impact of these deaths (with all due respect) is minimal. Meanwhile, the Da Vinci code is shoehorned incongruously into the book, a topic for which the author has only disdain (his title for this chapter is "Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Holy Shit," which sums up his attitude).
We can therefore see, looking at this organization, that there is an immediate flaw in the conception, for there are an infinite number of ways to organize any given dataset. Aaronovitch, for his part, has selected a structure with two great benefits: (1) much of the material will superficially appear to support his thesis, and (2) it guarantees that readers will find some things to agree with, even if they dispute other sections of the book – an excellent marketing strategy.
Unfortunately, his decision is hardly satisfactory to anyone serious. Most political researchers, in doing analysis of certain significant events, discuss JFK, MLK, 9/11, and numerous other incidents of major world importance. But if one were to take the approach of, say, People magazine, one might write a book and include JFK alongside Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana. That is, to say, in the world of commercial tabloids, or a star-obsessed perspective, the connection between the people or events involved ceases to be political. It rests, instead, on the fact that they are famous. "What makes the deaths of JFK, Marilyn Monroe, and Princess Diana so fascinating is the victims' iconic status and their youth," writes the author. 
Note how reductive this point of view becomes. All information exists, in the word chosen by John McAdams, as a series of "factoids." Aaronovitch's book, by endorsing this structure, is a Procrustean Bed equalizing all inquiry. As in the game Trivial Pursuit, the questions "Who Shot J.R.?" and "Who Shot JFK?" are worth the same piece of pie. No one whose interest is truth can afford to take this approach to what amount to the most serious historical subjects of our time.
By and large, this is not an evidential book. He doesn't address the major assassinations in any detail, apart from Kennedy. His entire take on RFK is summed up as: "And if you thought JFK had been killed by 'them,' then why not his brother, gunned down in California in 1968?"  Alas, in his chapter on the JFK assassination, although he does not rely on simple rhetoric for his attacks, the evidence he sites is vastly out of date. There is nothing new in his discussion, particularly in light of Bugliosi's recent Reclaiming History. If Bugliosi can't prove the Warren Commission thesis in 2600 pages, then Aaronovitch will not be able to do so in 30 or so. However, he at least gives it a try, which is more than we can say about his assessment of the other political murders.
Aaronovitch's point of view on Oswald is as follows:
If one reads the Warren Report, the circumstantial evidence that Oswald was the lone gunman seems overwhelming. He worked at the Texas School Book Depository, where, on the sixth floor, after the shooting, his rifle was discovered inside an improvised sniper's nest. People had seen a man at the sixth-floor window, had seen the rifle barrel, had heard the shots. Oswald was the only employee unaccounted for after the shooting, and he was picked up shortly afterward in a cinema, having just shot a policeman looking for someone of his description. The words 'slam dunk' come to mind. 
Did I say the author was trying? OK, maybe not so much.
Without going into the evidence for all of this (see Jim DiEugenio's book on Bugliosi  for a detailed rundown, as arguing with Aaronovitch is both redundant and silly given the scale of the other battle), note that he just restates the Warren Commission's conclusions. When one looks into the detailed evidence, the case falls apart. Aaronovitch isn't going to volunteer that the rifle was ordered under a different name, that the FBI initially failed to get prints off the rifle, that the FBI's own nitrate test cleared Oswald of the murder, that the rifle changed shape three times before settling into the form of a Manlicher-Carcano, and that the State would never have been able to make a case against Oswald for shooting the policeman J.D. Tippit, much less JFK. "The detail is overwhelming," he complains.  Yes, it is; such is the price for doing the investigative work. Unfortunately, if you don't do the work, you are going to end up ineffectually repeating the same balderdash that nobody believed in 1963.
And, of course, he does. He calls the idea that Oswald shot at General Edwin Walker "an incontrovertible fact," an embarrassing statement which he may want to delete in future editions.  He says of Norman Mailer's book Oswald's Tale that "It is suggestive that one of the eminent Americans who initially advocated the notion of conspiracy changed his mind when he began to study Oswald the man."  It is indeed suggestive of the fact that Mailer desperately needed money to help him with the IRS, but apart from that it is unclear just how liberal Mailer was in the first place. Having gone through a substantial amount of personal correspondence located at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, I can say that his political views were not consistent with his public statements; among other things, one of his best friends was G. Gordon Liddy.
The rest of his short JFK discussion, encased in a chapter entitled "Dead Deities," will convince no one but the already convinced. And anyone convinced by his evidence doesn't understand the concept.
Aaronovitch's take on 9/11 is somewhat depressing. It is depressing because I am in the unfortunate position of having to agree with much of it. This is less a triumph on the author's part and more a reflection on how disastrous the various truth movements have become. As a result of the large-scale illiteracy infecting those who would question the events of 9/11, many ridiculous notions have become commonplace memes. Aaronovitch goes right for them.
He describes a conversation with the alleged MI5 whistleblower David Shayler, who has been promoted by Alex Jones and Webster Tarpley, among others, in which he makes the absurd statement that a "cigar-shaped missile" struck the World Trade Center.  He invokes Dylan Avery's popular film Loose Change, itself an easy target because of numerous factual errors and its endorsement of the no-plane-hit-the-Pentagon theory. This leads naturally into the work of Thierry Meyssan, who invented the no-plane theory, and then Aaronovitch uses this same theory to undermine David Ray Griffin, who gave and continues to give credence to it. Meyssan, of course, has been linked to Michael Collins Piper, and to the right-wing American Free Press and Christopher Bollyn.  The anti-Jewish nature of AFP is apparent to anyone familiar with the publication, which is also a trait of Eric Hufschmid, who produced one of the first films about 9/11 called Painful Questions. There are a couple of pages dedicated to Tarpley, who although he has reportedly left the LaRouchies behind, continues to believe in a worldview indistinguishable from LaRouche, with a powerful and controlling central government producing Star Wars defense systems and nuclear plants.
Now Aaronovitch doesn't do a particularly good job of attacking these people – it is, for the most part, guilt-by-association – but in fact there is little I can say in their defense. I have dealt with a couple of these folks personally, and from my reading of the situation they arguably have done more damage than help in the 9/11 investigation. However, this could not have happened without the hordes of eager followers who read too little and watch too much. Aaronovitch doesn't even exploit what may be the most incredible person to emerge from all this – Ace Baker – whose theory includes holographic planes at the Pentagon and WTC. As Horatio once said to Hamlet, "T'would be to consider too curiously to consider so." And people continue to eat it up, not recognizing the contradiction in uniting behind a charismatic leader to oppose fascism.
The author does not deal with Peter Dale Scott's The Road to 9/11 nor with the more credible sections of Mike Ruppert's Crossing the Rubicon because in doing so he would come up against the real questions of 9/11: the lack of military response, Norman Mineta's testimony about Dick Cheney and the Pentagon plane, the fact that the Patriot Act was written prior to 9/11, the various business interests that gained from the attacks much the way Bell Helicopter profited from Vietnam. He doesn't deal with these issues and he doesn't have to, because the 9/11 movement has given him holograms and holes to fight instead.
OCCAM'S RAZOR AND THE 'TRIUMPH OF NARRATIVE'
At some point in all of these books, there comes a point where the author must assert that conspiracists are psychologically damaged in comparison with the well-adjusted author. That happens a few times over the course of the book in different guises.
One tool that the author uses is to bring in Occam's Razor. I have written about this particular device at length elsewhere,  but the main point is to remember that Occam's Razor is a bit of advice that may or may not be useful depending on the context. It is entirely useless in biology, for example. It also depends heavily on what one means by the "simplest explanation." For example, in the 9/11 attacks, the "simplest explanation" is said to involve a man on kidney dialysis who trains and inspires a team of devout Muslims from a cave in Afghanistan and never mind his long ties with the CIA, the Bush family, the fact that his followers apparently enjoyed drink and drugs,  wrote suicide notes that appeared to contradict Islam,  and so on. Trying to find the simplest model for something may or may not be a fruitful approach depending on circumstances.
The other tool is best exemplified by his discussion of a British biologist (yes, a biologist, but leave that aside for the moment) called Lewis Wolpert who theorizes that human beings have a "cognitive imperative" to attribute causes to the events of the world. The biologist tells us that all human beings have "a strong tendency to make a causal story to provide an explanation ... ignorance about important causes is intolerable." This represents, says this biologist, the "triumph of narrative." 
There is little more than a restatement of Hume (and a pinch of Foucault) in this, but we should first note that if we take Wolpert seriously, we not only destroy religious belief but undermine science as well. Wolpert proposes a torch, but his torch is actually a flamethrower, burning down all possibilities of understanding the world. If he is correct, we will always be projecting our private consciousness onto everything like the conspiracies proposed by the heroes of Umberto Eco's hilarious novel Foucault's Pendulum.
What Aaronovitch wants to do, of course, is assert that opposition to the state will always follow a fantastical pattern desired by the conspiracists. Once again, however, his perspective on the issue has unintended consequences. In his chapter on the Moscow Trials, he reports how people were convinced of the guilt of the parties in the dock, and how the German novelist Lion Feuchtwanger gradually became convinced of the reverse. Feuchtwanger describes how he heard "what they said and how they said it," and that "I was forced to accept the evidence of my senses and my doubts melted away ..."  Does Aaronovitch take this opportunity to explain that Feuchtwanger is a conspiracy theorist, in opposition to consensus reality, and that his certainty is simply a symptom of his derangement? He does not. What is the difference? The identity of the state apparatus. Aaronovitch, like the Western press generally, is willing to accept conspiracy theories as they appear in other countries. Think back to when there was much speculation about Vladimir Putin's role in the assassination of a political rival or Gerald Posner himself when discussing a possible Saudi conspiracy. 
TO THE MAN
To his credit, Aaronovitch does not engage in specific name-calling the way some have done in identifying certain people as idiots or lunatics. He is far too subtle for that. He works at creating associations to undermine the serious by lumping them in with the unserious. I will do him the same credit here. However, since he does decide to psychoanalyze conspiracy theorists, albeit with the assistance of a biologist, permit me to place him on the couch for a moment.
The son of a well-known Communist and anti-American comic book activist, Aaronovitch grew up as a Communist himself. He staged a protest in 1975 as part of the Manchester team on a UK television show called University Challenge, in which he and his fellows answered every question with the name of a revolutionary.  However, like Christopher Hitchens, after 9/11 he ceased being a leftist gadfly and became a raving warmonger, arguing that the Iraq War was justified simply to remove Saddam even if no WMDs were found.  Even when the scale of the disaster was evident, he refused to back down:
The government has lost a great deal of trust precisely because the weapons haven't been found, and because the Gilliganesque charge that Number 10 somehow lied about their presence, has stuck. The trouble is that I find – partly as a result of the Hutton inquiry (the evidence, not the report) – that I don't believe the government did lie. As the MoD intelligence dissident, Brian Jones, wrote to the Independent last week, "I cast no doubt on Mr Blair's integrity. He evidently believed that Iraq possessed a significant stockpile of chemical or biological weapons and expected them to be recovered during or soon after the invasion... such a discovery would have enhanced, rather than undermined, 'the global fight against weapons proliferation'." 
Of course this was nonsense, and the Blair government made no errors in analysis. They lied, as did the Bush administration.  And eventually Tony Blair resigned his position to take a job at J.P. Morgan.  We should not, of course, draw any conclusions from this.
If we wanted to be amateur psychoanalysts, we could say that Mr. Aaronovitch is protesting too much; that is, that the former Communist is now bending over to prove his moderate credentials. And that he has become so blinded in his confusion that he now refuses to conform to reality in drawing his conclusions, continuing to defend the insanely corrupt Blair government despite voluminous physical evidence showing it to be a cesspool. He also reaches to defend the decision to remove Saddam because of the leader's inherent evil, while not dealing with any of the geopolitical consequences in any sort of serious fashion. He thus transmutes himself into a less masculine version of Ann Coulter.
At one point in his book, Aaronovitch points out that "from 1933 to 1963, only Eisenhower was not the target of assassins."  He doesn't count the attempted overthrow of the Roosevelt government in this analysis, although one easily could.  He also doesn't draw the conclusion that the U.S. is some sort of banana republic, given this history; instead, he notes how it provides ample evidence that America produces unmotivated psychopathy at a rate unparalleled in the Western world.
And this really gets us to the crux of the matter. In order to believe Aaronovitch, you have to take a long string of incidents and pretend they are of no consequence in American history. JFK orders withdrawal from Vietnam, fires Allen Dulles, and is murdered on November 22, 1963. In 1965, Malcolm X is shot to death, shortly after the pilgrimage to Mecca that greatly changed his views on racial conflicts in society. On April 4, 1967, MLK begins to attack the Vietnam War directly in a great speech called "A Time to Break Silence." On April 4, 1968, King is shot to death. Bobby Kennedy is running for President at the time. In June of 1968, he is shot to death. Fred Hampton and Mark Clark of the Black Panthers are shot to death in December of 1969. Huey Newton goes to prison, Bobby Seale goes through his infamous trial, Stokely Carmichael is forced out of the country during the 1970s. The Democratic National Convention of 1968 is a disaster, paving the way for both Kevin Phillips's Southern strategy and a Nixon administration that changes the face of politics. There is no one for the left to unite under, although there is a lukewarm coalition behind Allard Lowenstein. Lowenstein was certainly not in the class of these former men, and in fact was a CIA informant,  but he was nonetheless shot to death himself in 1980. Also murdered in 1980 was John Lennon, not a political figure as such but greatly feared by the Nixon administration, and hated by an FBI that tried to deport him numerous times. Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to receive public office in the United States, is shot to death in 1978.
Now at the same time that this is happening, we have an insane war in Vietnam, the oil shocks of the 1970s, and a vast wave of rightward movement culminating in Reagan's "morning in America" in the 1980 election campaign. After that, the right-wing has enough momentum to continue demolishing the left to such an extent that even when Bill Clinton is elected President, Clinton's liberalism can hardly be said to exist in comparison to people like Dr. King or the latter-day Bobby Kennedy. Liberalism, in effect, is wiped out. Aaronovitch invokes the book The Assassinations but fails to deal with the evidence in favor of its basic premise, which is that there was an internal war against the Left to prevent what would have been a revolution.
In order to decry this as some sort of conspiratorial fantasy, you have to say that none of this matters, that none of it had any real effect on history (the Chomsky structuralist interpretation), and to hold that believing otherwise makes you crazy. But look at what this means. In an ordinary criminal investigation, the closest parties to a murdered person become suspects. That is, if a woman is killed and she is married, all things being equal, the husband most likely did it. Children, overwhelmingly, are molested, beaten, and killed by their parents and not by strangers. That is because human beings operate from internal motives; they generally don't kill at random or from a sociopathic perspective.
But it's even worse than this. This line of reasoning suggests that the higher the stakes, the more likely it is that a murder is committed for no motive. In other words, it is reasonable to suggest that a guy who desperately needs money to pay rent might rob a liquor store, but to suggest that Lyndon Johnson (for example) had Kennedy killed in order to become President of the United States is unreasonable. This is illogical. Obviously, the greater the stakes, the more attractive criminal undertakings become. The history of Europe is filled with the devious murders of kings for the purpose of usurpation; just read Shakespeare.
The inherent lie in Aaronovitch's work is that it is in any sense an honest review of "conspiracy theory." I have many problems with this phrase in general, but putting those aside for the moment, the reason that there are conspiracy theories is because those models fit reality better than other models. For example, in the JFK case, there is a Warren Commission model that has been falsified by thousands of pieces of evidence out together in painstaking fashion by those who care about truth. In the course of this arose other models that attempt to better explain what happened, and some are no doubt closer than others. This is normal science. The distinction is that the WC model has a political value attached to it which is not dependent on its truth value.
If the author had truly been serious about writing an overview of conspiracies, he might have left behind the large package of straw men gathered in this book. He might have instead chosen from any number of real historical events, such as the 1846 invasion of Mexico led by Zachary Taylor, the 1898 bombing of the Maine leading to the Spanish-American War, Operation Paperclip, Operation Gladio, the Manhattan Project, the coup of Salvador Allende, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Iran Contra ... there are endless examples, of which these are but a few. In doing so, he might have been to construct a model of how such things are done and thus produced some valuable work.
It's obvious why he doesn't go into these other cases. For example, he doesn't say anything about the RFK case in his book, because if you simply list the agreed-upon facts in order, any idiot can see that Sirhan didn't kill RFK. It's physically impossible. Aaronovitch has produced a book that resembles talk radio, in that it speaks in a mocking tone designed to appeal to an audience confident in their conclusions and unacquainted with evidence. In so doing he produces another in a long assembly line of tomes purporting to enlighten but instead steeped in a smear campaign.
In a final bit of irony, Aaronovitch ends his book by using a long quote by the historian Stephen Ambrose, in which Ambrose complains that conspiratorial thinking led to the conditions that created McCarthy.  Why is this ironic? Because, rather like the disingenuous hack Gerald Posner, Ambrose was a serial plagiarist.  He, also like Posner, was heavily criticized for the shoddy research work that went into his books.  There was also the ugly incident involving James Bacque, for whom Ambrose had been a mentor. Bacque discovered evidence in the Soviet archives that Dwight Eisenhower had allowed Russian soldiers to starve to death while outside in prison camps. Ambrose initially supported the work, but then later denounced it, as Ambrose's best known work was his allegedly definitive biography of Eisenhower.  Aaronovitch's use of Ambrose is therefore very apt indeed. He was the perfect example of the modern American historian, a plagiarist maintaining the consensus by means of covering his eyes and ears.
Aaronovitch learned his lessons well. Ultimately, Voodoo Histories is a perfect illustration in the art of not paying attention.
John F. Kennedy, speech at American University, 10 June 1963.
National Security Action Memorandum No. 273.
Neil Baldwin, Henry Ford and the Jews (Public Affairs: NY 2001), 284.
For Jones and Makow, see http://www.prisonplanet.com/121504makow.html; for Cooper, see his book Behold a Pale Horse (Light Technology Publishing: Flagstaff, AZ: 1991), where he instructs the reader to replace the word "Jew" with "Illuminati" and the word "goyim" with "cattle." No joke.
David Aaronovitch, Voodoo Histories: The Role of Conspiracy in Shaping Modern History (Penguin: NY 2010), 268.
James DiEugenio, Reclaiming Parkland.
See The Plot to Seize the White House by Jules Archer & War is a Racket by Smedley Butler. The story is also retold in the superb documentary The Corporation.
See The Pied Piper by Richard Cummings (Imprint.com, 1985).