Book Review: Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch

I have a little game I play when I go into book stores. First I make a prediction, then I head over to the history section and see if my prediction is on the ball or not. My prediction will be how many books of pseudo-history, works of outright fiction, conspiracy theories and tirades on politics have been jammed into the history section.

In the introduction to Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History by David Aaronovitch, the reality that conspiracy theories are enjoying widespread credulity is highlighted as Aaronovitch points out

“Books alleging secret plots appear on the current affairs and history shelves as though they were as scholarly or reliable as works by major historians or noted academics.”

Voodoo Histories is a fascinating read in which Aaronovitch takes us through close to a dozen major conspiracies examining their origins, who they appealed to, how people believed them, and why they took root. His analyse takes place within the realm of historic research, fact checking, foot noting, and eviscerating the sloppy reasoning of some major conspiracy theorists.

Aaronovitch himself is a UK journalist who has a column in The Times (UK) with a background in History. I’m not sure if Aaronovitch is aware of the skeptical movement, but I suspect he would appreciate it.

The book addresses one or more major conspiracy theories each chapter.  Sometimes the conspiracies are related, as in the case of conspiracies of Pearl Harbour being orchestrated by the Roosevelt administration and the rise of the era of McCarthyism. Other times, Aaronovitch uses only the same theme while covering multiple conspiracy theories, as in the case where he discusses the assassination of President Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana.

Aaronovitch opens with an explanation of what a conspiracy theory is. He relates some of his personal experience with conspiracy theorists, including Kevin, who believed the moon landing was a hoax. After some inspection of possible definitions of conspiracy theories, he lays out what he considers the most accurate way of describing them. A conspiracy theory is “the attribution of deliberate agency to something more likely to be accidental or unintended.”

In the first chapter Aaronovitch discusses the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He begins the chapter with some scene setting, describing the Europe after the First World War and the political, social and economic climate that existed across the continent. Helping the reader to understand the spread of the conspiracy he also discusses a common trend of conspiracy theories, cui bono - Latin for who benefits. Since the Great War seemed to leave nations in disarray, lives destroyed, and everyone except the banks and die-hard capitalists in dire straits. Clearly, it follows that whoever benefited most, probably had a hand in creating the situation.

Aaronovitch traces the origins of the Protocols, follows the path they made across Europe and eventually to North America. He delves into the convoluted history of their creation and eventual perpetuating of the fraudulent document to a waiting audience looking for someone to blame.

History buffs will appreciate his level of detail and his ability to touch on several different themes and ideas throughout his writing. However, those with less of a background in history may find him hard to follow at times. Because of the thorny issue that those who create conspiracy theories often use pseudonyms and belong to complicated organizations with long names, it can be hard at times to keep it all straight.

Like in all chapters, Aaronovitch divides the content into different sections, usually with a detailed explanation of who would have believed it. Noticeably missing is a detailed debunking of the conspiracy theory. While he does provide counter examples and its generally made clear why a particular conspiracy theory is wrong, don’t expect any in-depth analysis, for example a chemical breakdown of steel’s melting point when 9/11 myths are discussed.

However, I found myself appreciating the lack of major debunking. As a skeptic who’s reasonably well informed, I’m already aware of why most major conspiracy theories are wrong and if Aaronovitch had included every rational counter argument, it would have been a far slower read and potentially a bit of old hat for skeptics.

In the second chapter Aaronovitch delves into the conspiracies surrounding the Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Centre trials in the Soviet Union. Another example of material that history fans may already be familiar with but newcomers to Soviet history might find daunting. If there is a downside to Aaronovitch’s historic writings is the amount of back story and context he gives. For example, it is not clearly stated what conspiracy theory he will be talking about at the start of each chapter. Sometimes it’s not pages in that it becomes clear precisely what this chapter is about.

In chapter three he addresses the conspiracy theory that Pearl Harbour was either a directly organized false flag attempt by the Roosevelt administration or, at the very least, that the administration was criminally negligent in allowing the attack to happen. The goal in either case was to gain pretext to bring the United States into a war with Japan and Nazi Germany.

Aaronovitch does not hesitate to point out some clear flaws with this theory.

“First, rested on the assumption that the Japanese needed to be provoked into making a surprise attack and sudden declaration of war. Second, there was the absurd risk involved in provoking an attack: a risk that you might be taken utterly by surprise and defeated – not at all (even for the perfidious Roosevelt) the object of the enterprise.” – 103.

The chapter is also a good example of how Aaronovitch can move within theme and timeframe and highlight other factors that relate conspiracies. In this chapter populism, anti-corporationism, and anti free masonism also lead to discussing the rise of the McCarthyism era of American politics.

He paints an interesting picture, showing how these trends will shade and colour conspiracies throughout history. Populism leads to distrust of the elite, which leads to believing that if you weren’t “the little guy”, you were trying to screw “the little guy.”

In chapter four he deals with the many conspiracy theories that revolve around the Kennedy assassination. In discussing the different theories and evidence, Aaronovitch also throws in some facts from history. The notion of a lone gunman is often cited as impossible by cover-up proponents. And yet, throughout history lone gunman have either attempted to kill or succeeded in killing President Garfield, President McKinley, mayor of Chicago Anton Cermak, govern of Louisiana Huey Long, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Taking the theme of assassination further, in the same chapter, Aaronovitch also discusses the death of Marilyn Monroe, perhaps because of her unique relationship with President Kennedy. He also discusses the alleged assassination of Princess Diana.

Conspiracy theories transcend politics. You’ll find conspiracy theories held mostly by people on the political left, theories mostly held by people on the right, and even theories that ignore the left – right divide and focus on ideas or concepts. Aaronovitch tries to provide focus on a bit of everything. He cuts deep on conspiracy theories on both sides of the political spectrum and takes on complex topics like when he discusses the possible murder of an anti-nuclear activist in the UK or secret organizations like the FBI or CIA.

In the aptly titled chapter 6 “Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Holy Shit” Aaronovitch addresses one of my favourite conspiracies (favourite, in the sense that I enjoy debunking it)  That being the intriguing notion that Jesus Christ had a wife and the Catholic Church has been covering up her existence these past 2000 years.

Touching on The Holy Blood, and the Holy Grail, as well as The Da Vinci Code and a host of Knights Templar myths, he dives into the surprisingly silly history of this particular conspiracy theory. What’s delightful about this chapter (and the book) is that Aaronovitch’s biting humour pops up to counter the potential depressing nature of these conspiracy theories.

“In a large number of bookshops, The Holy Blood was elevated from the unrespectable realms of “New Age” or “Spiritual” (i.e., analytically worthless) books, and placed in either “History” or “Archaeology.” It leapfrogged over the alien abductions, the anal probes, and Atlantis exotica, to land in the world of scholarship.” -  212.

However, for me, what really impresses me is Aaronovitch’s astute understanding of why conspiracy theories are perversions of actual historic inquiry. Consider the quote he takes from Holy Blood describing their method of research:

“…For such an undertaking the techniques of academic scholarship were sorely inadequate. To make the requisite connections between radically diverse bodies of subject matter we were obliged to adopt a more comprehensive approach, based on synthesis rather than conventional styles.”

Aaronovitch, seeing through this babble of pseudo-history writes:

“it was the authors’ theories that required links to be made that normal standards of analysis weren’t going to permit…the authors abandoned scholarly methods of analysis, describing…their alternative method as ‘a more comprehensive approach’.” -  214-215.

In chapter seven, Aaronovitch attempts to navigate the 9/11 conspiracies. This might be one of the few areas where I thought he came up a bit short. However due to the fact that my prior knowledge of the 9/11 conspiracies are a bit more comprehensive, it’s possible there isn’t a lot of new information out there. That being said, Aaronovitch traces through a number of key elements of the “Truther’s” movement and examines some big players like David Ray Griffin whose book The New Pearl Harbour really legitimized the 9/11 conspiracy myths, especially in the eyes of many academics.

There is a bit more debunking in the 9/11 chapter although it’s not an exhaustive review of all the literature, nevertheless its sufficient to explain some of the main claims of “Truther’s.” He’s particularly good at pointing out the methodological problems of such conspiracy theories.

“[Griffin's argument] 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.” – 277.

Aaronovitch tends to move chapter to chapter between conspiracy theories on both sides of the Atlantic. Some of the conspiracies may be well known to British skeptics but unknown to audiences in North America and vice versa. I think this is an added boon to readers who might be tired of reading about the same old conspiracies again and again. I found his chapter on the death of Dr. David Kelly quite interesting. Dr. Kelly was an weapons of mass destruction inspector for the British government. He was found dead and after the official investigation it was deemed suicide. Or so they said…

Reverting back to a uniquely American conspiracy, Aaronovitch discusses the mystery of Barak Obama’s heritage. Was he born an American citizen or was he born in some other country? Like in most of the chapters the subject will shift slightly, while it starts off with a discussion of Obama’s birth, it shifts to the character of Joe Farah, a conservative evangelical Christian who has contributed to many of conspiracy theories about the political left in America. From the “Birther’s” to the accusations that Bill Clinton was a murderer.

Billboard by Joe Farah's organization

Thematically this chapter suggests how fringe views and conspiracies can get adopted by mainstream media and somehow infect the public perception.  This point is hammered home with discussion on tragedies like the Oklahoma bombings and the suicide of Vince Foster, a deputy White House Counsel.

Aaronovitch closes his book with a final epilogue discussing another fellow he met who claims to be a skeptic but buys into the myths of The Da Vinci Code, as well as the notion of skeptics being open minded, familiar turf for most skeptics I would think, comes up at last. After reading that I’m quite convinced that Aaronovitch would find himself in good company at a Skeptics in the Pub.

Over all I would highly recommend Voodoo Histories to interested readers. Not only is it an excellent review of some major conspiracy theories but it offers some new material and perhaps a different take on conspiracy theories compared to books written by outted skeptics. One won’t find in depth debunking of the conspiracy theories, if you’re looking for such information this probably isn’t the book for you. However if you’re interested in a more scholarly analysis of why certain conspiracy theories have stood the test of time and even infiltrated the halls of academia, this book is for you.

Perhaps the best reason to read Voodoo Histories is the striking and enlightening passages in which Aaronovitch delves into the historiography of conspiracy theories, including a marvellous analogy, if history is written by the victors, conspiracy theories are written by the losers of history. The following has such potential, I sincerely hope that Aaronovitch or other historians follow this inkling:

“to suggest that the truth or otherwise of conspiracy theories is less important than their existence, because they are, properly analyzed, an expression of an underlying reality” – 360.

Whether the rise of post-modernism or even anti-empiricism ever truly endangers scientific progress remains to be seen, however their effect on the field of history and other social sciences has delivered a blow they may never recover from.  As a skeptic the idea that conspiracy theories may one day become as valid as real historic research leaves me with a sinking feeling encapsulated by this passage in the book:

“If all narratives are relative, then we are lost. Widespread anti-Semitic fantasies may have reflected the plight of Germans, may even have been their ‘soul’s version of the truth’ in the post-1918 period, but they were still fantasies, and the failure to counter them, or to see the fantasies themselves creating terrible political realities, proved totally catastrophic. Relativism doesn’t care to distinguish between the scholarly and the slapdash, the committed researcher and the careless loudmouth, the scrupulous and the demagogic.” – 364 – 345.

Sadly, my predictions for my game in book stores have been getting larger. Hopefully with books like Voodoo Histories out, those predictions will start to go down a bit.

2 Responses to “Book Review: Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch”

  1. John Greg says:

    I’m curious: As almost the only bookstores we have left in Vancouver, and the rest of Canada perhaps, are owned, operated, and stocked by that sociopath Heather Reisman, what bookshops, other than hers, and of course King’s Book Warehouse, have you been able to play this with? Have you tried this in any of the many second hand bookshops we have around town?

    From your review this book sounds like an interesting, entertaining, if sonewhat light-weight read. I think I’ll pick it up.

    You said:

    “The notion of a lone gunman is often cited as impossible by cover-up proponents. And yet, throughout history lone gunman have either attempted to kill or succeeded in killing President Garfield, President McKinley, mayor of Chicago Anton Cermak, govern of Louisiana Huey Long, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.”

    Just for the sake of Skeptical Clarity™, it should be pointed out that the claims of “cannot have been a lone gunman” refer specifically to the Kennedy assasination claimed theories regarding the various claimed impossibilities of the multiple shots that are claimed to have come from different directions. Your tie-in with the other shootings is, if I’ve got this right, either a strawman or a false diochotomy. As far as I know, no one has ever made such claims regarding those other shootings.

    Regarding The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, and The Da Vinci Code, I had a friend who tried to convince me that The Da Vinci Code was a true-life tale for which Brown had researched book using The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail as his primary source. I had a very difficult time not laughing at this poor sod, but gave an honest attemept to straighten him out. He did not, and does not, belive me. He insists that I am just a cynical doubter, etc.

    Thanks for the review.

  2. Ethan Clow says:

    @John,
    Generally I visit my local Chapters or Indigo books and my game can be easily played there. In some ways its harder to play at UBC’s bookstore but not impossible. Generally speaking, I haven’t noticed a huge difference in books being sold at a Chapters vs an independent book store.

    With regards to the lone gunman quote, I was paraphrasing from Aaronovitch who was implying that claims that Kennedy couldn’t have been assassinated by a lone gunman is not consistent or supported by historic evidence.

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  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.