A taste for gunmen on the grassy knoll

By Michael Washburn
Globe Correspondent / February 7, 2010

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In late 2006 I was thrust headlong into one of the most infamous episodes in American history: the conspiracy to commit and cover up the assassination of John F. Kennedy. For several decades Arthur Schlesinger Jr. taught at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. After retirement Schlesinger retained his office, just down the hall from mine. Hastily tearing through my mail one day, I inadvertently opened a letter intended for Schlesinger. Within lay three-paragraphs of madness, speculation, and baroque innuendo purporting to be a ballistics analysis that obliterated the Warren Commission’s jejune findings.

The letter bought into the persistent fantasy that the CIA, or the mob, or that anyone other than Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy. Despite the absurdity of its claims, for a brief moment, it was thrilling. What if there was something to this?

Given the popularity of conspiracy theories, not to mention the success of books and shows based on them, one could be forgiven for thinking half the country has received, and been ensorcelled by, such epistolary revelations. According to journalist David Aaronovitch, author of “Voodoo Histories: The Role of Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History,’’ we are suffering through a long age of “fashionable conspiracism” in which nearly any event of note, from the moon landing to President Obama’s birth, is subject to conspiracy theorizing.

“Voodoo Histories’’ lucidly reveals the weaknesses of several popular conspiracy theories, including the JFK-RFK-MLK assassination trifecta, the origin of the “Da Vinci Code,’’and Marilyn Monroe’s death. The book endeavors to explain why “the counterintuitive, the unlikely, and the implausible . . . have a better purchase on our imagination and beliefs than the real.”

At their most basic, Aaronovitch writes, conspiracy theories are, “the attribution of a secret action to one party that might far more reasonably be explained as the less covert and less complicated action of another.” Here’s a typical either/or. Which is more likely: that the US government has successfully orchestrated a four-decade hoax requiring the absolute silence of thousands of people, or that NASA successfully sent people to the moon?

Or consider the success of the 9/11 Truth movement. Forty-two percent of Americans believe the government has, according to Aaronovitch, “concealed or refused to investigate critical evidence that contradicts their official explanation of the September 11th attacks.” The percentage of Americans that believes the government colluded in the attacks isn’t much lower. In the 9/11 Truth literature, that people are skeptical of the official explanation becomes proof of the explanation’s corruption. This circularity typifies much conspiracy theory “logic.”

Unlike many writers who straw man their way through conspiracy discussions, Aaronovitch treats these ideas as more than florid gibberish. Most conspiracy theories, according to him, “originate and are largely circulated among the educated middle class,” not, as the same middle class assumes, some raving, slack-jawed peasantry. The cultural and political context from which these theories develop must be taken into account, and Aaronovitch, as thorough a researcher as he is a witty and muscular writer, goes further than most previous popular analysts of conspiracy theories.

The strongest chapter in “Voodoo Histories’’ dissects the loathsome Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the progenitor of modern conspiracy theory thinking. From the late 19th century to today, anti-Semites have deployed the Protocols as evidence of a Jewish plan for world domination. Aaronovitch spends considerable effort illuminating the dense tissue of lies and misinformation surrounding the claims. Plagiarized without subtlety from a now obscure French polemic directed at Napoleon III and placed into an anti-Jewish context, this pathetic cut-and-paste job morphed into the conspiracy theory that helped inspire the most horrific of actual conspiracies: the Final Solution of the Nazis.

That the Protocols are fake was well known before the Nazi’s rise to power. But in the words of the renowned anti-Semite Henry Ford, the Protocols “fit” the threat that people felt to be true regardless of the actual, literal truth.

What comes clear in “Voodoo Histories’’ is how much conspiracy theories are really confirmation theories, political or social myths that confirm anxieties. As Aaronovitch argues, “There is a more than plausible argument to be made that, very often conspiracy theories take root among the casualties of political, social and economic change.” This is particularly true in American political history, where our native populism has created factions eager to claim responsibility for successes, but even more eager to lay blame for failures at the feet of a rotating collection of scapegoats. Variously, New Deal liberals, African Americans, big business, Republicans, and most consistently, immigrants have been fitted for the black hat of conspiracy.

Under this interpretation, conspiracy theories are, in Aaronovitch’s subtle phrase, “History for losers.”

Michael Washburn is the assistant director of the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

VOODOO HISTORIES: The Role of Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History By David Aaronovitch

Riverhead, 388 pp., illustrated, $26.95