Saturday, May 8, 2010

Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch

Mr. Aaronovitch reports and exposes the fallacies of a great number of conspiracy theories beginning with what is perhaps the grand-daddy of them all in modern times, The Protocols of the Elder's of Zion and which remains in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways a foundation for subsequent theories such as FDR's supposed foreknowledge of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the activities of the HUAC committees and Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1940s and in certain "9/11 Truther" circles today. Here is a limited representation of his concluding analysis.

If the preceding chapters have demonstrated anything, it must be that conspiracy theories originate and are largely circulated among the educated and the middle class. The imagined model of an ignorant, priest-ridden peasantry or proletariat, replacing religious or superstitious belief with equally far-fetched notions of how society works, turns out to be completely wrong. It has typically been the professors, the university students, the artists, the managers, the journalists, and the civil servants who have concocted and disseminated the conspiracies. One thinks here of the readers of the New York Review of Books settling down with Professor Richard H. Popkin's theory of the two Oswalds, the BBC's Chronicle programs about the lost blood-lines of the Merovingian descendants of Jesus Christ ( and Dan Brown's phenomenal best seller The Da Vicinci Code) or British MP's breathless retailing of anonymous insider tip-offs about murderous British intelligence agencies. Suburban backyard barbecues in America are often apt to sound like a convention of spooks!

Once, while I was writing this book, I dined with a senior member of the drama department at the University of Winchester. I told him that one of the things I found interesting about conspiracy theories was the need for a narrative that they suggested. "Ah, yes," he said "You should read Mamet."

"It is in our nature to dramatize," Mamet wrote in his fourth collection of essays. We need to construct, or have constructed, dramas and stories for ourselves. Therapists and psychoanalysts know the truth of this. Their patients, like the rest of us, invariably have a story about the inexplicable or mundane aspects of their lives. As Mamet points out, ' we will have a story even if it means giving characteristics to the elemental. So even the weather is personal and we both understand it and exploit it as dramatic, i.e., having a plot, in order to understand its meaning for the hero, which is to say, for ourselves.'

This is not some kind of occasional preference, done merely to keep ourselves entertained. Mamet observes that just as children use up the last of the day's energy jumping around, "the adult equivalent, when the sun goes down, is to create or witness drama - which is to say to order the universe into a comprehensible form. Our sundown play/film/gossip is the day's last exercise of that survival mechanism...We will have drama in that spot, and if it's not forthcoming we will cobble it together out of nothing." Biologists have suggested that the compulsion to create a story is a "cognitive imperative", creating indispensable explanations even when the causal beliefs that construct those explanations are mutually incompatible.

So we need a story and may even be programed to create it. But why are certain types and structures of story more successful, more satisfying than others? One possible answer is that a successful story either represents the way we think things should happen, or is the best explanation we can get of why they didn't. A New York fire chief asked to account for the various theories surrounding the collapse of the World Trade Center attributed them to the disappointment of people's belief in the omnipotence of the emergency services. "In the movies," he said, "its always wrapped up in the end." Or, As Norman Cohen puts it when discussing paranoid thought in his history of apocalyptic movements, people cannot accept "the ineluctable limitations and imperfections of human existence, such as transience, dissension, conflict, fallibility whether intellectual or moral".

The paradox is that, seen in this way, conspiracy theories are actually reassuring. They suggest that there is an explanation, that human agencies are powerful, and that there is order rather than chaos.... what if paranoia - classically viewed as the unwarranted belief that one is being persecuted - is actually the sticking plaster that we fix to a very different kind of wound? That of feeling ourselves to be of no importance whatsoever, and our lives (and especially our deaths) are of little real significance except to ourselves. Conspiracy theories may replace what the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz calls "the catastrophe of indifference."

There is a plausible argument to be made that, very often, conspiracy theories take root among the casualties of political, social or economic change. That they are derived from the concrete experience of modernity by losers who will not go softly into the night but instead rage against it. If it can be proved that there has been a conspiracy, which has transformed politics and society, then their defeat is not the product of their own inherent weakness or unpopularity, let alone their mistakes; it is due to the almost demonic ruthlessness of their enemy. The theories represent, in the words of the historian Richard Hofstadter, "psychological opportunity for conspiracists to project and freely express unacceptable aspects of their own minds, making "the enemy" into a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman: sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensuous and luxury loving." This is certainly true of the character of many conspiracy theorists themselves and of the way in which, at various times, they have depicted Jews, Communists, Trotskyites and big corporations.

While the opponent has magic powers, the hero must match these powers or else be inevitably doomed to defeat. If its the later, then forces of good, though overwhelmed, have their excuse: we were robbed.

This psychic cop-out has always irritated dissidents who are not conspiracists, with writers like I.F. Stone and Noam Chomsky in the United States and George Monbiot in the United Kingdom urging fellow radicals not to effectively rule themselves out of the great leftist struggle by following the false trails of the theorists. Conspiracy theories about 9/11 were a "coward's fantasy", wrote Monbiot, "an excuse for inaction used by those who don't have the stomach to engage in real political fights." The response from various corners of the conspiracist world was that Chomsky and Monbiot had become self-appointed "gatekeepers" whose purpose was to police the dissident movement so that it didn't do too much damage to the corrupt Establishment.

The argument of conspiracists often suggests 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, representing "a not entirely unfounded suspicion that the normal order of things itself amounts to a conspiracy. So they are valid and 'true' even if they are themselves actually false." ( Peter Knight). They may be " an ideological mis-recognition of power relations but just because the theories are wrong does not mean they are not on to something; they ideologically address real structural inequities, and constitute a response to a withering civil society and the concentration of the ownership of the means of production." ( Mark Fenster).

Such relativism is fine as long as the conspiracist fantasy is concocted by the "right" side and aimed, more or less, at people of whom you disapprove. It becomes much more problematic when the theorist is someone who is seen as being repulsive or dangerous and/or whose targets are people like yourself.

If all narratives are relative, then we are lost. Widespread anti-Semitic fantasies may have reflected the plight of the 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 as themselves creating terrible political realities, proved totally catastrophic. The "soul's version of the truth" doesn't care to distinguish between the scholarly and the slap-dash, the committed researcher and the careless loudmouth, the scrupulous and the demagogic. For that reason, it is hard to see how an insistence on "proper events" can ever be said to be dogmatic, or the refusal to insist can be anything other than treacherous.

1 comment:

  1. Three public figures get particular criticism for their insouciance towards conspiracy theory: Gore Vidal, Spike Lee and Glenn Loury. Gore Vidal the worse since he was a signatory to the "America First" petitions and kept up his insistence on FDR's 'conspiracy' or supposed foreknowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Spike Lee's movie about Katrina did not portray a conspiracy but he seems to have lent support to the idea in one interview. Glenn Loury's offense was a refusal to answer a question at a panel discussion for 'fear of undermining his credibility in the African-American Community.' Mr. Aronovitch sets a very high bar, I doubt there are many of who are able to get over it with perfect consistency since the idea of conspiracies is so ingrained in the public discourse....buyer beware!