Thursday, April 28, 2011

Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History by David Aaronovitch REVIEW

Wow.  It wasn’t until I sat down to write this that I realized that both books reviewed this week are by authors who share a last name.  I have no idea if they are related, though.  Looks like it’s Aaronvitch week here at So I Read This Book…

I bought this book in a shop on the Venice Beach boardwalk a couple of months ago.  It was a little indie bookstore with some neat, offbeat books.  But it was this title, Voodoo History, that caught my eye.   Now, I’m not much for conspiracy theories beyond - is it a good story?  I have friends who can talk for hours about who killed Kennedy and I just let it go in one ear and out the other.  My neighbor is a 9/11 truther and I can’t listen to him with a straight face but there was something about the subtitle, The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, that intrigued me.  Most conspiracy theories I just shrug off but to learn what kind of impact they had on our society and how they have influenced events?  Sign me up!

Aaronovitch looks at some of the more popular conspiracy theories, both left and right, of the last century and asks why do people believe them, especially when they are easily proven false?  From the Protocols of Zion to Pearl Harbor, from JFK to Princess Diana, from 9/11 to Obama’s birth certificate, Aaronovitch examines them all in great detail and in debunking them, reminds us that the simplest theory is often the correct one.

Yet, people persist in believing some fucked up shit.  Some of this has to do with ignorance, some of it is simply a way for people to comprehend horrific events, and some of it is because of heinous acts that have occurred in the past.  While I do not believe that AIDS was started by the government, I can understand why someone would believe it in light of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. 

Aaronovitch considers conspiracy theories “history for losers”.  As for conspiracists… They are the America Firsters, who got the war they didn’t want; the Midwest populists watching their small farmers go out of business; the opponents of the New Deal; the McGovern liberals in the era of Richard Nixon; British socialists and pacifists in the decade of Margaret Thatcher; the irreconcilable American right during the Clinton administration; the shattered American left in the time of the second Bush.

Most conspiracy theories originate and are perpetuated by educated people who want to believe that events beyond their control are in reality controlled by an unseen hand(s).  One only has to look hard enough for the truth to be revealed.  Conspiracy theories make sense out of the senseless and bring purpose to seemingly random events. 

Unfortunately, what should have been an exciting topic was often a little dull. Don’t get me wrong.  I found the chapters on the Protocols of Zion and 9/11 of particular interest.  And the chapter on the death of David Kelly was illuminating.  I had followed that story for a brief time after he was found dead and was under the impression that it may not have been a suicide.  It was an eye-opener to see how faulty the conspiracy evidence is.

However, other parts such as the Moscow Show Trials and the chapter on the death of anti-nuclear activist Hilda Murrell were a bit of a slog for me.  Aaronovitch’s research is solid but the writing is convoluted and the tone, occasionally mocking.  The result is a book that is a little dry, a little snarky and slow paced.  For such an emotionally charged subject, I found this surprising.  I expected more.
Grade: C

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