Conspiracy theories

I’ve just finished reading David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History.

It was an interesting read. Aaronovitch does well travelling through history, highlighting a whole range of historical conspiracy theories: the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Moscow trials, the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory,  the McCarthy fears, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, conspiracy theories about Marilyn Monroe’s death, the death of Princess Diana, the 9/11 truth movement and dozens of others.

Those sections are the bulk of the book, and they’re interesting as far as they go. For the most part Aaronovitch steps through them competently, and they’re mildly interesting. But the really interesting part, I think, is at the end, when Aaaronovitch steps through some of the theories and possibilities about why conspiracy theories exist.

One point he makes is that it isn’t always accurate to paint conspiracy theories as a set of illogical ideas that circulate among the disconnected and disenfranchised:

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 and 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. 

More broadly, he makes a fair point about how people and societies respond when the world changes in inexplicable ways:

There is a more than plausible argument to be made that, very often, conspiracy theories take root among the casualties  of political, social, or economic change … 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. 

He also argues that it can be useful to think of conspiracy theories as memes – although he doesn’t follow through in detail what that might mean, or when or how memes might be more or less likely to spread.

More broadly, he touches on the idea that we construct narratives (and conspiracy theories as a subset of narratives) because of our need to create order. Which again, is an interesting idea but that one he doesn’t explore fully.

I think the most interesting idea is one of the final ones he explores:

The paradox is that, seen 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. This makes redemption possible. 

He also drills down to an another interesting reason about why conspiracy theories may actually be attractive.

There is, however, another possible form of reassurance, of an altogether more personal kind. The classic view of paranoia, the unwarranted belief that one is being persecuted, is that it is a wholly negative state. But what if paranoia 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) of little real significance except to ourselves. 

The Lond0n-based American psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz believes this may be the case. He argues, after twenty-five years of practice, that paranoia may often be a defense against indifference, against the far more terrible thought that no one cares about you. The elderly, at a time of their lives when no one very much wonders what they think, often become classically paranoid, believing that someone wishes to rob or hurt them. The lonely person fears that there is a burglar or murderer in the empty house waiting for them … These fears disguise the truly obliterating disaster, the often well-founded fear that no one is thinking about them at all, what Grosz calls “the catastrophe of indifference”. 

For me, this was probably the most interesting material in the book. The historical discussion, while mildly interesting, is largely a summary retelling, and while they’re useful as examples, don’t feel particularly illuminating the way Aaronovitch uses them.

But while I found the analysis at the end interesting, it felt tacked on, and superficial. Yes, some of the ideas were interesting, but it’d be nice to have more to go off than the say-so of a psychoanalyst. Some more detailed, credible academic work would be nice, or a larger framework that the conspiracy theories were used to unpack.

Another interesting coincidence is that I finished reading the book a few days after Ahmad Chalabi died. Let me unpack a little on what I mean by that.

Ahmad Chalabi is a fascinating figure (there are summaries of varying quality in The GuardianThe New York TimesAljazeera and Buzzfeed). From what I’ve read, it seems like a key driving force in his life was the expulsion of his family from Iraq after the 1958 revolution:

Chalabi, a son of an aristocratic family, who lost its influence after the overthrow of the pro-Western Hashemite monarchy in 1958, naturally opposed the successive rulers of Iraq and openly called for the overthrow of Saddam. 

My understanding from what I’ve read is that Chalabi lobbied for years, in support of the idea that the United States should seek regime change in Iraq:

Mr. Chalabi’s relationship with the Americans stretched over decades. In 1998, he helped persuade Congress to pass the Iraq Liberation Act, which was signed by President Bill Clinton and declared it the policy of the United States to replace Mr. Hussein’s government with a democratic one.

The New York Times reports that:

A 2006 report by the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that “false information” from sources affiliated with the Iraqi National Congress [a group the Mr Chalabi was central in] “was used to support key intelligence community assessments on Iraq and was widely distributed in intelligence products prior to the war.” It found that the group “attempted to influence United States policy on Iraq by providing false information through defectors directed at convincing the United States that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and had links to terrorists.”

So. Taken in summary, it seems fair to say that an individual, working incredibly hard and effectively at lobbying key parts of the political system, had a significant influence on the US decision to invade Iraq. Whether he was the key influence, or whether his influence changed the decisions from what it might otherwise have been, is ultimately unknowable – it’s hard to imagine what a meaningful counterfactual would be. Importantly, too, I think the US Government decision makers were the key actors in that decision – to focus on Chalabi’s actions is not to elide their central responsibility.

But for all that, Chalabi clearly played a key role in the US decision; and in that sense, it seems reasonable to say that he had a disproportionately larger influence than the number who protested against the invasion. Starting from those premises, it seems fair to say that one individual with particular resources influenced major world decisions much more than others who might have opposed them, but didn’t have the same resources.

I wouldn’t call that a conspiracy theory. I’m not thinking of any secret meetings in dimly lit rooms, and most of the information is reasonably public, at least at this point. But at the same time it seems fair to say that the power structures were imbalanced; that people arguing against the invasion were unsuccessful in part because of a power structure that was imbalanced.

And I think, for all that it’s taken me a while to get there, that this is a point of view that Aaronovitch doesn’t really  engage with – or at least, not meaningfully. There is a section in his chapter on explanations where he talks a little about power structures, but he ultimately only discusses those that are factually wrong, born out of anger at other injustices. But he doesn’t really engage with the idea that sometimes, perhaps there are conspiracies. The US Government helped support regime change in Iran in 1953; I imagine there are a few other cases that are reasonably well documented.

Many conspiracy theories are vast, tangled, nonsensical webs strung together out of illogical connections. As Aaronovitch says, these can be damaging and even disastrous to innocent victims. But I think it’s a leap to say that all theories that aren’t widely accepted are false conspiracy theories; sometimes the strange and unusual is true.

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