Tuesday February 23rd, 2010

Shredding the X-Files

Book Review-Voodoo HistoriesReviewed:
Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History by David Aaronovitch
Riverhead, 400 pp., $26.95

No writer in the world knows better than David Aaronovitch how wearying it can be to follow the narration of a complex and patently implausible conspiracy theory. To research this book, he ingested tomes such as Chuck and Sam Giancana’s Double Cross, which recounts how Marilyn Monroe was killed by Mafia hit men “forcibly administering a Nembutal enema”; Ambrose Evans-Pritchard’s The Secret Life of Bill Clinton: The Unreported Stories, which argues that Clinton’s Arkansas was a “mini-Columbia within the United States, infested by narco-corruption”; and Webster G. Tarpley’s George Bush: The Unauthorized Biography, which predicted that the President’s clinical psychosis would be the defining issue of the 1992 election. A glance at Aaronovitch’s bibliography, if it doesn’t trigger pity, will inspire admiration for his fortitude and patience.

And he did it all for us – we readers who have always believed Marilyn Monroe died by suicide, Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy, and Roosevelt wasn’t informed days before Pearl Harbor of the Japanese plot; who have accepted, more or less on faith, official versions of history. Aaronovitch writes of the “millions of men and women who have found themselves on the wrong side of a bar or dinner-party conversation that begins, ‘I’ll tell you the real reason…’ and have sat there, knowing it was all likely to be nonsense but rarely having the necessary arguments to hand.”

Some readers may indeed use Voodoo Histories as a reference on conspiracy theories, from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamous text of “speeches” purported to prove a Jewish plot to rule the world to the anti-Obama “Birthers,” but in its attempt to be all-encompassing, the book is hobbled, and will likely reproduce in many people some of the frustration and fatigue Aaronovitch must have experienced during his years of excruciating background reading.

He crowds most chapters with more swift outlines of conspiracy theories and capsule biographies of the people who concoct them than most readers will be able to stomach. Chapter six, which traces the fraudulent genealogy of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, is typically packed. Toward the end of the chapter, Aaronovitch squeezes in a section, subtitled “A Brief History of Pseudo-Scholars,” that summarizes the ideas of Erich von Daniken, a Swiss hotelier whose 1967 best-selling Chariots of the Gods asserts that aliens who rode motorbikes once inhabited Easter Island and Chiapas, and Immanuel Velikovsky, who purported that the Mosaic Plagues described in the Book of Exodus were caused by the planet Venus’ near contact with Earth. This all comes on the heels of profiles of the “mellifluous” Henry Lincoln, one of the writers of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (a book Brown was accused of plagiarizing), Pierre Plantard, the “dotty” schemer who arranged for the forging of parchments detailing a secret society of blood descendants of Jesus, and many other charlatans upon whose shoulders Brown’s fortunes rest.

There must be a technical term for the reaction that occurs when, having processed dozens and dozens of bogus facts, one’s mind gives out. But perhaps “satiety” will do; it’s the word Aaronovitch uses to describe how Britons felt after years of feeding on conspiracy theories about Princess Diana’s death. Readers of Voodoo Histories will be so sated by the time they reach the end of chapter eight, in which Aaronovitch moves from allegations of debauched malfeasance in Clinton’s Arkansas to Waco to charges of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ complicity in the Oklahoma City bombings, that they won’t be particularly interested to learn what, on the day of his suicide believed by some to be a government-sponsored murder, Vince Foster had eaten for lunch. (He’d eaten meat and potatoes, which suggested to some that he’d eaten lunch out, and not in his office as his aides claimed.)

The problem isn’t the sheer volume of information Aaronovitch layers on, but that he usually delivers it without creating any suspense. He tends to debunk theories as soon as he introduces them, which might make rational sense but doesn’t satisfy a craving for story. His treatment of the bizarre career of Georgy Leonidovich Pyatakov is an illuminating exception to this tendency. Pyatakov was a Trotskyite-turned-Stalinist-bureaucrat in the early Soviet period who systematically sabotaged his country’s burgeoning infrastructure and industry, disrupting train traffic and building a worker’s settlement near an industrial plant with the aim of endangering its residents’ health. Aaronovitch writes with a sense of urgency about Pyatakov’s clandestine meetings with Leon Sedov, Trotsky’s son, at cafés in Berlin and, later, with Trotsky himself in Oslo, and of a letter Pyatakov received that was carried from Germany in the bottom of a fellow dissident’s shoe. The tale is gripping, as any good conspiracy theory is, and it may penetrate some readers’ defenses. In the midst of reading about Pyatakov’s treachery, I had to flip back a few pages to confirm that Aaronovitch had introduced it as “the story that came out at the trial,” and not as genuine history.

More reports from the field – from book tours, from conventions – would have made the book more lively, and would have helped to answer the most interesting question Voodoo Histories points toward: are the people who make their livings concocting conspiracy theories careerist performers or are they sincere in their often unaccountable beliefs? Do they remove their masks when they’re off stage?

The opening of the chapter on 9/11 theories, reported from a 9/11 Truth event at London’s Friends House, is a promising departure, but the account is brief. A few pages later, Aaronovitch is sharing a salad lunch with a man named Bob, who’s convinced that the records of calls made by passengers of the hijacked planes were falsified, because it’s “scientifically impossible for a mobile phone call to be made from an airplane once it’s in the sky.” But after a paragraph, Bob, whose eagerness to discuss 9/11 Aaronovitch describes by comparing him to a “lurching puppy,” is out of the picture. Aaronovitch never shares a meal with David Ray Griffin, the retired theology professor he calls the “Dean” of 9/11 Truthers. He doesn’t even speak with him, or with any of dozens of other conspiricists he introduces. Having trudged through their books, the thought of engaging them in conversation may have been more than he could handle.

Michael Rymer writes about education for the Village Voice and about books for Coldfront Magazine. He lives in the Bronx.

Mentioned in this review:

Voodoo Histories
Double Cross
The Secret Life of Bill Clinton
George Bush: The Unauthorized Biography
The Da Vinci Code
Chariots of the Gods
The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail