Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Voodoo Histories, David Aaronovitch

“You did this hit piece because your corporate masters instructed you to.  You are a controlled asset of the New World Order… bought and paid for.”  “Everyone has some skeleton in the cupboard.  How else would MI5 and the Special Branch recruit agents?”  “Shill, traitor, sleeper”, “leftwing gatekeeper”, “accessory after the fact”, “political whore of the biggest conspiracy of them all”....  Having spent years building up my left-wing credibility on behalf of my paymasters in MI5, I’ve blown it.  I overplayed my hand, and have been exposed, like Bush and Cheney, by a bunch of kids with laptops.  My handlers are furious.

Such are the words of the writer and journalist George Monbiot, a hard left Bush-hater who nonetheless thought that the guy probably wasn't responsible for 9/11.  Aaronovitch, a former communist turned Blairite, has taken similar, rather undeserved, stick in some quarters for writing this book.  This is a shame, because it is well-written and informative, even if the author sometimes seems to have sacrificed depth for breadth in his treatment of the century's most famous conspiracy theories.  Its cover reveals that it has been praised by such strange bedfellows as AC Grayling and Andrew Roberts.

I

Aaronovitch starts with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (which I have reviewed elsewhere), tracing their lineage back to Herrmann Goedsche's novel Biarritz and Maurice Joly's Dialogue in Hell.  The next chapter turns to the Soviet show trials of the 1930s and their underlying conspiracy theory of a fascist-Trotskyite plot to wreck the Soviet industrialisation programme and destabilise the fledgling socialist state.  These trials were a dark farce in which Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin and a succession of other communist bigwigs confessed to being involved in various weird and ludicrous conspiracies before being sentenced to death or imprisonment.  Some of those involved on the state side, including the chief prosecutor Andrei Vyshinski and the supreme court judge Iona Nikitchenko, later turned up in Nuremberg to help stage another well-known political show trial.

It hardly needs to be said that the trials were defended by the usual Soviet apologists and useful idiots in the West.  What is more surprising is that diplomats and writers who attended and observed the trials were taken in too.  Even among non-Communists, there was a reluctance to believe that the Stalin regime was capable of this sort of thing, or that the wild man Trotsky had been unfairly framed.  Some people just seemed unable to accept that such an elaborate theatrical charade could have been planned and staged.

There was some small underlying reality to the trials.  The industrialisation programme experienced real problems, and there was some evidence of sabotage and corruption.  The leading defendants were no angels.  They were hardened, ruthless revolutionaries who had already overthrown one government and, having clashed with Stalin in the past, were by no means incapable of repeating the feat.  Meetings were apparently being held behind Stalin's back, and the exiled Trotsky was still nursing a grudge and keeping an eye on Soviet affairs.  Nevertheless, no-one today seriously argues that the defendants were guilty of much more than being a risk, real or imagined, that Stalin wasn't prepared to live with.  Their confessions had been procured by physical and psychological duress, and there may also be some truth in Arthur Koestler's theory that a lifetime of party discipline and fanatical commitment to the cause predisposed them to bend the knee to the Communist state even when they became its victims.  As for the "wrecking", most of that was probably just the inevitable consequence of the breakneck pace of industrialisation.

Aaronovitch then turns his attention to the US.  He discusses the theory, popularised by Gore Vidal and others, that Roosevelt was complicit in the attack on Pearl Harbor.  This doesn't fit with what we know of Roosevelt's strategy at the time or with the Americans' contemporary knowledge of Japanese military codes, and it postulates an implausible cast of conspirators.  What it does fit very well with, however, is a prewar tradition of American isolationism, as expressed in movements like the bipartisan America First Committee, which tried to stop the Roosevelt administration from getting involved in what became World War II.  There was a paranoid streak in the isolationist movement, and some of its adherents suspected that FDR would stoop low in order to embroil the United States in war.

Since World War II, conspiratorialism in America has shifted between right and left over the years.  In 1950, Senator Joe McCarthy, looking for an issue on which to fight his re-election campaign, hit upon the cause of anti-Communism.  He overreached, of course, and by 1954 he was on his way out.  In 1963, the torch passed to the left with the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Conspiracy theories began to emerge shortly after the event, eventually spawning an entire industry of Kennedy conspiracism which has attributed JFK's murder to candidates ranging from the broadly plausible (the Mafia, Cuban groups) to the unlikely (the CIA) to the ludicrous (Lyndon B. Johnson).

I have a feeling that Aaronovitch protests a little too much here and is too ready to take the Warren Report at face value (though he has at least bothered to read it, unlike many of its detractors).  It doesn't look like the Warren Commission was particularly eager, or was intended, to go chasing down avenues that challenged the straightforward version of events put forward by the FBI and the CIA.  This was the Cold War, after all, and, as commission member John J. McCloy put it, it was important to "show the world that America is not a banana republic, where a government can be changed by conspiracy".  Aaro also fails to mention that the 1979 report of the House Subcommittee on Assassinations concluded that there was more to the JFK assassination than met the eye, even if the more adventurous theories could not be substantiated.  All the same, Aaronovitch is right to remind us that Lee Harvey Oswald had a history of freelance violence and that most assassinations (and attempted assassinations) of American public figures have been the work of lone, unhinged Oswald types.  Organised political hits seem to be relatively uncommon.


II

In more recent times, two American conspiracy theories have gained wide currency.  The first is that the US government carried out the 9/11 attacks or knowingly allowed them to happen.  The second is that Barack Hussein Obama is ineligible for the presidency, and that this has been covered up by Democratic political operatives and the liberal establishment.  The 9/11 conspiracy theory is broadly one of the anti-Bush left, though, as Aaronovitch notes, it has been embraced by some far-right antisemitic types.  The "Birther" theory is a bespoke creation of the hardcore right wing, carrying no credence outside that constituency.

The various 9/11 conspiracy theories are too well-known to require much elaboration.  The United States' air defences were deliberately stood down, and the authorities' responses were deliberately slow.  The Pentagon couldn't have been hit by a plane because the impact hole was too small.  It was actually hit by a missile.  The WTC too may have been hit by missiles disguised as planes using holograms, though some more moderate conspiracists think that this is far-fetched.  The passengers on the planes, if there were any, couldn't have made the phone calls that were later broadcast around the world because mobiles don't work at that height.  The twin towers were brought down by controlled demolitions - you can tell just by looking at the footage.

Aaronovitch has particular fun with the well-known 9/11 author, retired theologian David Ray Griffin:

Fairly soon David Ray Griffin had been nicknamed the "dean" of the 9/11 Truth movement, the man who seemed to give to the assortment of geeks, teenagers, far leftists, far rightists, strange millionaires and perpetual dissidents composing the coalition that characteristic they lacked above all - gravitas.  Yet Griffin's books all exhibit the same general and fatal tendency: lofty incredulity about the official accounts of 11 September and tolerant credulity towards the argument of anyone challenging them.  In itemising the critiques of the accepted account and in seeming to endorse them, Griffin generally ignored the problem that most, if not all, of these arguments had been rebutted, and usually by people with far better qualifications or expertise than those who promoted them.

As he indicates, Aaronovitch is dealing with a well-ploughed field here.  The Truthers' claims have been extensively refuted by mainstream specialists, including the National Institute of Standards and Technology (but then they would follow the government line, wouldn't they?) and the respected science magazine Popular Mechanics (but one of the editors has the same surname as Bush's homeland security chief).  They have even been rejected by the well-known apologist for American imperialism Noam Chomsky, along with our friend Mr Monbiot.  In fact, insofar as there has been any sort of cover-up within the US government, its object appears to have been to cover the arses of worried officials after the event rather than to suppress a conspiracy to commit mass murder.

But the Truthers are old news.  By now, they have been largely upstaged by the Birthers.  The conspiracy theories surrounding Barack Obama are different from the 9/11 theories because they lack even the small degree of merit that the ideas of Griffin et al. possess.  There is nothing to sustain them but political prejudice.  That Obama was born in the state of Hawaii on 4 August 1961 is attested by a standard-form birth certificate, by Hawaiian state officials and by birth notices in contemporary newspapers generated by the state health department.  No-one outside of a hardcore right-wing clique believes that Obama is not an American citizen.  Insofar as either candidate in the 2008 presidential election had a problem on this score, it was John McCain, who was born in the Panama Canal Zone, leaving room for a weak legal argument that he was not a "natural born citizen" of the United States.  This stuff is nothing new, though.  Aaronovitch notes that the first birthers in the history of the Republic were Democrats - opponents of the Republican Chester A. Arthur who claimed in the 1880s that the then president had been born in Canada.

Asking the first black President of the United States to jump through hoops to prove his eligibility for office may seem to be an implicitly racist enterprise, but these people are equal opportunities nuts.  Many of them, as Aaronovitch reminds us, are the same people who spent much of the 1990s trying to prove, from a mixture of some not-very-uncanny coincidences and various tales told by Arkansas low-life, that Bill Clinton was a serial murderer who was involved in drug running.  This was the origin of the 'Clinton Body Count' and the suggestions that Slick Willy had something to do with the Oklahoma City bombing and the death of deputy White House counsel Vince Foster (in respect of which he was exonerated not only by the police and the FBI - who were obviously in on the plot - but also by two Republican prosecutors and a Republican-led congressional committee).

This lunacy provoked a famous counter-reaction from Hillary Clinton, who ascribed it to a "vast right-wing conspiracy" - itself a foolishly exaggerated claim.  The smear campaign against her husband wasn't vast.  It was quite small in size, though it had high-profile media access and a couple of million dollars to play with thanks to the right-wing billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife.  Nor was it exactly conspiratorial, given that those involved were quite open about what they were doing and why.


III

Aaro digs up a largely forgotten case which was once a cause célèbre of the late Cold War.  In 1984, Hilda Murrell, an elderly rose-grower, was found dead near her home in Shropshire.  It appears that she was planning to lodge an objection at the public inquiry into the construction of the Sizewell B nuclear plant in Suffolk.  Her killer escaped undetected, though, rather revoltingly, he left behind traces of his semen.  Some people, including the eccentric Labour MP Tam Dalyell, suspected foul play.

This particular conspiracy theory does not merely require one to accept the rather Orwellian proposition that MI5 was in the business of murdering opponents of Mrs Thatcher's nuclear energy policy - though this was by no means an implausible idea for some left-wingers at the time (it was 1984, after all).  It also required its adherents to believe that British intelligence officers had shown a lack of basic tradecraft in carrying out the hit (numerous witnesses had seen parts of the episode) and had made a point of wanking over their unfortunate victim.  This was the gang of bungling perverts that we were counting on to keep us safe from the IRA and the Russians.

Answers to these objections were duly put forward.  It wasn't Murrell they were after, it was her nephew, who had apparently been one of the naval officers involved in the sinking of the General Belgrano.  It wasn't MI5, it was a private detective agency acting as a subcontractor.  They hadn't intended to kill Murrell, just burgle her house, but things had taken an unfortunate turn and they had got carried away.  It wasn't the government behind it, it was the nuclear industry.  There were so many witnesses because that was all part of the plot.

If this all sounds a bit thin (and self-contradictory), that's because it is.  To be fair, there were concerns at the time about defence leaks concerning the Belgrano, and there is nothing very implausible about MI5 keeping tabs on a former navy intelligence officer.  It is also quite possible that Murrell herself was on someone's radar screen, though it is far from clear how much of a threat a 78-year-old rose-grower posed to the UK nuclear establishment.  It takes a leap of the imagination, however, to conclude that Murrell was murdered by the British secret state or by nuclear goons.  The theories that were spun at the time are best seen as cultural products of the tense, belligerent world of the late Cold War and the polarised political climate of Thatcher's Britain.

We can now be quite confident that we know who killed the old lady.  When DNA technology became available and the police conducted a cold case review, the traces of semen were identified as coming from a local criminal called Andrew George.  (If this was a fit-up, it would have entailed a new and entirely unnecessary conspiracy, involving different people, two decades after the murder.)  The closest that George himself seems to have come to implicating others in the crime was telling his girlfriend that his brother did it.  George was convicted of murder, lost his appeal, and is now behind bars.  Murrell's nephew continues to dispute the official version of events, though he does appear to accept that George was involved somewhere.


IV

The conspiracies that Aaronovitch deals with are attended by varying degrees of implausibility.  It is not implausible that the Warren Commission's conclusions on the JFK assassination were wrong.  It looks like there were some Communists in the US government (notably Alger Hiss), albeit a lot fewer than Joe McCarthy claimed.  It takes a rather greater imaginative effort to believe that FDR was complicit in the attack on Pearl Harbor or that Dubya had a hand in 9/11.  But the extreme end of the spectrum - for Aaro has wisely chosen to eschew David Icke and his extraterrestrial lizards - is represented by the mad theories surrounding the bloodline of Christ, as imbibed by the millions of readers and filmgoers who have been unfortunate enough to read or watch The Da Vinci Code.

The farrago of nonsense that underlies Dan Brown's magnum opus was first popularised in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, the first of a series of sensationalist books by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln.  In a manner worthy of Augustin Barruel, the trio trace the history of a secret society called the Priory of Sion from 1099 to the present day, taking in on their way its creation of the Knights Templar and culminating in its plan to establish a theocratic European superstate.

It seems almost redundant to make the point that this is utter bollocks.  The Priory of Sion was set up in 1956 by the French fantasist Pierre Plantard, aided by Marquess Philippe de Chérisey, a bored aristocrat with an interest in surrealism.  The truly strange thing is that the The Holy Blood was reasonably well received in some surprisingly respectable quarters when it came out, and the theory behind it was originally aired in several serious BBC programmes in the 1970s.  The BBC has since repented of its mistake.  In 2005, it broadcast a refutation of the theory presented by Tony Robinson - and if Tony Robinson doesn't buy it, that's good enough for me.


V

Aaronovitch closes with a consideration of the psychological roots of conspiracy theories.  He notes that conspiracism tends to be a middle-class phenomenon, and that it is associated with groups or constituencies who have found themselves on the wrong end of various historical trends.  On this view, conspiracism is what Aaro provocatively calls "history for losers".

He mentions that a shrink wrote to him castigating him for rejecting the 9/11 conspiracy theories and suggesting that denial of such theories is attributable to a deep-rooted aversion to accepting that there has occured a "betrayal by those whom we expect to protect and care for us".  This is a clever line of defence - nobody wants to be thought of as naive, least of all those who think of themselves as sceptical or critical.  The shrink's theory does, however, ignore the fact that conspiracy sceptics generally have no difficulty in accepting actual documented conspiracies that are validated by evidence (Watergate, Iran-Contra), or indeed examples of more general governmental misfeasance (the Dodgy Dossier, the stealing of the 2000 US presidential election).  It also ignores the many European leftists like Monbiot who despised and feared the Bush administration but still don't think that it dynamited the World Trade Center.

Aaronovitch's theory is that there is something more going on here, and that something is the obsessive human search for narrative - the universal cognitive inclination to impose conceptual order on disordered events and to assign straightforward causes to observed effects.  There may also be an element of fear.  In many cases, paranoia is observed in individuals - such as the elderly - whose true, suppressed dread is not being malignantly plotted against but being utterly ignored.  Conspiracism, likewise, can be seen as a means of countering a fear that world events are more remorseless, uncontrolled and uncontrollable than most of us care to imagine.  The idea that Princess Diana and Marilyn Monroe were murdered in their prime by evil plotters is more comforting than the idea that they were destined, as we are, to die unglamorous, ineluctable deaths.  The idea that we are at the mercy of Jews, or Communists, or the Bush administration, is in some ways more comforting than the more radically disturbing idea that none of us are really in charge.