I”ve just been reading David Aaronovitch”s “Voodoo Histories: The role of the conspiracy theory in shaping modern history“. It is an enormously enjoyable review of a variety of conspiracy theories that have engaged millions over the last hundred years – sometimes with devastating consequences. He starts with the insidious “Protocols of the Elders of Sion” whose origins were nothing to do with the Jews (nor even aimed at them) but arose from a satire on Louis Napoleon involving an imaginary dialogue in Hell between Macchiavelli and Montesquieu. The text was then adapted to produce the anti-semitic nonsense used by Hitler, believed by people like Henry Ford, and still being cited as fact by the Iranian regime.
Subsequent chapters deal with Stalin”s terror and the Moscow show trials, McCarthyism in the United States, inevitably the assassinations of the Kennedys, the deaths of Princess Diana and Marilyn Monroe, the blood-line of Jesus Christ (as popularised by “The Da Vinci Code“), the 9/11 “truth” movement and the death of David Kelly (including a devastating hatchet job on the book by the LibDem MP, Norman Baker).
Part of the interest for me is that I have read many of the books describing the conspiracies that Aaronovitch debunks. Maybe I am a potential believer in such nonsenses, although I can say that I have never been entirely convinced by the tomes I have read, despite the myriad of pseudo-learned footnotes and quasi-academic references. So yes, I did read “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail“, while on holiday near Rennes-le-Chateau (allegedly where the secret scrolls were found) – I also remember a local Anglo-French resident telling me very sniffily that it was written by former “Dr Who” script-writers. I have read Mark Lane”s “Rush to Judgement“, books about Marilyn Monroe”s “murder”, and Norman Baker”s “The Strange Death of David Kelly“. I not only read ”Unlawful Killing: The Murder of Hilda Murrell“, but employed its author, Judith Cook, for a while.
The widespread belief in conspiracy theories does not make those theories true, but the desire to believe in them does tell us something about people”s attitudes to authority. The theories themselves are by no means harmless: they are corrosive to trust and can lead to violence and oppression. Nonsense needs rebutting. And as consiracy theories are resilient, their nonsense needs to be challenged repeatedly.