David Aaronovitch, a political journalist for The Times in London, seemingly viewed writing Voodoo Histories: The Role Of The Conspiracy Theory In Shaping Modern History as a public service. It’s a guidebook to prepare readers for that party where they get cornered by someone who wants to tell them about the truth behind 9/11, or discuss any of more than a dozen major conspiracy theories of the last century.
Aaronovitch starts each analysis by laying out a theory and discussing how it came about, some of its major advocates, and the seemingly reasonable people who bought it. He then meticulously breaks it down, showing the fantastical leaps of logic necessary, and often discrediting the players involved in lending the ideas authority in the first place.
Voodoo Histories starts by dissecting the post-World War I anti-Semitic publication The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion, and moves on to a comprehensive chronology of major conspiracies, including those surrounding Pearl Harbor; the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, John F. Kennedy, and Princess Diana; and Barack Obama’s birth certificate. It’s a testament to the pervasiveness of these theories that the information Aaronovitch presents on the criminal career of Lee Harvey Oswald is more surprising than the accounts of CIA involvement he discredits.
Voodoo Histories was originally published in the United Kingdom in 2009, and it contains a few British conspiracies that American readers are unlikely to have heard of. But even those help outline Aaronovitch’s points about the common threads that so many conspiracy theories contain. He demonstrates how culture frames interpretations of events, showing how a series of popular movies about people who are killed to prevent them from sharing damning knowledge made it easy for the public to believe that such events are possible.
Along with discrediting these stories, Aaronovitch discusses the consequences that belief in conspiracy theories have had, such as the rise in anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust. But he acknowledges that mostly they’re just guilty of encouraging people to read poorly written and researched books—there’s a whole chapter devoted to the “facts” behind Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
While he mostly tries to just present overwhelming factual evidence, Aaronovitch’s contempt for the people who perpetuate such myths periodically seeps into the text. He acknowledges that all the facts and logic he presents may not be able to sway true believers, who have the infuriating tendency to dismiss new information as part of establishment cover-ups. The seeds of conspiracy often begin with conflicting information, and even if the conflicts are resolved to clearly favor one truth over another, the doubt has already taken hold.