A Conspiracy So Immense

What a new history of conspiracy theories tells us about Birthers and Truthers


It was at a dinner party on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, hosted by a family of mixed Jewish-Scandinavian heritage, that I first heard the theory. I had seen it posited during my trips into the fever swamps of the Internet—those websites and blogs where zitty teenagers ruminate on "false flag" terror operations and sad old men blame their social isolation on the Council on Foreign Relations—but this was something else entirely.

It was 2005 and the army of pathological amateur pathologists, physicists, and demolitions experts had emerged from their basement crime labs, washed their Cheetos-stained typing fingers, and unleashed their theories about Mossad and the Carlyle Group on the world. So there she was, an elegant woman of faded but still recognizable beauty, haranguing a table full of educated New Yorkers with a theory so explosive that it promised to bring down the New World Order.

"It's true. I looked at the list of names."

"If we accept that this is an accurate technique for identifying perfidious Hebrews," I asked, "that they must possess names like Moshe Ya'alon and Chaim Weizmann, the question remains: Why were you searching the 9/11 death register for Jews?"

My host, a Manhattan-bred journalist of indeterminate politics, seemed a magnet for such people. Slogging through my email archive, I find her complaining that her father's new girlfriend, who now occupied a large portion of the family's rent-controlled apartment, was "certain 9/11 was an inside job." A few months later, she sent me an email explaining that her sister was "bringing her boyfriend" to dinner and he was, alas, a man "who has repeatedly shown her films claiming 9/11 was an 'inside job.'"

Around this time, while I was living in Stockholm, a fellow American expatriate sent me a link to an unnoticed book review program on Swedish state television. The host receives a farrago of suggested reading on the tragedy of September 11, but the reviewer recommends this all be balanced with French conspiricist Eric Laurent's book La face cachée du 11 septembre, which reveals that there was a curious uptick in stock market activity in the days preceding the attacks and that—guess what!—the United States government was behind the attacks.

For a brief moment, it felt like a zombie attack. They were everywhere. Skeletal hands thrust out of the ground, clutching DVD copies of a "documentary" made by an autodidactic upstate New York teenager, imploring me to open my eyes and help in identifying the camp at which Barbara Olson was being held.

So was this a unique moment in American history? Was the shock of 9/11 simply too much to bear, the wars that followed indicative of something bigger? What was the motivation for all of this wild-eyed paranoia?

It was a question that intrigued British journalist David Aaronovitch. In his brilliantly entertaining new book, Voodoo Histories: The Role of Conspiracy Theory in the Shaping of Modern History (Riverhead), Aaronovitch demonstrates that there is nothing new, nothing unique, nothing specifically "left" or "right" about those who see dark forces manipulating every world event, every assassination, every war. And while they might be fun to consume—who among us hasn't watched a documentary alleging cover-ups in New Mexico or pinning the murder of President John F. Kennedy on mafia boss Sam Giancana?—they do great damage, Aaronovitch argues, to our understanding of history.

Aaronovitch revisits and debunks, with wit and in meticulous detail, some of the 20th century's most stubbornly persistent conspiracies—the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Soviet purge trials, the various theories regarding American complicity in the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Sen. Joseph McCarthy's "conspiracy so immense," the murders of JFK and RFK, the death of Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe, and the obscure-to-American-readers anti-nuclear campaigner Hilda Murrell.

With the merciful exception of those British conspiracies about the Falklands War and the death of Iraq War critic Dr. David Kelley, it was distressing to realize that I knew at least one person, and often more than that, who believed in one of the theories Aaronovitch addresses. When I closed the book, I asked myself: Are my friends all mad? The cycle was completed, incidentally, with my introduction to two "birther" bloggers ahead of the yearly Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

For those gotcha journalists hanging around CPAC this weekend in Washington, asking middle aged women from Nebraska to stare into a Flip Video camera and explain that Barack Obama is a Kenyan intelligence asset, I understand that such antics are both wonderfully depressing and guaranteed YouTube hits. But for those who want to see some deep meaning in these misinformed expressions of paranoia, who argue that there is something preternaturally "conservative" about such lunacy, that the United States is on a uniquely dangerous path, led by radicals, militia members, and a new generation of conspiracy theorists, Voodoo Histories will surely help explain the complicated and bipartisan provenance of the "hostage government" theorists. In other words, nothing new here.  

As could be expected, there are a few points where Aaronovitch's legitimate skepticism leads him to oversimplify. In a lucid attack on the excess of Joe McCarthy, Aaronovitch correctly defends Owen Lattimore, a State Department consultant identified by the crusading senator as a Soviet spy, against the absurd charges that he acted as the "architect" of America's China policy. It was, Aaronovitch writes, absurd that "someone as nonrevolutionary" as Lattimore, who "had been attacked" in the communist press, could be denounced as a Red agent.

But attacks from communist writers or newspapers mean nothing (as the Spanish Civil War demonstrated, communists were more interested in attacking so-called left deviationists than members of the fascist ruling class) and Lattimore's own writing is full of praise for Stalinism. For instance, the collective farm system, he wrote, "represent[ed] a kind of ownership more valuable to [the Soviet peasantry] than the old private ownership under which they were unable to own or even hire machines."

It is also odd that, in an aside, Aaronovitch professes his "sympathy for the undervalued Noam Chomsky," an academic who eschews the wild conspiracies of 9/11 in favor of wild conspiracies about Srebrenica and the killing fields of Cambodia. Odder still is that Aaronovitch, along with fellow liberal writers Francis Wheen and Oliver Kamm, sent an exhaustively detailed letter to The Guardian in 2006 accusing Chomsky of denying genocide in the Balkans.

But these are mere quibbles.

Because while liberal writers frequently bemoan the sales of apocalyptic religious pot-boilers like the Left Behind series or the latest interchangeable conservative bestsellers from Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, Aaronovitch reminds the reader about long forgotten conspiracy books, devoid of any scholarly value, that racked up millions in sales. Who today remembers Return of the Gods, Fingerprints of the Gods, The Sign and the Seal, or Worlds in Collisions?

Though he avoids mentioning the red thread of anti-Semitism, it is distressing how frequently shadow governments, secret religious orders, and the ubiquitous "false flag" terror attack lead right back to the ubiquitous Jews. Aaronovitch might have mentioned the case of Kevin Barrett, a former University of Wisconsin professor of Islamic Studies, who is not only a prominent 9/11 denier, but has also questioned whether the Holocaust was simply a cleverly constructed Zionist plot. When Wellesley College African-American studies Professor Tony Martin was criticized for his shoddy research and bizarre Afrocentric pedagogy, he released a book called Jewish Onslaught, blaming his troubles on an international Zionist conspiracy. (Unsurprisingly, Martin later appeared at Holocaust denier David Irving's "Real History" conference).

Martin and Barrett were both professors at prestigious American universities. And this is the great takeaway from Voodoo Histories. It is not, Aaronovitch argues, the plebs and the racists and the obvious nutters that promulgate these bizarre and provably false theories. The consumers might be marginalized figures, but often times the producers are not. The 9/11 conspiracists are members of parliament, former ambassadors and government ministers, celebrities, movie stars, poets, academics, and musicians. As Aaronivitch points out, one academic 9/11 denier "received standing ovations from some of America's best-educated people."

If the new generation of anti-Obama conspiracy theorists—the birthers; those who identify his "communist" background—are to be found at Tea Parties and CPAC meetings, it is misguided to dismiss them as lone cranks. Because as Aaronovitch demonstrates, "conspiracy theories originate and are largely circulated among the educated and middle class."

Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor at Reason magazine.