An Orwell Prize–winning British journalist examines a dozen conspiracy theories and why they matter.
Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? Was Marilyn Monroe murdered? Did the U.S. government bring down the Twin Towers? Conspiracy theories, writes The Times (UK) columnist Aaronovitch (Paddling to Jerusalem: An Aquatic Tour of Our Small Country, 2000), are invariably unlikely and implausible, but they often seep into the popular culture and meet real needs. The author describes the key proponents and tenets of each conspiracy theory and the “evasions, half-truths, and bad science” on which most are based. Readers may grow impatient with his detailed explications—the theories are well-known nonsense—but they allow him to show how fringe thinking can spread through the Internet and mass media and color our understanding of historical events. Aaronovitch notes that the Arab world still widely invokes The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fraudulent document claiming that the world will be ruled by a supreme Jewish autocrat, and that by the 1970s the young and educated in the United States and Europe believed in a Kennedy assassination conspiracy. The writes that conspiracy theorists have much in common. They always cite similar earlier conspiracies, insist they are simply raising disturbing questions, rely on endorsements from celebrities and academics with exaggerated credentials and claim that they are being watched by authorities. “The government has been trying to sell us a pack of lies,” said one woman about 9/11. Unfortunately, such charges enjoy a patina of credence because of genuine U.S. government coverups, including Watergate and the Iran-Contra Affair. But the real reason educated, middle-class individuals circulate conspiracy theories is the human need for a story, writes the author. We crave order, cannot tolerate the chaos of random events and are quick to insist that “they” (Jews, communists, big corporations, etc.) are responsible.
Sometimes rambling, but helps explain our fascination with the proverbial crock.