I have a strange draw to conspiracy theories. I do not believe them, but I am compelled to understand their basic ideas and then look up how these poiI have a strange draw to conspiracy theories. I do not believe them, but I am compelled to understand their basic ideas and then look up how these points are debunked. I am also fascinated by how the conspiracy theories form and what their sociological, psychological and biological function may be for humanity, as well as how believing myths and fantasies to be true can impact the outcome of history. This book serves as an introduction to many of these points.
The body of the book dedicates itself to investigating a handful of conspiracy theories, tracing their origins and the major players in disseminating them to the public. After laying down the ideas, Aaronovitch goes about debunking claims, either by displaying evidence and analysis which contradicts the conspiracy theory claims or by looking in-depth at the people involved in telling the theories, which often reveals character traits and past actions that call their authority into question. He's effective in dismantling many of the conspiracies presented. In particular, I would call his debunking of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to be essential reading. He completely dismantles the conspiracy piece by piece, pointing out where every piece of it comes from and demonstrating the ridiculousness of people that continue to believe it has any sort of merit.
What I found interesting was the historical place some conspiracies had in shaping public opinion and hence actual history. Once again, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion chapter put a lot of twentieth century Antisemitism into perspective, which eventually led to the Holocaust in Germany. When people referred to "the Jewish problem," it was likely this forged document was in the back of their minds as evidence. Another chapter on the Moscow trials during the 1930s demonstrate how those in power retained power by spreading a conspiracy about the exiled Trotsky conspiring to regain his place in the Soviet Union. That these theories are not always just harmless fancies of the imagination, but can have real and deadly consequences in history is a sobering view.
The last chapter, examining why people believe in conspiracy theories, intrigued me the most and I wish more of the book dealt with this point. Many conspiracy theories reuse the same tropes and are often believed by otherwise intelligent people, such as academics, professionals and political activists. This chapter gives a basic overview of this, but since it is only a single chapter it is not exhaustive.
In addition to wanting more stuff like the last chapter of the book, I was also disappointed in his attention given to the JFK assassination conspiracy theory. It's potentially the most widespread and believed of any theory presented in the book and it gets muddied up by intermixing its discussion with conspiracies about the death of Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana. Granted, there are so many directions that the JFK conspiracies go in that it would be impossible to touch on them all, but I would have liked a chapter dedicated to this one conspiracy. So, he spends less time on this one than others in the book and while he does a serviceable job debunking, its not as complete as for example his research on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail (DaVinci code conspiracy).
I listened to this on audiobook, so a couple notes about the recording. The narrator, James Langton, has a pleasing speaking voice and a good pace, but he does take on stereotypical character voices and accents when reading quotes, which may grate on the listener although it didn't bother me much. The recording quality is surprisingly lo-fi and feels like a transfer from a cassette tape. I've heard clearer audiobook recordings than this, but I did get used to the lower quality after a while. It's a fine way to get the content of the book, but you don't get a list of references to follow after you finish the tome, which may turn off some people.