Temaris's Reviews > Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History

Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch
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's review
Jul 09, 2009

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bookshelves: history, non-fiction, psychology, conspiracy
Read in July, 2009

I'm nearly at the end of the book -- some three pages in fact, having just looked -- and ... I don't know.

The author clearly has a very strong sense of Fact and Not!Fact. He spends a lot of time reviewing how Not!Facts get treated as facts, and diagramming the way conspiracy theories develop, interlock, and support each others lies -- the same names over and over.

And yet. If he does it in the last three pages, then it's more than I'm expecting. I'll do him the credit of assuming he wants you to draw your own conclusions. And so: human beings crave the illusion of order and narrative structure. The first thing we do out of any event is turn it into a narrative -- beginning, middle, end. Conspiracy theories save us from the terrible fear that there is no one in charge. We're all just making it up as we go along. Control is an illusion. Shit happens because we don't stop it in time,a nd we're not perfect.

It struck me very much, and I don't know how much of this was Aaronovitch's framing, that conspiracy theories are a way of letting yourself believe someone's in charge; there *is* a plan; you *can* fight against the things you fear.

Of course, it's a lie. Life doesn't come in narratives; people do things that make no sense. No one is omniscient and endowed with precognition. That hindsight is always 20/20. it's much easier to pick out the significant stuff once it's all over and you can decide which bits *were* the significant stuff.

It falls in closely with something that I've taken from Pratchett, on Pan Narrans -- the storytelling ape. We construct stories to make reality look manageable. They are lies, and we implicitly understand they are lies: incomplete and inaccurate. And as long as we remember that they are lies that are based on facts, and not lies based on lies, they are a useful shorthand. Right up until someone takes a French satire about Napoleon III and turns it into the Protocols of Zion, and causes untold grief, pain and death thereby.

It made fascinating reading, but the author didn't take the book where I expected him to. A little heavy going, repetitive in places, and his anecdotes re heavyhanded and unnecessary (possibly since I buy the basic premise that bright people can be gullible and credulous, given the right topic), and he starts losing his grip on his contempt every now and again. But interesting. And of course, one is free to draw ones own conclusions.

ETA: The last three pages *did* go into the tendency of the human mind to see patterns and construct narrative. I still think he'd have done better to pull the thread out sooner, and thereby strengthen the premise by illustrating his point rather than lining up all the illustrations and going: see what I mean?
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