Voodoo Psychology

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A new book is out on conspiracy theory. The book is titled Voodoo Histories, by David Aaronovitch. Several years ago Aaronovitch was sent to Tunisia by the BBC to make a film, and he learned something surprising. While driving from Tunis to El-Jem, the film's producer told Aaronovitch how "the 1969 Apollo Moon landing had been faked by NASA and the American government." Aaronovitch was incredulous. Of course, there was no proof of this assertion. It was merely obvious, said the producer, that the moon footage was faked.

How could an otherwise intelligent man believe something so crazy? Ever since this encounter, Aaronovitch says he has been fascinated with conspiracy theory, and curious about the reason people believe in such theories. "All sorts of conspiracy theories were springing up around the attack on the World Trade Center," he wrote, " theories that seemed to me potentially dangerous in the worldview they expounded. As I researched, these theories didn't evaporate or appear purely marginal. Instead they seemed to become more insidious, more pervasive."

Indeed, conspiracy theory is becoming more pervasive, and new conspiracies are being detected month to month. There are 9/11 Truthers and anti-Obama Birthers. There are theorists who rave about the Masons, the Jews, the communists, or the Vatican.  The specifics of the theory do not seem to matter. The favored methodology follows an established pattern. Objections to the theory are never actually considered. Mainstream thought is considered to be an illusion. The official version of every major event is a lie. Everything you know is wrong; but here is the TRUTH. Here is the ANSWER; and the answer is CONSPIRACY.

Writing about conspiracy theory today, from a critical perspective, is like talking about religion in mixed company. You invariably offend somebody's belief system; for that's the essential thing about conspiracy theory. It is more of a belief system, more like religion than the dispassionate appreciation of events it pretends to be. Is there a true religion? Are there conspiracies? of course! There are bank robberies and criminal syndicates, intelligence services and corrupt government officials. But the conspiracy theory Aaronovitch is writing about doesn't deal with these garden variety phenomena. It deals with situations grandiose, such as fake moon landings and the Illuminati, Jewish bankers and extra-terrestrials, the Devil and the military industrial complex. The conspiracy referred to isn't localized, limited, or passing. It is global, all-pervasive and timeless. It is, at its heart, a metaphysical proposition about the nature of life on earth. It is a proposition which, in fact, says very little about real life. Instead, it says something about the conspiracy theorist.

Aaronovitch suggests that a significant percentage of the population may be, at any given time, mentally disturbed. That is a far cry from saying that a significant percentage are insane. The borderline personality has not lost touch with reality. He has merely lost touch with himself. And there are many such personalities in our midst. The hysteric, the neurotic and the borderline paranoid all share a pathological tendency to self deception. There is a will to believe. There is a readiness for delusions of a mild, non-debilitating kind. There is a tendency for rational thought to follow an obsessive, irrational line of inquiry. Aaronovitch points to this and says, "In modern society, paranoia seems omnipresent."  Talk to any journalist, columnist, or political leader that has extensive experience of a wider public. There exists, out in the public sphere, a floodtide of dark fear ready to burst forth.

Aaronovitch points to Elaine Showalter's 1997 work, Hystories: Hysterical  Epidemics and modernCulture. After studying a series of health scares in America and the U.K., Showalter concluded, "Hysteria has not died. It has simply been relabeled for a new era ... Contemporary hysterical patients blame external sources -- a virus, sexual molestation, chemical warfare, satanic conspiracy, alien infiltration -- for psychic problems." In brief, Aaronovitch suspects that conspiracy theory is a manifestation of hysteria.

It is interesting, in light of this, that the Top Secret OSS Psychological Analysis of Adolf Hitler concluded that the German dictator suffered from hysteria. "Underneath, Hitler is a bundle of fears," noted the report. Admittedly, the Führer was afraid of cancer, poisoning, betrayal, death and a loss of his guiding intuition. Depending on the mood of the hour, Hitler would shift from one phobia to another. Was there a link between the Nazi leader's phobias and the idea of an international Jewish conspiracy? Definitely, say the psychiatrists. Belief in a Jewish conspiracy was Hitler's way of coping with childhood memories, with feelings of inadequacy and impotence.

Conspiracy theories are "reassuring," says Aaronovitch. We adopt them in order to feel better. And yet, these theories can be dangerous. Aaronovitch speculates that conspiracy ideology is the last defense of those who fear that their existence doesn't matter. And here is the nub of the problem. The modern world leaves individuals dwarfed and helpless -- convinced that their plight doesn't matter to those in power. The isolated man, lonely and powerless, has reason to be paranoid. The human psyche is a delicate instrument, and conspiracy theory merely registers a sense of alienation. It says that our leaders don't really care, that the situation is going downhill fast. The paranoid fairy tale is a parable, not a literal truth, in which the individual finds himself crushed by inhuman conspirators who do not take his existence into account. It is the soul-destroying indifference of the modern politician, and the cynicism which imbues his empty promises, rendered in narrative form.

Those who believe in conspiracy theories are sure to be offended by Aaronovitch's book, which is well researched and brilliantly set down. A person who writes a column like this one is sure to receive an avalanche of outraged email. There are items about which I could nitpick Aaronovitch, but the book is otherwise so excellent that no good purpose would be served. Voodo Histories is a must read.

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