As the great writer G.K Chesterton once commented, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything”. If the 20th century marked the decline of organised religion, it also saw people wanting to have faith in something more strongly than ever. What they choose to believe in though ranged from new religions like scientology, to UFOs, crystals, leylines and finally conspiracies.
This book deals firmly with the latter, asking the question of why we’ve recently seen a worldwide boom in conspiracy theories and why rational individuals are often so eager to believe in the unlikely, despite the lack of evidence. It’s now gotten to the point where people seem willing to jump to the least likely explanation first, rather than the most likely. How else do you explain the belief amongst certain sections of the American right that Obama is secretly a Muslim born in Kenya?
While there have been plenty of works debunking conspiracies in the past few years, this is one of the better ones. The book covers some of the really big conspiracy theories like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the wave of political assassinations in the 1960s, the death of Diana and of course 911. It efficiently points out the flaws in many of these ideas but is actually more interested in asking the question of why people wanted to believe in the first place. There are a multitude of reasons put forward, ranging from the rise of the internet to simply the fact that lies are often more interesting than the truth.
Normally at this point conspiracy theorists start talking about the importance of skepticism, and I’d accept that, up to a point. However it’s a huge leap to go from believing that there are unanswered questions about 911, which there are, to believing that it was all the work of some shadowy government department. Many conspiracies have come to light over the years including Watergate and the Iran-Contra Scandal, but most of these tend to support the screw-up theory of history. The idea that things happen by accident or mishap rather than because there is a conspiracy behind the scenes pulling the strings. Conspiracy theorists often seem obsessed with the idea that governments that have been proven incompetent in almost every other area are suddenly deemed to be 100% efficient when it comes to Machiavellian plotting.
The other main contribution of the book to the ongoing debate is its argument that conspiracy theories can come from both the left and right. The recent Birther movement in the USA and the conspiracy campaigns against Bill Clinton were largely the product of the extreme right of the Republican party rather than the radical left. The suggestion here is conspiracies are often a direct result of whichever party happens to be in power. When Democrats are in government we get right-wing conspiracies, when Republicans are in power we get left-wing theories.
Ultimately this is an engaging work of political analysis, although not without flaws. Aaronovitch is perhaps a little to quick to dismiss all conspiracies but maybe that’s just me. If you need one final reason to read this book then I’d recommend the chapter on the real history of the Da Vinci Code. The author successfully and entertainingly explodes every aspect of this myth, destroying any claim that Dan Brown might have that his novel was based on fact. That should be worth ten dollars of anyones money.