In 2003 the political commentator David Aaronovitch wrote these words on the Iraq war and the search for the weapons of mass destruction supposedly held by the regime:
“If nothing is eventually found, I – as a supporter of the war – will never believe another thing that I am told by our government or that of the US ever again.
“And, more to the point, neither will anyone else. Those weapons had better be there somewhere.”
This neatly summarises the genuine fear people have of official positions given to them by their governments. Are we being told the truth?
Sometimes this is over laughable issues such as UFOs and aliens. But, when the stakes are high, as they are in a decision to go to war, the official position becomes of the gravest importance.
Which is why it is so ironic that Aaronovitch’s new book, Voodoo Histories: The role of the conspiracy theory in shaping modern history, sometimes feels like a cover-up in itself.
He hosts the book, rather like a proprietor of a freak show, beckoning his punters in with the right blend of empathy and condemnation.
Guiding us through familiar but nevertheless interesting territory – Zionist conspiracies, Diana and MI5, Marilyn Monroe, JFK, 9/11 – he accurately displays the sloppy reasoning and tunnel-vision research that are so often the backbone of many of these theories.
Take the so-called “9/11 truth” campaigns for example. They are awash with bizarre scenarios.
Some believe that Israeli intelligence agents were controlling the planes with a remote control or that the CIA hijacked the third plane and its passengers were taken to a secret destination and were then executed.
But that’s why conspiracy theorists are too soft a target. To tarnish them all with the same brush makes it impossible to distinguish between their two distinct types.
The first type, that focuses on things like fake moon landings or tracing Christ’s bloodline, probably has no effect on history other than to sell books or films.
The second type is a different breed. They are desperately trying to legitimately question a version of events, however mistaken in their conclusions.
But they irritate many on the left who feel that the 9/11 truthers have succumbed to exotic ideas that supposedly unmask a cover-up but which actually allow the real cover-up to go unchecked.
The real story of 9/11 is a tale of US foreign policy backfiring, with its roots in British and US involvement in the Middle East for decades.
But the truth movement, in its attempt to challenge the neocons who took us to war, merely plays into their hands. It creates a canny diversion from addressing the real questions.
Aaronovitch arrives at this conclusion: “If the preceding chapters have demonstrated anything, it must be that conspiracy theories originate and are largely circulated among the educated and the middle class.”
This is palpably untrue. Conspiracy theories are driven by society as a whole – gossiping tabloids, cloak and dagger civil servants, the inquisitive. It is not a chattering elite trying to fool the working class into believing something that does not exist.
At its best the book is a kind of “Conspiracy Theory for Dummies” with a genuine grappling with the whole subject of truth and history. But at worst its central thesis – that paranoia shapes the theorists – is flawed and Aaronovitch can’t help but suppress a giggle.
The irony of this scoffing is that, in the light of his own unrepentant taking to task of certain elements of those that questioned the need to go to war in Iraq, he ascribes paranoia to those who realised, from day one, that the government was lying to us.
This is the idea that eludes him and the book. 9/11 and 7/7 truthers are not privy to a hidden truth, but nor are they insane.
They are merely desperate to bring accountability to governments that they correctly perceive as revelling in an unpalatable art of deception.
The fact that Britain is entering a new low in distrust of parliamentary democracy underlines the reasons why conspiracy theories emerge.
Aaronovitch’s book is nothing more than a perfect mirror for the methods they use. He is trying to brush his own acceptance of an official lie under the carpet by targeting those who don’t.
Matt Mankelow is a freelance writer and keen follower of the Aaronvitch Watch blog at » aaronovitch.blogspot.com