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Sunday, December 27, 2009

"Conspiracy Theories: History for Losers"

David Aaronovitch has a column in the Wall Street Journal from December 19th about the modern popularity of conspiracy theories. He is a columnist for The Times of London, and the article was adapted from his upcoming book, Voodoo Histories: the Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History.

From A Conspiracy-Theory Theory:

We live in age of conspiracies, or rather, we are more aware of conspiracy theories than we used to be. Theories involving the hidden hand reproduce on the Internet and instantly jump borders. Giving the stories plausible heft are the exotic sites and TV stations now beaming everywhere, their studios, anchors and Web sites looking as professional and reliable as those of CNN, ABC News or the BBC. Channels such as Russia Today, Iran's Press TV and Al Jazeera pass on theories involving the supposed "real stories" behind world affairs to millions. Globalization not only assists with the spread of conspiracy theories, but because it causes such rapid change—in migration, jobs, security threats and the way we live—it leaves people desperate for clear, comforting answers. It is better to think that someone is in charge of everything than that the world is more often prey to accidents, madness and coincidence. That's why movies are full of dastardly but brilliant plotters, and hardly anything happens by chance.

Even where conspiracy theories are not momentous, and may sometimes be physically (if not intellectually) harmless—such as with the gorgeous slew of nonsenses that prefaced "The Da Vinci Code," involving Templars, secret priories, hidden treasures and the bloodline of Christ—they share certain features that make them work.

These include an appeal to precedent, self-heroization, contempt for the benighted masses, a claim to be only asking "disturbing questions," invariably exaggerating the status and expertise of supporters, the use of apparently scholarly ways of laying out arguments (or "death by footnote"), the appropriation of imagined Secret Service jargon, circularity in logic, hydra-headedness in growing new arguments as soon as old ones are chopped off, and, finally, the exciting suggestion of persecution. These characteristics help them to convince intelligent people of deeply unintelligent things.