:: Article

‘No ordinary man could be so stupid’

By Max Dunbar.


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. The imagined model of an ignorant priest-ridden peasantry or proletariat, replacing religious or superstitious belief with equally far-fetched notions of how society works, turns out to be completely wrong. It has typically been the professors, the university students, the artists, the managers, the journalists and the civil servants who have concocted and disseminated the conspiracies.

-David Aaronovitch, Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, Cape 2009

In his novel Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks, Christopher Brookmyre portrayed the unshakeable self-satisfaction of the conspiratorial mind with empathy and warmth. His credulous broadsheet journalist Jillian Noble has been completely taken in by a self-described psychic, who has teamed up with furniture tycoon Bryant Lemuel to establish a faith-based ‘Spiritual Science Chair’ at Brookmyre’s fictional Kelvin University. Having witnessed what she thinks is a conversation between her clairvoyant and the sofa baron’s dead wife, Noble writes this:

Those opposing Bryant Lemuel’s efforts to establish a Spiritual Science Chair at Kelvin University ought to remember that men like them, so utterly sure of their own knowledge, once showed Galileo the instruments of torture.

They didn’t stop us learning that the Earth went round the Sun.

David Aaronovitch could have had enormous fun tearing apart the delusions of 9/11 deniers, Diana resurrectionists, second-gunmen theorists and the heroic resistance against the Zionist tentacles. It’s easy, necessary and pleasant to ridicule the double standards, lack of expertise and gaping holes in logic of fringe ideas, but Aaronovitch does not simply leave it there: he investigates how conspiracy theories have impacted upon our history. After all, the Jillian Nobles of the world are not powerless. They are not without influence on policy and consensual truths. It does matter what they think.

With tireless research and attention to detail, Aaronovitch traces the history of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and shows how the classic antisemitic conspiracy theory of the all-powerful Jew – still very much alive in the developing world and making a comeback in Belgravia drawing-rooms – led to the Hol0caust. The parallel paranoia, the theory of the all-powerful Bolshevik, reached its logical endpoint in the absurd witchhunts of the McCarthy era. Arriving at the twenty-first century, Aaronovitch provides a forensic debunking of the 9/11 truth movement: this subject really deserves a whole book in itself, a point-by-point refutation along the lines of the Popular Mechanics article. (It would not cause even a modest rethink on Truth websites, but still…)

It’s facile to say that the internet changed everything, but it has made a difference. Attending a 9/11 Truth event at (where else?) a Friends Meeting House, Aaronovitch considers such meetings in the pre-web age. Traditionally leftwing events would attract a mixture of the clued-up working class and the progressive/creative middle class. Meetings of the Right would be made up of professionals and golf-club bores. But Aaronovitch is surprised at the sheer diversity, in background if not in thought, of the 9/11 crowd. The main thing they had in common was that they had discovered the Internet (or it had discovered them).

Talk like this and someone will leap up saying: Aaaah, but, what about all the true government conspiracies, like Iran/Contra, and Iraq’s WMD (which Aaronovitch himself believed). But there is a difference between the actions of corrupt governments, which are exposed by serious investigators, and theories of conspiracies which not only didn’t happen but could not have happened. How many people, exactly, would have had to be involved in the 9/11 demolition, and how could they all be kept quiet?

George Monbiot gave the best objection to contemporary conspiracy theories: they form a nonsensical distraction from actual harm carried out by governments and corporations. The ID card programme, nuclear weapons, Western complicity in torture – surely, there are enough real monsters to fight out there without inventing imaginary ones. Think about it: while you’re chasing UFOs, giant lizards and the Lindbergh baby, the real crime is still going on.


Max Dunbar
was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is a co-editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 25th, 2009.