The Uncertainties of Contingency: What if Franz Ferdinand didn’t die in 1914?

I have stood at the very spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were shot by Gavrilo Princip 100 years ago. And the impossible “What If” question occurred to me even then. So when I noticed that eminent historian Ned Lebow had published an examination of the issue, I leapt at it. The assassination was such a fluke, so preventable, so absurd that the yearning for a different outcome of that moment is great. As he says at the start (having summarised some of the counterfactual options),

None of these what-ifs strains our understanding of the world because most royal processions do not stray from their intended routes, and most security details would have rushed the archduke and his wife to safety at the first signs of violence. In this instance, the so-called factual, not the counterfactual, is what strikes us as unrealistic and incredible. (p16) (more…)

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All is not well … in the state of Denmark: George Packer’s THE UNWINDING (USA’s ‘inner history’)

Well, to all my American friends and family, Happy 4th July. I wish you a great day of celebration and fun. That is always a little strange coming from a Brit. After all, you did rebel against us. But I think we’ve kinda gotten over it now (as you might put it). But it’s well-meant. America is a country I’ve grown to love (or at least certainly the bits I’ve visited). And as Bono has said more than once (perhaps explaining why he’s never forsaken his Irish roots despite his love for the US): Ireland’s a great country, but America is a great idea. And that’s what the 4th is all about at its best. A great idea. (more…)

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Popkin’s Surprising Lessons from theWhite House campaign Trail

I guess this book will initially appeal only to politics junkies and West Wing devotees (which is probably why I read it). But I suspect many others may well enjoy it despite that – it’s pacey, readable and insightful. And actually, surprisingly relevant to all kinds of other walks of life.

A politics professor and former Democrat party campaign consultant (from McGovern through to Gore), Samuel Popkin has sought to expose the arcane and often dark arts of US presidential campaigning in The Candidate. The results are fascinating. Here are just a few windows into this bizarre parallel world. (more…)

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When the powerful need a friend: Inside The US Presidents’ Club

One of power’s cruel ironies is that after craving it for years, its attainment brings a deeply bitter (if addictive) taste. At the heart of the problem is that deep sense of isolation that comes of sitting at the top of the tree. No one can truly understand what it feels like… apart from one’s predecessors. This is the subject of a gripping new take on the US Presidency, Gibbs and Duffy’s The Presidents Club (surely there needs to be an apostrophe in there somewhere!?). There is an irritating proliferation of books about all 44 White House inhabitants, but this is a genuinely interesting addition. (more…)

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Barack Obama 2: The Media’s Red Carpet

It is a truism to say that the media is influential in politics. But there is no doubting that its power to mesmerize and acclimatize contributed to Obama’s election. Having focused yesterday on the way in which Obama both innately and deliberately sought to build bridges across community divides and with historical landmarks (as described in David Remnick’s remarkable book The Bridge), I want to pick up on how he was able to surf the media’s wave all the way into Pennsylvania Avenue. (more…)

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Barack Obama 1: The Bridge from Selma to Pennsylvania Avenue

If there is a point to Barack Obama becoming US President – and let’s face it, how can we ever reduce anyone’s life to having ‘a point’ – it is not his politics but his race. Race is what made his election seem so unthinkable, and yet, conversely, once he was the Democrat candidate, such a difficult opponent to beat in the 2008 election. And it is what will give him his enduring legacy (politics and 2nd term aside). (more…)

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That peculiar spawn of postmodernism: The Conspiracy Theory

If you had to sum up postmodernism in one word, I think a strong (but by no means only) contender would be the word SUSPICION. Suspicion of power, suspicion of motives, suspicion of truth claims – in short, suspicion of absolutely everything and everyone. And of course what is one insidious but pervasive manifestation of suspicion? The Conspiracy Theory.

The twentieth century seems to have bred such theorists – they’re everywhere. And they have their audience over a barrel – if you question or disagree with them, you’re just a patsy, gullible putty in the oppressors’ hands. Then if you present a substantial case against them, well, you can hear the lines already:

  • ‘aah, but there’s no smoke without fire…’ (that cowardly retort of the gossip);
  • ‘hey, I’m just asking questions’ (when of course, they’re doing no such thing);
  • ‘but what about Watergate?’ Well yes, that was a conspiracy, and yes, politicians are often corrupt. But think about it. Watergate was such a grubby and unambitious conspiracy (i.e. covering up the business of eavesdropping on political opponents) compared to the more extreme theories people tenaciously hold to.

And they are often extreme and extraordinarily ambitious. If true, many of these would need not just scores but hundreds and even thousands of accomplices (unwitting or otherwise) – who ALL keep quiet (by force or voluntarily). Just glancing down the list of conspiracies tackled by the journalist David Aaronovitch in his recent book, Voodoo Histories, makes clear how ambitious some of these are:

  • Protocols of the Elders of Zion – a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world (now clearly proven to be a fraud – and yet scarily, still touted in Islamist circles as a justification of their opposition to Israel’s existence)
  • Stalin’s purge of Trotskyites incl Pyatakov in 1937
  • President Roosevelt knew (and even wanted) Pearl Harbor – even people like Gore Vidal subscribe to this view
  • Senator McCarthy’s suspicions of communists in government
  • The ‘mysterious?’ deaths of popular ‘deities’: JFK, RFK, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana
  • Doubting whether or not the moon landings ever took place
  • The ‘mysterious?’  death of Hilda Murrell & nuclear conspiracies in the 1980s (a conspiracy championed by the otherwise redoubtable Tam Dalyell MP)
  • Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s thesis about the descendents of Jesus in Holy Blood and Holy Grail, as picked up by Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code
  • Erich Von Daniken’s theories and books Chariots of the Gods? Was God an Astronaut?
  • 9/11 & 7/7 conspiracies – from the “let it happen on purpose” (LIHOP) types to the “made-it-happen-on-purpose” (MIHOP) types.
  • David Kelly’s suicide after his Commons Select committee testimony about Iraqi weapons evidence
  • The ‘birthers’ who doubted Obama’s birth certificate & rumours of the Clinton “body count”.

It’s an extraordinary, comprehensive list – and these are just some of the most prominent ones (go online and you’ll find a conspiracy theory to suit every conceivable taste and obsession). This book is a fascinating but chilling read. Some theories are very popular – and even regarded as de rigeur if you don’t want to look a fool (e.g. JFK was shot by two shooters at least. Wasn’t he?).

Aaronovitch is clearly a sceptic. But his research methods and approach seem impeccable, logical and at times exhaustive. He presents a convincing case at many points. He produces clear evidence to prove their idiocy, even if it has appeared long after their fashions has waned. There is so much common sense here – that it is a book worth lending to any with conspiracist inclinations.

A Catholic Cover-up at Rennes-le-Chateau

Bizarrely enough, one of his most compelling chapters (I’d not anticipated this at all as I’d not even noticed its inclusion when I picked the book up), was his merciless dismantling of the ludicrous theories behind Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Many Christian apologists have done a great job at approaching the evidence from an ancient historical perspective. What was so compelling here was his observations of the evolution of this particular narrative: a nineteenth century catholic parish priest who mysteriously becomes rich. So of course, that clearly means that was paid off by Rome to keep schtum about what he’d uncovered – i.e. the genealogical line of Jesus & Mary Magdalene. Well Aaronovitch shows that this whole business bears many of the hallmarks of other conspiracy theories.

Pierre Plantard (a self-confessed hoaxer)

What is not often appreciated (I certainly hadn’t realised this) is that practically ALL the main perpetrators in France of the Merovingian mythology have since admitted that the whole thing is a hoax. Here’s a flavour of Aaronovitch’s style (himself from a Jewish Marxist background with certainly no axe to grind in favour of Christianity):

The playful Henry Lincoln [one of the co-authors of Holy Blood & Holy Grail] has also been fond of using the partiality and contradictory nature of New Testament interpretations to sanction his own liberties. Is it more likely, he asks, that a man should have been born of a virgin, been able to walk on water and rise from the dead than that he should have been born as other men are born, married, and raise a family? It’s a good line, but the trouble is that while the Gospels do create some evidence for a man called Jesus who led a religious movement in the early years of the Roman empire, there is no evidence whatsoever from any source at all for that man being married or having children. None. (pp199-200)

This is how he sums up the chapter – the main protagonist, Pierre Plantard, being the centre of the story’s attention as the one claimed to be a descendent of Jesus Christ himself.

It was all a hoax, every bit of it. It began with a story, which then developed into a massive fantasy, support for which was manufactured by forging documents. Many of these were lists of names copied from other genealogists and registers, and then tinkered with; others were invented travelogues. The motives of the participants are varied. De Cherisey was interested in surrealism and in the 1960s was involved in an organisation called the Workshop for Potential Literature (Oulipo), in which the members played around with puzzles, ciphers and codes. Plantard, as we have seen, had been trying most of his life to give himself some significance through shadowy or secret organisations, joining the many people through the centuries who have been attracted to the idea of membership of a clandestine society with elite, and sometimes occult, powers to organise the world. Finally, there were those motivated simply by money. (p204)

Cui bono?

There are some great lines. In a previous section, referring to Princess Diana’s death in a Parisian tunnel, he refers to the theories put by some ex-MI5 agents, and draws in a magnificent line from Umberto Eco’s breathtaking Foucault’s Pendulum.

Studying the competing claims of various secret sources, one can see that to believe one is to disbelieve the others. Whether the authors whoused these sources were complicit in what must, at the very least have been a series of hoaxes is impossible to say. But if one were to ask the old conspiracist question Cui bono? (Who benefits?), the answer seems obvious. I say ‘seems’ because in this world every debunkable theory could in fact be disinformation put out by the Establishment/security services to throw investigators and the public off the scent. Such a hypothesis was put forward by former MI5 officer Annie Machon on Channel 4’s Richard and Judy in 2005. It was the very stupidity of some of the theories surrounding Diana’s death, she told her interviewers, that first convinced her that the accident was in fact murder. She had been alerted to the conspiracy by the classic MI6 disinformation technique of suggesting conspiracies. Or, as Umberto Eco put it, “The Rosicrucians were everywhere, aided by the fact that they didn’t exist.” (p150)

Gore Vidal

Or take this, about the death in the 1980s (subsequently proven to be the result of a break-in gone horribly wrong) of Hilda Murrill a known anti-nuclear activist. This was taken up as a cause by the famous Labour Old Etonian MP, Tam Dalyell.

While the notion of members of the British security services going around bumping off little old ladies in English market towns (more or less the exact opposite of their official role) may have amazed most MPs, it simply angered Mr Dalyell. (p175)

And I like this idea of an ‘equal-opportunity conspiracist‘, in his analysis of Gore Vidal’s various political theories!

Vidal, like Philip J Berg, was an equal-opportunity conspiracist, and was comfortable whether accusing FDR, Harry Truman, LBJ, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, of complex and dastardly secret acts for various nefarious purposes – usually as pretexts for war or domestic crackdowns. (p303)

Conspiracy Commonalities

So what do these theories have in common? Well, in drawing various threads together, 4 features particularly struck me (from the perspective of a Christian worldview)

(more…)

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Roscover’s Obama: BURDENED

Last week's Time magazine had a poignant article about the loneliness of the Presidency as part of its coverage of the first year of Obama's inauguration. Obama and the Loneliest Job It's worth a read and is not particularly partisan…

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