Why do so many people appear to believe that ‘secret’ forces are at work in the world, or that there is no such thing as ‘accident’ in history? I pondered such questions when I recently came across a social media comment in which a young alternative medicine practitioner revealed she had attended a ‘great talk’, ‘about five hours long’, by the former footballer and Green activist David Icke.
A ‘great talk’? Really? And for ‘five hours’? Icke (b. 1952) is infamous for his claims that ‘interdimensional reptilian aliens’ operate behind the scenes, brainwashing and controlling the world’s governing elites and shaping history for particular ends; apparently the aliens even count people such as Queen Elizabeth II as one of their number. Moreover, Icke’s series of epic books remain best-sellers. How can well-educated people be so gullible?
Significantly, Icke’s obsession with ‘reptiles’ was the result of a more coded language that he subsequently adopted when there was an outcry over one of his earliest books. In The Robots Rebellion (1994), Icke had made uncritical use of that classic Czarist anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion (1903), which claims that the world is subject to manipulation and control by a secret ‘cabal’ of Jewish elders who meet annually. In the second edition of Robots Rebellion, this material was carefully edited out, but Icke’s general claim of a grand conspiracy at work across the globe remained. His books and sell-out talks have repeated this thesis ever since, in ever more elaborate ways.
I have just completed reading a new book on the nature of conspiracy theory and, given some of the controversies bubbling away in British politics at this very moment, I am even more glad I chose to do so. Written by Rob Brotherton, an academic psychologist, Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (Bloomsbury Sigma, 2015), could be potentially very helpful to the historian. It certainly gave me food for thought.
From my own research perspective (the study of fascism and the far Right in history), I often have to try and understand those people who, in the 2oth century, regularly claimed that we are all subject to ‘puppet masters’ pulling the strings behind the scenes, or that things have never happened in the past in quite the way that we perhaps assume or think. The political Right sought to associate itself with a number of so-called historians in order to give legitimacy to such paranoia.
A classic example was the arch-conspiracy theorist and self-proclaimed historian Nesta Webster (1876-1960), who was popular with interwar fascists and still remains – even today – an inspiration for elements of the extreme Right. Moreover, one quickly becomes aware that ‘conspiracism’ has a long and ugly history in itself, with roots that can be traced right back to at least the time of the French Revolution and to extravagant ideas about freemasons and the Illuminati. Importantly, conspiracism has not just been confined to the Right, but has also been employed at times by parts of the political Left, a fact that has so painfully re-emerged in recent weeks in Britain.
However, Brotherton’s new study argues that conspiracy theories are not exclusive to ‘a handful of paranoid kooks’, and he challenges the idea that conspiracy theories are mainly a fringe affair. Indeed, Brotherton argues that nothing could be farther from the truth: ‘All told, huge numbers of people are conspiracy theorists when it comes to one issue or another’. Added to this, Brotherton persuasively makes the case that it is not just people in the West who display the conspiratorial mindset: ‘Conspiracism is a global phenomenon’. Pollsters have found, for example, that large numbers of people across the world still refuse to believe that the 9-11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 were carried out by Arabs, while equally significant numbers hold the view that it was an ‘inside job’ conducted by the CIA or ‘Zionists’.
In relation to this, recent years have seen the rise, especially in America, Britain, Australia and elsewhere, of a loose movement titled the ‘9-11 Truth Movement’, a network of people who simply refuse to accept scientific fact, empirical evidence, or ‘mainstream’ history. They proclaim they are in pursuit of ‘real’ history instead.
So, the big question is, why? Brotherton’s interesting contention is that it is because conspiracism may be a natural product of the way our minds work. His argument is that many people, both in the past and in the present, have succumbed to the habit of always seeing ‘patterns’ where none exist.
He gives the famous example of the belief that ‘canals’ had been discovered on Mars, something that resulted from telescopes being focused on the Red Planet by 19th century astonomers. The eager astronomers used telescopes that were not quite powerful enough to see things clearly, but just strong enough to persuade the stargazers that they were observing straight and long lines on the Red Planet’s surface. One thing led to another, and soon a sophisticated theory was being constructed that these ‘lines’ were in fact the last remnants of a desperate civilisation that had faced collapse through water shortages and thirst.
According to Brotherton, our mental inclination is often to try and ‘connect the dots’ where none exist, which is similar to the way that conspiracy theorists seek to find meaning in all the chaos and messy variety of history and past events. Brotherton notes, for example, how modern-day conspiracy theorists (such as David Icke) endlessly repeat the mantra that ‘only when the dots are connected can the picture be seen’.
Above all, in Brotherton’s estimation, our ‘desperate, deep-rooted desire to explain the inexplicable can lead us up garden paths, and down dark alleys’. That is a very perceptive comment.
Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University