History Isn't Always a Cock-Up

By McLynn, Frank | New Statesman (1996), September 20, 1999 | Go to article overview

History Isn't Always a Cock-Up


McLynn, Frank, New Statesman (1996)


Frank McLynn argues that conspiracy theories sometimes happen to be right

Recently I was discussing with a friend the events of 1978, "the year of the three popes". I happened to mention casually that the death of John Paul I, the so-called "smiling pope", after only 33 days in office, was clearly a case of murder. "Ah," my friend replied, "so you're a conspiracy theorist." In vain I tried to draw the distinction between a conspiracy theorist, who is presumably someone who believes that significant events in history happen as a result of conspiracy by hidden, unseen forces, and the honest historian who is sometimes forced to the conclusion that undetected conspiracies have occurred. But the encounter, and others like it, have left me with a firm conclusion. Anglo-Saxon culture, justifiably suspicious of conspiracy theory, has parlayed reasonable scepticism into the dogmatic assertion that conspiracies never take place.

I do not believe that the world is secretly run by the Jews, the Jesuits, the Freemasons, the CIA or even by a global network of organised crime encompassing the Sicilian Mafia, the American Cosa Nostra and Colombian drug barons, though I do think the power of these groups is probably underrated. Critics of my view of John Paul I say that, once you believe in a particular conspiracy, you will believe in another, and then another, on a slippery slope taking one eventually to full-blooded conspiracy theory. I think this is an elementary logical fallacy. In some quarters, it is asserted that if you believe John Wilkes Booth was not the sole conspirator against Abraham Lincoln, you are thereby committed to a view of the world as run by dark forces, Schopenhauer's "will", Hardy's "immanent presence" or whatever the master principle may be. Another fallacy. Other critics say that a taste for conspiracies is the same sensibility that always sees deep structures behind everything, whether it is Marx's "base" and "superstructure" or Freud's "latent" and "manifest" content. Yet another fallacy.

A subtle attempt to discredit the idea of conspiracy comes from literary criticism. This asserts that all who discern patterns in the universe are confusing metaphors for life with life itself. It may be legitimate for a writer like Alexandre Dumas in Le Vicomte de Bragelonne to tell a riveting story about the "Man in the Iron Mask" conspiracy, but that it is all it is, a story. People who believe in conspiracies confuse life with art. Life, and real history, is concerned with the contingent, the adventitious and the aleatory; story-telling, historical novels and imagined history are concerned with necessity, patterns and structure.

Robert Louis Stevenson put it well: "Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing and emasculate . . . No art is true in this sense; none can compete with life; not even history, built indeed of indisputable facts, but these facts robbed of their vivacity and sting." Aristotle's famous distinction in The Poetics is often cited: the plausible impossibility is always to be preferred to the implausible possibility. In life, it is the other way round. To put in bluntly, in real life we are in the world of the cock-up, of the blunder, of Sod's and Murphy's law. To bring in the idea of conspiracy is not just to offend against Ockham's razor (never use a complex explanation when a simple one explains the same facts), but is in a very real sense an imaginative delusion.

Where does this leave someone who, like myself, believes that Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Lincoln, J F Kennedy and John Paul I died as a result of conspiracies, but has no time for the "cover-up" theories that Princess Diana was a victim of the British secret service, that William Rufus was killed in the New Forest in 1100 by a fertility cult, that Clive of India was murdered by political enemies, that General Patton's death in 1945 in a car crash was a disguised assassination or that aliens landed in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947?

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

History Isn't Always a Cock-Up
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.