History Isn't Always a Cock-Up

Article excerpt

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? …