The term “conspiracy theory” has been part of our culture for a very long time. It is often justifiably followed by the word “nut.” It is also a way to stop discussion, or to embarrass others from believing what is being said. The aversion to conspiracy theories flows from a revulsion at the thought that well-known events are caused by a group of people acting in secret.
If that is true, then the common-sense understanding of why things happen is defective. And if it is defective, then those who are seen as best informed are actually mistaken. They lose their standing, and we are faced with a grim world where important events have dark and unknown causes.
Those who believe in conspiracy theories think that the common explanations are defective. In their view, others fail to understand that the world doesn’t just happen. It is forged by hidden intentions. They believe that those who try to explain the world without recourse to secret agendas are either duped or part of the conspiracy.
Believing in conspiracy theories means that the world is not out of control. Instead, things are made to happen. This implies that something can be done to counter the conspirators’ actions.
There are those who believe that the price of oil fell because of a global decline in economic growth and the emergence of new technologies. In their view, nothing else is needed to explain it. There are others, though, who believe that the decline in the price of oil was deliberately engineered by some nation or powerful financial figures in order to cause harm.
If it is the former, then we are trapped by uncontrollable market forces… but at least we understand what is going on in the world. If it is the latter, then the world is controlled by powerful forces that determine the world’s fate for their own benefit.
Conspiracies: from Mundane to Fantastic
We are surrounded by conspiracies. Conspiracies are a normal part of the fabric of human life. I have worked in universities and governments and with publishers. A lot of what we do, as a matter of course, is conspiratorial.
Conspiracies and conspiracy theories can be thought of in three classes. First, there is the routine. These take place in politics, business, families, and other human organizations. Second, there are significant, discreet events, such as a coup or an assassination. Finally, there is the macro-conspiracy, which is about forces controlling broader areas of life, up to and including history.
It is the last two where the debate—if it can be called that—about conspiracies takes place.
Consider the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Both were ascribed to a lone gunman. In evaluating whether a conspiracy was behind either, the measure must be plausibility. My rule is that the idea of the lone gunmen must at least be a plausible hypothesis.
Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? It is possible that he got a job at the Texas School Book Depository, heard of the president’s motorcade, and for reasons of his own, fired an old Italian rifle three times in seven seconds, hitting Kennedy twice. He was, after all, a trained Marine. I can imagine him doing it.
There are two problems, however. The first is that Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. Ruby is described as a nightclub owner. He actually owned a strip club and was a pimp. It is said that he was emotionally distraught over Kennedy’s death and decided to kill Oswald. Nothing in Ruby’s past indicates a deep sentimental attachment to anyone, least of all a president. It stretches plausibility.
There is a second difficult piece to this. Lee Harvey Oswald defected to the Soviet Union while he was a Marine. He met his wife Marina in the Soviet Union. Her father was killed in World War II, and she lived with her uncle who was a colonel in the MVD, the Interior Ministry’s security forces. She attended Leningrad School of Pharmacology.
Marina married Oswald just a few weeks after meeting him. They were granted exit visas from the Soviet Union and were admitted to the United States… with no court-martial for Oswald and no apparent questions about Marina. This was 1960. Nieces of MVD colonels didn’t marry American defectors and were not issued exit visas with the new hubby. Nor were they just admitted to the United States.
But in the end, Ruby could have been emotionally attached to Kennedy, and Lee and Marina might have had a magic moment, and the rest sort of happened. But since I can’t really explain either story, I can say that the lone gunman theory is plausible, and I buy it pending other data.
The story of James Earl Ray killing King by himself is much tougher. Ray was a petty criminal in and out of jail, until his fourth conviction when he was sentenced to 20 years in Missouri for stealing $120 dollars. He escaped in1967, bought a new car in Alabama, and went to Mexico. In March 1968, he underwent plastic surgery to his face in Los Angeles. He moved around the US acquiring weapons and shot King on April 4.
Ray then drove to Canada where he obtained a Canadian passport a few days later. He then went to Britain. He was arrested at Heathrow while leaving the UK, when it was discovered that he had an American passport in addition to the Canadian one. He also had $10,000 in his possession.
Could Ray have been the sole shooter? Absolutely.
Could he have broken out of jail, bought a new car, gotten plastic surgery, and traveled the US and Mexico alone? No.
He had just broken out of jail, had no money, and was a small time punk. Could he have gone to Canada and gotten a passport under a false name in days? Could an escaped convict have gotten a US passport in days? Could he have gotten $10,000?
All of this is completely implausible. He had to have had help. Whose help? That’s tougher. The obvious help would be from white supremacists. I could postulate alternatives but haven’t a shred of evidence.
This brings me to the problem about discreet significant event theories. Theorists move far too quickly into the implausible category. In doing so, they immediately imply that the investigation was a fraud, and the investigators were part of the cover up.
The problem is that it’s implausible in the Oswald story that so many people—from the Dallas Police Department to the Warren Commission to the judge advocates in the Marines to Soviet intelligence—could have been involved. There is no way to involve so many people and keep the story secret. If you have ever told five people something secret, you know that. The Oswald story would involve hundreds of people in several countries. Some conspiracy theories implode on their own implausibility. Vast conspiracy can’t stay secret.
In the case of the King assassination, the utter implausibility of Ray acting alone makes the theorist try to deduce who else was involved. Sometimes it is logical. Sometimes it is an attempt to bring in someone (or some group) the theorist hates. In the case of Ray, I can say two things. First, it goes beyond plausibility that Ray did not have help. Second, the help could have come from an extraordinarily small number of people, even just one. I have no basis for naming co-conspirators. I can guess, but a guess on a matter of such importance is inappropriate.
The New World Order
There is then the macro-conspiracy theory that asserts the global economy and drug trade is controlled by the Rothschilds and the Queen of England (this is actually one I ran across). These theories run into the law of breadth. The more people who know of a conspiracy, the less likely it will remain a secret. A vast and complex conspiracy simply can’t be kept secret from all those needed to execute it. They will figure it out—and it will therefore become well known. The Hunt brothers once tried to corner the silver market. But the secret came out, because an action so vast couldn’t be kept a secret.
Here’s another problem with macro theories: if these actors are actually as powerful as theorists think, why would they be afraid of letting people know?
Conspiracies so vast, as to control part of the world, are not compatible with fear of exposure. The conspiracy is either enormously powerful or incredibly vulnerable. It is hard to think of a scenario in which long-term conspiracy on a global scale could survive for that long and then collapse on exposure.
This is the weakness of the theory that the American Revolution was a Masonic conspiracy. Those of the founders who were Masons were proud of it. They used Masonic symbols on our currency and so on. A powerful conspiracy doesn’t have to hide things, and therefore, it is no conspiracy.
There is then the final test of power. Someone once told me that there was a conspiracy of stunning proportions that was completely secret. I asked the person why he was still alive. Since he knew of the conspiracy and it was supposed to be a secret and those behind it were quite powerful, I figured he should be dead. But he wasn’t. So, either it wasn’t completely secret, it wasn’t very powerful, or it didn’t exist. (Or he actually was dead… but that leads to another conspiracy.)
I find both sides of the conspiracy issue wanting. First, there is no general case for conspiracies. Each must be judged on its own merits. But there are people inclined to believe that the world is as it appears as well as those who believe there is a secret world. Both are right, but the full truth is that some things are open and others are conspiracies. Distinguishing between the two is important. In general, I find macro theories implausible. There are too many people involved and too little need for secrecy, if indeed they are as powerful as they say.
The discreet, significant event is where the debate is made. The obsession to demonstrate that all assassinations, as an example, were acts by lone gunmen may be true, but there are tough hurdles in some cases. Dismissal of the difficulties derives, I think, from the psychological need to simplify the world.
On the other side, all things that raise an eyebrow are not proof of a hidden conspiracy. The world is filled with oddities to which some people need to give deeper meaning.
The blanket dismissal of secret collaboration occurring among humans is as neurotic as the total belief of vast secret powers controlling our lives. Both are, in their own ways, candidates for tin foil hats, and each school is equally contemptuous of the other. The former tend to have more prestigious degrees than the latter, but both are equally dogmatic and impervious to reason. The world is filled with conspiracies, except for the parts that are not. And some conspiracies matter. And most don’t exist.