I just started reading Hellhound on his Trail, a book by Hampton Sides about the hunt for James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King's assassin, and my initial reaction is that the truth of this story is amazing enough without imagining that it is even more complicated. To support the existence of a widespread conspiracy in the King assassination would require a vast number of participants, reaching into some of the highest levels of government. Yet there is a cottage industry of people who will not let such speculation die, requiring a counter-cottage industry of debunkers trying to disprove each new wrinkle of the alleged conspiracy.
What explains the widespread fascination with conspiracy theories? From the King and Kennedy assassinations, to various conspiracy theories about the Clintons, to the 9/11 "truthers," and on to the birthers who are still preoccupied with proving that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, there is no end of people who remain fixated on complex, shadowy operators behind the scenes who are really running things. It is hard for admirers of the Kennedys or King to imagine that the ordinary, pathetic creatures who seem to have pulled the triggers could take down these legends. Other conspiracies may be explained by the idea that it is too frightening for many people to believe that a bunch of ordinary people who don't really know what they are doing any more than the rest of us, are actually in charge of running our government or our economic system. They would rather believe that a race of super-intelligent reptile people, or something like that, are actually controlling us.
Conspiracy theories, of course, come from both the political right and left. Recently I was reading one more or less left wing theory that sees the Bush family as the most powerful behind-the-scenes operators, suggesting they were behind the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, and explaining how they remain in power even when Democrats like Clinton or Obama obtain the Oval Office by making sure that government continues to favor the rich and powerful. If you believe in such a conspiracy, all you have to do is notice that the elder Bush and his son Jeb recently paid a courtesy call on President Obama just before the secretive Alfalfa Club dinner. That's all the proof that conspiracy theorists need to supposed that some sinister deals were being cooked up. (One amusing report of this meeting states that it was held in "complete secrecy," but also publishes a photo that the White House released on Flickr. I guess these days you can't count on the White House to know how to hold a secret meeting!)
It seemed to take only a few minutes after the untimely death of Andrew Breitbart before right wing conspiracy theories began to arise about how Breitbart must have been silenced because he was about to reveal some dirt on President Obama. So once again the president's opponents, who have been searching in vain since the 2008 campaign for some scandal with which to tag Obama, have been thwarted. As with most conspiracy theories, the belief that some sinister plot must have occurred, comes first. The details of how Breitbart was supposedly murdered will inevitably keep changing as more facts are uncovered. The plot always thickens, until only the most ardent conspiracy buffs can keep track of all of its arcane twists and turns.
For all her craziness, at least give the birther queen Orly Taitz some credit for recognizing her obligation to prove her claims in court, where she always loses. That is the standard conspiracy theories should be required to meet. We have to rely on the judicial system to protect us from the ability to believe almost anything.
(photo from extra)