Monday, March 5, 2012

Conspiracy Theories

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)


  1. The Russians murdered a guy in London by poking him with a radioactive umbrella tip. Most conspiracy theories are wrong but not all.

    1. Thanks for pointing out that some conspiracies are real. I did not mean to suggest that all conspiracy theories are crazy. The assassination of President Lincoln was a conspiracy, of course, which was proven in court, as was the Oklahoma City bombing. And James Earl Ray may have had some help as well, but probably not as widespread as the most imaginative conspiracy theories would have it.

      My only point was that if you want to suggest there is a conspiracy, prove it.

  2. << We have to rely on the judicial system to protect us from the ability to believe almost anything.>>

    Oh my!

    Let’s poll Americans about the judicial system and see if they agree. I think we need to put attorneys under government run programs a la Obamacare and physicians. The government will help attorneys make decisions through algorithms and control reimbursement.

    1. I saw David Boies being interviewed shortly after he and Ted Olson won the trial holding Proposition 8 unconstitutional. When asked to respond to various claims being made by the Proposition 8 proponents who said that gay marriage was harmful to children, etc., etc., Boies said those kinds of assertions just proved the difference between what you can say on tv or in the political arena, and what you can say in a court of law. In court you have to back up an assertion, such as that gay marriage is harmful to children, with actual evidence. And the reason that Proposition 8 was overthrown was that the parties who supported Proposition 8 had no evidence.

      Same with Orly Taitz. When she goes on TV, she can say whatever she wants. When she goes to court, she needs evidence and precedent. And that's why she always loses in court.

      I'm not arguing that the judicial system is perfect. Far from it. But it is one place where you can't just say anything you want and get away with it. You have to have evidence and supporting legal authority.

  3. You make a great point. But my point is that most of us no longer trust our courts.

    The Roberts court has found a way to confirm corporate personhood. They are 'this close' to giving corporations rights without any downside. In 2011, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals all ruled that corporate liability is possible under the Alien Tort Statute. While the Supremes are hearing the arguments I hold little hope that they will make the right decisions.

    Left, middle, right -- the majority of us no longer trust our courts. Thirty years ago if I were wrongly charged and had to go to trial I would have fought to the death to defend myself. Today I might be tempted to settle. I have lost faith in the system. That goes for most systems of government.

    And now the government is doing medicine. Ugh ...

  4. I'm going to date myself and reveal that I have been practicing in the courts for more than 30 years, starting with a clerkship in 1979. I can't say the courts were better 30 years ago. There have been some changes of course, some for the better and some for the worse, but overall, I'm not sure why anyone would have more faith in the courts 30 years ago than today.

    And the government's been doing medicine for much longer than 30 years. For everyone over 65. For every veteran. And for poor people. Basically all the biggest users of the system. And for the most part, it's not the public system that people are complaining about; it's the private insurance system that is driving people nuts.

  5. I defer to your experience in the courts.

    You are absolutely, 100%, dead wrong about medicine.

    I have been a treating patients for 30 years, since 1981.

    Government medicine is the worst in the land. Not even close.

  6. What you are saying about government medicine is your opinion, which you are entitled to. What I said about medicine is fact. The VA system started in 1917. It is pure government-run health care, meaning that all of the staff of VA hospitals are actually employed by the government. Nobody is seriously proposing privatizing that system.

    Medicare started in 1965. It is a single-payer health system of health insurance, financed mostly by payroll taxes. Everybody agrees it needs reform, but when Republicans proposed last year to turn it into a block grant or voucher program, that proved to be extremely unpopular politically. Medicaid is also a single payer system, and not as popular politically because it is for poor people. But still, nobody is seriously suggesting that we do away with it.

    When I say that most of the complaints are about the private system of health insurance for the rest of us, I am talking about the 40 or 50 million people who do not even have coverage at all, the people who can't quit their jobs because they need health insurance, the people who can't get coverage because they have a pre-existing condition, the people who are denied coverage for various reasons by their insurance companies, the people who have to file bankruptcy because of medical bills, and on and on. Lots of unhappy people.

    As a provider, I can understand that you might have more frustrations with Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement, than with patients who have private insurance, but I don't see how you can disagree with the factual statements I was making about how long the government has been in the business of providing health care, and about the extent of complaints people have with the private system.

  7. Joe, it’s not all about reimbursement. That is a part of it but not the main issue. On Medicare, I think the system runs pretty well; particularly the parts that are administered through private hospitals and nursing homes. As you say, Medicare needs some financial reform. I hope we can do that soon. Reimbursement is low and there are restrictions on types and amount of care available to patients. That is understandable to a degree. Medicare is under enormous stress and that will only become more difficult with time as our generation begins to avail itself of services. End of life care is incredibly costly.

    The other caveat relative to Medicare success is that you have to know how to navigate the system from within. That is a big IF. Older patients are often not able to advocate for themselves. That means they may lose out on care they should get. It's not the physicians who turn out patients; it is the case managers and the physical therapists who are under great pressure from government guidelines that threaten not to pay. Since an appeal can take six months facilities and managers follow guidelines not doctor’s recommendations for fear of not being paid. For example, my mother's stroke rehab was cut short when her physical therapist reached "X" number of predetermined sessions even though she was continuing to improve and her neurologist insisted she have therapy. The PT carried more weight than the neuro when it came to financial decisions because she was the one dealing directly with managers. Fortunately I successfully intervened. But I have to tell you, it was a nearly full time job for me to oversee and secure her care.

    Medicare is different than the VA hospitals where all employees are government employees. It's certainly not just reimbursement, although that is often times almost absent and is driving doctors out. It's that these patients who want to get into the VA have a tough time just getting access and once they do their treatment options may be extremely limited. I live in San Diego and see them as patients. They pay me cash instead of trying to fight the government. There are sad stories coming out of the VA (unless you know somebody big and cronyism is working on your side).

    The only place where there is as much red tape, use of algorithms, denial of care and reams of paperwork as there is at government run medicine is the state workers compensation systems where states mandate employer coverage. It is overcrowded, underfunded, over utilized and over litigated. Still, the privatized portions of workers comp are superior to state run portions.

    From my experience, the most efficient, professional and first class care can be found at Kaiser Permanente. If I ever thought the government could run a business like Kaiser, I would embrace it. However, the government can not . The government will continue to provide second rate care.

    Lastly, I agree that the low income unisured have to be care for. As well, families should not be wiped out due to the cost of end of life care. And, that workers should be able to leave a job or make a geographic move without losing health care.