Several years ago I gave a talk on Martha’s Vineyard about many of the people whose portraits I’ve painted in the Americans Who Tell the Truth series. I spent some time talking about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. When I talk about King, I like to focus on his last year — the period when, defying the advice of many of his advisors in the civil rights movement, he spoke against the Vietnam War, equating racism with imperialism. King felt bound to make the point that the forces of capitalism, materialism, and militarism that were driving segregation were also driving the war, and until we confronted the source of the problem, the abuses would continue. It was April 4, 1967, in Riverside Church in New York, that he made that declaration. A year to the day before his assassination.
It has always confounded me every year when we celebrate Dr. King’s life that no mention is made of that Riverside Church speech in the major media. We are always treated to sound bites of the 1963 I Have a Dream speech. That speech’s oratory is as powerful as it is non-confrontational. Which is why it is re-played for modern audiences. Dr. King was about confrontation. Non-violence and confrontation, each ennobling and making the other effective. In 1967 he said, “… my country is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” And he explained how our economic system thrived on exploitation and violence, or, as Emma Goldman put it, “The greatest bulwark of capitalism is militarism.” This was probably the most important speech King ever gave and not playing it when we ostensibly honor him, is tantamount to castrating him morally and intellectually. Just as there is a long history of White America castrating black men, there is an equal legacy of Elite America cutting the most important truths of our social prophets out of the history books. We pay homage to King’s icon, the cardboard cutout, but not to his strongest beliefs and his most cogent analysis of our problems — to what vision called forth his courage. And, if we think that he spoke the truth, to censor that truth is to promote a curious kind of segregation. He is segregated, not for the color of his skin, but for the accuracy of his perception, how close to the bone his words cut. We can’t bear to hear the sound of truth’s knife scraping on hypocrisy’s bone. Only people who actually want to change the system dance to that music or want it to be heard.
Equally important, and part of the same neglect, is the intentional ignoring of the facts of his death. In my talk on Martha’s Vineyard I spoke about William Pepper’s book, An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King, Jr. Pepper had been James Earl Ray’s lawyer. Ray was the man convicted of killing King. But both Pepper and the King family were convinced that Ray was innocent. The King family hired Pepper to represent them in a suit; they asked only $100.00 in damages to clear Ray’s name. Before the trial came to court in 1999, Ray had died in prison. The jury determined that King had been assassinated by a conspiracy involving the Memphis police, the Mafia, the FBI, and the Special Forces of the U.S. Army. Ray, the patsy, had left town before the shot was fired. Pepper had confessions from people involved from each of the organizations named. The verdict was barely mentioned in the U.S. media then and is not mentioned every year on the anniversary of his death. Why?
After my talk on Martha’s Vineyard a man came up to me and said, “I enjoyed your speech and was with you until you started that conspiracy stuff about MLK, Jr.” I said, “That’s not conspiracy. What I told you are facts.” End of conversation.
I think we’re confronted with two conspiracies here: one to commit the crime, the other to ignore it even when the facts are known. ( Two sides of the same coin.) The man who accused me of slipping into the neurotic, aliens-are-among-us land of conspiracy nuts was unable to hear the evidence, perhaps because he was so utterly convinced by our government and media that conspiracies don’t exist, people who espouse them are dangerous fruitcakes, and if you begin to think like that, your whole house of cards wobbles then topples. Who wants that? Better a standing tower of marked cards, than having to admit the game is rigged and the ground is shaking.
America is steeped in conspiracy, and even more steeped in propaganda that discredits those who try to expose the conspiracies. Whether we’re talking about MLK, Jr., JFK, RFK, Iran-Contra, 9/11, or, most importantly, the status quo, anyone who works to uncover the truth is branded a “conspiracy nut” and discredited before any evidence has a fair hearing. The government/corporate/media version is THE VERSION. Anything else is illusory.
In fact, the cultural success of labeling investigative reporters and forensic historians, and, simply, anyone who tries to name reality, “conspiracy nuts” is perhaps the most successful conspiracy of our time. Well, not the most successful. That prize goes to the conspiracy to give corporations all the rights of individual persons under our Constitution. That conspiracy has codified and consolidated corporate power so that it controls our lives in almost every meaningful way. It controls the election funds of our candidates, and them once they are in office. It controls our major media including public broadcasting. It controls the content of our television programming. It controls how are tax dollars are spent making sure that the richest get the most welfare. It controls the laws, the courts, the prison system and the mind numbing propaganda that we are the greatest democracy on earth. It controls the values with which we raise our children. It controls our ability to dispense justice. It controls how we treat nature, how we deface our land with strip malls, and blow the tops off our mountains — a form of corporate free speech. It dictates our modes of transportation. It controls our inability to respond to true crises like climate change. It attempts to create a spiritual deficiency in every person that can be filled and healed only with stuff — and no stuff is ever enough.
As Richard Grossman puts it, “Isn’t it an old story? People create what looks to be a nifty machine, a robot, called the corporation. Over time, the robots get together and overpower the people. … For a century, the robots propagandize and indoctrinate each generation of people so they grow up believing that robots are people too, gifts from God and Mother Nature; that they are inevitable and the source of all that is good. How odd that we have been so gullible, so docile, obedient.”
It is obvious to say that we have been engineered into a culture that values competitive consumption and consumers instead of community cooperation and citizenship. Capitalism with its obsessive and necessary appetite for consumption, expanding markets, resource depletion, and increasing profits has consumed democracy. Have you ever watched a small snake swallow a large frog? The snake’s hinged jaw stretches wider and wider, squeezing the frog millimeter by millimeter into its gullet until finally the snake looks like the Holland Tunnel might if it had devoured the Titanic. Then the acids and enzymes do their corrosive work. The frog becomes the snake. And the snake claims it is the frog. Capitalism has gulped down democracy and claimed it is democracy. When, immediately after 9/11, President Bush advised Americans to demonstrate their love of freedom and their resistance to terrorism by courageously, selflessly, hurrying to the mall to buy something, he was speaking as the snake that identifies itself as a frog. He was asking us to play a little game with our brains’ synapses, replace the snake icon with the frog’s. Sadly, he may also have been speaking about democracy in the only way that he can understand or recognize it. And, for him, Christianity has been another tidy meal for the snake.
Perhaps this switcheroo is nowhere more obvious than in the military /industrial complex. We are told that the vulnerable frog needs protecting. The threats are grave. So we fork over our money and children’s lives for war and weapons. We are told that we are building security and peace. More lives. More weapons. What we aren’t told is that the largest US export to the world is weapons. What we aren’t told is that enormous fortunes are being made from the arms trade. What we aren’t told is that the more precarious and unstable the world is, the better the business for the arms dealers — that the real promotion is not for security and peace but insecurity and war, that the lives of our children are the necessary collateral damage for this monster. What we aren’t told is that the only real security is in cooperation, conservation, and fairness, not imperialism. The frog, who is a snake, wrapped in a flag, pleads for patriotism and counts the cash. The snake’s forked tongue is a barbeque fork on which we’ve all been roasted.
I’d call that conspiracy.
The neocons have claimed, with some accuracy, that they can create reality faster than we can react: the deed is done, now deal with it. The troops have invaded, Halliburton, Blackwater, and Lockheed signed their contracts, the prisoners are tortured, your email is bugged, the resources for social programs are gone, the laws are changed, the Wal-Mart is built, the sludge dump has already polluted the aquifer, truth is hollowed out —- catch me if you can!
How is that not conspiracy?
The cooks & the crooks create a new status quo, legalize it, propagandize it, mythologize it, fundamentalize it, slather it with fear and patriotism, and force feed it to the complacent, sedated cow we call America.
How is that not conspiracy?
Of course, ever since the Constitution was signed and didn’t free the slaves or give the vote to women, poor folks, Native Americans and freed blacks so that people with power and money could continue to profit, America has been a conspiracy against itself. It’s been cowboy grilling his own heart over a smoke & mirrors campfire, a CEO with inherited wealth and three hundred years of patrician, affirmative action crooning “Only in America.”
The reason we can’t talk about conspiracy is because it is the modus operandi. It isn’t the elephant in the room, it is the room itself. We all live there. We can impeach a few elephants, and we should, but the architecture is in place. And they control it.
When I was in school, I was reminded – repeatedly — to avoid using an indefinite pronoun without identifying whom it refers to, as in, “They are coming to get us,” … or, “They control everything.” Who are They? It’s bad practice to think and write like that. Without reference it just sounds like paranoia. But the hell of it is that it’s damned hard to say who the They are that are in conspiracy to destroy democracy and, by exploitation, nature. Did They do it on purpose or merely discover by serendipity, like cavemen seeing copper ooze out of a rock by a fire, the wondrous possibility and power of what they had found. For instance, the invention of the TV was not a conspiracy. But once the realization of how TV could be used to submerge the public in a lobotomizing swamp of advertising, sound bites, inactivity, community destruction, titillation, false history, empty myth, consumption, and complicity in making fortunes for the sponsors, the program was clear. Conspiracy was the silent partner in the euphemism good business practice. And, once they saw the implications of giving corporations First Amendment rights, they were home free.
Time to re-think conspiracy.
We need to embrace conspiracy in two ways. One, admit that it’s real, its quotidian, it’s the fabric of our lives, the mercury in the air, the dioxin in the water, it’s filling the airwaves and the marketplace and the courts and the halls of Congress before we even get out of bed every morning. Two, counter it with a conspiracy of our own. On our side we have the fundamental fact that although the corporate They can alter many of our realities, they can’t alter Reality. They can’t change the behavior of Nature. They can sell off the rain forest, but they can’t leverage the effect of cutting it. They can keep the mileage of cars poor so we’ll buy more gas, but they can’t alter the amount of oil in the ground or the damage to the atmosphere. They can privatize every human interaction and every natural resource, but they can’t privatize the laws of nature. They have conspired to change reality. We must conspire to live in harmony with Reality.
In the same way, they can conspire to kill Martin Luther King, Jr., but they can’t totally eradicate the truth of who did it and why.
Con + spirare, from the Latin. To breathe together. Those are the roots of conspiracy. Breathing together doesn’t sound like an activity of the ideologically deracinated whispering seditiously in a dank cellar or a board room, foul breaths denting a weak flame flickering over a candle nub, gunpowder or greed blackened fingers setting a timer, the whites of creased eyes glinting like knives with treason, murder, power, and deceit.
Con + spirare sounds like healthy men and women standing in the sun figuring out how in the hell they are going to take care of each other and their aging mother Earth and love life while doing it. Breathing together, sharing the same air, plotting to make sure that what’s mine is yours, conspiring to save their self-respect, their ideals, the future for their children.
I want to be part of a conspiracy. Pervasive, populist, revolutionary, and totally transparent. Grassroots. Idealistic. Simplistic. Life-affirming. Community building.
A conspiracy to make the common good and the love of nature the common denominator of every economic transaction.
And the simple truth is either we start breathing together, conspiring big time, right out in the open, nakedly, unashamedly, or we will have conspired in secret, by default, in our own demise.
We have let them breathe for us, and they have stolen our breath, our air, our spirit.
Secret con + spirare is death. Open con + spirare is life.
Conspiracy is dead. Long live conspiracy!
Robert Shetterly lives in Brooksville, Maine
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