Several years ago I gave a talk on Marthas Vineyard about many of the people whose portraits Ive 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. Kings
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 speechs 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,
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 Kings 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 cant bear to hear the sound of
truths knife scraping on hypocrisys 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 Marthas Vineyard I
spoke about William Peppers book, An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Pepper had been James Earl Rays 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 Rays 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.
After my talk on Marthas 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, Thats not conspiracy. What I told you
are facts. End of conversation.
I think were 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 dont 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 were 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, Isnt 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.
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,
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 snakes 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 frogs. 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
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
childrens lives for war and weapons. We are told that we are building
security and peace. More lives. More weapons. What we arent told is
that the largest US export to the world is weapons. What we arent told
is that enormous fortunes are being made from the arms trade. What we
arent 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 arent 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
snakes forked tongue is a barbeque fork on which weve all been
Id 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 didnt 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. Its 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 cant talk about conspiracy is because it is the modus operandi.
It isnt 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?
Its bad practice to think and write like that. Without reference it
just sounds like paranoia. But the hell of it is that its 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 its
real, its quotidian, its the fabric of our lives, the mercury in the
air, the dioxin in the water, its 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 cant alter Reality.
They cant change the behavior of Nature. They can sell off the rain
forest, but they cant leverage the effect of cutting it. They can keep
the mileage of cars poor so well buy more gas, but they cant 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 cant 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 cant 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
doesnt 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
whats 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