Conspiracy theories are entertaining, but we swallow them at our own risk.
Being entertaining, they percolate widely through our new social media. This offers unprecedented opportunities for people to confuse us, often for political purposes.
I used to do an April First lecture for my Soviet Government class: "The Czar Is Alive and Ruling in the Kremlin." Its thesis: Nicholas II wasn't as stupid as he pretended to be.
In my imagined version, to avoid being dethroned Nicholas II faked his own overthrow, helped by his loyal henchmen, Lenin and Stalin. Protected by his low profile, Nicholas II continued ruling from a back room, was duly succeeded by his son, Alexei, and then by Alexei's son.
The supporting evidence was overwhelming. For example, the "doctors' plot" in the early 1950s, supposedly about Kremlin doctors' effort to poison Stalin, was a cover-up for arguments among top doctors about treating czarevich Alexei's hemophilia.
American kremlinologists couldn't explain how the Politburo made decisions because it merely rubber stamped the Tsar's orders and wasn't deciding anything.
After this lecture a student once told me that this lecture made more sense than anything I had said all year! Actually, this was true. Conspiracy theory can be simple and consistent, whereas reality is often messy.
As a mental exercise, I once concocted new conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination. There were already plenty, but there is always room for more.
A recent headline in a supermarket tabloid claimed that Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered J. Edgar Hoover to assassinate Kennedy. But a play called McBird already argued this shortly after Kennedy's death.
I could do better than that!
How about rumors that Kennedy's father was paying millions to Jacqueline Kennedy so she wouldn't divorce JFK while he remained in the White House? It would be cheaper to have Jackie killed, so Kennedy senior hired Lee Harvey Oswald to do the job.
But Oswald was a bad shot.
Doesn't grab you? Never mind. Groucho Marx once said that he had principles, but if you didn't like them he had other principles. Like Groucho, I could come up with many conspiracy accounts of the assassination. A favorite: experts informed Kennedy that medical problems would kill him within three painful months. So he decided to leave with a bang rather than a whimper, becoming a martyr, establishing a Camelot myth, and improving his brothers' chances to succeed him. JFK hired Oswald to do the job.
There are numerous conspiracy theories about 9-11: President George W. Bush was behind it. It was the CIA. Or Israel. Or it really was al-Qaida but our leaders knew it was coming, letting 9-11 happen to get an excuse to attack Afghanistan.
This latter resembles claims that Franklin D. Roosevelt knew Pearl Harbor would happen and wanted an excuse to get the U.S. into World War II.
Interestingly, the death of FDR himself elicited conspiracy theories: He committed suicide. He was assassinated by shooting. He was assassinated by poisoning. Winston Churchill did it. Zionists did it. The international bankers did it.
And then, we have people who claim Americans never landed on the moon.
Meanwhile, the Soviet KGB "discovered" that the CIA invented AIDS.
Some conspiracy theories just might be true, though they rarely are. The better ones are carefully designed to be plausible.
Official versions of major events are not always true, though they usually are. They often have loose ends, again since reality is complicated and messy.
Our best strategy for remaining sane is to ignore conspiracy theories and regard their propagators as probable cranks. And we should always ask if it would make any difference to our own lives if the czar had really faked his own overthrow or Queen Elizabeth I had written the plays supposedly written by Shakespeare.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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