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The Conspiracy Against Conspiracy Theories

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January 18, 2010

Cass Sunstein is a Harvard-educated legal scholar who began his career in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and moved on to become a Professor at the University of Chicago Law School.  President Obama appointed Mr. Sunstein to the position of Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.  In case you’re wondering what that bureaucracy does, a visit to its website will reveal this:

The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) is located within the Office of Management and Budget and was created by Congress with the enactment of the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980 (PRA).  OIRA carries out several important functions, including reducing paperwork burdens, reviewing federal regulations, and overseeing policies relating to privacy, information quality, and statistical programs.

On January 12, Daniel Tencer of The Raw Story website, pointed out that Mr. Sunstein co-authored a paper with Adrian Vermule, published in the Journal of Political Philosophy in 2008 entitled, “Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures”.  Here is some of what Mr. Tencer had to say about that paper, while quoting fellow critic, Marc Estrin:

Sunstein argued that “government might undertake (legal) tactics for breaking up the tight cognitive clusters of extremist theories.”  He suggested that “government agents (and their allies) might enter chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises, causal logic or implications for political action.”

“We expect such tactics from undercover cops, or FBI,” Estrin writes at the Rag Blog, expressing surprise that “a high-level presidential advisor” would support such a strategy.

Estrin notes that Sunstein advocates in his article for the infiltration of “extremist” groups so that it undermines the groups’ confidence to the extent that “new recruits will be suspect and participants in the group’s virtual networks will doubt each other’s bona fides.”

At Salon.com, Glenn Greenwald (an attorney who has litigated cases based on Constitutional law issues) expressed outrage that President Obama would be so closely tied to someone with such views:

There’s no evidence that the Obama administration has actually implemented a program exactly of the type advocated by Sunstein, though in light of this paper and the fact that Sunstein’s position would include exactly such policies, that question certainly ought to be asked.  Regardless, Sunstein’s closeness to the President, as well as the highly influential position he occupies, merits an examination of the mentality behind what he wrote.  This isn’t an instance where some government official wrote a bizarre paper in college 30 years ago about matters unrelated to his official powers; this was written 18 months ago, at a time when the ascendancy of Sunstein’s close friend to the Presidency looked likely, in exactly the area he now oversees.

*   *   *

What is most odious and revealing about Sunstein’s worldview is his condescending, self-loving belief that “false conspiracy theories” are largely the province of fringe, ignorant Internet masses and the Muslim world.  That, he claims, is where these conspiracy theories thrive most vibrantly, and he focuses on various 9/11 theories — both domestically and in Muslim countries — as his prime example.

It’s certainly true that one can easily find irrational conspiracy theories in those venues, but some of the most destructive “false conspiracy theories” have emanated from the very entity Sunstein wants to endow with covert propaganda power: namely, the U.S. Government itself, along with its elite media defenders.  Moreover, “crazy conspiracy theorist” has long been the favorite epithet of those same parties to discredit people trying to expose elite wrongdoing and corruption.

Sunstein also advocated the use of  “credible independent experts” to be hired and paid by the government to add a veneer of credibility to government positions.  The relevance of this point to the controversy over Jonathan Gruber (the MIT professor who received undisclosed payments to promote the President’s healthcare plan) resulted in a situation where that issue became the most widely-discussed aspect of Greenwald’s piece.  By taking issue with Greenwald, Paul Krugman took advantage of the opportunity to get a little egg on his own face with a blog posting at his New York Times-based site.  Greenwald had no difficulty exposing the flawed rationale of Krugman’s retort on January 16.

I would like to see the debate refocus on the original point:  the idea that the government should get involved in debunking “conspiracy theories”.  That term is used by all types of pundits to invalidate any point of view contrary to their own.  As Daniel Tencer explained in his Raw Story piece, Sunstein used the term “crippled epistemology” to support the contention that people who believe in conspiracy theories have a limited number of sources of information that they trust.  I believe that Sunstein and his ilk have it backwards.  By their constant attempts to tar “the Internet” as the wellspring of so many “conspiracy theories” – they are acting to limit the number of trustworthy sources of information with their own counterintelligence tactics.

The greater question concerns why it would be so important for the government to get involved in this type of activity.  In the case of the 9/11 conspiracy theories, there is the obvious concern that Al Queda or some similarly-inclined group would want to cultivate an online network of kindred spirits who might potentially be of service to such an organization.  Does that mean that anyone who suspects some degree of cover-up concerning some aspect of that tragedy should be treated as a potential “enemy combatant”?  What other “conspiracy groups” would be targeted by such operations?  Who would determine whether a particular conspiracy theory becomes the focus of such an effort and what would be the criteria for making such a determination?  As Glenn Greenwald’s January 15 essay demonstrates, once the government embarks on such a course, there is unlimited potential for abuse.  Worse yet, the government’s use of such tactics should cause any such government “information control” efforts to self-destruct.  Greenwald put it this way:

The reason conspiracy theories resonate so much is precisely that people have learned — rationally — to distrust government actions and statements.  Sunstein’s proposed covert propaganda scheme is a perfect illustration of why that is.  In other words, people don’t trust the Government and “conspiracy theories” are so pervasive precisely because government is typically filled with people like Cass Sunstein, who think that systematic deceit and government-sponsored manipulation are justified by their own Goodness and Superior Wisdom.

In other words, this is a battle the government has already lost.  A program to conspire against conspiracy groups could serve no other purpose but to validate the claims made by those groups.




Joining The Supremes

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May 4, 2009

On April 30, Supreme Court Justice David Souter announced his intention to retire after the current court term recess in June.  Many were surprised by this announcement.  Since Justice John Paul Stevens is 89 and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 76, most Supreme Court watchers expected one of those two jurists to be the first to retire after the election of President Obama.  Those who know Justice Souter all concur that he hates living in Washington, D.C. where he is a reluctant member of the capitol’s “elite”.

Watching Friday’s news programs, I was amused by the mad scramble by those on the “hard right” to organize their opposition to the confirmation of Preisdent Obama’s nominee to the high court.  Obama has not yet even announced whom he intends to nominate, yet these reactionaries are already against that person.  So, the fun begins  . . .

Once the President makes the nomination, the Senate Judiciary Committee begins the confirmation hearings, wherein the candidate will become incessantly badgered about his or her views on abortion, gay weddings, gun control and whether the court should “intervene” by overturning patently unconstitutional laws enacted by a bought-off (Oops!  — I mean “lobbied”) Congress.  The Judiciary Committee then issues its report and the full Senate votes to either confirm or reject the nomination with 51 votes.

This process became a spectator sport back in 1987, when Ronald Reagan nominated the Amish-looking, Robert Bork.  The Democrats immediately launched a full-on battle against the nomination, considered by many as a bit over-the-top, since it involved scrutiny of Bork’s video rentals.  This particular judicial confirmation resulted in the use of the word “Bork” as a verb.  Since that time, getting “Borked” described any situation wherein a political appointee became the target of a partisan attack during the confirmation process.  Nevertheless, Bork’s view that the Constitution provides no guarantee of an individual’s right to privacy, justified much of the ire against him.  During the confirmation hearings, he criticized the decision in Roe v. Wade.  Dumb idea.  Since that time, Republican nominees to any Federal Court do all they can to avoid providing straight answers to questions dealing with a woman’s right to determine whether she will carry a fetus to term.

The most entertaining confirmation hearings came along when George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991.  By that time, Bush appointee David Souter had already begun to disappoint the “hard right”.  The administration wanted to be sure they had a hard-line conservative this time and in Thomas they found the prefect candidate to replace the court’s first African-American Justice, Thurgood Marshall, who retired.  The excitement began when the committee heard testimony from Anita Hill, who had worked for Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  Ms. Hill testified that while working at the EEOC, she was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas on several occasions.  The most memorable portion of her testimony concerned a remark by Thomas that his favorite porn video was a feature entitled:  Long Dong Silver.  Although Hill’s testimony ultimately did not block the confirmation of Thomas, people began lining up at adult book stores to purchase copies of the overnight classic.  I always wondered whether a certain chain of seafood restaurants also might have benefited from that aspect of the proceedings.

At this point, many Republicans likely assume that President Obama will nominate an ultra-liberal judge to counter-balance the far-right members of the court:  Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.  News outlets are already abuzz with speculation concerning the most likely nominee.  The betting is heavy that Obama will nominate a woman for this vacancy because a man (Samuel Alito) was appointed by George W. Bush to replace Sandra Day O’Connor, one of only two females on the court when Bush took office.  Some pundits expect Obama to nominate someone from a minority group to add a little more diversity to the court.  As a result, many of these people expect Judge Sonia Sotomayor from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to get the nod.  My prediction is that the President will select Judge Diane Wood from the Seventh Circuit.  She shares Obama’s experience as an instructor at the University of Chicago Law School and she has a solid background.

Nevertheless, we can expect quite a bit of showboating once the confirmation process begins.  It might not be as much fun as the Clarence Thomas hearings  .  .  .  but who knows?

Let the games begin!

Women To Watch

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June 19, 2008

Most of the eulogies about Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign have focused on the theme that she was a “groundbreaker”, who proved that a woman could make it to the Senate and become a serious contender for the highest office in the land.  Meanwhile, there are a number of women presently in the Senate, who got there without having been married to a former President (whose surname could be relied upon for recognition purposes).  In fact, two of these women are presently working on closing the so-called “Enron loophole” in the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, 7 U.S.C. §2(h)(3) and (g), which existed throughout Bill Clinton’s tenure in the Oval Office.  This “Enron loophole” is what has made it possible for speculators to drive the price of gasoline beyond $4 per gallon.  Surely, the increased demand for oil by China and India has explained part of the soaring cost of gasoline here in the United States.  However all authorities on the subject agree that unchecked speculation in the American markets has greatly facilitated the skyrocketing increase in gas prices.  That speculation owes its existence to the so-called “Enron loophole”, which is once again coming under attack in the Senate.

There is abundant interest focused on whatever Hillary Clinton’s mission will be when she returns to the Senate after her month of R&R and what role she might play if Barack Obama is elected our next President.  I suggest that we turn our sights to the Senate right now, to witness what other women are doing there and find out for ourselves who the real “trailblazers” are.  We should also consider these pioneers when looking toward the day when a woman finally makes it to The White House.

Our first potential future candidate is Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, whose role on the Senate Commerce Committee has found her fighting against the “Enron loophole”.  Looking on Wikipedia.org we learn:

She received her bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in political science from Yale University in 1982, where she was a member of the Yale College Democrats and the Feminist Caucus.  …  Klobuchar served as an associate editor of the Law Review and received her J.D. in 1985 at the University of Chicago Law School.

Bam!  She has made the prerequisite pilgrimage to Iraq (March, 2007) and voiced her frustration with Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki upon her return.  She is a member of the following Senate Committees:  the Agriculture Committee, the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Commerce Committee.  She is also a member of the Congressional Joint Economic Committee.

Our second potential future candidate is Senator Maria Cantwell from the State of Washington.  She is also currently working to close the “Enron loophole”. Senator Cantwell received a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Administration from Miami University of Ohio.  She has served in the Senate since January of 2001.  Although she supported the Joint Resolution for the Use of the Armed Forces in Iraq, she explained the qualifications for her support in an extensive press release the day before the vote on that Resolution.   She is a member of the following Senate Committees:  Finance, Indian Affairs, Finance and Entrepreneurship, Energy and Natural Resources, as well as the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

At this juncture, it remains to be seen whether Hillary Clinton will join these two sister Senators in their efforts to close the “Enron loophole”.  It never bothered her husband during his eight years in the White House and she never spoke up about it during that time.

For our third potential future candidate, we can’t forget about Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas.  Although she is being promoted as a possible running mate for Barack Obama, her five years as Governor of Kansas are considered by many as a bit short for the position of Vice President.  (She faced that criticism when she had served only one year as Governor and was considered as a possible running mate for John Kerry in 2004.)  She earned a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Kansas after earning a Bachelor’s Degree from Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C.  (Trinity Washington University is not associated with the late Jerry Falwell, who died and went to hell.  It is a Catholic – affiliated University.)  As Governor of Kansas, she has an established record as an advocate of environmental protection.

As the pundits watch Hillary Clinton’s political future, some of us will be looking toward other American women, one of whom may turn out to become the first female President of the United States.


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