Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Conspiracy for Conspiracy Theorists

The government may be taking an active, Orwellian interest in conspiracy theorists. Rather than installing two-way Telescreens in every American household to monitor citizens' communications and thoughts, the government may be planning to infiltrate groups espousing conspiracy theories and engage in "counterspeech" and other propaganda campaigns. The enlightened anti-civil libertarian proposing such a government policy is none other than President Obama's director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Cass Sunstein. Mr. Sunstein, formerly a professor at Harvard Law School, has been mentioned as a future appointment to the United States Supreme Court.

Mr. Sunstein co-authored a paper in 2008 titled "Conspiracy Theories", in which he expresses the view that Those who subscribe to conspiracy theories may create serious risks, including risks of violence, and the existence of such theories raises significant challenges for policy and law. Mr. Sunstein is particularly concerned about conspiracy theories about nefarious actions by the United States government, and the "extremists" who espouse such views. Never mind the substantial number of conspiracy theories involving the government that have subsequently proven to be true. Mr. Sunstein acknowledges that some conspiracy theories have proven to be true, then discards these proven theories to focus on the "false" conspiracy theories, ignoring the fact that the proven conspiracy theories were at one time widely considered to be false. Why else would these once disbelieved theories have been called conspiracy theories?

I have long taken the position that in a free society must be an enlightened society, and that one of the prerequisites of such an enlighted society must be the free exchange of ideas. This includes ideas I disagree with and ideas that I have dismissed as crackpot conspiracies. Information is power, whether for the purpose of making decisions about our governance or for identifying the enemies of our free society. The right to free expression by conspiracy theorists serves both purposes. On one hand, sometimes the conspiracy theorists are correct or may raise an issue regarding our government that bears watching. On the other hand, the conspiracy theorists may reveal themselves as persons we should be wary of having association.

Mr. Sunstein clearly views conspiracy theorists and their theories as a threat to his pet interests: big, all-knowing and all-controlling government and the elites such as Mr. Sunstein himself who think they know what is best for us proles. His considered and proposed solutions to a non-existent problem is revealing in its trust in the power of government over the people. Mr. Sunstein first considers the range of options for dealing with those pesky conspiracy theorists:

(1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing.
(2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories.
(3) Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories.
(4) Government might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech.
(5) Government might engage in informal communication with such parties, encouraging them to help.

Without explanation as to the reasons for considering options (1) and (2), Mr. Sunstein explains that our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories, which involves a mix of (3), (4) and (5). Sounds a bit inspired by the likes of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il of North Korea or Chairman Mao. Given the Obama administration's penchant for doublespeak, I would venture to guess that "informal communication" from the government might be translated as a visit by KGB...I mean DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and her gun-toting black-pajama party.

Considering that our government is supposedly of the people, by the people, and for the people, I find Mr. Sunstein's recommendation particularly offensive. This is because Mr. Sunstein's proposal is all about the government serving its own interests in countering conspiracy theories. Mr. Sunstein appears to subscribe to the common liberal fallacy that our government is an entity in its own right with its own interests to be served. If the government was actually concerned about the effect of conspiracy theories, it would act in such a way that would not foster the formation of conspiracy theories.

To his credit, Mr. Sunstein does consider that the government could behave in such a manner that conspiracy theorists would not have fodder for formation of their theories. He correctly states that the simplest governmental technique for dispelling false (and also harmful) beliefs – providing credible public information . To his discredit, Mr. Sunstein believes that the goverment openly providing information does not work, in any straightforward way, for conspiracy theories.

Mr. Sunstein's policy recommendations actually may help to explain the activities of the Democratic Party and the Obama administration. After promising in 2006 that the Democratic controlled Congress would be the most open and ethical in history, Nancy Pelosi has presided over a Congress that has been anything but open and ethical. Likewise, Candidate and then President Obama promised* to end secrecy in government and to open the legislative process to the public on his agenda. Since January 20, 2009, the Obama administration has withdrawn into the secrecy and double-dealing reminiscent of Chicago politics, with a long list of promises broken. Given the behavior of this administration, will anyone be surprised if it is plagued by more conspiracy theories than any other administration in U.S. history?

The answer to Mr. Sunstein's concerns about conspiracy theorists is the one that he and the Obama administration have discarded: Be an honest and open government that governs within constitutional limitations. I need not explain constitutional limitations to Mr. Sunstein or President Obama. Both were law professors at prestigious universities, Mr. Obama in particular having touted his previous employment as a constitutional law professor. To govern within constitutional limitations, a good start for the Obama administration would be to keep the promises President Obama made during his campaign and at his inauguration.

The Obama administration and the Democratic party in Congress have acted to foster formation of conspiracy theories about nefarious government activities when they have actually engaged in nefarious activity such as:

--DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano commissioning a report identifying concerned citizens, who happen not to agree with the Democratic party line, as potential terrorists.
--voting on, and sometimes passing, legislation without any actual reading of the legislation and without allowing the public to know what is in the legislation. Prime examples of this are the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the "stimulus bill") and the America's Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009.
--voting on legislation in the middle of the night, such as the America's Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009.
--buying votes for unpopular legislation, such as promises of federal aid made to Senator Mary Landrieu, D-LA, and Senator Ben Nelson, D-NE, for their votes on the America's Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009.
--making sweetheart deals with special interests, such as giving the United Auto Workers an ownership stake in the government-packaged bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler, and deals with the unions not to pay taxes on "Cadillac" health plans, not to mention special bailouts for consumer unfriendly banks such as JPMorganChase, Citibank, and Bank of America who have long records of taking advantage of consumers.
--campaiging on a promise to respect the Second Amendment right of Americans to keep and bear arms, then Attorney General Eric Holder states an intention to re-enact the wrongly-named assault weapons ban, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton negotiates for the U.S. to sign on to the United Nations Small Arms Treaty* despite its effects on our constitutional rights and sovereignty, and working with with Mexico on the CIFTA treaty to limit American Second Amendment rights.

I could spend the rest of the month coming up with examples of nefarious behavior by the Obama administration. The point, however, is that the Obama administration apparently believes Mr. Sunstein's assessment that providing the public with credible information will not dispel conspiracy theories. By governing in secrecy, engaging in doublespeack, breaking promises, and disregarding the constitutional limitations of government, Obama has created an environment in which conspiracy theorists and their creations will thrive. Unlike the conspiracy theories Mr. Sunstein purports to target with his policy recommendations, I would wager that a substantial number of conspiracy theories circulating since January 20, 2009 are true.

Next for Mr. Sunstein and the President: The Enemies List.

*These links are to government websites, and could be subject to revision at any time. Just ask Winston Smith.

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