Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Your Mild-Mannered Speech Therapist: Cass Sunstein

Cass Sunstein, director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, will not like this column. He may be offended by it. Feel insulted. Cry "not fair!" He may recommend that I be taxed, or financially penalized somehow for expressing unapproved speech, or even incarcerated for having said such awful things about him. He endorses these ideas. Works assiduously for them. Has written extensively on how unbridled free speech imperils society and social stability, and so ought to be checked and even licensed.

So, sue me.

Well, he hasn't yet. In September 2009 I penned, "Cass Sunstein: 'Czar' in Wolf’s Clothing," in which I excoriated him for sanctioning censorship and the manipulation of "public opinion" on the occasion of regiment of government arts-grantees being turned loose on the public by the National Endowment for the Arts. (I have written numerous articles on the perils facing the First Amendment and freedom of speech, including "'High Noon' for the First Amendment" in September 2009, which indict Sunstein, as well, including several articles for the Journal of Information Ethics and The Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science.)

Sunstein has published thirty-seven books to date, and a mountain of articles and papers. A man who has written so much may have a faulty memory and have difficulty remembering what he's written. On April 30th, for example, during a lecture at New York University Law School, an attendee asked him if he still endorsed an idea he proposed in a paper he wrote in 2008 while still fully employed at the University of Chicago Law School, "Conspiracy Theories"  (before joining the faculty of Harvard Law School; Working Papers Nos. 08-3, 199, and 387).

In the question and answer portion of the lecture, We Are Change founder Luke Rudkowski confronted Sunstein concerning his avocation of a "provocateur" style program to silence what have become the government’s most vociferous and influential critics.

With tongue firmly in cheek, Rudkowski introduced himself as "Bill de Berg from Brooklyn college," before directly asking Sunstein to explain his comments.

"I know you wrote many articles, but I think the most telling one about you is the 2008 one called ‘Conspiracy Theories,’ where you openly advocated government agents infiltrating activist groups for 9/11 truth, and also to stifle dissent online," Rudkowski stated.

"Why do you think the government should go after family members and responders who have questions about 9/11?" he asked Sunstein.

"I’ve written hundreds of articles and I remember some and not others," Sunstein replied, denying that he has a firm recollection of the paper.

"I hope I didn’t say that, but whatever was said in that article, my role in government is to oversee federal rulemaking in a way that is wholly disconnected from the vast majority of my academic writing, including that," Sunstein added.

"I know that, I’m just asking because you may be the next Supreme Court Justice if Obama appoints you, and you did write those things," Rudkowski replied.

"I may agree with some of the things I have written but I’m not exactly sure. I focus on what my boss wants me to do," Sunstein said, intimating that he was just following orders.

When Rudkowski asked if Sunstein would retract his comments about banning opinions that differ from those of the government, Sunstein again claimed he did not remember the article he had written and his personnel intervened to prevent Rudkowski pressing him on the matter.

I don't think Sunstein got the joke. Someone probably filled him in after the lecture. Rudkowski used as a pseudonym a play on The Bilderberg Conference Рor Group or Club Рan annual meeting in the Netherlands of influential Western politicians, businessmen, industrialists, and media heads. It is the subject of a conspiracy theory for world domination or world government, as have been the annual Pugwash Conference in Nova Scotia, the two-week Bohemian Club encampment in rural California, and the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. There are also a number of private organizations the subject of conspiracy theories, such as the Masons and Yale University's Skull and Crossbones, among others. (I employ some of these conspiracy theories in two of my novels, The Daed̢lus Conspiracy and Presence of Mind, and not to the credit of the theories or their adherents.)

I have read all thirty pages of this paper. It is a ponderous, sociology-jargon riddled discourse that treats men as interchangeable, volitionless ciphers influenced by peer pressure, rumors, speculation and hearsay, as mere atoms of a social whole, the pawns and playthings of mysterious but unaccountable powers beyond their ken. Sunstein's paper is half Aldus Huxley's Brave New World, forty percent B.F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity, and ten percent Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four. His career position has been that the government has a natural adversarial interest and power to monitor, "manage," or otherwise counter men's thinking and speech it deems dangerous or potentially dangerous or disruptive.

That Sunstein could not remember having written this paper tests one's credulity.  In it he expresses his central, fundamental political premises, one of which stands out: that the government has an obligation to oversee or police speech for the "greater good." Sunstein did not answer Rudkowski's question; he deftly pleaded advanced but selective Alzheimer's in the finest tradition of political stand-up evasion.

There is a sole thesis in "Conspiracy Theories": that the government should act to gag or confuse conspiracy theorists, which would include anyone with a plausible, credible theory of government malfeasance or inappropriate behavior, and not just wild-eyed, crackpot theories. Here are some choice statements from Sunstein's paper. He begins by citing all the conspiracy theories surrounding the 9/11 attacks, that they were either the work of the federal government or committed by terrorists with foreknowledge of them by the government. But then he diminishes his seriousness about the subject by deeming Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy as "conspiracy theories." Weeding through and enduring all the mushy verbiage about how and why conspiracy theories arise and gain currency, one is persuaded of one single thing about Sunstein's target: the safety and preservation of government power. Conspiracy theories jeopardize government, not the public. Conspiracy theories must be either spoken or recorded, and that action, regardless of the merits or lack of them of any given theory, comes under the protection of the First Amendment.

In Sunstein's worldview, the First Amendment is no guarantor of "democratic deliberation." It must be either rewritten, or complemented with legislation that will identify and regulate what the government deems as true and worthy of deliberation.

Which, of course, means censorship. Here are a sampling of excerpts from Sunstein's half-forgotten paper. The abstract sums up Sunstein's means and ends.

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. The first challenge is to understand the mechanisms by which conspiracy theories prosper; the second challenge is to understand how such theories might be undermined. Such theories typically spread as a result of identifiable cognitive blunders, operating in conjunction with informational and reputational influences. A distinctive feature of conspiracy theories is their self-sealing quality. Conspiracy theorists are not likely to be persuaded by an attempt to dispel their theories; they may even characterize that very attempt as further proof of the conspiracy. Because those who hold conspiracy theories typically suffer from a "crippled epistemology," in accordance with which it is rational to hold such theories, the best response consists in cognitive infiltration of extremist groups. Various policy dilemmas, such as the question whether it is better for government to rebut conspiracy theories or to ignore them, are explored in this light. [Italics mine.]

Remember those italicized terms. They will come in handy later.

A further question about conspiracy theories – whether true or false, harmful or benign – is whether they are justified. Justification and truth are different issues; a true belief may be unjustified, and a justified belief may be untrue. (p. 6)

Confused yet? You may be justified in thinking that your car is powered by gas and internal combustion and electricity, but it may not be true. Sunstein will forgive you.

Karl Popper famously argued that conspiracy theories overlook the pervasive unintended consequences of political and social action; they assume that all consequences must have been intended by someone  The basic idea is that many social effects, including large movements in the economy, occur as a result of the acts and omissions of many people, none of whom intended to cause those effects. The Great Depression of the 1930s was not self-consciously engineered by anyone; increases in the unemployment or inflation rate, or in the price of gasoline, may reflect market pressures rather than intentional action. Nonetheless, there is a pervasive human tendency to think that effects are caused by intentional action, especially by those who stand to benefit (the cui bono? maxim), and for this reason conspiracy theories have considerable but unwarranted appeal. [p. 7]

Well, yes. Because natural phenomena are not the subject of the paper, all human action is attributable to intended consequences. Whether or not those consequences are intended to subjugate or mislead, or allow the actors to profit from them, is open to interpretation without evidence, but with evidence, those intentions can be proven. It is here, for the first of many times throughout his paper, that Sunstein implies that government policies that cause depressions, inflation, and gas prices, are excluded from any serious discussion of conspiracies. We can, however, determine motives from the consequences of those policies, such as the refusal of a government to allow oil exploration and drilling, or refusing to allow pipelines to be built, actions which result in higher gas prices. This is not rocket science or ethereal economics.

Sunstein continues to cite Popper:

Popper captures an important feature of some conspiracy theories. Their appeal lies in the attribution of otherwise inexplicable events to intentional action, and to an unwillingness to accept the possibility that significant adverse consequences may be a product of invisible hand mechanisms (such as market forces or evolutionary pressures) or of simple chance, rather than of anyone’s plans. A conspiracy theory posits that a social outcome evidences an underlying intentional order, overlooking the possibility that the outcome arises from either spontaneous order or random forces. [Italics mine, p. 7]

Random forces? Not a philosophy of altruism, not a system of collectivism? Ideas and ideologies play no role in Sunstein's explication of conspiracy theories. People just get all this foolishness in their heads.

Members of informationally and socially isolated groups tend to display a kind of paranoid cognition and become increasingly distrustful or suspicious of the motives of others or of the larger society, falling into a "sinister attribution error." This error occurs when people feel that they are under pervasive scrutiny, and hence they attribute personalistic motives to outsiders and overestimate the amount of attention they receive. Benign actions that happen to disadvantage the group are taken as purposeful plots, intended to harm. [p. 15]

That observation admirably describes how most of the American public is alienated from the Mainstream Media, which largely endorses and shills for harmful and intrusive government policies. There are a few independent news outlets that hove to true journalistic reporting. Fox News is one of them, so it is no wonder that some statists are demanding that the FCC revoke its broadcasting license. After all, reporting news of government corruption, policy failures, hypocrisy, and ignorance can be deemed a harmful "conspiracy theory," and we would all be better off without Fox News.

What can government do about conspiracy theories? Among the things it can do, what should it do? We can readily imagine a series of possible responses. (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. Each instrument has a distinctive set of potential effects, or costs and benefits, and each will have a place under imaginable conditions. However, 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). [Italics mine, p. 15]

Sunstein is comfortable with all these options, as he explains further on, although there are "cost and benefit" considerations to take into account. But, he would much prefer to play with the minds of Americans with "cognitive infiltration." Otherwise known as lies or half-lies.

Throughout, we assume a well-motivated government that aims to eliminate conspiracy theories, or draw their poison, if and only if social welfare is improved by doing so. (We do not offer a particular account of social welfare, taking the term instead as a placeholder for the right account.)

I think it is obvious which "social welfare" account Sunstein prefers – precisely the kind that exists now, a mixed economy which has grown less and less mixed under the current administration. Charging that administration with imposing a command, socialist economy on the country – after nearly four years of observation, evidence, and deduction --, would, in his parlance, be a "conspiracy theory" and come under the aegis of government action. Sunstein concludes his vaguely-recalled paper with:

Some conspiracy theories create serious risks. They do not merely undermine democratic debate; in extreme cases, they create or fuel violence. If government can dispel such theories, it should do so. One problem is that its efforts might be counterproductive, because efforts to rebut conspiracy theories also legitimate them. We have suggested, however, that government can minimize this effect by rebutting more rather than fewer theories, by enlisting independent groups to supply rebuttals, and by cognitive infiltration designed to break up the crippled epistemology of conspiracy minded groups and informationally isolated social networks.

That call for more government power speaks for itself. But the public is no longer "informationally" isolated, or even starved. It has the Internet at its disposal to conduct its own judgment of what is true and what is false. Aside from the traditional repository of information, called books and libraries. And Sunstein has his beady eyes on the Internet to regulate it for the sake of ridding society of all those foolish ideas and theories, to better ensure that the public has the "truth."

And what, fundamentally, is a "conspiracy theory"? It is the contents of an individual's mind. And it is man's mind that Sunstein wishes the government to "infiltrate."

In May of 2010 The New York Times ran an adulatory, almost fawning appraisal of Sunstein and his policies, "Cass Sunstein Wants to Nudge Us."

In "Nudge," a popular book that he wrote with the influential behavioral economist Richard Thaler, Sunstein elaborated a philosophy called "libertarian paternalism." Conservative economists have long stressed that because people are rational, the best way for government to serve the public is to guarantee a fair market and to otherwise get out of the way. But in the real world, Sunstein and Thaler argue, people are subject to all sorts of biases and quirks. They also argue that this human quality, which some would call irrationality, can be predicted and — this is the controversial part — that if the social environment can be changed, people might be nudged into more rational behavior.

"Rational behavior" meaning obeying orders, and deferring to authority, especially government authority. Of course, Sunstein, Thaler and Benjamin Wallace Wells, author of the Times article, are also subject to all sorts of biases and quirks. The difference is that Sunstein in his present position wants to be able to enforce his biases and quirks. One shouldn't call that a "conspiracy," else one might find oneself burdened with a special "irresponsible speech" tax, or taken to court, or sent to a reeducation camp to have one's "crippled epistemology" cured by hard labor and epistemology-altering drugs.

Wells also confirms the existence of that paper Sunstein had difficulty remembering.

Sunstein had, during his academic career, a penchant for publishing trial balloons — they were a necessary part of his inquiry, a perpetual what if? Now, with their author a government official, some of these conjectures seem more worrisome. Sunstein has, for example, written often about the corrosive effects of rumors and falsehoods on democratic discourse (it is the subject of one of the two books that were published while he was waiting to be confirmed last year), and in a 2008 paper, he proposed that government agents "cognitively infiltrate" chat rooms and message boards to try to debunk conspiracy theories before they spread. The paper was narrowly concerned with terrorism, but to some, these were dark musings.

Dark musings or not, Wells approves. He needn't worry about having his thoughts "infiltrated." They've already been co-opted.

Let's take a look at what would be Cass Sunstein's interpretation of the American Revolution.

There were many American colonials who perceived a conspiracy by the Crown to enslave or indenture them to the Crown's benefit, or at least to the benefit of a handful of dissembling plotters.

Of course, from the Crown's perspective – and the Crown knew what was best for everyone, that was part of its job, its authority was the Book of All Knowledge – these dissatisfied and contentious colonials, most notably Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, the Adams cousins, George Mason, and many others, all well-read in the political theories of John Locke and other antiquarian philosophers and theorists, and who were otherwise quite rational gentlemen,  nonetheless were burdened with a "crippled epistemology" which inevitably skewed their perception of things. This epistemology permitted them to see dark designs where there were none in every action taken by the Crown, demonstrably taken for public order and the greater good.

These unfortunate gentlemen, who represented the "conspiracy entrepreneurs," rejected any and all explanations of Crown actions, and brooked no dissent within their own core membership. They tenaciously held onto their suspicion that the Crown was a semi-potent entity controlled by a small, secret clique in the deepest but most respectable recesses of the British establishment, who meant the colonies no good and sought to profit from the consequential misery of their distant charges.

In their dealings and correspondence between themselves, the colonials mutually reinforced their collective certainty of a conspiracy emanating from the most impenetrable bowels of the British government, and, in resisting all reasonable explanations, experienced an overwhelming and continuous "cascading" of consensual agreement concerning the means and ends of the Crown, even though some of them differed on specific points. All attempts by the Crown to "cognitively infiltrate" political discussions and gatherings and to sow seeds of discord, disinformation and misdirection, failed. The mechanisms of the conspiracy theorists were proof against tampering. The self-sealing "psychosis" of conspiracy proved too strong, and the Crown, otherwise unprepared to deal with such recalcitrant opposition to its benevolent policies, wondered if the best course of action might have been to simply ignore all colonials obsessed with their conspiracy theory. But, it was too late.

The conspiracy theorists finally took action. Their paranoia resulted in Jefferson's enumeration of libelous and slanderous (and, in other circumstances, actionable, they learned nothing from the John Wilkes affair) charges against the sovereign and his alleged lackeys in the Declaration of Independence. This curious document seemed to sanction any and all resistance to Crown authority, and served to deviously "objectify" their unfounded and delusional grievances against the Crown for the consideration of a "candid world" (neglecting the fact that most of it couldn't read anyway; the Declaration merely "preached to the choir").

This hysterical climax was preceded only a year before by an act of violence (predicted by a number of members of the Commons, notably Isaac Barré) committed by the lower ranks of subscribers to the conspiracy theory when they opposed with firearms a benign expedition by lawful authorities to find and destroy stockpiles of gunpowder and arms, which were intended by the conspiracy theorists to be used against the Crown without regard to law and order should it not belay its purported designs on the colonials. There was a tragic loss of life among those acting only to ensure the public's safety against "extremist" violence.

And we all know the consequences of this unfortunate episode of cognitive dissonance.

Except Cass Sunstein, your wannabe "speech therapist."

1 comment:

revereridesagain said...

The proper response to a Sunstinian "nudge" of an individual towards government-approved behavior is a verbal stiletto heel to the instep of the nudger. If those currently working towards implementation of various censorship schemes (certain proposed constitutional "amendments", OIC-sponsored anti-"blasphemy" laws and such) were to get their way and silence such metaphorical responses, the metaphorical aspect might be justified by an appropriately sharpened and more concrete variation on the proper response.

But surely such conscientious and responsible public servants as Mr. Sunstein would never actually consider taking overt steps to curtail our freedom of speech through, say, bans. Or taxes. Why, to suppose such a thing would be a --- "conspiracy theory".

Exactly the sort of epistemological glitch Mr. Sunstein would so like to prevent. Or so he says. Not that he remembers saying it. Only "conspiracy theorists" would say he ever did. And come up with a copy of the paper in which he said it.

And if there are enough morons in this country to return Mr. Sunstein's lord and master to the office of POTO, Mr. Sunstein may indeed someday have his bans and taxes and amendments and hordes of hired government lackeys ready to "refute" them if they do.

Don't thrown out those old stiletto heels. Bad for the feet, but they may yet have other uses.