While I do not have enough evidence to know if Obama knew or agreed with the opinions in the paper referenced below, it’s certainly cause for question and concern, especially given his longtime association with one of its authors, Cass Sunstein.
Glenn Greenwald sums it up nicely here:
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.
Who is it who relentlessly spread “false conspiracy theories” of Saddam-engineered anthrax attacks and Iraq-created mushroom clouds and a Ba’athist/Al-Qaeda alliance — the most destructive conspiracy theories of the last generation? And who is it who demonized as “conspiracy-mongers” people who warned that the U.S. Government was illegally spying on its citizens, systematically torturing people, attempting to establish permanent bases in the Middle East, or engineering massive bailout plans to transfer extreme wealth to the industries which own the Government? The most chronic and dangerous purveyors of “conspiracy theory” games are the very people Sunstein thinks should be empowered to control our political debates through deceit and government resources: namely, the Government itself and the Enlightened Elite like him.
It is this history of government deceit and wrongdoing that renders Sunstein’s desire to use covert propaganda to “undermine” anti-government speech so repugnant. 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.
For whatever reason, this bizarre paper’s co-author, Adrian Vermeule, has been flying under the wire. I decided to address him directly.
I emailed the letter below to him and a number of others over the weekend. I wanted to share it with all of you as well. I only wish I’d thought to ask by what method and under what conditions he thought the government should “silence” conspiracy theorists.
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Dear Professor Vermeule:
I’m reading the paper you and Cass Sunstein wrote about Conspiracy Theories (http://ssrn.com/abstract=1084585), and had a few questions I hope you can answer.
- Who wrote which parts? Did one of you write most of it and if so, who was that?
- Why do you say “as a general rule, true accounts [of conspiracies] should not be undermined.” Which true accounts should be undermined, and under which circumstances?
- If we say “all Asian people” do something, aren’t we being racist? When you generalize about conspiracy theorists as if they are a homogenous set of people (and trust me, that’s far from the truth), aren’t you being, shall we say, labelist? Assigning characteristics of some individuals to an entire group, without justification?
- Which statement would you agree with more, and why?
a. All conspiracy theories should be dismissed at first glance.
b. All conspiracy theories should be investigated, and evaluated on the evidence.
- There was a time when the Watergate affair was characterized as a “third-rate burglary.” Would the public have been better served by not pursuing what really happened?
- If a conspiracy theory becomes consistently predictive, does that make it valuable? Isn’t that how we judge scientific theories, by their consistently predictive value?
- Did you ever consider the possibility that it is not a lack of information, but rather a supply of information, that gives birth to some conspiracy theories? That conspiracy theory is sometimes simply pattern recognition?
- There was a time when the notion of an arms-for-hostages deal, i.e., Iran-Contra, was considered a crazy conspiracy theory, until, of course, it was proven to be true. Some people had the information before others, and were denigrated as conspiracy theorists. Should we then acknowledge that some conspiracy theorists can be very good researchers?
- If the CIA really did kill Kennedy, isn’t that worth investigating? As someone who knows for fact that the CIA lied about what they knew about Oswald, because I have the records from the CIA to prove it, isn’t it worth pursuing WHY they lied about Oswald? Isn’t that an act of patriotism, not paranoia?
- Why do your talking points sound so similar to the ones published in this CIA memo? (And yes, I have a copy of this memo from the National Archives. I’m not relying on some Internet page. I typed this in from the document myself.)
- How can you say that we can’t keep secrets in this “open society” when CIA people know they lose their job, their pension, and can be sent to jail for revealing them?
- What is redacted here, or is this still a secret, nearly forty years after the document was first shown to members of Congress? Why can’t I know what’s redacted in this “declassified” report of the CIA’s “family jewels”? This is jewel #1, of all things.)
For the record, I too am frustrated with how gullible people are, and how quickly they can jump to unsupported conclusions. Why do some people refuse to believe a conspiracy happened, even when the evidence is there (e.g., Holocaust deniers)?
Some conspiracy theorists are indeed too gullible, are not skilled in the evaluation of evidence, and see shadows where none exist. But to group all conspiracy theorists into this bucket is to miss the fact that there are serious people — professors, lawyers, judges, presidents — who believe these theories precisely because of the evidence, not in spite of it.
As someone who has spent nearly twenty years studying the actual conspiracies of Watergate, Iran-Contra, Smedley Butler’s account of the plot to overthrow FDR, and in great detail, the CIA’s full history (mind control, infiltration and manipulation of the media, using academics to promote practices favorable to the agency, etc., bugging schemes, exotic weaponry, coups and assassinations and yes, the CIA’s curious obfuscations regarding its potential role in the assassination of President Kennedy), it seems that an honest investigation of conspiracy theories is the only way to dispel false conspiracy theories. Dismissing them out of hand without a proper hearing is anti-intellectual and simply compounds the problem.
Opening records, providing access to witnesses, conducting an honest inquiry — isn’t that the simple way to either prove or disprove conspiracy theories? The trick is to find an honest group to hold an honest investigation. I’ve known very few truly honest people in my life. This will forever be a challenging task, especially when money and power are at stake.
Conspiracy theories aren’t the problem; they’re the symptom. And they’re not the symptom of “mental illness, such as paranoia or narcissism” that you suggest. They are the symptom of a government that lies to the people, often through the mainstream media. Most people aren’t stupid. And you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
We know the CIA lied about what they knew about Oswald to other agencies of the government just a month before the assassination because we have two communications drafted within hours of each other, by the same people, with one describing Oswald as older, fat and balding, and one describing him accurately. That’s not an accident, because the inaccurate description was escalated to nearly the Deputy Director’s level for approval, indicating, as one of the signees said on the record, sensitive information that was closely held and revealed only on a “need to know” basis. Those were the CIA officer’s words, not some screenwriter’s.
Does that prove the CIA killed Kennedy? Of course not. But it proves people are not crazy to suspect such. And it proves people who automatically discount that either haven’t seen the CIA’s own records to this effect for themselves, and understood them, or that they are suffering from, to borrow your words, a “crippled epistemology.”
What we really need is conspiracy literacy. People need to be taught how to evaluate evidence. There’s a hierarchy of evidence. For example, most people should believe sworn testimony over unsworn testimony, for example, if there’s a very real chance the person not only could but would be prosecuted for perjury. And to demonstrate why that caveat is needed, since there was no chance Richard Helms was going to be prosecuted for perjury when he lied about the CIA’s role in overthrowing Allende in Chile, he lied in his testimony. And while he was initially charged, it was dismissed, despite his outright admission of lying — calling it a “badge of honor.” Is it any wonder people imagine hidden conspiracies when they see this kind of behavior flaunted openly, instead of punished?
What we really don’t need is what you suggested: “cognitive infiltration of extremist groups, whereby government agents or their allies (acting either virtually or in real space, and either openly or anonymously) will undermine the crippled epistemology of those who subscribe to such theories. They do so by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups, thereby introducing beneficial cognitive diversity.
Been there, done that. It was called COINTELPRO when the FBI did it and Operation Chaos when the CIA did it. And neither worked. Which leads to my final question:
13. Why would you suggest the conspiratorial infiltration of groups by government operatives as a means to combat conspiracy theory? Can you appreciate the irony there?
I’m cc’ing this to many people, and will post this publicly. I will do the same with any response you provide.
Thank you for your time.