December 29, 2017

"How a Liberal Scholar of Conspiracy Theories Became the Subject of a Right-Wing Conspiracy Theory."

A New Yorker article (by Andrew Marantz) about Cass Sunstein. It begins:
In 2010, Marc Estrin, a novelist and far-left activist from Vermont, found an online version of a paper by Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School and the most frequently cited legal scholar in the world. The paper, called “Conspiracy Theories,” was first published in 2008, in a small academic journal called the Journal of Political Philosophy. In it, Sunstein and his Harvard colleague Adrian Vermeule attempted to explain how conspiracy theories spread, especially online. At one point, they made a radical proposal: “Our main policy claim here is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories.” The authors’ primary example of a conspiracy theory was the belief that 9/11 was an inside job; they defined “cognitive infiltration” as a program “whereby government agents or their allies (acting either virtually or in real space, and either openly or anonymously) will undermine the crippled epistemology of believers by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups.”
ADDED: Sunstein became the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in 2009. In 2010, Glenn Greenwald wrote, "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."

AND: Word I looked for in the text that wasn't there: "dossier."

ALSO: My favorite sentence in the article is: "He grabbed three packets of Splenda, tore them all open at once, and stirred them into his coffee before tasting it." What kind of a man???

50 comments:

rehajm said...

Follow any path of government shit laid down in the last 15 years and it likely leads back to Sunstein. I'd like to give him a nudge right in the nose.

whitney said...

That was a South Park episode

Bay Area Guy said...

I'm not a fan of the term "conspiracy theory", because it obviously has a negative connotation, and is designed to thwart open discussion of important events, rather than promote such discussion.

Examples:

1. Watergate (1972): By definition, this was a conspiracy. Liddy, Hunt and 5 Cubans CONSPIRED to burglarize the DNC headquarters and certain members of the Nixon administration CONSPIRED to cover it up.

2. Lincoln Assasination (1864): This, too, was a conspiracy. Boothe and several other of his Southern Democrat sympathizers were pissed at losing the Civil War to the North. So, they plotted to topple the Government by: (a) murdering President Lincoln, (b) stabbing Secretary of State Seward (who survived), and (c) killing VP Andrew Johnson (failed effort). The plotters had allies who helped them escape. Again, by definition this was a CONSPIRACY, i.e., an agreement of 2 or more people to commit an unlawful act (murder).

Of course, the original conspiratorial plot was the stabbing of Julius Caesar, jointly, by several Roman Senators, displeased with his dictatorial tendencies.

So, without getting into the more sexier discussions about the Kennedy Assassination or even whether 9/11 was an "inside" job (Leftwing perspective), we should not a priori summarily dismiss such conspiracy theories, because we know that similar conspiracies at the upper levels of government have existed, and may potentially exist today.

David Begley said...

This is all making sense to me now.

And who is Papa Cass married to?

David Begley said...

Fake news. Ann Althouse is the most read legal scholar in the history of the world. Cass is a piker.

Ann Althouse said...

@David Begley

Sunstein plays a modesty game that denies being widely read: "Look, I’m an academic. I’m aware that the paper I just published, in Trends in Cognitive Science, will be read by a tiny fraction of the number of people who would read an op-ed column in a not-very-popular newspaper."

Quaestor said...

Getting people to believe the truth by means of deception. Now there's a foolproof idea.

Steve said...

Sunstein should know he should not publicly present very controversial views in public, if he truly follows Plato's ideas as expressed in The Republic. Plato portrays Socrates, in the first portion, using eristic arguments to distract the sophist who is a danger to Socrates. Later, Socrates is shown to reveal his deepest thoughts on reality only to those capable of understanding and who would not accuse Socrates of disloyalty to the state. That is, Socrates conspires to keep this knowledge from the clueless public. Recommendations that wise politicians should keep the most significant knowledge hidden is why leftists have hated Leo Strauss, who taught that Plato wrote at a public and at a hidden level. Maybe someone who knows Sunstein's writings can tell us what he thinks of Leo Strauss and the conspiracies of politicians. Maybe leftists---when in power--- themselves become Straussians and hide knowledge from the clueless public their opponents. There may be multiple conspiracies, nesting one within others, in Sunstein's writing and actions!

Daniel Jackson said...

"My favorite sentence in the article is: "He grabbed three packets of Splenda, tore them all open at once, and stirred them into his coffee before tasting it." What kind of a man???"

Clearly someone who knows his Splenda!

rhhardin said...

Aspire to conspire.

james james said...

I covered a conspiracy theory, here:

The only way to believe Lennon lied about the LSD reference is to believe all of these people are part of a conspiracy.

- james james

The Godfather said...

When I read "Right wing conspiracy theory" I took it to mean a conspiracy theory held by the right wing, but no, it seems to mean a conspiracy theory held by the LEFT wing about the right wing, where "right wing" means the Obama Administration.

Have I got that right?

rhhardin said...

Per conspira ad astra.

MikeR said...

"Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs" The very title would make Greenwald jump. It does that for me. MiniTrue?

As for conspiracy theories, I follow a simple rule of thumb, which I first heard from Dennis Prager: In any such theory, think about how many people would have to be complicit. If that number is in the hundreds or thousands or more (think 9/11 or space flight), the conspiracy theory cannot be true because hundreds of people cannot keep a secret.

MikeR said...

Whoa. "The O.I.R.A. reviews drafts of federal rules, and, using tools such as cost-benefit analysis, recommends ways to make them more efficient." That sounds awesome. Got some examples of all the efficiency Sunstein added to the federal regulatory bureaucracy?
Anyhow, I think Mr. Trump is already on this one.

tcrosse said...

When you're a liberal scholar of conspiracy theories they let you grab them by the Splenda.

james james said...

The Beatles are great fodder for conspiracy theories, and conspiracy theories are great fodder for the bar. If it happened in the Sixties, and it was a negative thing, there was probably a conspiracy behind it. JFK, RFK, MLK: the idea of it being just one crazy loser seems too small for some people to accept. The accepted thing is that the Government is big enough to do conspiracies, especially the CIA. The Military Complex. Big Business. The Mafia are good, too. You would think the Soviet Union was big enough, but no one seems to blame them for anything, even Lee Harvey Oswald, who actually lived there.

The Beatles had Paul Is Dead, of course. Which really was kind of a conspiracy, after all: the Beatles planned it, instigated by their manager. McCartney admitted this in an interview a few years back, if you wish to look up the details. The sound engineer Alan Parsons stumbled across the "Turn me on, dead man" phrase that sounded plausibly like "Number Nine, Number Nine" when played backwards. The syllables don't seem to work right, but there were a lot of drugs in the Sixties, so it worked well enough, I guess.

Originally it was supposed to be Ringo who was the Dead Beatle, but Ringo did not want to be dead. Pete Best probably would've been game, because that would've meant he was still in the band instead of Ringo. Obviously, I digress.

At the bar some believe there was a conspiracy that killed John Lennon. Again: the idea of it being just one crazy loser seems too small for some people to accept. The Government is a primary culprit: of course they would want to kill a man of Peace and Love and End to Wars. Even if it was years after the Vietnam War: the Government is cunning that way. Or, alternately, it is a sign of of Government's inability to be efficient: I could buy into that.

So the Sixties got another Martyr, even if took until the Eighties for it to happen. I have posited that when someone is murdered, they look to those closest to them for the murderer, because that is who it usually is. But, even though they don't like her, no one wants to blame Yoko. No matter how much I try to get that idea to float. Maybe she broke up the Beatles, but she has been an acceptable Martyr's Widow: no Greek shipping magnate for her.

Obviously, the idea of Yoko being responsible is partly due to her not being Big Enough. Which to me makes the point of Soviet involvement. But again: you would think the Soviet Union was big enough, but no one seems to blame them for anything.

- james james

traditionalguy said...

He seems to be an expert manipulator suggesting to conspirators that they proudly use Scott Adams famous Perception Bias tricks to keep their Academic power in power.

And then along came The Donald and showed them how it is done.

Daniel Jackson said...

@James James: interesting take on the Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds story. Hard to see this as an example of a conspiracy theory. It could be that both explanations are correct.

Everyone is telling the truth that there WAS a picture that the boys in the band thought was just Darling. Lennon wrote the song, chose those words carefully, appropriating his son's narrative to promote his own nose tweaking. Very Lennon. If he did that with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, throwing the boy under the bus is easy.

Bruce Hayden said...

I originally thought that Sunstein in the Obama Administration might have had a positive effect on it, through being his regulatory czar. But, of course, he didn’t. It was, as usual, with that corrupt clown car crew “listen to what we are saying, but don’t look at what we are doing”. Instead of cleaning up the regulatory state (as Trump and his people are doing so effectively), the Obama people expand it far beyond where it should ever have gone. My guess is that Sunstein believed the hype when he took the regulatory job, ultimately became disillusioned, and left. Nothing that he could ever admit publicly, and show his face in polite progressive company. And, yes, I blame the whole thing on Obama’s gross incompetence as a manager. He had never run anything bigger than a Senate office before running for President, so was completely unprepared for his supposed m8nons taking control of his govt away from him. He probably thought that he was doing something monumental by bringing Sunstein into his Administration. After all he was the acknowledged expert on regulation, by all the right people. But,, of course, Sunstein was drowned by their swamp, leaving the regulatory state in worse shape than when he got there, not benefiting from Obama’s strong support. Which is to say that I suspect that Obama naively thought that all he needed to do to overhaul the regulatory state was hire the “expert”, and the problem would be solved.

Bruce Hayden said...

@james!2 - Wasn’t there a Beatles song that had a secret message in it when played backwards. I seem to remember kids I knew in college rotating the record backwards on the turntable and trying to decipher what was supposedly being said. Always seemed to be gobbly gook to me. While theoretically possible, I figured that they were always too stoned to pull something like that off.

Bemac said...

COINFILPRO is a good name for the cognitive infiltration program.

Mike Sylwester said...

james james at 7:24 AM
The only way to believe Lennon lied about the LSD reference is to believe all of these people are part of a conspiracy.

There was a conspiracy between John Lennon and his immigration lawyer. In order to resist the US Government's efforts to deport Lennon, he had to concoct a yarn explaining how his song "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" was not about LSD.

Likewise, Peter Yarrow got into trouble with the law, and so his lawyer whispered to Yarrow that he better concoct a yarn explaining how his song "Puff the Magic Dragon" was not about marijuana.

sean said...

"It is hardly possible to overrate the value . . . of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves."

That's a strange sentence for a Harvard professor to quote. I can hardly think of an assemblage more devoted to intellectual and ideological conformity than the Harvard faculty. Any Harvard professor who actually thought that would have to admit that his own thoughts were incoherent mush, given his lack of professional contact with persons dissimilar to himself.

rehajm said...

Wasn’t there a Beatles song that had a secret message in it when played backwards

When you play any Beatles song backwards it sounds like Hell and we all know who lives there!

William said...

Just now I'm reading Edvard Radzinsky's biography of Stalin. Conspiracies happen. People are never willing to leave paranoics alone. They're always plotting against them. You've really got to be on your toes and hyper alert if you wish to be a paranoic world leader.

IgnatzEsq said...

I have a consistent philosophy that says don't fire people for their own personal tweets. And it applies to this airhead as well.

The one constant with universities bowing to right wing and left wing pressure is the total fecklessness of Administrators. That appears to be true here as well.

Nurse Rooke said...

I absolutely HATE descriptions like the Splenda one in articles--if they're not just lazy filler, they always feel to me like cheap humanizing or cheaper dehumanizing. This description, in a piece on the power of argument, puts its author in some ind of ad hominem camp. Can't we just think about Cass Sunstein's arguments and not get distracted by whatever our attitude to Splenda (mine: negative) is?

Luke Lea said...

That New Yorker piece barely got started before it ended. No Russian Collusion discussion?

KK Kraska said...

Sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling wrote about an outfit in the dystopian future that trawls through the web planting provocative hints and teases at persons and people it identifies as troublesome as a way to discredit their projects and research. Very effective they were until one of the more unhinged recipients actually started harming people IRL. I could see that actually happening too, esp. given some of the comments I see here and on other blogs. It could happen. Probably is.

Dave Begley said...

Papa Cass married to UN Amb. Samantha Power.

Gahrie said...

He grabbed three packets of Splenda, tore them all open at once, and stirred them into his coffee before tasting it." What kind of a man???

A man who knows how he likes his coffee.

KK Kraska said...

New Yorker or who ever ought to be more careful printing info about Sunstein like that. Isn't that how Heisenberg killed one of his enemies* in the final episode of Breaking Bad? In this heavily interconnected age a detail like this isn't something that should be out there for the lunatic fringe to stumble upon. Just sayin'.

* Put ricin poison in the Stevia packets that the mark habitually gorged on when taking tea.

StephenFearby said...

'...they defined “cognitive infiltration” as a program “whereby government agents or their allies (acting either virtually or in real space, and either openly or anonymously) will undermine the crippled epistemology of believers by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups.'


'...In the original “Republic”—the one by Plato—a distinction is made between dialectic and eristic [(from Eris, the ancient Greek goddess of chaos]. The former is argument made in good faith, with the goal of apprehending the truth; the latter is argument as performance, with the goal of tearing down one’s opponent.'

The marching orders for the legion of Russian internet trolls against Western democracies.

The domain name: eristic.com is taken but won't load if your computer is protected in real time by Malwarebytes.

Fittingly, Malwarebytes reports eristic.com contains malware.

The reputation of the Russian Collusion Eristocracy is burnished by the long-running performance art of Congressman Adam Schiff and "Batshit Crazy" Louise Mensch.

Jupiter said...

MikeR said...
"In any such theory, think about how many people would have to be complicit. If that number is in the hundreds or thousands or more (think 9/11 or space flight), the conspiracy theory cannot be true because hundreds of people cannot keep a secret."

OK, but what about the Federal Government?

Gabriel said...

@Ann:"He grabbed three packets of Splenda, tore them all open at once, and stirred them into his coffee before tasting it." What kind of a man???

A man who wants to keep his teeth, I guess. Or a man with a very big coffee cup. Or a man who already knows through long experience how he wants his coffee to taste.

dbp said...

"He grabbed three packets of Splenda, tore them all open at once, and stirred them into his coffee before tasting it." What kind of a man???

I don't know if I am getting what Alhouse is saying here, but I doubt the other three who commented are on the right track either. I am pretty sure Althouse is aware that you don't have to taste your coffee to know how much sweetener to add--except places like India, where they assume you want a lot of it! In America, it comes black unless you ask for something to be added to it.

I think she means, what kind of a man takes sweet coffee? It is a weird preference, much like having a steak overcooked and with ketchup on it.

Gabriel said...

I think she means, what kind of a man takes sweet coffee? It is a weird preference

The popularity of Starbucks would belie that. Lots of people, men or otherwise, like sweet coffee. (Like Winston Wolf, "lots of cream, lots of sugar".)

dbp said...

WellI find it weird for a grown man to like sweet coffee, so that may color my expectations here. I am open to the idea that a person could think it weird of me to think grown men like their coffee unsweetened.

Gabriel said...

@dpb:Well I find it weird for a grown man to like sweet coffee, so that may color my expectations here.

The world don't move to the beat of just one drum. What might be right for you might not be right for some.

I am open to the idea that a person could think it weird of me to think grown men like their coffee unsweetened.

Turkey, for example, is full of grown men who like sweetened coffee.

Turkish coffee refers to the special brewing method that is most common in the Levant. Turkish coffee is made unfiltered with finely ground coffee beans (so fine that they resemble the texture of cocoa powder). The ground beans are boiled with sugar and cardamom in a special pot called a cezve or ibrik. cardamom.

An important distinction—Turkish coffee is actually cooked with sugar rather than adding the sweetener later. The coffee is served in small cups and sits for a few moments before serving to allow the grounds to sink to the bottom of the cup and settle.

Brett said...

Sounds like my kind of guy, except I drink tea. What's the point of having a non-caloric sweetener, if it isn't that you can use as much as you LIKE, without worrying about rotting your teeth or putting on weight? And, yeah, you don't need to taste it after every packet, if you already know how you like it.

On the conspiracy thing, of course he knows conspiracies happen, and has doubtless been in on a few himself. And conspiracies become much easier to pull off if you can convince people that it's crazy to believe in conspiracies.

Not that there aren't crazy conspiracy theories out there, just as there are crazy non-conspiracy theories. The field of conspiracy, like any other, has to be subject to rational evaluation, not blanket disbelief.

dbp said...

@Gabriel Since I noted in my original post that Indians assume everyone wants sugar in their coffee, it should be safe to assume I know that certain foreign places have different preferences than we have here in the US.

I expect that some American men like sweet coffee, I also think it is rare enough to classify as a weird preference. Of course the degree matters: Three packets seems like a lot, but to me, any sweetener is too much.

Alec Rawls said...

One of Sunstein's original examples of a conspiracy that needed to be answered with "the optimal chilling effect":

"… that the theory of global warming is a deliberate fraud." [From page 4 of Sunstein’s 2008 “Conspiracy Theories” paper.]

The chilling effect would be achieved by a "notice and take-down" anti-conspiracy-speech law modeled on "notice and take-down" from copyright law. If you don't agree to take down your speech after anyone in the world declares it to be flawed speech, you have to go to a court and prove that what you are saying is true.

I can prove that the theory of dangerous human caused global warming is a deliberate fraud, but my free speech on the subject is not dependent on my being able to prove it.

Sunstein is the most illiberal man who ever called himself liberal. True moral garbage, a Stalinist masquerading as a normal. There is a lot of this today, practically the whole left, but he is one of the absolute worst.

Claude Hopper said...

Conspiracy requires secrecy; I can keep a secret, it's the people I tell that can't.

Lee Moore said...

dbp : WellI find it weird for a grown man to like sweet coffee, so that may color my expectations here. I am open to the idea that a person could think it weird of me to think grown men like their coffee unsweetened.

To recognise the vast steppe of weirdness that humanity encompasses is the beginning of wisdom. I once met a man who thought Barbra Streisand was attractive.

OK, I'm kidding, but seriously, people can be pretty weird. And that's fine.

Lewis Wetzel said...

Non-real conspiracy theories don't go anywhere. The more you investigate, the less you know. The Watergate conspiracy & the Lincoln assasination conspiracy quickly became settled fact. Not so the wacky theories about Kenneddy's assasination or Trump-Russia collusion conspiracy theories. When one thread peters out, the wacky conspiricist simply pursues another. The longing for there to have been a conspiracy is what drives the theory, not evidence on the ground.
In the Trump-Russia fantasy, we have Manafort, indicted for things that had nothing to do with Trump's campaign, and Flynn, plea bargaining for something that had nothing to do with Trump's campaign, and George Papadopoulos, a short-lived, volunteer Trump adviser who also plea bargaining a crime that had nothing to do with Trump or his campaign (like Flynn, lying to the FBI). We've also seen misuse of language: Trump colluding with the Russians is used interchagably with Russian "meddling" in the election to help Trump win. Or Hillary win. Or they helped Stein or Sanders (colluding them, perhaps?) in an effort to help Trump win.
If the same investigative standards were applied to an investigation into Hillary/Trump collusion, the same (or worse) "links" would appear. Does anyone doubt that? The Clinton Global Initiative & Hillary's State Department had in-depth realtions with Russians, fer God's sake.

Anonymous said...

Just a thank you to Ms. Althouse but especially to the commenters here.

A crowd I wouldn't mind inviting over for coffee. Black, of course.

But no, I won't give you an address or even a zip code.

Micha Elyi said...

"He grabbed three packets of Splenda, tore them all open at once, and stirred them into his coffee before tasting it." What kind of a man???

The kind of man who eats doughnoughts with a knife and fork?
Drinks his coffee from a sippy cup?

Jose_K said...

Most conspiracies fail, because they should be staged by a group little enough not to be betrayed ,making them weak. Machiavelli.

Whitehall said...

The conspiracy to kill Hitler was rather broad, at least 8 according to the photos in Wikipedia. Almost 5,000 were executed albeit many were innocent.

BTW, I never trusted Sunstein from first hearing of his ideas. He seemed a perfect court intellectual for the Obama Administration.

As to the Splenda observation, Edison used to take his interviewees out to lunch. If the person being considered for a job, seasoned his food before tasting it, he wasn't hired. Edison wanted people with open minds and the power of observation.

That said, I once visited a friend in the Deep South. When the iced tea came, I reached for the sugar since I was used to West Coast tea. The friend and the waitress looked on in awe as I poured three bags of sugar into my previously sweetened tea.

We all had a good laugh when I gagged at first sip.