Nothing new under the Sunstein

>> Friday, January 15, 2010

I have to consider the possibility that I like the idea of Glenn Greenwald more than I like Glenn Greenwald. Liberal, ACLU supporter, gadfly--good stuff. It's just that every now and again he writes something that forces me to think he's lost his damn mind.

The latest would be a thing he's written about a recently-favored whipping-boy of the conspiranoiacs, Obama advisor and University Of Chicago/Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein. The cause of concern this time isn't the silly business we've heard before about Professor Sunstein's alleged desire to rewrite the Constitution or allow horses to vote or whatever, but a 2008 paper Sunstein wrote about how to deal with conspiracy theories, the social spread of misinformation apparently being a bête noire for the professor.

I would have to say at the outset that I'm not somebody who's been exactly bowled over by Professor Sunstein's intellectual output. I think I probably read something by him in when I was in law school many strange aeons ago, and it says a great deal that I have to qualify the statement that way; I mean, I know damn well, for instance, that I was forced to read some of Judge Richard Posner's "law and economics" stuff because it was provocative and disagreeable (one particularly memorable bit involved Judge Posner's use of economic theory to justify the criminalization of rape--because, you know, the fact that somebody was raped maybe isn't sufficient to justify legal action, we need to consider the economic ramifications of the fact that somebody was raped, otherwise maybe it shouldn't be illegal or as illegal to go up to somebody and, you know, rape them...)--the fact that I recognize Sunstein by name but have difficulty associating that name with a specific argument or article suggests that I didn't find anything he said either agreeable or disagreeable or even interesting.

Anyway, as with the fuss over Sunstein's whole thing about putting shorts on parakeets and taking away people's guns in order to give them to bonobo chimpanzees so long as the bonobos have appropriate hats and bicycle licenses or whatever that furor was all about, it turns out Mr. Greenwald's issues stem from taking one ill-conceived phrase from an otherwise uninteresting article and spinning out a wondrously insane scheme for global domination out of it. Sunstein, as I said, wrote a piece in 2008 addressing the causes for the rise and spread of conspiracy theories (as he and co-author Adrian Vermeule) see them, and attempts to address what, if anything, government might do to address false and dangerous conspiracy theories. Along the way, Professors Sunstein and Vermeule suggest that government could "cognitively infiltrate" conspiranoiac groups, which is an all-too-precocious way of saying that government employees, agents, or friends might go hang out in internet chatrooms and other places of discussion, identified as government spokespersons or not (the authors briefly discuss the advantages and disadvantages of identification) and throw some facts into the works to break the cycle of what the authors cutely call "crippled epistemology," i.e. some people "...know very few things, and what they know is wrong." (On a related tangent: if I'd known I could get a job in the White House by inventing a fancy eight-syllable way to say that some people are fools... damn. Where did I go wrong?)

This is probably as good a time as any to link you to the Sunstein/Vermeule article, by the way: here's where you can read an abstract and download the PDF if you're dying. No, not "dying to read it," just dying. I mean, yes, you can read it if you want to and if you're afraid the Obama Administration is brewing up a vat of brain slugs to fling into people's ears you probably deserve to read it, but it's not exactly novel or interesting; it's not, for instance Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics", which is interesting and provocative whether or not you agree with his description of the cultural scene and/or the conclusions he draws from it, and is sort of the over-referenced and seminal work on modern conspiranoia. The first half of Sunstein and Vermeule's "Conspiracy Theories" sets out some unprovocative truisms about conspiracy theories, including the unamazing observations that some conspiracy theories are true and that even some that aren't true are harmless; this section is mostly distinctive for the authors' attempts to coin various clumsy phrases to describe things the reader probably already noticed about the cat lady down the street or Uncle Fred who refuses to touch metal and only drinks filtered water served in a ceramic mug. Then the second section sets out what government might do about conspiracy theories, if anything; here, again, we have a lack of profundity, actually--the proposals range from doing nothing (which Sunstein and Vermeule seem to readily dismiss mostly to avoid ennui) and the whole infiltration thing (which Sunstein and Vermeule fixate on, possibly because of a fascination with Goebbelsian information warfare, but also possibly because they own the Æon Flux box set and get excited imagining "cognitive infiltration" being performed by long-lashed, improbably-proportioned government operatives wearing latex catsuits).

There are a couple of points, I think, that have to be made about Mr. Greenwald and other bloggers getting their underwear wedged in awkward places over this. The first is that, notwithstanding Professor Sunstein's new governmental position overseeing paperwork reduction, "Conspiracy Theories" is less an advocacy paper than it is a "golly-gee-whiz there are a lot of crazy ideas out there should something be done?" paper. It raises a lot of questions, some of which it sort-of answers by clinging onto the most "interesting" idea the authors come up with, and while Mr. Greenwald and others are right to the small extent that Sunstein and Vermeule spend a fair bit of time on the "interesting idea," they seemingly miss that Sunstein and Vermeule, in typical law professor fashion, spend nearly as much time tearing the idea down as they do propping it up. Law professors tend to treat an idea with the same caution and reverence a kitten uses with regard to a mislaid piece of Christmas wrap, that is, they like swatting it around and appear gleefully surprised when it makes an unexpected crumpling sound.

The second would be that "Conspiracy Theories" goes to more-than-a-little trouble to distinguish true conspiracy theories from false theories and dangerous ones from goofs and even goes as far as acknowledging that some false theories might still be useful. This is a paper that is at least cautious enough, for example, to point out that the authors' definition of the phrase "conspiracy theory" includes not just 9/11 "truthers" but the theory that there's a globe-crossing conspiracy to manufacture toys at the North Pole to be delivered to sleeping children overnight by a fat, bearded man in red. (I'm not making that up--they discuss the Santa hypothesis.) But the authors aren't too concerned about true conspiracy theories (e.g. the theory that White House operatives conspired to break into the Democratic National Headquarters office at the Watergate in 1972, which was then covered-up by the Nixon Administration), I think taking at a given that they should be subscribed to, nor are they too concerned with false conspiracy theories which don't seem to cause much trouble one way or another.

The authors are, however, concerned with false and dangerous theories--that is, those theories which encourage acts of violence or which otherwise weaken civic institutions. And that's a perfectly legitimate concern--if somebody is on the verge of violence because they believe in a demonstrable falsehood and might be deterred by education, how on Earth is that the least bit controversial? Or suppose they're on the verge of passively doing something stupid and dangerous to large numbers of people, such as not having their children vaccinated because they believe there is a conspiracy of doctors and pharmaceutical companies to force the marketing of an unnecessary and risky snake oil? Surely everybody--including representatives of government agencies or advocates friendly to government agencies--has an obligation to tell anti-vaxxers why they're endangering not only their own children but also members of the herd. And even beliefs that don't engender violence but poison civic involvement seem like they should be challenged--"truthers" may not seem like much of a risk, but subscription to the view that the 9/11 attacks were planned by the government breeds toxic levels of cynicism and apathy; conspiranoiac interpretations of the JFK assassination seem less likely to do so now, but still engender ignorance and a naïve and unrealistic view of American history and politics.

I would have to say the only controversial thing about the suggestion that government should battle ignorance is the suggestion Sunstein and Vermeule make about transparency--that it might not always be practicable or desirable. And here, again, I do have to concede a point to the authors: suppose a government representative de-lurks in an internet chatroom used by terrorists, Christian, Muslim or otherwise--it might be completely reasonable for such a person to present facts and reasoned arguments as an antidote to falsehoods and poor logic, and yet these facts and arguments might be ignored if the representative discloses his connections or employment (and one can even imagine, not implausibly, situations in which his physical safety is then compromised). This is all Sunstein and Vermeule are really talking about. And while I'm a big fan of transparency and disclosure, and reluctant to endorse anonymity, I'm also very aware that there are times anonymity or incomplete disclosure might be appropriate or even ethically required. Making a huge honking deal of all this, at any rate, is a nonstarter.

The third and final point that Mr. Greenwald addresses incompletely is this: that what Sunstein and Vermeule propose and focus on, that is, outreach and education, isn't exactly something new or that just isn't done. Mr. Greenwald is right that unidentified government spokespersons pretending to be uninterested observers have been used as a tool of disinformation in the past; the problem is that Sunstein and Vermeule acknowledge this while taking it for granted that disinformation is a bad thing--they're discussing government employees or agents presenting true information to people who, again, "know very few things, and what they know is wrong." You know, the government already runs entire buildings into which large segments of the population who know very little and are full of misinformation are forcibly herded, under threat of legal punishment, where they are forced to sit and listen to presentations of (hopefully) true data by people who may not expressly identify themselves as government operatives--we call these buildings "public schools" and most of us don't have a huge problem with the general concept. The point is, of course, that most people take it for granted that government's proper functions include education of the populace, though people may argue about kind or degree; one might find an ultralibertarian who is opposed to public schools, but even he would probably agree that government should inform the general public of plagues, invasions and like catastrophes whenever imminent. While there's always the risk that government might abuse its power by misinforming the public (there's even controversy about this sort of thing when discussing public school curricula), Professors Sunstein and Vermeule just aren't saying anything overly original, nor, I suspect, are they saying anything that Mr. Greenwald would object to in a different context (I doubt he expects first-grade-teachers, for instance, to inform their pupils of the exact nature of their employment, hiring history, and connections within the school district before launching into a discussion of why the hypothesis that girls afflict boys with cooties is medically dubious).

There are plenty of things to criticize President Obama for without using a greasy fart of a paper to diagnose an entire regime of Orwellian machination. For that matter, there are plenty of things to criticize Cass Sunstein for without reading too much into gassy emanations; as far as I've been able to notice, Professor Sunstein is a fairly unexciting legal thinker who has created a legal reputation in much the same manner that Thomas Friedman has created a successful reputation as a journalist and pundit--by coming up with flamboyant ways to couch otherwise banal observations. Why call somebody "dumb" when you can say "epistemologically cramped" or whatever the crap he called it? That we're all doomed because Professor "Hey Look, Somebody Is Wrong On The Internet, Somebody Do Something" is now working for a subdivision of the Office Of Management And Budget to nefariously reduce paperwork just seems, I don't know, maybe just a tiny, tiny, tiny bit bugfuck crazy, or is it just me?


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