|Disclaimer: The views expressed in this
article are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of other OEN
editors or of the organization.
~~R B Shreve
Consider for a moment the word infiltration and its implications in the context of a belief. When you have an open mind and are seeking to expand your knowledge and understanding, new information is a desirable thing. The open-minded seeker welcomes diversity of thought, and simply accepts what is useful and rejects what is not. By contrast, the true believer regards discordant information as a threat, heresy, and wants to suppress it -- to keep it from infiltrating the body of concordant information that sustains his or her belief.
So when Sunstein was appointed to a job in the Obama administration, his writing took on sinister implications for those who must defend their conspiracy beliefs from infiltration. Could that appointment be part of a grand conspiracy to suppress and discredit the truth movement? A conspiracy against conspiracies?
In a word, yes -- and it is high time.
A fundamental principle of our society is the right of the people to democratically decide matters that affect civic affairs. For the process to work, people need to make good judgments. Americans have long respected the right and responsibility of everyone to be educated and thus equipped to think and discern what is best for themselves and their nation -- to be informed citizens. The ability to reason and think are essential to self-governance.
Something goes awry in that process when a group isolates itself cognitively -- when the group demeans and excludes those who disagree. We see it within our political parties, our religions, our academic circles, and in just about every voluntary group. Denial and self-validation are the rule, not the exception. We humans are not strictly rational creatures, despite our avowed respect for reason. We have structures of knowing that are part intuitive, part emotional, and part logical.
Ideas, even wrong ideas, have power. And where there is power, there are those who will exploit it. The politics of fear has been employed widely in campaigns over the past two decades. Radio and TV personalities like Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh have discovered that they can exploit doubt and fear to capture audience and make millions. Though the allegations they make and the questions they raise are often quickly put to rest when the facts are known, it is alarming how the misinformation and doubts persist long after the initial shock has dissipated. Leaders of groups that believe in a conspiracy gain prestige, power and access to money by feeding the fear and stoking the underlying belief.
Our tendency to circle the wagons in the presence of doubts and fears adds up to a fortress mentality that tends toward extremes and becomes ever more defensive and paranoid. From the outside the behavior looks like a cult. From the inside, the group seems like a shelter protecting members from succumbing to dangerously seductive lies. The doubt and fear makes objectivity impossible.
Contributors to OEN include a number of prolific writers who advocate for conspiracy theories of all sorts including: 9-11 false flag theory, UFO's are real, JFK was killed by the CIA, Obama isn't a native US citizen, and many many more. On the one hand editors wish to be open and not pre-judge these writers, but at the same time, we want to be discriminating and publish work that is intellectually honest and is not misleading or propaganda veiled as news and opinion. We want OEN to be credible.
How does one separate faulty reasoning and sophist thinking from good reporting? We look at the quality of the sources. We look at the credentials of the writer. We look for case-building posing as inquiry. We look for fear-mongering. We look for personal (ad hominem) attacks. We look for unsupported negative characterizations (slurs).
Applying these sensibilities, let's examine the Sunstein paper about conspiracy theories. Sunstein is a respected academic, a lawyer, a contributing editor to the New Republic, and has published extensive research and a book on the topic of extreme beliefs and conspiracy theories. His reasoning and facts have endured rigorous peer review. He is indisputably an expert. His paper cites extensive related research supporting his considered opinion. It was accepted and published by both Harvard University Law School and by the University of Chicago Law School. The language and style of the paper are logical and lack the hallmarks of a rant or of an an attempt to build a false case -- it is objective analysis at a high level of scholarship.
No need to belabor the issue of merit further. However, if you remain unclear about discerning credibility in articles that present a conclusion, I include a series of links below. The first is to Sunstein's paper. The second to a humorous review of it and the remaining ones are to articles about conspiracies that OEN has published. Check them out. Read the comment threads. When you do, you will find you can easily decide what and who is to be believed.
The remaining links reveal a range of conspiracy thinking, either in the articles or the comments following the articles. There are many more, just search OEN for "conspiracy."
What you choose to believe ... well that is purely your call, no one is pronouncing a verdict on these matters to declare what is immutable truth. As for me, I'm very happy to know that Sunstein and those like him are in the administration. And I wish him the best of luck "infiltrating" his detractors -- he'll need every bit of luck he can muster.
Conspiracy Theories (free download of full paper)
Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures
Glen Greenwald's discussion.
Obama's Info Chief advocates Disinformation and Domestic Covert Ops
State of Propaganda: Is Cass Sunstein the New Big Brother?
Swallowing the Official Account of 9/11: A Condition for Running for Office
Stop Shooting Conspiracy Theory Messengers