Alright, Christmas is coming, so it’s time to take a look at Cass Sunstein’s argument, if you can call it that, in an article titled Conspiracy Theories. He compares belief in conspiracy theories – more precisely, belief in any conspiracy theory – to belief in Santa Claus. Thus he shares in the left’s patronizing regard toward people and positions with which they disagree. When Richard Hofstadter wrote The Paranoid Style in American Politics, at least we had a critique that was not patronizing. He observed the distrust of secrecy in our political culture and analyzed it.
Let’s unpack Sunstein’s comparison, then see what he would have to do were he serious about it. First, he suggests that people who believe conspiracy theories are childlike, too unsophisticated to be able to distinguish a fairy tale from the truth. Second, he suggests that evidence in support of the belief is fake, and obviously so. Third, he suggests that belief in conspiracy theories is harmless, something people will outgrow in time.
Let’s take up the second point. What evidence supports the Santa Claus story? The answer to that question is simple. No presents in sight on Christmas Eve, then poof! On Christmas morning you see a pile of presents under the tree. How did they get there? Why, Santa came down the chimney to leave them here. How did he get down the chimney with all that stuff? It’s magic. Okay, let’s get to work here. Which one should I open first?
That tells you what Sunstein thinks about evidence that supports multiple shooters in Dealey Plaza, or evidence that World Trade Center 7 did not collapse by gravity alone. By comparing explanations for this evidence to belief in Santa Claus, Sunstein indicates the stories – like parents’ stories about presents under the tree – are fanciful, a harmless hoax, a magical sort of myth that makes people feel secure and happy.
Read past Sunstein’s introduction, however, and you see he doesn’t intend his readers to take the Santa comparison seriously. People who believe conspiracy theories are not childlike innocents at all. Their beliefs, far from harmless, threaten all of us. Moreover, Sunstein maintains, these deluded people will not outgrow such subversive myths. Only underhanded, sinister methods can make adherents of these beliefs give them up.
So the comparison to Santa Claus was just a means of ridicule after all. Snickering goes well with that. Let people know that you consider your opponents beneath consideration. That means you don’t have to argue with people who disagree with you. You don’t want to dignify their positions. You don’t expect your opponents to listen to you anyway, any more than you listen to them.
Let’s return to this subject down the road if we can. Meantime, read a book by David Ray Griffin called Cognitive Infiltration. It’s a critique of Sunstein’s article, in particular his proposal that government provocateurs infiltrate groups – especially online communities where trust is harder to build – in order to create dissension and division through disinformation. If you can break these groups up, Sunstein says, they become less effective and therefore less threatening.
Before closing, we should ask why Sunstein thinks these groups pose a threat. They threaten all of us, he fears, because the believers want to hold government to account for the crimes it has committed. “Let justice be done, though the heavens may fall,” adequately states their attitude, their commitment, and their cause. If they want to make the heavens fall on the basis of false beliefs, that’s a bad outcome. That is why Sunstein wants to see groups of Santa believers broken up. If you believe government is innocent of wrongdoing in these crimes, the Santa believers don’t look so innocent. They look more like the devil. If you believe government is not innocent, Sunstein’s plan looks a great deal more sinister.