Andrew Marantz’s New Yorker article about Cass Sunstein’s essay, Conspiracy Theories, summarizes Sunstein’s ideas about conspiracy theorists. The article also chronicles people’s response to Sunstein’s ideas. Marantz’s title is rather weak, but note two points about the article’s content: (1) Marantz does not mention David Ray Griffin’s rebuttal of Sunstein, Cognitive Infiltration; (2) Sunstein, as portrayed here, appears totally unperturbed by the criticism he receives from Griffin or anyone else. The criticism has not led him to reexamine his policy proposals at all. Here is Sunstein’s response when Marantz probes about his role:
Look, I’m an academic. …I think it’s my job to put ideas out there. If that comes with the risk that someone is gonna do something horrible with it, well, that’s life.
The criticism Sunstein has received does not count as ‘doing something horrible’ with his ideas. If that’s your attitude toward people who criticize you, including fellow scholars like Griffin, you don’t actually subscribe to a practice where rethinking your ideas is a good thing. Sunstein even finishes a recent talk with a quotation from John Stuart Mill: “It is hardly possible to overrate the value . . . of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves.” You want to take this gentleman by the shoulders and ask, why do you say these things when you disbelieve them, or when you appear to disbelieve them?
The criticism Griffin levels at Sunstein is not horrible, nor – given what is at stake – is Griffin’s response ‘just life.’ Sunstein makes a proposal – to infiltrate groups distrustful and suspicious of government’s motives – with no apparent cognition that infiltration is a go-to method for totalitarian or paranoid leaders who want to nip opposition before it grows. Sunstein essentially proposes that we resurrect J. Edgar Hoover’s counter-intelligence program – COINTELPRO – with a special focus on conspiracy theorists. Hoover’s program discredited the FBI for decades afterward – in fact, for anyone who lived through the sixties, the FBI has still not recovered – yet Sunstein seems not only unaware of the bureau’s illegal activities, but unfazed when people lambaste him for his proposal that we recreate them.
Sunstein makes a proposal – to infiltrate groups distrustful and suspicious of government’s motives – with no apparent cognition that infiltration is a go-to method for totalitarian or paranoid leaders who want to nip opposition before it grows.
Sunstein might say ruthlessly: “Look, if Hoover could get away with it for so long, with measurable disruptive effects, why should we not try similar methods now, when conspiracy theorists threaten our republic even more than activists did in the 1960s?” Or he might single out Griffin, who wrote an entire book to criticize Sunstein, and explain why he believes Griffin is, or is not, an extremist to be silenced or undermined. Lastly, he might acknowledge he made a mistake, that he understands why so many people have criticized him, since his proposals contradict our traditions of free association and speech. He has not done or said any of these things. Instead, he shrugs off criticism, which I suppose is better than an in-kind, InfoWars sort of response. Mostly, he appears to care little about his own ideas, or the way others view them.
How a Liberal Scholar of Conspiracy Theories Became the Subject of a Right-Wing Conspiracy Theory
COINTELPRO – Wikipedia
Cognitive Infiltration, by David Ray Griffin
Also use keywords cognitive infiltration to search The Jeffersonian for other posts on the subject.