Dr. Sunstein, we have a problem

What does it take to be a good American? Should we follow our elites and trust that they know best, or should we question and criticize official explanations?

I’m reading historian Rick Perlstein’s latest–“The Invisible Bridge,” where he examines this question in relation to the tumult of the 1970’s America, and the rise of Ronald Reagan. As Perlstein asks: “What does it mean to truly believe in America? To wave a flag? Or to struggle toward a more searching alternative to the shallowness of the flag-wavers—to criticize, to interrogate, to analyze, to dissent?”

This divergence in how we, as Americans, should properly behave as as citizens, has become the cultural, racial and political divide that continues today.

Perlstein, one of America’s best historians, has been over this ground before. In Before The Storm, and Nixonland, Perlstein illustrated how cultural and racial tensions of the 1960’s were used cynically by conservatives as a way to gain and hold political power. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, woman’s rights, and Vietnam were all issues of the day that divided Americans between those who thought we should trust our leaders and the government and those who saw the whole system as a sham and advocated for fundamental change. Think of Civil Rights protests leading to the race riots or protests against the Vietnam War segueing into the Weathermen bombing and you have an idea how this transformation fundamentally divided Americans.

Divide and rule is as old as the hills and has been used by elites for centuries as a way to maintain power. In the US because of our history of chattel slavery, race has long been the cudgel that has been used to divide the working classes. The Southern Strategy, articulated by Republican advisor, Lee Atwater, lays out the way that Republicans responded to the Civil Rights Act.

“You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

The ongoing protests in Ferguson, Missouri reminds me of the famous Faulkner quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Salon writer Andrew O’Hehir makes the same point as Perlstein, in talking about the ongoing pernicious effects of race on America.

“An entire right-wing ideological empire remains devoted to convincing white people that benefit-sucking African-Americans and job-stealing Latino immigrants are somehow to blame for their downward trajectory. White privilege is the solvent used, throughout American history, to dissolve multiracial coalitions of working people, and the drug used to brainwash whites into making common cause with the class of CEOs, financiers and landlords.”

Like Perlstein, I fervently believe in critical examination of US policies, rather than relying   on assurances of elites in the essential goodness of America. We have so many problems facing us as a nation and its crucial we comprehend how we got here.

However, this idea of critical thinking poses problems for our elites in their quest to “manufacture consent.”

As noted linguist and political philosopher Noam Chomsky has noted, every government, no matter how despotic, requires a modicum of consent from the populace. Furthermore, according to Chomsky, the more democratic a government, the more it relies on propaganda to achieve this consent. In advanced democracies, like the United States, sophisticated propaganda, like the New York Times and Washington Post, is aimed at at elite economic and political decision makers. For the masses, there’s the NFL, Nascar and Fox News. You know, bread and circuses.

The Obama Administration is no different than the Bush Administration in their quest to control information and manufacture consent. The idea that government ought to control what Americans believe was well articulated by Dr. Cass Sunstein, Obama confidant and Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Dr. Sunstein argues that conspiracy theories and disbelieving Americans are preventing the government from being able to govern effectively.

Constitutional scholar and journalist Glen Greenwald, condemns this effort by Dr. Sunstein to control American public opinion.

In 2008, while at Harvard Law School, Sunstein co-wrote a truly pernicious paper proposing that the U.S. Government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-”independent” advocates to “cognitively infiltrate” online groups and websites — as well as other activist groups — which advocate views that Sunstein deems “false conspiracy theories” about the Government.  This would be designed to increase citizens’ faith in government officials and undermine the credibility of conspiracists. 

Of course, this idea was articulated at the beginning of Obama’s presidency and things have changed.

I ask everyone I know–Do you believe anything the US government tells you, in light of all the falsehoods that have been revealed? Aluminum tubes, anyone?

According to Dutch journalist Karel Van Wolferen, you shouldn’t.

“America’s history, since the demise of the Soviet Union, of truly breathtaking lies: on Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Venezuela, Libya and North Korea; its record of overthrown governments; its black-op and false flag operations; and its stealthily garrisoning of the planet with some thousand military bases, is conveniently left out of consideration.”

Journalist Glen Greenwald has been a thorn in the side of first the Bush and now the Obama Administration’s penchant for secrecy, and has taken steps to expose the lies inherent. It was this reason that Edward Snowden trusted him in his release of NSA secrets. Greenwald offers the best response to people like Dr. Sunstein, who advocate for more trust.

“Who is it who relentlessly spread “false conspiracy theories” of Saddam-engineered anthrax attacks and Iraq-created mushroom clouds and a Ba’athist/Al-Qaeda alliance — the most destructive conspiracy theories of the last generation?  And who is it who demonized as “conspiracy-mongers” people who warned that the U.S. Government was illegally spying on its citizens, systematically torturing people, attempting to establish permanent bases in the Middle East, or engineering massive bailout plans to transfer extreme wealth to the industries which own the Government?  The most chronic and dangerous purveyors of “conspiracy theory” games are the very people Sunstein thinks should be empowered to control our political debates through deceit and government resources:  namely, the Government itself and the Enlightened Elite like him.”

Exactly. American history since the Kennedy Assassination has been replete with examples of government lies and stories denigrated as conspiracy theories that later turned out to be true. Think of the Gulf of Tonkin justification for war in Vietnam, or the story of Nixon sabotaging peace talks so he could win election in 1968.

As Greenwald says, there’s a good reason why American distrust and loath their government.

“It is this history of government deceit and wrongdoing that renders Sunstein’s desire to use covert propaganda to “undermine” anti-government speech so repugnant.  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.  In other words, people don’t trust the Government and “conspiracy theories” are so pervasive precisely because government is typically filled with people like Cass Sunstein, who think that systematic deceit and government-sponsored manipulation are justified by their own Goodness and Superior Wisdom.”

 

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