Jan 162010
 

NB: The un-updated version of this post was reproduced in its entirety on Infowars. Without permission, I might add, and without linking here. Since they have not bothered with this common courtesy, I must ask you all to believe the conspiracy theory that THEY SUCK. And, ha, in light of the contents of this post, I must disclaim that I have anything to do with Alex Jones, his website, or his political views. That is all./NB

Thanks to the author of the Bleeding Heart Show, I have got my hands on a copy of Sunstein’s white paper entitled Conspiracy Theories (2008). I’d like to draw your attention to some interesting features.

According to the introduction of the paper, polls suggest that roughly one-third of Americans subscribe to a ‘conspiracy theory’ about the September 11th attacks in NYC, whether it be that the government knew about it in advance, conspired in it themselves, or covered up Israeli involvement. In most illuminating fashion, the paper then states:

When civil rights and civil liberties are absent, people lack multiple information sources, and they are more likely to accept conspiracy theories.

And in the footnote:

we assume that low civil liberties tend to produce terrorism, a hypothesis that is supported by the mechanisms we adduce.

These are both impeccable reasons for ensuring that the government does absolutely nothing to curtail domestic civil liberties. Unfortunately, the US and the UK have adopted the opposite strategy. Do I begin to hope that Cass Sunstein will be able to sway the Obama administration away from the apparently disastrous policy of restricting civil liberties in response to terrorism?

Carrying on, we find a definition of conspiracy theories for the purposes of the paper:

We bracket the most difficult questions here and suggest more intuitively that a conspiracy theory can generally be counted as such if it is an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role. This account seems to capture the essence of the most prominent and influential conspiracy theories.

Hmm. Except that sometimes powerful people do plot and plan whilst concealing their role in events. In fact, this sort of behaviour by powerful people is not at all rare; we have special government departments for doing just that abroad. It would be enchantingly naive to think such machinations did not also take place, at least a little bit, at home.

Sunstein’s good, though; he identifies this problem:

Of course some conspiracy theories, under our definition, have turned out to be true. The Watergate hotel room used by Democratic National Committee was, in fact, bugged by Republican officials, operating at the behest of the White House. In the 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency did, in fact, administer LSD and related drugs under Project MKULTRA, in an effort to investigate the possibility of “mind control.” Operation Northwoods, a rumored plan by the Department of Defense to simulate acts of terrorism and to blame them on Cuba, really was proposed by high-level officials (though the plan never went into effect).

But wait!

Our focus throughout is on false conspiracy theories, not true ones. Our ultimate goal is to explore how public officials might undermine such theories, and as a general rule, true accounts should not be undermined.

But… but… how does a person not in possession of an unelected, unaccountable high-government job know the difference? How does the average American twerp distinguish between false theories that public officials rightly undermine, and true theories that public officials undermine in the name of security? After all, public officials have been known to do just that. How do we know whether a public official is telling us the truth or lying to us? Perhaps Sunstein will tell us…

He sort of does, in fact, when he discusses the distinction between justified and unjustified false belief. For example:

…the false belief in Santa Claus is justified, because children generally have good reason to believe what their parents tell them and follow a sensible heuristic (“if my parents say it, it is probably true”)…

I posit that the belief (true or false) that politicians lie to the electorate is also a ‘sensible heuristic.’ It has been known to happen rather more often than is comfortable to the electorate. Politicians wishing to disseminate true information to dispel conspiracy theories are caught in a trap of their own devising: they are the Boy Who Cried Wolf. People would be far more willing to trust the establishment if the establishment were more trustworthy, and if its members were not caught lying, misrepresenting, prevaricating, and peculating so depressingly often.

Sunstein goes on:

A broader point is that conspiracy theories overestimate the competence and discretion of officials and bureaucracies, who are assumed to be able to make and carry out sophisticated secret plans, despite abundant evidence that in open societies government action does not usually remain secret for very long. Recall that a distinctive feature of conspiracy theories is that they attribute immense power to the agents of the conspiracy; the attribution is usually implausible but also makes the theories especially vulnerable to challenge. Consider all the work that must be done to hide and to cover up the government’s role in producing a terrorist attack on its own territory, or in arranging to kill political opponents. In a closed society, secrets are not difficult to keep, and distrust of official accounts makes a great deal of sense. In such societies, conspiracy theories are both more likely to be true and harder to show to be false in light of available information. But when the press is free, and when checks and balances are in force, government cannot easily keep its conspiracies hidden for long.

I quite agree with this piece of analysis; nevertheless it appears to break a fundamental precept of logical argument: namely, it begs the question. Where is the proof that America is a free society? Its conspiracy theories are false. How we do know its conspiracy theories are false? Because it is a free society. Minus 10, Mr Sunstein; see me after class.

He goes on:

This is not, and is not be intended to be, a general claim that conspiracy theories are unjustified or unwarranted. Much depends on the background state of knowledge- producing institutions. If those institutions are generally trustworthy, in part because they are embedded in an open society with a well-functioning marketplace of ideas and free flow of information, then conspiracy theories will generally (which is not to say always) be unjustified.

Let us use Sunstein’s own reasoning. I put it to you that the widespread prevalence of true conspiracy theories, as mentioned above, mean that the knowledge-producing institutions of the US are NOT trustworthy and that there is NOT a free flow of information in American society. Ergo even the false conspiracy theories are justified.

On our account, a defining feature of conspiracy theories is that they are extremely resistant to correction, certainly through direct denials or counterspeech by government officials.

Yes, because of the aforementioned ‘sensible heuristic’ that, on the balance of probability, government officials are liars. When you do not trust the messenger, you do not believe the message.

…the self- sealing quality of conspiracy theories creates serious practical problems for government; direct attempts to dispel the theory can usually be folded into the theory itself, as just one more ploy by powerful machinators to cover their tracks. A denial may, for example, be taken as a confirmation.

Quite.

Okay, look. I have made an effort in good faith to read this paper and give Sunstein a fairer hearing, but stuff like this:

Perhaps conspiracy theories are a product of mental illness, such as paranoia or narcissism. And indeed, there can be no doubt that some people who accept conspiracy theories are mentally ill and subject to delusions. But we have seen that in many communities and even nations, such theories are widely held. It is not plausible to suggest that all or most members of those communities are afflicted by mental illness. The most important conspiracy theories are hardly limited to those who suffer from any kind of pathology.

is beyond the pale. I don’t care that he dismisses the ‘individual pathology’ claim; he’s still making a major mistake.

That mistake is to lay the responsibility for false beliefs and conspiracy theories entirely on the shoulders of those who hold them, and absolve the establishment of any responsibility for the phenomena. Indeed, for Sunstein, conspiracy theories are a problem which government officials must solve, seeking out ways to promote the right sources of information and improve people’s ‘crippled’ epistemologies.

And isn’t that always how it is for people like this? The Herd have a pathology! Government must fix!

Until people like Sunstein realise that it takes two to tango, they’re never going to reach their solution, whether it be through nudging, taxes, prohibitions, bans, thought crimes or any other ridiculous measure that fails to take into account that public officials are part of the problem. So, the government wants people to believe the information it gives them, to trust them, to feel that society is open and transparent free? Public officials, I’ve got your solution right here:

STOP LYING TO US.

UPDATE: I am not alone in my suspicion. Glenn Greenwald at Salon.com says virtually the same thing:

It’s certainly true that one can easily find irrational conspiracy theories in those venues, but some of the most destructive “false conspiracy theories” have emanated from the very entity Sunstein wants to endow with covert propaganda power: namely, the U.S. Government itself, along with its elite media defenders. Moreover, “crazy conspiracy theorist” has long been the favorite epithet of those same parties to discredit people trying to expose elite wrongdoing and corruption.

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.

In my own reading of Sunstein’s 2008 paper, my head asploded before I got to the part where he proposed that government insert covert information-disseminators into ‘extremist’ (i.e. anyone who believes what he labels a conspiracy theory) groups and that government pay so-called ‘independent’ experts to bolster its informational claims. And yet here it is, straight from the horse’s pencil:

What can government do about conspiracy theories? Among the things it can do, what should it do? We can readily imagine a series of possible responses. (1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing. (2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories. (3) Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories. (4) Government might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech. (5) Government might engage in informal communication with such parties, encouraging them to help. Each instrument has a distinctive set of potential effects, or costs and benefits, and each will have a place under imaginable conditions. However, our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories, which involves a mix of (3), (4) and (5).

Government counterspeech, government financial solicitation of support – ‘cognitive infiltration’ of groups of anybody who hold what the government deems a false, dangerous, and unjustified view.

But fear not, brave readers!

Throughout, we assume a well-motivated government that aims to eliminate conspiracy theories, or draw their poison, if and only if social welfare is improved by doing so.

Oh. That’s perfectly all right, then. No badly-motivated government that aims to suppress views if and only if their power is thereby entrenched would ever use these same fucking strategies.

Honestly, how sinister can Sunstein get? Is it not enough that he holds an unelected and unaccountable position of almost unimaginable power and is also tipped as a potential Obama Supreme Court nominee? Does he really have to advocate this kind of government thought-control, however benign he might think his methods and however justified (‘THE GREATER GOOOOOOOD’) he might think his reasons?

Why can’t people like Sunstein just leave us the fuck alone?

Jul 032009
 

Even when repeating his own shit ad nauseam, Alan Johnson finds honesty a skill beyond his capabilities:

I know that some of you have real concerns about the government’s motives for introducing the card. When I announced this week that I would make identity cards wholly voluntary it was because I believe that there are real benefits that will make the card an attractive proposition for many people. I think the case for identity cards has been made, but understand that getting a card will be a big decision for some people. Easy or hard, I think it should be a voluntary decision, one that people choose to take, because they agree and welcome the benefits an identity card will provide.

The Guardian is cocking a snook, because the links in that section of Johnson’s piece take the reader to a comment post by Henry Porter that can by no stretch of the imagination be considered supportive of ID cards, the associated database, or a government that misrepresents the purpose of both and cannot tell the difference between ‘wholly voluntary,’ ‘voluntary,’ and ‘compulsory.’

As a matter of fact, Alan, to say that you would make identity cards ‘wholly voluntary’ is a big fat fucking lie, as I pointed out a few days ago:

It will remain compulsory for foreign nationals staying the UK long term to have an ID cards but Britons will only have one now if they request it.

Cheers, y’all. Rejoice in your newfound freedom from this travesty. I’ll just sit quietly over here in the corner, PAYING FOR YOUR FUCKING STATE, and wait my turn to be branded.

In the New Labour lexicon, ‘wholly’ means ‘mostly’ or even ‘partly’ or even – dare I suggest it – ‘not at all’?

The fact that a significant portion of the population of Britain (note I didn’t say ‘the British population’) will be required by law to have identity cards – guess what, peeps, immigrants can’t get a visa without one – means that they are not in any way, shape, or form ‘voluntary.’

I seem to recall, as well, that there were two justifications for issuing non-British people with British-government-mandated identity cards: one was terrorism, now scrapped as a justification apparently, and the other was that, oh, you know, ID cards will help you prove your right to work and live here – don’t you want that? Isn’t that fantastic? No more need for you to produce a passport containing your visa when applying for a job! Just show your ID card! What’s that? Will you still need that passport with the visa in? Oh, of course – we’re not giving up the fucking £820 per person we get from that little scheme! We’re just maximising profit, ’cause now you’ll be paying £820 plus the cost of an ID card, whenever we get around to finally admitting what that amount will be.

Dude, Alan, you’re just trotting out the same old shit as your predecessor, only much less sympathetically because Jacqboot, unlike you, did seem to understand the difference between subject and object pronouns in English.

As a final and rather despairing aside, so far Alan Johnson has not impressed me as Home Secretary. This bodes not at all well for the visa appeal I’m hoping he’ll agree to in the case of my Tier 1 application. Perhaps he’d look on me with a little more favour if I offered to proofread all of his future newspaper columns…?

balls, n. Brit. rubbish.

 indolence, political blunders  Comments Off on balls, n. Brit. rubbish.
Jun 302009
 

Via the delightful Mr E, I see that Ed Balls, Minister for Fucking Up Your Children and Families, has got himself into trouble on multiple counts:

First, he told some great big whoppers on the radio about Labour’s budget bringing the national debt down, when in fact their very own budget shows the national debt rising. Fraser Nelson illustrates with some pretty graphs.

Second, when Balls got wind of Nelson’s article, he demanded it be taken down, practically causing Nelson to bust a kidney from laughter in the process.

Nelson says:

Balls was deploying the “false proxy” – one of the tools he and Brown use to mislead the public. The Brown/Balls spin technique is all about the gap between their verbal and financial positions. Debt is a classic case in point. Most people understand “reducing the national debt” to mean, well, reducing the national debt. Brown and Balls would claim to do this, when in fact they were increasing the national debt – but by slightly less than the growth of the economy. Orwell would have great fun with Brown and Balls – they have invented statistical doublethink. A way of describing ‘up’ as ‘down’.

Pretty sneaky, Balls. Pretty sneaky indeed.

Apparently, one of the things Balls said on the radio this morning was the following:

We have acted in the downturn, that will mean that the economy is stronger, we’ll have less unemployment, less debt. Therefore we will be able to spend more on schools and hospitals. The Conservatives have opposed these plans, the national debt will be higher with the Conservatives.

In the mind of the Man Who Would Be Chancellor, spending more = less debt and opposing spending = more debt. Excuse me while I ask, WTF. ‘The national debt will be higher with the Conservatives’? I grant that may well end up being true, but only because Labour have spent the last 9 months spending non-existent money like an overpaid benefits claimant in Asda.

Okay, wait, that was classist, wasn’t it?

Spending non-existent money like a teenaged geek with a stolen credit card in the Apple Store.

Whatever the simile, Balls has just proved that the level of political discourse is no better here than in my native land: ‘We rock, and the other guys are totes poo-heads. Am I right or am I right?’

One thing that is different, however, is the unbelievable fact that people win elections in this country by promising more public spending. Some of the electorate evidently want to wrap themselves in the cotton wool of this promise so badly that they’re happy just to hear it as bullshit, never mind it actually happening:

We don’t care if the commentators or the economists turn against us. This is all about shoring up the base in the northern heartlands, which we lost in the European elections. We don’t want or need them to understand the nuance of the argument. We just want them to hate the Tories again.

The equation being, of course, that the British hate spending cuts, and thus hate the Tories, yea even unto the Day of Judgment, Amen.

Whereas the Americans, as far as I can still tell, adore spending cuts, and have hitherto gigantically mistrusted anybody who doesn’t advocate them. Now, obviously, I’m well aware that Americans are being lied to also – no American government has managed actually to cut spending since, like, EVER – but the difference lies in the lies we wish to be told.

(Did you see what I did there?)

Americans want to pretend the government is spending less of their money than ever on less and less stuff. The British want to pretend the government is spending more of their money than ever on making the current stuff super-awesome.

I wonder what proportion of the US population pays income tax, versus what proportion of the British population pays income tax.

I bet it’s a smaller proportion here in the UK. Anybody have the data? I’m willing to be corrected.

Feb 032009
 

Going over some visa paperwork this morning on the UK Border Agency website (the loading of which sucked up my computer’s entire capacity to do anything for four minutes), I found myself slogging through stupid shit and remembered, with considerable fury, this fucking abomination from a couple of months ago.*

Jacqui Smith, Home Secretary and total whore, announced in November that all foreign nationals wishing to live and work in the United Kingdom must acquire an ID card containing, among other things, their fingerprints and facial-scan data. This includes foreign nationals already living and working in the UK, who will need to apply for their ID cards when they seek to renew their visas.

She had this to say about it:

Foreign nationals living, working and studying here legally want to be able to prove that easily. We want to prevent those here illegally from benefiting from the privileges of Britain.

Erm… I do not care about being ‘able to prove’ my legality ‘easily.’ As far as I’m concerned, the reason I apply for (and pay through the nose for) my visa and work permit is to put the onus on the government: it is their job to prove I am here illegally. Unless there is some reasonable cause to believe otherwise, the assumption should be that I am a law-abiding member of the public whose presence in the UK is perfectly legal.

Businesses, other employers and colleges want to be confident that those they are employing or taking onto courses are who they say they are, and have the right to work or study in our country.

I am certain this is true, but the reason businesses, employers and colleges want to be confident of this fact is so that the government does not investigate and/or fine them for paying/admitting ‘illegals’ to work/learn.

Immigration officers and police officers want to be able to easily verify identity and detect abuse. We all want to see our borders more secure and human trafficking, organised immigration crime, illegal working and benefit fraud tackled.

What kind of ‘abuse,’ exactly, would this be? Never mind the fact that most of the humans trafficked into the UK or committing benefit ‘fraud’ are from within the EU. The EU, of course, does not count as ‘foreign’ because one of the purposes of the EU is to ensure the free movement of labour. Can we please, please also acknowledge that, for instance, the 7/7 bombers were ‘”ordinary British citizens“‘, and the common excuse for these ID cards (the safety of the public and prevention of terrorism) is a complete prevarication?

The remark about benefit fraud particularly amazes me. If this government is so stupid, ineffectual, and incompetent that it cannot keep track of who is who and what benefits they should be getting, perhaps the solution is not ID cards but instead (a) to throw out the present government, or (b) dispense with the benefits system.

Along with the new points system starting this week, ID cards for foreign nationals will bring real changes to how we control migration by locking foreign nationals to one identity – using fingerprints and facial images.

Fingerprints and facial images, eh? And this data is going to be oh-so-secure, isn’t it, o Mighty and Wise government who lost the personal and bank details of 25 million (yes, million) people on a carelessly-posted disk, lost 17,000 asylum-seekers’ data, lost the details of 3 million learner drivers on a hard drive left in the USA, and left a wodge of Foreign Office briefings on the seat of a fucking train? Even those shits at the Guardian are unimpressed.

Within three years everyone coming here from outside Europe for more than six months will be given a card showing they have the right to be here and work or study.

I’ve already got a bloody document that shows I have the right to be here and work! Why must I be issued with another one?

The National Identity Scheme will deliver a secure and simple proof of ID for all those legally entitled to live and work in the UK – and the majority of people say they welcome identity cards and the benefits they will bring.

Is this for fucking real? The majority of people what? Where is the survey in which over 50% of people claim to welcome these ID cards? Who are these lunatics? They certainly aren’t the poor foreign nationals who will be forced to carry them around.

Let us also keep in mind the salient fact that foreign nationals, the first people in Britain for whom this identity ‘scheme’ will be mandatory, are in fact the only people living in the bloody country who are not allowed to vote. Coincidence? Je pense que non.

That is why I will be inviting those who want the chance to get one of the first UK identity cards to pre-register their interest.

Yes, let us see how many takers you get on this one.

I am confident the small group of volunteers chosen for these first cards will quickly realise, like I already do, that identity cards are secure, convenient and here to help protect us all.

This final paragraph is particularly galling. A small group of ‘volunteers?’ Presumably these are the lunatics who will be ‘pre-registering their interest.’ And yet the selection of the word ‘chosen’ suggests either (a) these may not necessarily be volunteers, or (b) this is the government’s pathetic attempt to make it sound as if the pool of ‘volunteers’ will be so big that they’ll be stymied by their surfeit of options.

Either way, I am fucking floored by the characterisation of the ID cards as ‘secure, convenient and here to help protect us all.’ How is giving all ten of my fingerprints ‘convenient’? Surely I will have to take myself to a special face-scanning station to get my face scanned; it’s not as if there will be booths for it in Tesco (as there are for passport photos). And there is no question of ID cards being free, surely? Will I have to pay another £90 for it on top of the £800 I already pay for my visa and work permit?

‘Secure,’ hmph. Vide supra.

‘Helping to protect us all’ is another good one. From what – benefit fraud?

The assumptions being made in this ‘article’ are astounding. First, that I as a foreigner am happy to surrender my privacy, and to pay for the privilege of doing so, to protect the British public. Not being able to vote, I have been given no choice in this matter whatsoever. And the British public I’m surrendering my privacy to protect are, if Ms Smith is to be believed, in favour of this scheme, which will save us from the scourge of ‘illegal working and benefit fraud.’

Second, let us not forget that I already possess two documents that prove I am living and working here legally: my visa and my work permit. These documents do not, of course, contain biometric data. They also do not need to be carried on my person at all times. How long will it be, I wonder, before it is announced that ID cards must be carried always and produced upon demand? And of course, the demand will require reasonable cause, but here in the UK, where the police can (or so I’m told) ‘demand’ your DNA when they question you, even if you have done nothing wrong, or lock you up for, what is it now, 28 days? without charge, how ‘reasonable’ is the demand to see my ID card going to have to be?

I object to being scanned, printed, and tagged like a piece of fucking livestock.

*It really ruined my afternoon, all right?