Saturday, June 23, 2012

Gun Control Conspiracy Theory in a Nutshell

I'm going to start this out by stating flat-out that I don't subscribe to conspiracy theories. But I've done quite a bit of research on the nature of them over the last several years. I can admire a well-constructed one without believing it. Here are some simple ones I know to be false:
  • The Jews control everything. Actually, they're just people wanting to live their lives without getting shot, burned, or gassed.
  • Freemasons control everything. Actually, they provide free healthcare for children, and look out for each others' widows and orphans.
  • Republicans want to starve your children. Actually, they want you to feed your children.
  • Democrats want to undermine marriage. Actually, they don't care who you want to marry, and think you should extend others the same courtesy.
A lot of conspiracy theories are loony even at first glance. So there is a general tendency of those who would disprove a conspiracy to dismiss the theorists as "nuts" or simply idiots. If you really think that, then it must be frustrating as all Hell to be stymied by an idiot. And that happens a lot. That attitude results in complacency, inattention to detail, and failure in a debate.

The truth is that conspiracy theorists aren't necessarily stupid. Distrustful, yes. Quick to draw conclusions from weak correlations (as opposed to causes), yes. But not stupid. It's their intelligence that allows them to recognize these correlations and knit them into a tapestry illustrating a plausible story.

There's also a general tendency to believe that facts disprove a conspiracy theory. Far from it. A 'good' conspiracy theory always incorporates facts into it. In my experience, the theorists are often better armed with facts than their critics. They depend on facts. Facts are the poles; the conspiracy is the tent. A conspiracy deals with motivations, ideology, and power. You have as much chance of disproving a good conspiracy theory as you have of disproving the existence of God to the Pope.

Let's look at one current one: Operation Fast and Furious as a gun control scheme. I'm not advocating the theory... this is an illustration.  Please keep that in mind if you want to get crazy in the comments.

The basic background of Operation Fast and Furious (and its Bush-era predecessor, Operation Wide Receiver) is given in Wikipedia. I may edit in a sidebar with other links, but they're not really necessary to this discussion.

The basic proposition of the theory is this:
President Obama's administration supplied guns to Mexican drug cartels in order to frighten the American citizenry into supporting strict gun control laws. 
There are variants involving greater or lesser involvement by the President himself, but that's the basic premise. This conspiracy would implement the following stages:
  1. Make Second Amendment defenders complacent by relaxing gun regulations.
  2. Provide guns to Mexican drug cartels.
  3. Wait for an increase in violent gun crimes committed with American-sourced weapons.
  4. Use the crimes as a reason to pass stricter gun legislation in Obama's second term.
The theorists argue that the first three phases have in fact occurred, therefore the third is imminent. Since this is scheduled for Obama's SECOND term, it is a rallying point to not re-elect Obama, in a bid to retain the full rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment.

THIS IS A GREAT THEORY. I'm not saying it's true... but it's a brilliant theory on aesthetic and logical grounds.
  • It's simple. At its core, this is a classic fake-out. Anybody can understand it. It's like sacrificing the Knight in Chess to capture a Queen in return.
  • It sounds plausible. Three out of four points are objectively true. To a casual listener that sounds compelling. At the introduction the details don't matter. If it sounds plausible then the listener will stay for the details. And once that's done the theorist has control of how the details are presented. He can weave his tapestry.
  • It's non-disprovable. Since the coup de grace occurs in Obama's second term, in the future, then it's nearly impervious to counter-arguments. If the Administration relaxes gun control, it's part of the plot. If they increase it, it's because they hate guns, just like the theorists believe, and don't have all their eggs in one basket. They're damned if they do and damned if they don't.
  • It's shifty. The theory has some logical judo built in. The President doesn't have to have personal involvement. There can be increases or decreases in gun control. etc. This enhances its non-disprovability. And there's plenty of room for irrelevancies. Correlations don't have to strong if there is a mountain of them. The more stuff you cover a theory with, then the easier it is to defend. This doesn't make the theory more complex, though... it's like chaff thrown from an aircraft to confuse enemy radar.
  • It's OLD.  One of the best things that can happen to a conspiracy theory is longevity. For instance, Robert Farago floated the theory a year ago in his blog. In April 2011. Without mentioning Operation Fast and Furious (news that was just breaking at the time),  John Boulton spoke to the NRA about Administration plans to save gun control for Obama's second term. Age enhances plausibility. The theorists can say, "Hey, look, before this was news, we knew about these kinds of plans. And Fast and Furious fits right into place! We thought they were using existing violence as an excuse, but it turns out to be a even more widespread!" They can point to Fast and Furious as the iceberg of which their original suspicions were just the tip. 
A little history
The origins of this theory go back to April 12, 2009, when Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) was interviewed by Leslie Stahl on CBS' 60 Minutes after the 1994 assault weapons ban expired. Feinstein didn't think that the time was right for gun control and stated "I will pick the time and the place, no question about that"  Here's the full story. The relevant quote is at 2:38, but view the whole thing:

This lead to speculation that the "time and place" would be Obama's second term. So you're looking at a three-year old conspiracy theory, embellished through time. Although Obama's track record indicates a dislike for guns and strong gun-control tendencies as a senator, this 60 Minutes piece clearly indicates why he would steer clear of the subject as a first term President.

Its longevity and organic construction make it a very difficult theory to argue against. It started small and evolved, and each new piece fit the rest neatly:
  • The Left want to ban assault guns.
  • BUT the time is not right -->; April 2009 Pelosi says "I'll pick the time" --> speculation that this will be Obama's second term.
  • BUT public sentiment is against the Left -->; change public sentiment
  • Mexican violence exists 
  • AND Operation Fast and Furious is started in October 2009, shortly after Pelosi state's she'll "pick the time".
  • AND Operation Fast and Furious gives American assault weapons to drug cartels.
  • THEREFORE The Left is behind Mexican violence. And the circle is closed.
You start putting printing this stuff out, putting it up on a corkboard, and thumb-tacking red yarn all over the place, and you've got a very coherent picture. At all times the subsequent information fuels the earlier speculation. At all times the focus is clearly on assault weapons. The desire for an assault weapon ban by the Left is incontestable. Obama's reticence to do so is the thing that the theorist finds unusual and needing explanation, given Obama's own voting record.

And so the conspiracy grows.

How to argue against it.

Well, first you don't waste time on the ways that won't work.
  1. Claiming Obama hasn't pushed gun control, therefore he won't. This is an absolutely doomed argument. As you can see from the 60 Minutes video, there are good political reasons why gun control was left alone, and it's not due to preference. It's political poison. 
  2. Claiming that it makes "no sense" for Obama to delay gun control. As the 60 Minutes story shows, it does. So by this false appeal to logic, you're giving the theorist a free pass in this and future arguments. He can accept it, and then claim that his theory doesn't need to make sense because you personally have pointed out a strategy, factually confirmed by the then-Speaker-of-the-House on national television, that "makes no sense."
  3. Claiming Obama's past actions as President indicate his future actions. Again, doomed, for the same reason. The political pressures of a first-term President include re-election. That pressure is lifted for the second term. Obama's past actions pre-date his Presidency, and that includes exceptionally strong advocacy of gun control. Plus, Pelosi undermined the credibility of this argument with her "I'll pick the time and the place" quote.
  4. Blaming Bush. It's irrelevant, and therefore doomed. The salient points of the conspiracy theory have nothing whatsoever to do with losing control of arms. According to the theory, this is by design. So saying that Bush had a similar program -- even saying that it also lost weapons -- proves absolutely nothing. The counter-argument is that the Obama Administration used it as a model because it fit the need and because it provided plausible deniability.
  5. Focusing on details of the Operation Fast and Furious investigation. Doomed because it misses the point. The investigation isn't the conspiracy. It's not even about this conspiracy, either. It's about a cover-up... a completely separate animal. Even if you were to convince someone to halt the investigation, you've still wasted your time with respect to the gun-control theory, because the theory incorporates the motives behind Operation Fast and Furious, which are not addressed by the investigation. And even though the publicly stated motive has always been to track down drug lords, the theorist will hold to the hidden motive of gun control, which remains completely untouched.
  6. Focusing on other gun-control conspiracies. For instance, the United Nations gun control treaty that Dick Morris describes here. This is another doomed tactic. Presumably the purpose of bringing it up would be to paint the theorist as a fear-monger jumping at shadows. It doesn't work. All you're doing is adding yarn to his corkboard. For one thing, he may not be aware of the other conspiracy theories you're bringing up, and this undermines your implication that he was influenced by them. But worse, it is likely to be interpreted by the theorist as evidence of a multi-pronged effort to get a gun ban enacted. The theorist will reply that the conspirators are too intelligent to trust everything to a single plan. 
What does work?

Before you can answer that, you have to recognize that a conspiracy theory is about motives, ideology, and power; not facts.  In every case, there are facts and speculation. Bad theories speculate about facts. Strong theories present facts and speculate about motives. And the motives are always negative. There's never a conspiracy to cure cancer, for example. The same actions can be interpreted completely differently, depending on the quality of your tin foil hat. For example:
  • Scenario A: Mr. Jones closed his unprofitable plant in Duluth because he's obsessed with profit. He doesn't care about the workers. He destroyed 200 jobs.
  • Scenario B: Mr. Jones closed his unprofitable plant in Duluth because if he didn't the company would go bankrupt, forcing closure of five other plants. He feels an obligation to save what jobs he can. He saved 1,000 jobs.
The facts are not in dispute. Mr. Jones closed an unprofitable plant. Only his motive is in question. Whether it's a conspiracy theory is determined by whether many people are thought to be involved in the "plot". Whether it's a nut case depends on whether the ascribed motive matches the actual motive, and we can't necessarily get that from Mr. Jones, as he may be lying. Just remember, the facts are rarely in dispute, so arguing them is largely pointless. You have to go to motive.

Then you have to remember that any motive you give is already matched by a counter motive (as in our Jones example). So your motives must be simpler and more believable than that of the theorist. For Operation Fast and Furious, for example, here's an example that's better than a conspiracy theory (and why it's better):
Law Enforcement wanted to catch drug lords. (positive!) So they implemented a strategy that was useful in the past (positive) But they got too ambitious (still positive... at least they were trying) and screwed up. (believable!) It was a mistake.
"I screwed up" is always effective because conspirators rarely expect it. It's way too honest for them to anticipate.

But Operation Fast and Furious is only one point of a much larger conspiracy theory, as we've seen. To get rid of the larger theory, you have to do this at every node, offering positive, believable alternate motives that fit the facts of every case, and show that the links between cases are correlation, not causation. Cut every single strand of yarn. And then you have to be prepared for the derisive criticism, "You have an answer for everything, don't you!"

In other words, it may still not work. At some point you have to recognize that you're arguing religion with the Pope, and just shrug and go play Jenga instead.

"If this theory is so good...

...why don't I subscribe to it?" Yeah, I knew you'd ask that.

First of all, when I say it's a "good conspiracy theory", I simply mean it's effective. It convinces a lot of people. I'm not making a value judgement on it.

I don't subscribe to it because I see too much correlation and not enough causation. Although there is a lot of motivation and plotting listed, there is a lack of hard evidence that actually links that motivation to actions. Remember, a conspiracy theory is about motives, not facts. If you can ascribe other motives that fit the facts there's no compelling reason to believe in the theory. Also, I subscribe to Hanlon's Razor:
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. - Robert J. Hanlon
Sometimes "stupidity" replaced with "incompetence". The point is, it's extremely tough for the Administration to pull off such a well-orchestrated, visionary plan. When you look at all the high-profile things that they've botched, it becomes difficult to believe they'd be successful, and highly unlikely that they'd even try. Also, in order to believe the conspiracy you have to accept that people are working in secret for nefarious motives. I don't believe that anybody gets into politics because they're some diabolical mastermind. They do it because they sincerely want to make a change for the better. Diabolical motives are a bright red flag that a theory is likely to be false (there's an exception to that, which I'll save for another post). People believe that the other guy is evil simply because they think they have the best solution; and the other guy is working on something other than the best solution. Because of their differing perspectives, each side sees the other's attempts as countermanding "good"; and therefore declare them "evil".

And because I don't believe in the conspiracy, and I "have no dog in this race" I'm not concerned with either defending or crucifying the President; so I have no really good motivation to pursue it further. I'm certainly not inclined to play "whack-a-mole" with fanatics.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Did Obama Base His Campaign on a Comic Book?

I was going through some back issues of "The Adventures of Superman", and came across some interesting issues (#619 and #620) from 2003. What intrigued me were some parallels with the 2008 election between Barack Obama and John McCain. Though I was aware (vaguely) of the story arc, I didn't make the connection then. Keep in mind that at two issues this was a very short arc.

So here's the deal. Out of nowhere, an extremely charismatic figure shows up and announces his candidacy for President of the United States. As you apparently can in the comics, he does this without disclosing his real name, billing himself only as "The Candidate".  

So what is the platform? Well... there is none, really. At least no significant policy platform. He does, however, run on slogans involving hope, change, and distrust of the current administration (and since Lex Luthor is the incumbent President in this reality, it's not that hard to be distrustful).



Rhetoric over Policy

Now, the parallel isn't perfect. It hardly could be. This was published five years before the 2008 elections. "The Candidate" is the stereotypical whitebread Arian minister-type in a white suit, while Obama delivered the same message format from a Black pulpit. But it's uncanny all the same. And the parallel doesn't need to be exact to illustrate my point... I'm not suggesting that DC comics was prognosticating. Rather, I'm wondering -- given the indisputable facts that this hugely popular comic came first and illustrated a very similar campaign strategy for the most recent previous election cycle -- whether someone influential on Obama's campaign team read it, thought it could work, and adopted it. Whether it was done consciously or not really doesn't matter. I think a solid argument can be made that  the 2008 campaign was based on a comic book!

Distrust the incumbent!
Not hard... the incumbent is Lex Luthor!
Who does he think he is, anyway?
"...a light will shine down from somewhere. It will light upon you.
You will experience an epiphany.
And you will say to yourself, 'I have to vote for Barack.'"
-- Barack Obama, Jan 7, 2008

The Next Effort... a little background, and a conspiracy

So what about the latest campaign? Could we conceivably see more of the same?  Well, let's look at those DC comics issues again, shall we? And be warned that in this section I'm going to float a conspiracy theory, not because I believe it, but purely because it was fun cooking it up based on a comic book juxtaposed against current events. You can build a conspiracy theory on just about anything... it's not particularly difficult.

In the news feed we have a lot of recent activity regarding Operation Fast and Furious, a scheme in which illegal firearms were knowingly sold to puppets of Mexican drug cartels, in the hopes of somehow tracking the weapons (presumably through magic) to the cartels themselves, and leading to their arrest. Instead, in a twist that surprised no one but the Justice Department, the guns were used in crimes, and resulted the deaths of many innocent people and two border patrol agents. Now, Operation Fast and Furious was an Obama administration continuation of a similarly stupid Bush administration plan, Project Gunrunner (same link). It should have been pretty simple to kill the project rather than rename it and continue it. But because it was renamed and continued, I'm afraid the current administration doesn't get to blame this one on the previous crew (as they very well could have done IF they had just killed it).

But who to blame is not the intriguing and relevant part of this.

Today we saw Barack Obama invoke executive privilege regarding papers that were subpoenaed by Congress from the Attorney General's office. Now the safe, sane, political approach to this would simply be to find out who was responsible for this mishegoss and rightly toss his ass under a bus. Whoever it is belongs under the bus, so that's not even a moral dilemma. But instead, the Attorney General has stonewalled Congress for months, and now the President assumes responsibility of the problem by declaring executive privilege.

"Assumes responsibility?" you gasp. Well, yes. The precedent is clear. In 1972, Richard Nixon did not break into the Watergate hotel. He didn't order anyone to do it, either, and at no time did anyone indict him of that. He did, however, attempt to cover it up after the fact, invoking executive privilege to do so, and that's what lead to his resignation (contrary to popular belief he was not impeached).  It was Nixon injecting himself into the situation, protecting those who did wrong on his behalf, that took him out.

Because of the Watergate scandal, the Supreme Court was asked to rule on the subject of executive privilege, ruling in United States v Nixon (1974) that the privilege could only be invoked when involving communications of his own office, and then for specific causes, which could in fact be over-ruled, as in the case of Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

So again, the sane political approach is to prosecute wrongdoers, not protect them. This leaves precious few reasons to legitimately invoke executive privilege. One is because there are ongoing national security concerns, military or otherwise. Another is because of diplomatic concerns. A third is because you personally were involved in the conversations (and even then it's limited, as we saw with Clinton). Now, it would be the easy course for my fictional conspiracy to be due to the President's involvement in Operation Fast and Furious. Too easy. No, here I'm imagining the President to be completely innocent... squeaky clean... and injecting himself for a fourth reason, one that's more in keeping with the tone of our comic-book conspiracy and which keeps us on topic.

In "The Adventures of Superman" issue #619, we're told that "The Candidate" is the target of an assassination plot.  In issue #620, it's revealed that the hit man (in this case an alien, but hey, it's the comics) was hired by none other than "The Candidate" himself! Why? Because in casting himself as a martyr... a victim... he secures his popularity and his legacy. 

So in our imaginary Glenn Beck-inspired almost-Earth, Barack Obama injects himself into the issue because he wants to be investigated. He wants to be a victim and to be persecuted. He can pick any reason to blame it on... racism, demagoguery, just plain "mean-oldness"... it doesn't matter. The end result is that he can say to the public, "Hey, I've got your back, now I need you to have mine!" In a campaign end-game it gives him an emotional string to pull to replace the worn-out and increasingly ineffectual one of Bush-hatred.

The very best part of it is, when it turns out that the President really is squeaky-clean, and his exertion of executive privilege is for no apparent reason at all, everyone else loses. He still gets to assert that in his assessment, national security was at stake. Your assessment may differ, but that's an 'honest' disagreement. He still gets to assert that he's the victim of a witch-hunt, despite any reasonable doubts raised by continued stone-walling of Congress. In this scenario, inserting his innocent self into this scenario is an exercise of the old adage, "there's no such thing as bad publicity." And he still gets to play an emotional wild-card on the electorate, even if it be one of his own manufacture.

Of course, that's the sort of thing that could only happen in a comic book.