First in a series.
This post by Julian Sanchez started an internet conversation/debate on what he calls “epistemic closure” on the right.
Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile. Think of the complete panic China’s rulers feel about any breaks in their Internet firewall: The more successfully external sources of information have been excluded to date, the more unpredictable the effects of a breach become. Internal criticism is then especially problematic, because it threatens the hermetic seal. It’s not just that any particular criticism might have to be taken seriously coming from a fellow conservative. Rather, it’s that anything that breaks down the tacit equivalence between “critic of conservatives and “wicked liberal smear artist” undermines the effectiveness of the entire information filter. If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely—maybe even when it comes from the New York Times. And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation. A more intellectually secure conservatism would welcome this, because it wouldn’t need to define itself primarily in terms of its rejection of an alien enemy.
Predictably, conservatives don’t like being compared to Communist Chinese. But in that one brief passage. Mr. Sanchez has crystallized one of the major problems with modern conservatism; what I term its “negative feedback loop” of information exchange. Epistemic closure, by any other name, is an echo chamber effect; a disease that afflicts both sides but that, for some reason, is especially virulent on the right.
But Sanchez goes beyond the obvious to posit the notion that the very reality inhabited by the right is a Matrix-like construct, created out of the resentments and false assumptions made by conservatives about the world around them. There is the objective reality of Zion and then there is the Machine World that sort of looks like Zion but is the result of bearing a false consciousness about the way the world truly works.
The result? A herd mentality that brooks no criticism lest the sleepers awaken to their dilemma and realize all is not as they have imagined. Where for years they have believed Zion was the dream and they were living in the real world, they simply cannot make the psychic leap of faith and logic to embrace the same reality the rest of us accept. Hence, their ill treatment of apostates and total dismissiveness of liberal critics.
It is hard to argue with a lot of that. Even Jonah Goldberg accepts some of Sanchez’s critique:
Now, I think there’s some merit to what Sanchez says here. As the recipient of lots of email from people who insist I’m an apostate to conservative orthodoxy and from lots of people who insist I’m a leading enforcer of conservative orthodoxy, I have some appreciation for both the reality and the mirage of what Sanchez calls conservatism’s movement toward epistemic closure.
But what I find rather astounding and perplexing in these sorts of autopsies or vivisections of conservatism are how so many people claim there are problems for conservatism that are in fact simply facts of life for all human associations and movements. It’s like a physician describing the anatomy of Belgians as if they were somehow different from Ukrainians.
Jonah is right – up to a point. His problem is one of degree. The level of epistemic closure in, for example, the Catholic priesthood is far less a denial of objective reality than that found on the American right today. The Matrix like world inhabited by talk radio hosts and listeners, where Barack Obama is not just wrong but deliberately trying to destroy the country, has no counterpart in any other milieu of which I am aware.
The level of hysteria regarding Obama and the Democrats on what passes for the mainstream right is truly astonishing. Are we really “that close” to becoming a Marxist dictatorship? Is health care reform the end of American liberty? Is Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals really a liberal playbook being followed religiously by Obama on how to take over the country? Is the Obama administration a “regime?” Is it a “gangster government?”
This is but a sampling of the reality propounded on a daily basis by the cotton candy conservatives on talk radio, and eagerly lapped up by conservative listeners in the tens of millions. This, and worse, is written daily on conservative blogs and websites, reinforcing the reality as it is recognized and delivered by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and other big names on the right.
The light of knowledge and objective reality cannot penetrate the screen set up by the gatekeepers of information trafficking because to do so would obviate their own cockeyed view of the world. The closed circle grows ever tighter around adherents as they deliberately shut off opposing perspectives, even when offered by those who are putatively on their side. To protect themselves from straying too far from the reality they have invented, they skewer critics – even on the right – with charges that they are liberal, or RINO’s, or their motivation is born out of jealousy and hate for the successful puindits who promulgate their warped worldview.
I started to read Mark Levin’s massive bestseller Liberty and Tyranny a number of months ago as debate swirled around it. I wasn’t expecting a PhD thesis (and in fact had hoped to write a post supporting the book as a well-reasoned case for certain principles that upset academics just because it didn’t employ a bunch of pseudo-intellectual tropes). But when I waded into the first couple of chapters, I found that — while I had a lot of sympathy for many of its basic points — it seemed to all but ignore the most obvious counter-arguments that could be raised to any of its assertions. This sounds to me like a pretty good plain English meaning of epistemic closure. The problem with this, of course, is that unwillingness to confront the strongest evidence or arguments contrary to our own beliefs normally means we fail to learn quickly, and therefore persist in correctable error.
Case in point; try telling an inhabitant of this alternate reality that Obama is not a socialist, that the government has taken over only a tiny slice of the economy, and that if you value the meanings of words, you would desist from trying shoehorn the president and the Democrats into a definitional construct that is false from the word “go.”
“Obama lover” would be the first response, followed quickly by “RINO.” There currently isn’t a vocabulary on most of the right that would encompass dealing with internal criticism of this kind. The very nature of criticism has been turned on its head as ideological bona fides must be established before the critic is accepted. Thus, the echo chamber remains secure and the negative feedback loop intact.
It will take a national leader of the stature of Reagan to break through this morass and restore some semblance of objective reality to movement conservatism. The Republican party may triumph at the polls in November, but it will be no thanks to the mainstream right who have embraced a worldview that is at odds with what most of the rest of us know to be true.