Archive for April, 2010

If you’ve been tooling around the blogosphere, particularly amongst the writings of the so-called conservative intelligentsia, you may have run into the words “epistemic closure.” The phrase seems to have originated with Sanchez conservative blogger Julian Sanchez, who admits on his blog that he’s giving an old undergraduate philosophy term a new spin; in this case, “closed off to new information.”

Sanchez is concerned that conservative media has become “worryingly untethered from reality…”,  a phrase seized upon with delight by both the New York Times and Salon; both also covered, in gleeful detail, some of the nastier rifts between the “true” conservatives, who see the David Brooks of the world as sell-outs, and those of Brooks’ and Sanchez’s ilk, who think the propaganda pushers as, well, loony-tunes.

Sanchez’s concerns are chiefly with the conservative media, which positions itself as a purveyor of truth among of sea of liberal media liars, even though it seems to promulgate misinformation and “fact-based” information with equal fervor. This scarcely seems like news to critics of the Fox juggernaut and the soaring careers of Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, and now, Palin. But I suspect “epistemic closure,” despite its high-falutin’ phrasing and amusing provenance (Hey, want a laugh? Check this out; the conservatives are fighting!), might go a long way in describing where we find ourselves today:  angry, disaffected, partisan, opinionated; unwilling, unable, and unconvinced that any information could ever change our minds or make us move a millimeter off whatever position we’ve staked out. It’s close-mindedness writ large and applied to whole sets of beliefs or groups of people down to one person or a single memory.

Though I tend to be firmly in the liberal camp, let me remind my fellow fingersinearsprogressives that allowing one’s mind to slam shut isn’t limited to conservative thinkers. We all are guilty at times of absorbing misinformation, regurgitating old assumptions, resorting to ancient biases, or falling back on preconceived notions. Even if we could ever get back to arguing ideologies (the role of government, the pace of change) instead of assigning stereotypes (immoral liberal; cold-hearted conservative), we’d have to learn to see various shades of grey along with our black/white (or red/blue) mindset. For a smart and supposedly tolerant group of people, we’ve become dangerously inept at seeing another’s point of view.

Of course, the current contretemps over the craziness at the fringes of either party (or either ideology) is magnified by the ubiquity of media, professional and amateur, mainstream and new, informed and less so. It’s so easy these days to whip up a group of anxious, confused people on information overload – and it’s clearly more profitable. It’s also irresponsible, especially when dealing with a group of people so clearly afflicted with epistemic closure.


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I can’t help but wonder if  America has become the nation of “no.” We certainly see it in Congress, where Democrats call Republicans “the party of no.” Truly, many members of the GOP appear to have decided to veto anything the Dems or the White House proposes just because they can.  While guest speaker Newt Gingrich urged a “yes” approach at the recent Southern Republican Leadership Conference, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin dismissed those concerns, suggesting “there is no shame in being the party of no,” a comment that won her the first of many standing ovations. From the insistence on scrapping the entire healthcare plan to current plans to nay-say both Wall Street reform to the nomination process for a Supreme Court justice to replace John Stephens on the Supreme Court, “just say no” seems to be the GOP’s current default position.

The culture of “no” extends well beyond Washington politics into society as a whole. Some of it―scratch that―most of it is based on fear. The list of things we don’t want in our backyards or at our front doors grows daily, from same-sex marriages to incineration plants that convert trash into energy. In New Jersey, the budgeting antidote to years of irresponsible fiscal spending (most of it under Democrats) is for the Governor’s office to say hell, no to teachers and schools and hospitals and municipalities, most of which have responded to calls for cuts and consolidation with a big uh-uh and the possibility of a property tax hike (which, in New Jersey, is kind of redundant).

“No” has its uses, particularly when it comes to overindulgence, whether our vice is food, shopping, or real estate flipping. It also works for a fair amount of parenting. Teenagers may insist they are just like adults but they continue to exhibit either unintentional or willful naivety when it comes to the power of the Internet communiques to maim or destroy the lives of their peers. No, everybody on the Internet is not fair game; no, bullying is not “okay” as long as there’s no pushing and shoving; no, you’re not safe just because you can’t see who you’re chatting with; no, you may not go out after prom, get plastered and drive with five other equally plastered seventeen-year-olds. When it comes to the kids, “no” should always remain in play.

But as adults in a country that’s supposed to embody the can-do spirit, we’re moved not one year but light years away from “yes we can.” Whether it’s cutting down on fossil fuel  or spending or calories, sharing the pain of American troops abroad, providing for them when they return, or finding a way to support the infrastructure, research, or educational improvements that might make us a global force, we just can’t muster up enough spirit to say, “go for it.” Instead, we reach for no and its variants: not likely, too hard, I doubt it, let’s not, can’t risk it, we mustn’t, you can’t, I won’t,  they shouldn’t.

While “yes” may at times be impulsive, even reckless, “no” carries with it an air of finality, like someone who picks up his marbles and goes home. Coupled with the nostalgia expressed by some Americans for the good old days that weren’t all that good, no has become more about staying-in-place and making no changes than about common sense or even caution. For that we have “slow” or even “whoa” which at least suggest that a discussion or a debate is in order. “No” is an ultimatum, the end of the line, the referee’s final whistle. It’s also beginning to feel like a big stumbling block on the road to progress and prosperity– and that’s no good.

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