Posts Tagged ‘conservative’

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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William F. Buckley, who passed away yesterday, was of my father’s generation. Buckley was considered the premier promoter of mainstream conservatism (some would say arch-conservatism) in the United States. My father, who could not have been more different From William F. in terms of worldview, was still able to admire Buckley’s style while largely rejecting his substance.  

Buckley preached a particularly distressing brand of close-minded conservatism that brooked no arguments. The founder and head of the magazine National Review, he  promoted ideas that seemed to me to be outdated, outmoded and outflanked by the realities of our post-Cold War world.

The salient point is that Buckley knew how to debate, or rather, he knew what it meant to have a debate of ideas that didn’t involve wallowing in the muck of personal diatribes. Well, perhaps that’s not entire accurate: Poor Howard K. Smith of ABC news got far more than he bargained for when Buckley and Gore Vidal exchanged insults on live television during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Vidal called Buckley a crypto-Nazi and Buckley called Vidal a “queer” and threatened to plaster his face…well, you get the idea.  

And yet, for the most part, he was, in public and apparently in private good-natured and good-humored. His weapons in the war of ideologies were words, many-layered, little-used representatives of our language strung together in graceful phrases inflected with his uniquely patrician voice. Not for him the rude, crude, simple-minded hate-mongering that passes for dialogue on today’s broadcast and Internet forums. 

The obituaries this morning seemed to rise to the occasion; Buckley might have been pleased. The Chicago Tribune wrote of Buckley’s “brilliant mind and Brobdingnagian vocabulary” and the Times  referred to him as the “Sesquipedalian Spark of (the) Right.” I’m embarrassed to say I needed help with the supersized words but I now know (or perhaps remember from an earlier encounter) that  Brobdingnagian, meaning “out-sized or colossal”, derives from Brobdingnag, the fictitious land of the giants in Gulliver’s Travels  by Jonathan Swift. Sesquipedalian refers to using long words, a trait Buckley shared with my father. Maybe that’s why I feel something has been permanently lost; some connection to a faraway and long-ago place where people could discuss, debate, disagree or argue with style and wit and then go out together for drinks.

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Ann Coulter managed to get in the news again. You can read about it here or elsewhere; I’m busy scratching because she gets under my skin. It’s not her politics. I want to hear what people with differing points of view are thinking; it’s the first step in finding common ground amongst reasonable people. That’s my litmus test, by the way: reasonable. By that standard (which admittedly doesn’t allow for entertainment value), Coulter flunks. True, her type of invective can be found all over the Internet but most of the stuff seems to be written by hormonally challenged young men. Coulter’s brand of bitchiness, for which she is well-compensated, also runs the gamut from juvenile to purile to cruel. She’s like Michael Richards or any number of low-rent late-night comics, but without the comic appeal. She’s called a conservative commentator, which should make real conservatives with concerns about the role of government or culture in our society hang their heads in shame. Yet they just keep on paying her to appear on morning shows, evening shows, book signings and conferences. I’ve been told her appeal is that she says what others are thinking. If people’s thoughts are running along the lines of personal attacks, ethnic slurs and the like, we’re pretty screwed in this country. But maybe I’m just being too PC. It could be her potty mouth, long hair and short skirts are nothing more than entertainment value. Which leads me to believe we’re still screwed.

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