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Enough With This “Epistemic Closure” Crap

Posted By Matthew Vadum On April 28, 2010 @ 5:03 pm In NewsReal Blog | No Comments

Should reporters who believe that most of America is stupid and insane be in the journalism business? Let’s consider the question.

Take left-wing journalist Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic. He’s not bad at his job. His insights are often worthwhile and occasionally wise. Yet Ambinder sometimes writes things so foolish that one might expect to read them at the leftist propaganda site Media Matters for America.

His latest adventure in pseudo-intellectual self-absorption passing for journalistic analysis is, “Have Conservatives Gone Mad?” It brims with elitist condescension.

Ambinder observes that:

Serious thinkers on the right have finally gotten around to a full and open debate on the epistemic closure problem that’s plaguing the conservative movement.

The issue, to put it in terms that even I can understand, because I didn’t study philosophy much in college: has the conservative base gone mad?

This matters to journalists, because I really do want to take Republicans seriously.  Mainstream conservative voices are embracing theories that are, to use Julian Sanchez’s phrase, “untethered” to the real world.

Let’s dissect this masturbatory nonsense that Jonah Goldberg correctly labels “self-serving twaddle.”

This phrase, epistemic closure, apparently began infecting the blogosphere after leaping half-formed from the fertile imagination of Julian Sanchez, a very bright, excellent policy wonk and a blogger of some renown who claims to be a libertarian. (I had always thought the correct philosophy word was epistemological, but what do I know.)

But Sanchez isn’t always right and he frequently writes things that make no sense. This is one of those occasions. It’s not always easy to divine what exactly Sanchez means because he often writes like an academic trying too hard to impress, dancing around points, using nuance and qualifications so often that meaning is sucked right out of whole paragraphs, and never quite saying things directly.

In using the phrase “epistemic closure,” Sanchez seems to be saying that the conservative “mediasphere” is paranoid and suffering from a kind of Obama Derangement Syndrome that prevents its members from thinking rationally. This “mediasphere,” indeed the whole conservative movement, is insulated from reality and won’t tolerate outside ideas that challenge its core values and perceptions. It treats new information as threatening and closes ranks when challenged.

It seems to be a fancy, all-too-complicated way of saying conservatives are stupid, emotional, and wrong – and if I am misinterpreting Sanchez’s writings, it’s not my fault. Garbage in, garbage out.

Sanchez’s writings on the topic he invented have given rise to what amounts to a circular firing squad of conservatives and libertarians, sucked into a pointless debate. Those intellectuals alleged to be on the right (e.g. Jim Manzi, Megan McArdle, and Bruce Bartlett) who argue that the right suffers from epistemic closure display the same sort of elitist condescension toward the right that one typically sees on the left. Right-wingers yelling at other right-wingers while the Obama administration quite literally dismantles the American republic. They must be popping the champagne corks at Media Matters and the New York Times!

Taking his cue from Sanchez, Ambinder then slicks back his hair, dons his Fonzie jacket and water skis and jumps the shark:

Can anyone deny that the most trenchant and effective criticism of President Obama today comes not from the right but from the left? Rachel Maddow’s grilling of administration economic officials. Keith Olbermann’s hectoring of Democratic leaders on the public option. Glenn Greenwald’s criticisms of Elena Kagan. Ezra Klein and Jonathan Cohn’s keepin’-them-honest perspectives on health care. The civil libertarian left on detainees and Gitmo. The Huffington Post on derivatives.

Where to begin? Yes, it is easy to deny that “the most trenchant and effective criticism of President Obama today comes not from the right but from the left,” but not when rose-colored glasses have been welded to one’s skull.

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow is a profoundly dishonest broadcaster whose (deliberately?) superficial analysis of the ACORN undercover video saga seems calculated to help the embattled, hopelessly corrupt left-wing shakedown group. With her pleasing Mary Poppins demeanor, Maddow routinely uses evidence selectively and demonizes the right.

As for the others: MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann is ridiculous, Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com believes every right-winger is a war-criminal-in-waiting, Ezra Klein is a reliably leftist shill in the policy arena, the civil-libertarian left doesn’t give a farthing’s cuss about defending America, and the Huffington Post is reflexively opposed to just about anything that’s good for America. (I regret to say I’m not familiar with Jonathan Cohn’s work.)

Apparently unable to understand perspectives he doesn’t agree with, Ambinder writes:

I want to find Republicans to take seriously, but it is hard. Not because they don’t exist – serious Republicans – but because, as Sanchez and others seem to recognize, they are marginalized, even self-marginalizing, and the base itself seems to have developed a notion that bromides are equivalent to policy-thinking, and that therapy is a substitute for thinking.

One has to wonder just how hard Ambinder has been looking.

The conservative movement and Republican Party are filled with intelligent, thoughtful commentators such as Larry Elder, Thomas Sowell, David Harsanyi, Phil Kerpen, Christopher Horner, Fred Smith, Grover Norquist, Star Parker, Hugh Hewitt, George Will, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.), former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, and (yes) Ted Nugent.

Throw a Nerf football out at a Tea Party rally and you’ll hit a serious thinker on the right. They’re everywhere. Just because they didn’t all graduate from Harvard, as Ambinder did, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taken seriously.

And what about Ambinder’s insulting accusation that the Republican base can only spew “bromides”? Sounding like a less thoughtful, whinier version of the iconic leftist thinker Noam Chomsky who similarly moans about the overlap of news and entertainment, Ambinder sneers:

It is absolutely a condition of the age of the triumph of conservative personality politics, where entertainers shouting slogans are taken seriously as political actors, and where the incentive structures exist to stomp on dissent and nuance, causing experimental voices to retrench and allowing a lot of people to pretend that the world around them is not changing. The obsession with ACORN, Climategate, death panels, the militarization of rhetoric, Saul Alinsky, Chicago-style politics, that taxpayers will fund the bailout of banks – these aren’t meaningful or interesting or even relevant things to focus on. (The banks will fund their own bailouts.)

Here’s a cliché for Ambinder that will no doubt make him cringe: If he can’t stand the heat, he should get out of the kitchen. Some people use a kind of shorthand and reduce these ideas to epithets or catchy slogans. So what? That doesn’t mean those people don’t understand the underlying issues.

The issues Ambinder lists (e.g. ACORN, Climategate, death panels, Alinsky, Chicago hardball politics, and bank bailouts) are for the most part valid concerns that worry large segments of the population. Only a left-winger or a nihilist would say they don’t matter.

These are not concerns limited to the right, which helps to explain why a growing number of self-identified progressives, Democrats, and Independents are embracing a nationwide movement in favor of limited government.

Americans are concerned about ACORN because it is a corrupt, radical organization founded by dangerous America-hating 1960s leftists that sucks at the public teat and whose former employee is now president of the United States. If anything, Americans don’t care enough about ACORN and the institutional corruption and moral decay it both represents and espouses.

Americans are concerned about Climategate because the documents released in the scandal tend to point to an organized conspiracy attempting to defraud the entire world by pushing the false notion that human beings are warming the planet and can reverse this alleged warming. Americans are concerned because they are constantly bombarded with propaganda by the mainstream media that asserts that only economy-crippling carbon controls can save the planet. Americans know that the media has been lying to them.

Americans are concerned about so-called death panels because ObamaCare mandates them. No, there is no tribunal that explicitly sentences the sick and the elderly to be put on ice floes, but government panels are going to be empowered to ration care. That means matters that ought to be decided by free people trading voluntarily in the marketplace will be decided by politicians and bureaucrats. You better hope your disease has a good lobby in Congress.

Americans are using tough, even harsh rhetoric because they have a well-founded fear that they are losing their country to radicals hell-bent on transforming America into a European-style socialist state. Sure, they sometimes go overboard, but it’s nothing compared to the rhetorical excesses that emanated from the left during the presidency of George W. Bush. Remember that leftists made a critically acclaimed movie in 2006 about the assassination of President Bush called Death of a President.

Americans are concerned that the thug tactics of Chicago politics combined with the guerilla tactics of the Marxist Machiavelli, Saul Alinsky — author of Rules for Radicals, and inspiration to radical left-wing community organizers everywhere — have found their way into the Oval Office. They’re right to be worried.

Ambinder can choose to disagree that ACORN, Climategate, death panels, Alinsky, Chicago hardball politics, and bank bailouts are important issues, but how dare he say that those who do consider them important issues are crazy. That doesn’t pass the smell test.

Ambinder should find a new profession because he’s doing a disservice to the American public if he continues in journalism, given his contempt for the majority of Americans.

Perhaps there’s a teaching position open at Harvard.

(posted originally at BigJournalism)


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