The Semipermeable Liberal Bubble
Would somebody please put the “conservative epistemic closure” debate out of its misery? My Google Reader inbox keeps filling up with this stuff and I’m tired of deleting it (and, in occasional moments of weakness, reading it). I would end the debate myself, but — alas — no one involved reads this blog.
For those of you fortunate enough not to know what I am referring to, here is the gist. A few weeks back, former Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote a piece criticizing the Republican party for its obstructionist tactics on health care reform. Frum’s employer, right-wing think tank American Enterprise Institute, subsequently fired him, prompting Julian Sanchez to opine that conservatism has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality, Sanchez wrote
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.
Liberal bloggers soon busied themselves with explaining why conservatism is so close-minded. Yglesias made the case that the left is more ideologically diverse — susceptible to groupthink, but fragmented by the identity politics of greens, labor types, feminists, and other groups. Sanchez butted back in, contrasting the liberal media (“The New York Times is not fundamentally trying to be liberal; they’re trying to get it right) with conservative media (Fox News and Washington Times “always seem to be trying, first and foremost, to be the conservative alternative”). At the New Republic, Jonathan Chait then characterized liberalism as a “loose coalition,” and contrasted it with the “coherent ideological movement” of conservatism.
Conservatives have, for their part, rebutted each of these claims. Jonah Golberg sought to turn the tables on Sanchez by claiming that liberalism is “far more shot through with political correctness and intellectual taboos than the right.”
Meanwhile, Douthat partially conceded Sanchez’ point while countering Yglesias and Chait:
If you drill down to the level of first principles, American conservatism is at least as diverse as liberalism, and probably more so . . . And it’s precisely this motley, inconsistent quality, too, that encourages activists and pundits alike to stick to their single issue or issues and defer to the movement consensus on everything else. So pro-lifers handle abortion, Grover Norquist handles taxes, the neoconservatives handle foreign policy and the Competitive Enterprise Institute handles environmental regulations and nobody stops to consider if the whole constellation of policy ideas still makes sense, or matches up the electorate’s concerns, or suits the challenges of the moment
Far from a “coherent ideological movement,” conservatism is, for Douthat, precisely what Chait says liberalism is: a loose coalition.
So why am I so bored with the debate? A while back, in a somewhat different context, I wrote that, “ideology succeeds by covering its tracks; by making itself seem natural and inevitable.” What the epistemic closure debate illustrates, it seems to me, is the logical corollary to that point: if my beliefs are natural and inevitable, my opponent is necessarily captive to some ideology. Hence, Chait looks at conservatism and sees a “coherent ideological movement” and Douthat just the opposite. Hence, Sanchez relies on a firm distinction between the liberal bias of New York Times reporters, and the effort of those reporters to be “objective” — an attribute he finds sadly lacking in conservative media.
It’s just all so predictable!
Here is Megan McArdle deftly turning sociology on its liberal makers:
The point is that when one group has privilege, and the other doesn’t, the response isn’t symmetrical, a fact that the dominant group tends to spend a lot of time remarking upon. The out-group is angrier and prizes its group identity–“conservative”–over weaker affiliations like “journalist” or “sociologist.” The angrier the out-group gets, the more uncomfortable and hostile the dominant group gets … which, of course, makes the out-group even angrier.
The dominant majority further reinforces the effect because membership of “journalist” or “sociologist” comes to be defined by “not having a strong allegiance to groups such as ‘conservative.'” Which further weakens conservative ties to those professional identities.
That’s why you have black newspapers, and Jewish magazines, and Irish arts centers, but no “Bland: The Magazine of the American White Middle Class.” The dominant group doesn’t enforce its group identity the way the out-group does. It doesn’t have to. It gets to decide what constitute the acceptable modes of behavior, sources of authority, and ways of knowing. The privileged group doesn’t need its own institution specifically devoted to advancing its interests. All it needs is a sigh, and a sneer.
As any conservative will tell you, this is a point that liberals absolutely cannot (or will not) grasp. Liberalism prides itself on open-mindedness, neutrality, objectivity, and the like. To claim that liberalism is just as limited, partial, and epistemologically “closed” as conservatism is to hack away at its very foundations.
While I am a liberal myself in the sense that I support financial regulation, universal health care, environmentalism, and all the rest, I am not at all sure that the philosophical case for liberalism holds up. I did not vote for Barack Obama because I am open-minded; I voted for him because I share his ideals and admire his character. I do not accept global warming because I have examined the science carefully; I accept it because the IPCC seems to me a more credible source than Dennis Prager.
To elaborate upon the example of global warming, I don’t read the conservative counterscience on anything approaching a regular basis. It’s not that I am unwilling consider conservative claims (I have and I do). Rather, I open my mind for the same reason I open my mouth: to shut it on something solid (to quote GK Chesterton) — not just with respect to specific issues (“is or is not the planet warming?”), but also with respect to sources of information (“is or is not Fox News reliable?”).
If Chait were honest with himself, he would admit the same. Instead, he makes the following distinction:
In Goldberg’s view, [it is] liberals and the overwhelming majority of climate scientists, with their peer-reviewed studies, who live in a sealed information bubble. And it’s the conservatives — backed by a handful of scientific renegades, a lot of oil company-sponsored propaganda, and a stream of observations about how Winter in North America remains cold — who are really open to all sorts of data and interpretation here. I suppose if you take it as a given that climate change skepticism is correct, then a huge majority of the scientific world and intellectual elite is living in a bubble, and the tiny band of Fox News-watching, Limbaugh-listening conservatives are the ones outside the bubble.
Since it is self-evident to Chait that he is right, Goldberg’s sources need not be refuted, so much as derided as a stream of dubious observations backed by scientific renegades. To simply dismiss the counterscience is, moreover, not an act of epistemic closure on Chait’s part, but a sign of his liberal objectivity. Open-mindedness, on this account, means not watching Fox News or listening to Rush Limbaugh.
Buried beneath the rhetoric, however, is a tacit admission that “inside” and “outside” are relative terms. In the view of Goldberg and other climate change skeptics, Chait tells us, it is climate scientists and their “peer reviewed studies,” that are inside the bubble. It is even possible that a numerically larger group – the “huge majority” of the elite — is on the inside of the bubble, whereas the “tiny band” of conservatives are on the outside. (Incidentally, a huge majority of the elite is still a minority.) Goldberg lives in Chait’s bubble, Chait in Goldberg’s bubble; that is the point Chait can’t quite bring himself to admit.
I have a confession to make. I am living in a liberal bubble — a semipermeable liberal bubble, subject to intellectual osmosis, to be sure — but a bubble nonetheless. I hope that someday Chait and other liberals will admit that they are too.