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Epistemic Closure and the Left

May 7, 2010

Anyone who has been following the epistemic closure debate would do well to check out the recent Bloggingheads spot in which David Frum and Glenn Greenwald revisit the topic. It is a truism in the liberal blogosphere to claim that conservatives simply ignore evidence that conflicts with their biases. At the 35:50 mark, Greenwald makes the case that liberals have tended to do the same with respect to their own, pro-Obama bias:

I remember very vividly when, in the last few years of the Bush administration, beginning in 2005 (which is when I began writing about political issues) the kind of rhetoric that would issue whenever the subject was Bush’s terrorism policies and civil liberties policies: things like detaining people without charges; using war theories to claim that the entire world is a battlefield, that the president has war powers in the entire world whenever the word terrorism is uttered; the assertion of secrecy in order to prevent courts from adjudicating executive lawbreaking and the like. I recall the kinds of things that were said by progressives about those policies: that it wasn’t just wrong and bad and misguided, but that they were grave threats to everything we know and hold dear, and that they were examples of shredding the constitution, and declaring war on the rule of law, and fundamentally and radically altering our political culture . . . and now you watch, not more than a year later, when there is a democratic administration in office . . . that the vast bulk of those policies that caused so much controversies among progressives in the last decade . . . are ones that president Obama, the Obama administration, has adopted as well — not just failed to abandon, but affirmatively embraced and adopted as their own.

Have liberals been taking to the streets in protest of Obama’s counterterrorism policies? Of course not. Epistemic closure — tuning out sources that challenge one’s ideological orthodoxy — is a temptation limited to no particular party or sect.

The point may seem obvious, but Greenwald is the first liberal I have heard make it. Kudos also to Frum for acknowledging truths suppressed by the conservative side: that Bush lied about Harriet Miers’ qualifications, and that there is no compelling argument for stripping the Times Square bomber of his rights as a US citizen. We need more open and honest discussions like this!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2010 9:25 am

    Your right, it isn’t limited to any particular party at all. One thing that needs to be mentioned is that why was it brought up in the conservative blogosphere first? Could it be that they recognize the problem and are trying to fix it, while the Left is trying to ignore the problem? Now think of the WashPo kerfuffle with Dave Weigel. There was a man, clearly hostile to the people he was reporting on. (Would you think Ann Coulter is a good reporter on liberals?) Think about the epistemic closure arguments against Weigel and the whole idea behind Journolist.

  2. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    June 27, 2010 12:02 pm

    Openmindedness and tolerance are values cherished by most liberals. As a result, liberals often associate epistemic closure with conservatism and systemically ignore their own biases (e.g. in favor of Obama’s policies). So, yes, conservatives are on firmer footing in this regard.

    See my post “The Semipermeable Liberal Bubble” for a longer discussion of liberalism and epistemic closure.

    • June 28, 2010 2:00 pm

      Ok I’ll read it. I do have to say that while those things might be cherished values for the Left, that doesn’t necessarily mean they actually do those things.
      I can tell you from personal experience, back when I was a HRC supporter, that it was the closed mindedness and intolerance from the Left that caused me to reflect and come to the conclusion that I was more Classical Liberal than the modern liberal. Of course I’m grateful that happened, but when you have liberals saying things like they hope Matt Drudge sets himself on fire, that doesn’t not make anyone think of tolerance.

      • innocentsmithjournal permalink*
        June 28, 2010 9:37 pm

        Right, that’s the whole irony: liberalism prides itself on values that often ignores in practice.

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