The "Epistemic Closing" of the Conservative Mind  

Posted by Big Gav in

Billmon has an article looking at the strange process going on within the conservative echo chamber, with mindless loyalty commanding an ever higher premium and even nuts like David Frum beginning to get ejected from the circle of trust for minor breaches of cult discipline - The "Epistemic Closing" of the Conservative Mind. Billmon also had another column recently looking at some disinformation tactics being used lately (and lapped up by some of the dumber sections of the media, like The New York Times) - Spock with a Beard.

One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality 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. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile.

Julian Sanchez
Frum, Cocktail Parties, and the Threat of Doubt
March 26, 2010


An epistemic community may consist of those who accept one version of a story, or one version of validating a story . . . In philosophy of science and systems science the process of forming a self-maintaining epistemic community is sometimes called a mindset. In politics, a tendency or faction is usually described in very similar terms . . . Some consider forming an epistemic community a deep human need, and ultimately a mythical or even religious obligation.

Wikipedia entry
Epistemic Community

A few weeks ago I pointed out that the conservative propaganda machine was resorting to a standard "disinformation" technique to try to negate (or at least blunt) the PR damage done by the teabagger fit of rage following the passage of health care reform.

The specific disinformation tactic (which I like to call "Spock With a Beard") essentially consists of creating a false narrative in which black is white, up is down -- and, in this particular case, where liberal Democrats are "inciting" violent threats against peace-loving Republicans like GOP Minority Whip Eric Cantor by, well, making a big fuss about violent threats from angry teabaggers.

By disinformation, I meant:
the systematic creation and dissemination of false narratives . . . aimed at constructing an entire alternative reality -- one in which the truth can find no foothold because it conflicts just not with a specific falsehood, but with the entire fabric of the false reality that has been created.

Since then, I've noticed the conservative fondness for propaganda methods that would not be out of place in Orwell's Minitrue (oldspeak translation: Ministry of Truth) is also drawing attention from other observers -- including, at least obliquely, some on the right.

Paul Krugman, who is rarely oblique about anything or anyone, points the Orwellian finger at GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for his stubborn insistance that fiercely defending the interests of huge Wall Street banks is actually a way of preventing future government bailouts.
Has there ever been a time in US political history when one of the two major political parties was so addicted to doublethink, so committed to pretending that it’s advocating the opposite of its actual agenda?

To which, one can only reply: Do the years 2001 through 2008 count? Or are the Rove Administration's two terms in office still too fresh to be treated as history?

But what really caught my attention was a blog entry by fellow New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (posted, coincidentally or not, on the same day as Krugman's question) which managed, in Douthat's pretentious yet obtuse way, to talk all the way around the current state of the conservative "mind" without ever acknowledging, much less addressing, the fact that this "mind" is, to a large and ever-increasing degree, a propaganda construct, and thus not really a "mind" at all -- more like an anti-mind.

But, fortunately, Douthat also linked to a much more interesting take from the libertarian writer Julian Sanchez, who digs a bit closer to the truth (although not quite all the way there) in the quote cited at the beginning of this diary.

Sanchez's post, which appears to have caused a buzz in both left and right Blogistan (I'm usually late to party these days) was in reaction to the summary excommunication of David Frum, banished from the American Enterprise Institute for his apostasy on health care reform. (It's a telling sign that the AEI's commissars deported Frum to the conservative version of Siberia not for dissenting on the substance of health care -- he didn't, really -- but rather for questioning the political line, i.e. extreme stonewalling, adopted by the GOP. Truly, the party must always be right. ...

All in all, Sanchez paints a pretty accurate, not to mention damning, picture of the modern conservative ideological machine and its increasingly Orwellian methods -- both of message propagation and social control. But, apart from the China reference, he more or less elides the question of intentionality. In Sanchez's telling (and even more so in Douthat's retelling) the current withered, sectarian and paranoid state of the conservative "mind" is something that just happened -- a bottom-up social trend, not a top-down directive.

This is partially true, I guess, in the sense that a formal Republican Politburo does not exist (and even if it did, its members most likely would be found chilling at a lesbian bondage club, not steering a high-tech dictatorship from the bowels of a fortress-like ministry.)

But it’s also not true, in the sense that the conservative propaganda machine referenced at the start of this diary does exist, and has shown a relatively high degree of self-awareness and top-down control -- as witnessed, for example, by the infamous daily guidance memos circulated within Fox News by vice president John Moody ("Let’s be on the lookout for any statements from the Iraqi insurgents, who must be thrilled at the prospect of a Dem-controlled Congress.") and the talking points distributed directly to Fox commentators by the White House in Rovian times).

It may not qualify as a bona fide Inner Party, but it is a party cadre, and it knows its business. (Figuring out exactly where and how and from whom it learned that business would make for a fascinating social study -- or possibly a legal one).

The business, of course, is disinformation: the creation of a closed loop of emotions, beliefs and pseudo-facts that buttress, at all times and all points, the party line.

However, the more I study this, the more I’m convinced the primary goal of the exercise isn’t to convince the broader public, whom I think the Rovians essentially view as the equivalent of the "proles" of 1984 -- dull lumps of unthinking flesh who, nine times in 10, will follow the loudest, most simplistic and most passionate voice they hear.

The goal of conservative disinformation, then, is to provide that voice by creating the kind of "mind" (e.g. epistemic community) among the true conservative faithful that Sanchez is talking about: one impervious to reason, logic and -- most importantly of all -- factual evidence. The growing nervousness of some conservative intellectuals, like Douthat and Frum, about this project perhaps reflects the dawning realization that they are basically irrelevant to its success.

The creation of a closed mind is, of course, a prerequisite for successful doublethink (defined as the ability to hold two diametrically opposed beliefs at the same time, and to immediately change one or both of those beliefs when instructed). By their very nature, doublethink constructs tend to be fragile. They have a low tolerance for contact with non-managed reality -- much less open debate (thus the need, in 1984, for the constant writing and rewriting of history, to ensure a seamless and timeless continuity to the party line).

But the real breakthrough discovery by the conservative propaganda machine (Fox News, in particular) is that despite this inherent fragility, it doesn’t take an Orwellian police state to create and maintain the kind of self-contained, artificial consciousness that doublethink requires.

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