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.
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.
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.
Sanchez comes closest to admitting what the game is when he compares the GOP's current obsession with orthodoxy to the insecurities of the other major surviving totalitarian power on the planet:
Think of the complete panic China’s rulers feel about any breaks in their Internet firewall: The more successfully external sources of information have been excluded to date, the more unpredictable the effects of a breach become. Internal criticism is then especially problematic, because it threatens the hermetic seal.
Apparently, the Cato Institute (where Sanchez hangs his hat) hasn't yet been brought under full party discipline. Or at least, he'd better hope it hasn't.
Sanchez's second brush with a full Orwellian realization of what he's describing is when he cites the importance of the "other" (i.e. the liberals) as the essential bogeyman in the conservative system:
To prevent breach, the internal dissident needs to be resituated in the enemy camp.
It seems that for modern conservatives, the equivalent of being identified as an agent of Emmanuel Goldstein is to be accused of harboring the secret desire to attend Georgetown cocktail parties:
The Cocktail Party move serves this function particularly well because it simultaneously plays on the specific kind of cultural ressentiment that so much conservative rhetoric now seems designed to stoke . . . You [i.e. conservative Outer Party members] are supposed to feel as though you’ve been snubbed socially -- discarded for "better" company -- which evokes both more indignant rejection of the quisling and further resentment of the liberal snobs who are visiting this indignity on you.
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. Indeed, it can be done even in a supposedly free and open society -- that is, as long as two conditions are met.
The first is that the target audience must be trained to be active participants in their own indoctrination, and not just the passive recipients of it. The circular logic that Sanchez mentions -- i.e. if something contradicts the accepted conservative narrative it must be liberal, and therefore false -- is a key tool for creating this kind of "self-executing" doublethink.
The second requirement, however, in many ways is the more important, at least in a society not fully under the control of those seeking to create the closed mental loop: Reality must not push back too vigorously against the false reality that’s being constructed. In particular, non-conservatives (especially the non- or quasi-conservative mass media) must accept the disinformation narrative as legitimate -- i.e. as simply another political point of view -- and ignore the manipulative process by which it has been created.
But in a free society, those two conditions cannot be maintained perpetually and indefinitely (knock on wood), which may explain why the conservative movement in the US has shown a tendency to crash and burn whenever it runs into realities (the 1991 recession, the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 financial meltdown, etc.) that can neither be assimilated by the false conservative reality nor fully denied by its inhabitants -- thus puncturing the doublethink bubble.
So far, however, these setbacks have all proven temporary. The conservative "mind" has shown an impressive ability to pick itself up and put itself back on the track after every derailment. Whether that's mainly due to the machine’s technical efficiency, or a testament to the sheer power of the will to believe among the conservative faithful, I don't know. Both, I suspect.
One final note: I should clarify that when I refer to the creation of a "self-executing" conservative doublethink as a breakthrough, I’m only talking about the American political experience. The ability of an authoritarian movement to build a powerful false narrative -- and then persuade millions of followers not only to believe it but actively defend it against encroaching reality, even in a more-or-less free society -- was clearly demonstrated in Weimar Germany during the 1920s and ’30s by [GODWIN REDACTION].
One can hope the peculiarities of time, place and culture explain much, if not all, of the catastrophic success of that previous experiment, which is unlikely to be repeated now.
But I’m not entirely sure it would be the smart way to bet.