Saturday, April 24, 2010

Epistemic closure and political entertainment

I wrote before briefly about the epistemic closure debate. Since then, Jim Manzi recently stepped into the thick of it by publishing a long blog post criticizing the global warming chapter of Mark Levin's Liberty and Tyranny. I know little about Mark Levin's career -- I don't think I'd heard of him until he was tapped to be the closing speaker at this year's Fed Soc convention. Pnin was somewhat upset, stating that Fed Soc prides itself on its intellectual reputation and ought to have gotten someone more intellectually serious. I believe he may have raised the point to some of the organizers. I myself was underwhelmed by the speech, but it might well have been a bad day for Levin. In any case, none of the details stuck in my mind. But after the speech was over, a few friends and acquaintances told me afterwards that they were delighted that he'd been able to come. De gustibus non disputandum: I also have friends who dislike rhubarb pie, like cats, and consider gladiator sandals acceptable footwear. Some of the sermonizing about "tolerance" from my seven years of expensive higher education must've stuck.

I also know squat about global warming. But I do know something about logic and argument, and most of Manzi's criticisms seemed fair. So I was not impressed by Kathryn Jean Lopez's and Andrew McCarthy's posts in response, which offered up almost zero response to any of Manzi's substantive points. True, the latter included some populist rhetoric and a few tu quoque comments about the liberal scientific establishment, none of which I found especially persuasive. Ms. Lopez is of course right that liberty is endangered, but that means that its defenders ought to be especially careful not to make sloppy arguments. In any case, while I'm not sure if any of this reflects epistemic closure per se, it does reflect rather poorly on some segments of movement conservatism.

Ross Douthat then attempted to defend Levin on the ground that he is primarily an entertainer, someone whose work is fun for the already converted but that need not be taken seriously by Serious People. It's a reasonable enough argument, but thinking about it more closely, I'm not sure that it works. I enjoy political humor; P.J. O'Rourke and Dave Barry are two of my favorite libertarian-ish writers, and I'm sure that they've done as much or more to attract converts than have many more serious, systematic writers. Likewise, though I'm no left-liberal, I went through phases of enjoying The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. It's true, I started watching the shows to give me topics to make small talk about with other twenty-somethings, an area in which I sometimes have trouble. But every once in a while, I found the jokes sticking and shaking up my world view ever so gently.*

In each of those cases, though, the performer is pretty clear that what he's doing is entertainment. O'Rourke and Barry bill themselves as "humorists" on their jacket covers. Stewart and Colbert use the standard tropes of late-night televised comedy shows -- the laugh track, the drums that go "Zing!" after a punch line, the goofy Top 10 lists. They give away the jokes.

But Levin (and by the same token Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, or Rush Limbaugh)... aren't. Liberty and Tyranny sounds like it could plausibly be the title of some long-lost , recently released Hayek manifesto that was gathering dust in some archive in Vienna until unearthed by an intrepid IHS-funded grad student. Parliament of Whores or Eat the Rich, not so much. I came away with the same impression of Rush Limbaugh's show, which I used to listen to avidly when I was in middle school.** On the one hand, there were the goofy song parodies and plenty of zingers. On the other, he really wanted to give his listeners the sense that they were listening to a person of gravitas. So he'd occasionally refer to his "Institute for the Advanced Study of Conservatism" and otherwise try to dress up his ideas in scholarly garb. He really wanted to give his readers the sense that they were engaging with someone serious -- while all the while throwing them enough candy to make the medicine go down. So contra Douthat, I don't think that the conservatives who praise Levin are actually making a category error. The issue is that, like Limbaugh, he doesn't fit neatly into either the comedy or serious political argument boxes because his work contains elements of both.*** Thus Kathryn Lopez's comments about Levin's exhaustive footnotes, which have the effect of lulling the unsuspecting into thinking that they're actually reading a book by Randy Barnett.

It might be more accurate and useful to defend Levin et al. as popularizers -- people who take ideas developed by others and market them to mass audiences, using clever combinations of rhetoric and humor. Is the issue, though, that the populist intellectuals of the right (and populist Republican politicians) would break out in hives if too many people did? Anyway, perhaps the best that can be hoped for is that the next generation of conservative and libertarian popularizers adopt a model more along the lines of what O'Rourke or Barry does. That is, that they sell politically inflected entertainment that looks more purely like entertainment.

*I stopped after I moved in with Pnin, who doesn't watch either show. I admit also that Stewart in particular got to be too preachy for my taste -- I would cringe every time he'd go off on some point to the effect of, "I'm an entertainer, but sometimes my routines TOUCH ON SERIOUS POINTS!" I would be all like, "Yes, I was awake on the day of tenth-grade English when the teacher explained the definition of 'satire,' thank you." I found Colbert more tolerable because the premise of his show forces him to stay in character as mock O'Reilly. Political comedy works better if the fourth wall stays in place.

**Yes, I know.

***I'm not sure if Levin goes as far in leavening his work with jokes as do Limbaugh, etc. It does seem wrong -- dare I say it, a category error -- to confuse bombastic rhetoric, exaggerations, and mischaracterizations of other people's work entertainment. Usually entertainment is supposed to be more.... jokey. From Manzi's characterization of the particular global warming chapter, it didn't sound as though there was much in the way of jokishness going on.

****I know I'm overlooking politically inflected fiction as a type of entertainment that can be a great vehicle for marketing ideas. I wouldn't go quite so far as to insult Mr. Levin by likening his oeuvre to fiction, though... In any case, I've written on that topic in bits and pieces elsewhere. And yes, it would be great to see more good politically inflected fiction, and not just by libertarians.

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