Rightbloggers on Healthy Conservative Debate: Shut Up! (Whoops, We Mean: Epistemic Closure!)


We’re not accustomed to thinking of rightbloggers as intellectuals. For one thing — as we have ample opportunity to observe here every week — they sure don’t act like intellectuals; in fact, they seem allergic to logical argument, and sometimes even committed to a backwards Bizarro World version of it.

Cases in point: Recently rightbloggers found in the revelation that SEC investigators had surfed for porn at work “proof that the big government socialist model is ineffective” — notwithstanding that the surfing took place during the presumably non-socialist Bush Administration. (Or maybe the Bush SEC was socialist, but rightbloggers forgot to get mad about it until a Democrat was President.)

Also, when the Obama Administration expressed justifiable displeasure that a famous rightwing plagiarist had reported, without evidence, that a possible Supreme Court nominee was gay, rightbloggers took their outrage to mean that “this White House unwittingly showed the liberal streak of anti-gay feelings.”

There’s also the traditional conservative contempt for pointy-heads in general — a historical hallmark of their movement, but especially resonant in the blog world, where ALL-CAPS bellowing is considered a valid form of argument — as with Reliapundit‘s accusation of “KNEE-JERK LEFT-WING IDIOCY” against Stephen Hawking — yes, that’s right, the world-renowned physicist. Hawking suggested that space aliens, if they came to earth, might not come in peace. This seems unremarkable, but Hawking compared such an encounter to Columbus’ with Native Americans, which apparently fired Reliapundit’s chauvinism; he summoned as contrary evidence “MEL GIBSON’S APOCALYPTO” and “MICHAEL MANN’S THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS,” then presumably pointed up a finger-gun and blew across its tip.

But as is shown by the examples of the jailhouse lawyer and the backwoods attorney, even the bleakest wastelands will attract some sort of intellectual class, and the conservative world is no exception.

Among the better-known big thinkers of the online right is the National Review‘s Jonah Goldberg, who first came to public notice as an accessory to his mother Lucianne Goldberg in her exploitation of Monica Lewinski and Linda Tripp against Bill Clinton. He is best known for Liberal Fascism, a book basically about how Democrats are the intellectual heirs of Adolf Hitler, which became understandably popular among rightbloggers and cemented his reputation as one of the movement’s great minds.

Perhaps because of his status within the movement, Goldberg likes to brag about the intellectual superiority of conservatives. While “for mainstream Democratic Party liberals one gets the sense that the history of their movement is all about action and emotion and very little about ideas,” he has written, “I can’t think of a single editor or contributing editor of National Review who can’t speak intelligently about the intellectual titans of conservatism going back generations.”

If this claim that his colleagues have exhaustively studied conservative philosophy as if it were Mao’s Little Red Book does not convince you of conservatism’s intellectual cred, Goldberg also explains that conservatives, unlike liberals, have healthy debates: “The history of the conservative movement’s successes,” he claimed in 2005, “has been the history of intellectual donnybrooks …while the conservatives defend different ideological philosophical schools — neoconservatism, traditionalism, etc. — the liberals argue almost exclusively about which tactics Democrats should embrace to win the White House.”

Through years of rightwing blather about death panels, Obama’s birth certificate, and, well, Liberal Fascism, Goldberg has clung to this line. When young political writers Julian Sanchez and Noah Millman recently suggested that instead the modern conservative movement was tending toward close-mindedness — or, as they rather grandly put it, “epistemic closure” — Goldberg was compelled to enter the debate. “I just don’t know what these people are talking about when it comes to the notion that the conservative mind is closed,” he said. “Where is the data to back this up?”

The data came about a week later, when National Review contributor Jim Manzi wrote an unfavorable review of Liberty and Tyranny — a book about the global warming “fraud” by one of National Review‘s conservative Elect, Mark Levin.

Manzi carefully explained that, while he “had a lot of sympathy for many of its basic points” — Manzi is also skeptical of AGW — he regretfully could not endorse Levin’s slovenly reasoning and unsupported assertions. Manzi was admittedly provocative — he called the book “wingnuttery,” an insult favored by liberals — but within the terms of the current conservative intramural debate: He meaningfully put into the title of his post the words “epistemic closure.”

What ensued might indeed be described as a “donnybrook,” though not of the sort Goldberg may have meant. A team of National Review writers quickly jumped Manzi, and did not seek to disguise that their main objection was not the quality of Manzi’s review as a review, but that he had betrayed the gang and its code of intellectual omerta.

“I love debate, as people here know,” asserted Kathryn J. Lopez, “but to treat Mark Levin as a mere ‘entertainer’ who was just looking for a bestseller is to not know Mark Levin or have taken his book seriously.” Regrettably she did not link to a biographical slideshow whereby readers could get to know Levin better.

“No one minds a good debate,” claimed Andy McCarthy, “but Jim’s gratuitously nasty tone… is just breathtaking… [Manzi] has always struck me as a model of civility, especially in his disagreements with the Left [!]. Why pick Mark for the Pearl Harbor treatment?”

That seems rather gentle, if oddly personalized — but later McCarthy, perhaps fortified by a pep rally or a couple of drinks, returned to sputter more ferociously against Manzi. The gist: McCarthy had found an article by a scientist named Lindzen, who had been cited by Manzi; like Manzi, Lindzen is a global warming skeptic, but much more full-throated about it and, more importantly, he didn’t insult Mark Levin.

“To me, Lindzen doesn’t seem like a kook who probably thinks the Queen of England and the Trilateral Commission are in on a farcical global science scam,” snarled McCarthy. “But what do I know? I don’t even have a Ph.D.”

Sounds like a direct warning to the apostate: We can always get a nuttier wingnut!

Afterward Manzi tried, rather touchingly, to address these objections. But we doubt mere reason will do him much good now. Levin himself actually told (and was allowed by editors, we assume, to tell) National Review readers not to read Manzi’s review (“Feel free to read my book, and the chapter Manzi distorts and cherry-picks, yourself. You don’t need Manzi to interpret it. He’s no true expert on the subject, nor is he logical or coherent in his post”). Later he went on Facebook to declare that he “had to Smack Down a Global Warming Zealot on Earth Day” — referring to the skeptical Manzi. (Also, McCarthy came back — restrained, one likes to imagine, by bouncers — to shake his fist some more at Manzi.)

To be charitable, there’s probably something more than pique and groupthink at work here. For example, self-preservation: In the rightwing opinion game, foundation and contribution dollars flow to the most reliable vendors of received conservative opinion. The funders like their wingnuttery straight up. Dissent’s one thing coming from upmarket conservatives like Ross Douthat, but at a magazine dependent upon donations, it might raise damaging questions when they’re pitching the Cruises.

And they have to act fast, because word has been getting around that National Review allows wrongthink onto its pages: “Even a good product thus compromised isn’t prepared to lead anything, as it can’t even make up it’s mind what actual cause, or position it should be leading on,” cried Riehl World View from the throne of Robespierre. “…If there is to be a new conservative awakening in America, it will come from outside the beltway, not in. And it will be led by grassroots, not establishment media.”

None of that gloopy thinking in the Tea Party era! Another nut, at RedState: “I am sorry there Jim… while you are sitting in your little circle with a bunch of other self-indulgent asses… Mark [Levin] is out on the front lines inspiring a generation of Americans to fight back against statism.” Have you forgotten 3/1 — that is, the book’s publication date? How dare you treat a hero this way!

What did Goldberg think about all this? Summoning all his intellectual resources, he came in late to announce that the young folk just don’t know what it’s like. “When I first came to Washington,” he reminisced, “I hung around in very similar circles of young eager-beavers.” And he didn’t have an Internet on which to grumble, either! “That’s not the case for today’s 20-somethings who have the luxury of translating their frustration with ‘the business’ into long cri de coeur blog posts… so, forgive me if I don’t take too seriously the complaint that younger conservative intellectuals have been locked out by the old guard…” (Goldberg is 41 years old.)

We have absolutely no insight into the mind of young movement conservatives, and so must admit the possibility that Goldberg’s ramblings may be convincing to them, or may at least confuse them sufficiently to turn their attention back to fighting liberals. (In a post on the Manzi affair, Megan McArdle seemed to side with Manzi, but her commenters quickly devolved to assertions that global warming is a fraud and that Levin is useful in that “he energizes the base, which is really important when it comes to voter turnout.”)

As to what anyone who is not a movement conservative, young or less-young, might think of it, it’s a safe bet that those lucky bastards will have no call to notice — at least, not at the moment. It will only reach them, if it does, indirectly and in the next election cycle, via the sort of messages that a movement of such great intellectual diversity and self-confidence tends to deliver.

The rightbloggers’ current best hope seems to be to keep those Tea Parties and pseudo-revolutionary videos going long enough to convince voters that they’re all about freedom. But that’s a hard thought to keep going when you don’t believe it yourself.