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The Story of What Happened

I have mentioned this before—I have such a narrow and idiosyncratic news intake that I really have very little idea what sense other people get of ongoing news stories. Well, it’s not all that idiosyncratic, I suppose. Fairly typical for a liberal. I listen to a bit of NPR pretty nearly every day, although I don’t listen to the whole of any show these days. I go to the New York Times website every morning; I read the Arts section quite carefully, and I click on the occasional news story. I have several political news junkie blogs on my aggregator, in addition to the TPM site, which does some reporting along with pointing to news in other sources. All the blogs are from Left Blogovia, so there is a certain amount of what you might call epistemic closure.

Have y’all been following the epistemic closure talk? It’s kinda fun. Essentially, there is an argument about the extent to which various parts of the conservative movement (however defined) are cutting themselves off from news sources outside the conservative movement (however defined), and the extent to which that matters in various endeavors. And, of course, similar questions arise around my Party and its allies. It’s not a symmetrical problem, of course, as (f’r’ex) liberals tend to think that the New York Times reporting is not liberal at all, but they read it anyway. I get the sense that many people with substantial influence in my Party read the Wall Street Journal, and feel that it is run to be a conservative paper, although generally within the bounds of journalistic practice. More important, I want the people of influence in my Party to read the WSJ, and also to read books and articles by people of influence in the other Party. I don’t want to do much of that myself, though.

Also, another minor point about that is the observation I saw somewhere that plenty of people who vote with my Party listen to sports talk radio, and that many of the hosts of those programs listen to the likes of Michael Savage. While the shows are not, in the main, political, there is a certain amount of bleed-through, particularly on cultural issues. There are those who feel that WEEI was, in relation to the whole Martha Coakley business, straw, camel and so on. It’s unusual that the sports guys take a position on an election so obviously, but there is contact, if you follow me. I remember being amazed, in my San Francisco days, to hear some guys on KNBR react to the news of the Giants players participating in a charity fashion show with five solid minutes of outrageously homophobic nastiness. I mean, San Francisco. But there it is.

But my point is not that I am confined by epistemic closure to the point of misunderstanding the political and policy situation in the country. My point is that I have just enough news intake to know what the news is, but not to erase my fundamental cultural illiteracy. There are a lot of times when I know what happened, but I don’t know the story of what happened. Or, rather, I don’t know whether my story of what happened matches what very many other people know. And often, then, I find myself listening to NPR or reading a newspaper article and thinking is that what people think is the story? and being utterly perplexed, without actually knowing whether that really is a popular story, or whether it’s just something I have happened to hear.

The thing that brought this to my mind recently was the whole Goldman Sachs/SEC/Congress business, particularly listening to bits of Marketplace. Somehow, the story seemed to be about how bits of Goldman Sachs had made a passel o’ dough off the housing collapse. And they clearly had; they are in the money-making business. And while there is an appropriate social stigma attached to profiting off foreclosures, it isn’t illegal, or even surprising.

And the thing is—I had understood the story to be about one group within Goldman Sachs putting together an investment package that was designed to fail, and then selling it to investors without telling them it was designed to fail. You know, fraud. The news stories didn’t seem to be talking about the profits as being profits specifically from the fraudulent investment packages. They just seemed to be about Goldman Sachs making money.

Was it just Marketplace? Was the story of what happened about Goldman Sachs selling worthless securities or about their profit in the nation’s loss? I have to admit I didn’t read the Times articles, because, you know, a trifle dull. I saw a few things, in the Gaurniad and a couple of other places, that led me to think that Marketplace was telling the coalescing story of what happened, but then, perhaps my story of what happened was the result of too much TPM.

Do y’all get this feeling? Is this part of that epistemic closure? Is it a defense against it, or a symptom of it? I don’t just mean about Goldman Sachs, I mean about, oh, mine disasters and celebrity scandals, policy proposals and oil slicks, international relations and sports upsets and and school violence. It’s hard to have conversations about what happened if the conversers have different stories about what happened.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Hm. "Epistemic closure" seems to me to be a new-fangled term for what Marxists used to call "ideology." Well, that's not quite accurate: "epistemic closure" is merely describing a condition of information acquisition by which people ensure that they do not confront any information that challenges the ideology through which they interpret the world.

Living within the framework of an ideology whose premises seldom receive challenge appears to me to be pretty much an ordinary feature of "the human condition." Living without such a framework is intellectually draining and nerve-wracking, so most people don't do it unless a) they are at that stage of life in which they are overflowing with energy (circa ages 15-30) and so find the challenge of shaking up the framework exhilarating (because that is what "growing up" is) or 2) they are confronted the fact that their ideology is destructive of their well-being or the well-being of ones that they love, such that making a change of framework becomes imperative, despite the trouble such change entails, or iii) they are trained intellectuals. And many people lack even the rudimentary intellectual tools they would need to get change their frameworks, even when they are pushed to do so, so they just party (if they are young and healthy and wealthy) or suffer (if they are old or sick or impoverished).

And, yes, it is hard to have conversations about what happened if the conversers have different stories about what happened. But American society lacks the resources of time, money, and moral commitment that would be necessary to make the educational and social arrangements that might have a shot at creating a society in which people have the time and intellectual resources necessary to learn, assess, and debate multiple stories about what happened in the ordinary course of things. In that, American society is not unusual (we're better than some, worse than others). Consider that politics in our democracy (like most democracies) functions by coalition-building, not by organized, formal debate. It is easier to build a governing coalition by gathering people who can mostly agree with a given story of what happened than it is to move people's votes by attempting through investigation and reasoned debate to establish a commonly held story of what happened. The successful politician is one who finds a way of telling the story in a way that will be compelling to a majority of people. It's a matter of drawing in the next unpersuaded person whose ideology is nearest to one's own, rather than a matter of confronting and persuading someone who hears and believes a radically different set of stories about the world.

Coalition politics is consistent with "epistemic closure."

In narrow fields of expertise, people will learn, examine, and test multiple stories by investigation and debate. But people need 1) a platform of expertise and b) time and motive, to do that work.

If I felt I really _had_ to understand fully the story of what happened about Goldman Sachs for myself, so that I could rely on it, explain it to others, and make legal or policy decisions in response to it, I could do that, and I would, in that circumstance, view the Daily Kos and Naked Capitalism analyses as requiring some testing and investigation before I would wholly accept any of their premises and conclusions, which are framed to support a particular political agenda. But I don't have a pressing need to do that, and experience has taught me that I get much more reliable analyses from these sites (which aspire to be reality based as well as political) than I would anywhere else easily accessible to me, so I don't lose sleep over the fact that I am not getting other views. And if I wanted other views, I'd dig to see what the people who are too far to the left to get traction on Kos are saying. I can find the George Wills and Jonah Goldbergs of the world in my local paper, but all I learn from reading them is what the writings of a lying shill for the plutocrats look like, which doesn't help me very much in improving my story of what happened.

I know this isn't really what you are worrying about, but I feel it's important to maintain a distinction between the value of not getting trapped in epistemic closure and giving the time of day to lying liars and their endless spew of lies. And with Wall Street, once you venture to the right of, say, Paul Krugman, it's pretty much lies all the way down from there, as far as I can tell. There may be benevolent liars as well as malevolent ones, but neither provide useful information.

I think epistemic closure is something more than ideology, although I think your description of a condition of information acquisition by which people ensure that they do not confront any information that challenges the ideology through which they interpret the world is not altogether wrong. But what I think people are talking about is something combining that with groupthink, particularly.

One idea of how that works is alluded to in a blog post by David S. Bernstein, over at the Boston Phoenix. Part of the question is the extent to which political actors, who want to use rhetoric to persuade, can afford to ignore challenging information, or even the untrue stories that have substantial currency outside the group. While I think you are right that the popular understanding of Wall Street is largely walking blindly through a Blizzard of Lies, if you do want to have the conversations, which YHB thinks is imperative for Whitmanian democracy, then you have to have some way of dealing with the issues. And it isn't necessarily those who have stories that are radically different than my own—I don't, f'r'ex, think that the story of Goldman Sachs as heartless moneybags profiting off foreclosures of widows and orphans is wrong—but those who have stories that could be made to overlap, if we were to work at it a bit.

But you are right, it is work.


What do you see as the relationship between "the story of what happened" and "the issues"? If I am understanding the distinction you are drawing between these terms, then I would say that those engaging in political discourse who want to use rhetoric to persuade need to know what the stories are, true and false, and who is listening to them, and how to reach the audiences that are tuned in to the different stories, for sure. But to deal with the _issues_, in terms of crafting policy, one needs to know the facts of the case, as nearly as they can be ascertained. "Epistemic closure" for the Republican party would seem to be that they equate their politically motivated "story of what happened" with "the facts of the case," and anyone on the inside who challenges that equation is immediately cast out as an apostate. (They have gotten to that point because they have practiced a politics of emotional manipulation for decades, so they stopped thinking they had to pay attention to stories or facts. If fear-mongering, propaganda, and lies, magnified by a media apparatus, win elections, then why waste time on anything else? Now they don't have the skills.) I don't see the Democratic Party, or the left more broadly, as having an analogous problem, on this issue or any other, since, for the Democratic Party to get anything done, negotiations are necessary among those with different stories of what happened. The main problem on the Left is that there are certain key stories that elected politicians haven't been willing to tell: there isn't epistemic closure, but such debate as takes place is far too narrow. Are we thinking along the same lines here?

I would go on to say that, of course, individuals on the left or segments of the left may have a degree of epistemic closure, but only insofar as they absent themselves from active political discourse and negotiation. And if you, personally, want to be an effective political agent in the arena of shaping public opinion through discussion and debate, you need to know what the stories are, and when you are surprised to hear a different version of the story, you are discovering that you need to know more to be an effective political agent. On the other hand, if you, personally, want to be able to craft a compelling story that closely matches the reality of what happened, you don't need to know all the stories. Instead, you need to search diligently for the facts. Myself, I am definitely not looking to be an effective political agent as described above, and I don't really have the time to really grasp the policy, but I am much more interested in the facts than in the stories. I try, then, to find the stories that are coming from sources I have more trust in, and use those as my working understanding. What are your goals when you question yourself about whether you are suffering from a degree of epistemic closure?

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