Saturday, May 01, 2010

Senator Grothman's epistemic closure.

Hi everyone,

I got started blogging and writing columns almost entirely because Senator Glenn Grothman writes press releases. I assumed that none of his constituents were actually reading these things because, if they were, there's no way they would ever vote for the guy.

I was, of course, completely wrong about part 2.

The original headline was "Senator Grothman's epistemic closure"... too scary, probably.

And so, a 720 word excursion into the Great Wide Empty that is the political vision of Wisconsin State Senator Glenn Grothman.

Senator Know
Grothman invites us to put on security corps blinders

Philosophy doesn’t often make the national news, but during the last few weeks Washington heavy-hitter political wonks have been throwing around the phrase “epistemic closure” like a hammer, like napalm, like brass knuckles.

The real definition from logical set theory is a bit complicated for a Saturday morning paper, but the political meaning here boils down roughly to this: Don’t get closed in by your own worldview or, more colloquially, the goldfish doesn’t always remember it’s in a bowl.

Julian Sanchez from the libertarian Cato Institute started things rolling when he trotted out this phrase from his undergraduate philosophy days as a clever way to describe the “ideological intolerance and misinformation” currently infecting conservative rhetoric. Many conservatives, he noted “have developed a distorted sense of priorities and a tendency to engage in fantasy.”

When a guy from the Cato Institute blows the whistle on current rhetorical excesses – like the birther and death panel fantasies – you have to pay attention. Even Bruce Bartlett, an old hand with impeccable Republican credentials, a man who worked for Reagan and G.H.W. Bush, has suggested that the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation have gone from “presenting informed policy analyses to pumping out propaganda.”

None of this is surprising to anyone from the left of Attila the Hun, but it is refreshing to hear a thoughtful and coherent conservative voice say “enough.”

That’s national news but, locally, Sen. Glenn Grothman provided a first-rate specimen of epistemic closure in his April 16 press release following the tax day Tea Party protest in Madison.

He trumpets that in July 2008 candidate Obama promised to create a civilian national security force as powerful and well funded as the military. Grothman then twists a quote or two to make it sound as if Obama was planning to organize some form of sinister national security Gestapo rather than expand AmeriCorps and – watch out America! – the Peace Corps, which is what Obama was explicitly referring to in the speech Grothman cites (one given at the University of Colorado).

“My constituents,” claims Grothman, “are demanding the Legislature fight back.”

Well, not all of us. Personally, I’m not worried about the Peace Corps being turned into Black Shirts – but I am interested in whether Grothman’s press release is an example of epistemic closure or merely political fear-mongering. tracked down this particular misrepresentation to a November 2008 interview given by Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia to the Associated Press in which he warns that President Obama was planning to organize a Marxist security force to place America under a totalitarian dictatorship. It wasn’t difficult to find a mountain of press releases and clarifications about this story, so I have to wonder why Grothman felt compelled to issue a press release about a story he must know is nonsense, a year and a half after a Georgia congressman played political origami with an otherwise perfectly mundane stump speech?

If Grothman does not believe what he’s written in his press release, then these bits of borrowed political excess are simply irresponsible mechanisms designed to stir up politically exploitable fear. If, on the other hand, we take him at his word and assume Grothman does believe what he’s written – a notion almost impossible to accept considering anyone can go online and read the original speech – then this would be a perfect example of epistemic closure: The goldfish’s angry insistence that its little bowl is the whole world.

In either case, Grothman’s freedom of speech – or his freedom to spend our tax dollars writing irresponsible and ludicrous press releases – does not mean he has the right to impose his epistemic limitations on anyone else. We don’t have to climb into the bowl with him.

* * *

Dunk me for a good cause: The fundraiser for victims of the fire at the Stonebridge apartments is being held between 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday at Jansen Family Park, LLC. (3745 Schuster Drive, West Bend, WI 53095; 334-0429). The organizer tells me that they’ll have a bouncy house, a silent auction, Cousins subs, a fire truck from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and lots of other games for the kids. The administrator from Samaritan will be taking pies in the face and, I’ll be a sitting in the dunk tank from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. I imagine a few readers might like to dunk me for a good cause. Come on out this Sunday and lend your neighbors a hand.

Here's a link to the original "press release." It's actually a bit worse than I was able to capture in a few sentences.

And so it goes.



larryteufel said...

I hope you raise a lot of money for the victims of the fire.
when the tea baggers write their letters to the editor I will refuse to believe them when they label you as "all wet"! Those teabaggers sure are the courts jesters aren't they?

rlegro said...

As a former newspaper reporter, I wash to thank Motley Cow for her* exhaustively considered and well-argued posts. This latest entry is especially so. You are on to something that a few others in the blogosphere have noticed: What used to be the conservative wing of Republican politics is now bailing out, at least philosophically. It's a start.
*("her" because all cows are of the feminine gender)

Mpeterson said...

Thanks Larry... you know, I always assumed that *I* was just the court jester.

James Dionne said...

Your multiple usage of the term "teabaggers" shows how closed minded and unintelligent YOU really are. You probably think you are cute or witty to use such a phrase to describe these people, don't you? The're so stupid they don't even know about the sex act that it's named for, right Larry? You're an assuming elitist Ass. Wow, you're funny. Grow up already and debate these people on the merits of where they are wrong and then possibly your opinion will be respected, until then you are just as black as the pot.

Mpeterson said...

Take a deep breath James, your use of the term "elitist" is part of the same epistemic closure.. we all need to find a way to get outside of this box.

The Tea Party folks have been asking perfectly reasonable questions -- like, how is it I'm no longer in control of my country?

But they've been getting their answers from corporations. Those on the Left have not been forthcoming with equally good answers -- the best one I can think of is the one I'm always making: it ain't the government what's the problem, it's them what owns the government is the problem.

So there's no point in saying that the Tea Partiers haven't been made dupes by the very people they should be fighting -- and there's no point in denying that any number of Democrats are as culpable, because they too are in the pockets of the corporations.

But elitist? No.

larryteufel said...

James. Thank you for your comments. You have no idea how much I enjoyed your post.

John Jost said...

James Dionne: I gathered from Wikipedia what was my thought exactly: "tea baggers" has been used to ridicule the movement after it appeared self-referentially on signs at Tea Party rallies.

"We" didn't start the fire, all elitist asses that "we" are.

James Dionne said...

John and Larry,
By calling these people obscene names and stereotypically mocking them, you are making them stronger in their resolve. You are also allowing the same stereotyping to occur back at you. That is why I used the elitist term. Who cares if a sign said teabaggers at a rally- that doesn't allow you to mock all of them or dismiss what they think as a movement. Like I said debate these people on the merits and you will change minds and earn respect. Until them you are as bad as them.

larryteufel said...

Debate these people? The press covered very well how they debate at last years townhall meetings.