Arguments of Varying Merit

In a post useful for its candor, Jonah Goldberg sums up his thoughts on the epistemic closure debate — or at least the debate that he perceives, but that neither I nor Julian Sanchez nor anyone else I’ve read recognizes. It contains enough mistaken analysis and factually incorrect assertions to warrant an unabridged airing.

Mr. Goldberg writes:

Okay, on the matter of this epistemic closure business. It seems to me it’s a stalking horse for several different but deeply overlapping arguments of varying merit.
The first argument comes from a bunch of younger conservatives. They have convinced themselves that the older establishment conservatives have become corrupt, oblivious or coopted by the Republican-Fox News machine. These younger, smarter, savvier more nuanced thinkers have been locked out of what they see as ideological wagon-circling and groupthink (“epistemic closure” has become the high-fallutin’ misnomer for the “problem”).
Let me offer a counter theory. When I first came to Washington, I hung around in very similar circles of young eager-beavers. I may not have been as smart as many of them, but I was just as determined to get my articles published and make my mark. We had many gripe sessions conversations about how hard it was to break-in at places like NR, the Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal etc. But, because Al Gore hadn’t gotten around to inventing the internet yet, there was no place for me to vent these complaints in print, never mind work them up into a meta-narrative about the decrepit state of conservatism.
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 and essays that tend to bounce off one another for reinforcement. Instead of late night griping at the Toledo Lounge, the way we did things in the 1990s, the conversation has gone public. Indeed, so public that it has become something of an intellectual grievance culture all its own.

Note that Mr. Goldberg doesn’t offer any links to young 20-something conservatives complaining that it’s hard to break into National Review, The Weekly Standard or The Wall Street Journal — that is because there aren’t any doing so in this conversation, or even online insofar as I’m aware. Can Mr. Goldberg point to any posts in this epistemic closure debate where that complaint has appeared? How on earth did it enter this conversation?

Obviously I can’t speak for every twenty-something on the right — especially now that I’m 30 — but having come up doing work for The Claremont Institute, living in Washington DC, attending events hosted by America’s Future Foundation, going to journalism school, and working as a commissioning editor at a right-of-center Web magazine, where I interacted with tons of young people trying to break into conservative journalism, I have never once heard — over e-mail or on Twitter or drinking beers at Solly’s or Local 16 or The Big Hunt — a single person complain that it is difficult to break into National Review or The Weekly Standard, or Townhall or Human Events or The American Spectator or any other conservative publication, with the single exception of a guy who pitched me an essay at Culture11 after it was rejected at The Claremont Review of Books (I passed on it too). (Full disclosure: Once when I was 24, I submitted an op-ed to the Wall Street Journal — I got a nice rejection note back. I’ve never pitched or submitted anything to The Weekly Standard or National Review, though after Culture11 folded an editor there contacted me, said if I was interested I should take an editing test, and noted that while there weren’t any open positions I am welcome to pitch him. And one day, if the right piece comes along, I may well do it!)

I have heard people complain about how hard it is to break into The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Esquire, New York Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, The American Scholar, and The Virginia Quarterly Review, among others — which makes sense, because it is much harder to break into these publications, due to a combination of pay, prestige, and the dearth of publications running the kind of long form non-fiction that it’s most fun to write.

This isn’t to say that no one wants to write at National Review and is jilted, or that no one complains about the difficulty of breaking in. It’s just a very different group of people than are having this epistemic closure conversation (which after all began not with a young conservative, but with Julian Sanchez, who contains multitudes). In fact, I imagine the people most intent on breaking into NR or The Weekly Standard are carefully avoiding public comment on issues like this one, or anything critical of American foreign policy, or talk radio hosts, or National Review writers, because the perception — I cannot comment on the reality — is that there are certain things one can’t say if one wants to make a career inside of movement institutions. Perhaps Mr. Goldberg can point me to some blog post I haven’t seen, where a twenty-something writer is complaining that epistemic closure is responsible for his inability to break into movement magazines, but I’m pretty sure that he’s just summoned a straw man out of thin air.

Mr. Goldberg is correct to point out that, contra some of its critics — I’ve mostly encountered these critics in the comments sections of blog posts or I’d link them — National Review publishes a lot of interesting, talented writers, some of whom depart from movement conservative orthodoxy on certain subjects.

Let’s look at the younger conservatives. Ramesh Ponnuru has been described as the elder statesmen of the “young turks” – the supposedly heterodox youngsters trying to pry-open the closed conservative mind. Well, Ramesh is a pretty influential Senior Editor at one of the supposed bastions of conservative closed-minded orthodoxy. Ross Douthat, arguably the most famous of the Young Turks, is the film critic for NR and co-author of the young Turk manifesto, Grand New Party. The other co-author, Reihan Salam, is an NRO blogger concentrating on policy ideas. That book received massive support from the conservative establishment. It stemmed from an article in Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard and was feted by the American Enterprise Institute. Then there’s Yuval Levin, another Young Turk, who is not only a conservative think tank star, regular contributor to National Review and the Weekly Standard, but who is also the editor of his brand-spanking new magazine largely dedicated to new ideas. Other young (or youngish) “new ideas” conservatives have prominent places at places like AEI and the Heritage Foundation. James Capretta, Nicole Gelinas, Brad Wilcox, Andrew Biggs and numerous others have been welcomed into the fold and celebrated. There are more conservative publications publishing high-end conservative wonkery and philosophy than there have ever been – and that’s in print! Throw the web into the mix, and at least according to one metric it is a conservative golden age.

This is all correct, and I haven’t seen anyone in the epistemic closure conversation dispute it.

Mr. Goldberg continues:

So, forgive me if I don’t take too seriously the complaint that younger conservative intellectuals have been locked out by the old guard. I’m sure there’s some talent out there deserving more attention and exposure (just as I’m convinced that there’s some young talent out there that maybe could have spent some more time in the minors). But that is hardly a new story.

Again, no one is making this complaint, insofar as I’m aware, and Mr. Goldberg can’t seem to link anyone who is making it — and even if he could find someone making this complaint, the ongoing conversation about epistemic closure isn’t even tangentially about young conservative intellectuals being locked out of movement magazines.

Moving on:

The second “epistemic closure” argument is aimed at talk radio and Fox News. A lot of folks think conservative Big Media are too powerful and define the debate too much. Okay. I don’t think this is an unreasonable position on its face. But whenever I hear it, I always have to ask “compared to what?” Would conservatism be in better shape if conservatives had to rely on the mainstream media? Isn’t the fact that Fox News and talk radio are so popular a sign of conservative success instead of conservative weakness?

During the Reagan Administration, when conservatives had to rely on the mainstream media, conservatives were “in better shape” than they are now — back then, the President of the United States was accomplishing all the changes that the right so celebrates, whereas now a Democratic president is implementing a domestic agenda that the right abhors. In the months leading up to Election 2008, talk radio and Fox News were quite popular. Doesn’t the outcome of that election prove that their success and the success of conservatism are independent of one another?

When he makes this argument, Mr. Goldberg never defines by what metric conservatism is “in better shape now,” so it is difficult to refute him directly, but it should be enough to point out that those of us criticizing conservative Big Media aren’t even saying that conservatives would be better off going back to the media landscape of 1983 (though perhaps we would). Our argument is that the right would be better off if the media infrastructure it has built survived in some form, but stripped of the groupthink, the factual inaccuracies, the blowhard personalities, the information bubble, etc.

Mr. Goldberg writes:

Does that success bring new challenges? Sure. Can it breed the laziness that comes with preaching to the choir? Absolutely. But I see little evidence of that among the best and brightest on the right. Does that climate make it harder at times to express more nuanced arguments? Yep. But that’s a problem not with conservatism per se but with the media landscape generally.

Really? Where I’m sitting, it seems like the most profitable book Matthew Continetti could write involved making the case that Sarah Palin is uniquely persecuted in American life, and that the most profitable book you could write makes the case that fascism, a long discredited political system, is liberal in origin. Is this not “preaching to the choir” on subjects largely irrelevant to the issues facing conservatives? Or take wonderful books by smart, indispensable writers like Tim Carney: in order to maximize sales, they require titles that ensure fewer people “on the other side” will read and be persuaded by them. Yes, that happens to writers on the left too — and so what? It is nevertheless a problem within conservatism, insofar as it’s editors at Regnery and the book buying right whose combined preferences are responsible for weakening the cross-ideological impact one of the right’s best and brightest will have.

Mr. Goldberg writes:

Indeed, for all of the lamentations about the “professionalization” of conservatism, I have to chuckle when I hear so much nostalgia for what Ross calls the “lost early-1970s world of Commentary and The Public Interest.” Indeed, to listen to Sam Tanenhaus this was a golden age for conservatism. As someone who has a collection of old issues of the Public Interest and Commentary going back to around that time, I am as sympathetic to such nostalgia as anyone. But that’s what it is: nostalgia. For while conservative intellectuals were having a rip-roaring time back then, conservatism itself was at arguably its weakest point. The Republican Party had crushed the Goldwaterites, the Republican President loathed the Buckleyites and the Reagan-revival still seemed like a pipe dream.

This is so myopic. In the 1970s, conservatism in government was at one of its weakest points. Its intellectuals, however, were laboring to change that. Mr. Goldberg seems oblivious to the fact that intellectual work precedes productive returns to political power — that if William F. Buckley would’ve spent the 1970s writing the equivalent of The Persecution of Sarah Palin the Reagan Administration would’ve turned out very differently, had it happened at all. I am not a student of 1970s era conservatism, but the argument the nostalgists are making is that the movement was better then at laying intellectual groundwork then than it is now.

Mr. Goldberg, oblivious to that argument, writes:

It seems to me that what many of these nostalgists really miss is a time when conservative intellectuals were more esteemed by liberal intellectuals and liberal institutions – a climate made possible solely by conservatism’s political impotence.

Does Mr. Goldberg believe that conservative intellectuals were esteemed by liberal intellectuals and liberal institutions in the 1970s?! Here is what he wrote just 10 days ago:

For more than a generation, liberalism craved and ruthlessly enforced epistemic closure. I hate to trot out Lionnel Trilling here (it’s such a cliché), but it’s worth recalling his famous 1950 line about how “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” Indeed, he reduced conservatism to “irritable mental gestures”—an effort joined by Richard Hofstadter, the Frankfurt School, and more, recently, George Lakoff, and quite a few scientists getting government grants today. Since 1950, “vital center” liberals, and of course leftists, have looked for every conceivable excuse to delegitimize conservative dissent and criticism. For decades, liberal elites abused their monopoly on the media and their near complete control of the commanding heights of the culture to attack not just conservative ideas, but conservative motives in order to render any serious alternative to liberalism a kind of crankery or fascism. That effort is still under way in the arts, in academia and in the few remaining bastions of the “legacy media.”

It seems to me that Mr. Goldberg’s guess about what motivates these nostalgists cannot even stand up to his own account of reality.

Mr. Goldberg’s piece concludes:

Last, there’s this notion that Republican politicians are lacking ideals and intellectual creativity. Too true. But not entirely true. Marco Rubio is young and full of tough-minded ideas for fixing our problems. Paul Ryan is a rock star because he has tough-minded ideas for fixing our problems. If you read about the intellectual landscape Newt Gingrich, and before him Jack Kemp, had to navigate, you would know that this is hardly a new problem.
Indeed, as someone who thinks being the “Party of No” was a perfectly appropriate stance for the GOP to take during Obama’s first year, I think it’s arguably been less of a problem than it was in years past. But as the political climate is changing, I think the GOP needs to start rolling out real alternatives to Obamaism. Fortunately, there’s a lot of intellectual talent out there for the GOP to rely on.

Should National Review and other conservative magazines start treating Paul Ryan like more of a rock star than Mark Levin or Rush Limbaugh, perhaps more Republican politicians will do their utmost to follow his example, rather than the one set forth by conservative entertainers. In closing, I’d note all the substantive aspects of Julian Sanchez’s “epistemic closure” theory that Mr. Goldberg left unaddressed, except that it’s basically all of them.