A friend of many years occasionally forwards to me chain mail messages for my response. These messages come to his internet mailbox from various acquaintances. I am grateful for his friendship, and I always appreciate the notes.
I thought the latest forwarded email message was especially notable. Here is the message, formatted for readability:
To: Burr Deming, May 13, 2013
Re: NEVER KNEW THIS ABOUT JAPAN
[Pithy, and disapproving, remark about the forwarded message edited out]
- - - - -
I NEVER KNEW THIS ABOUT JAPAN
Have you ever read in the newspaper that a political leader or a prime minister from an Islamic nation has visited Japan ? Have you ever come across news that the Ayatollah of Iran or the King of Saudi Arabia or even a Saudi Prince has visited Japan ?
Japan is a country keeping Islam at bay. Japan has put strict restrictions on Islam and ALL Muslims.
The reasons are:
Japan is the only nation that does not give citizenship to Muslims.
In Japan permanent residency is not given to Muslims.
There is a strong ban on the propagation of Islam in Japan.
In the University of Japan , Arabic or any Islamic language is not taught.
One cannot import a 'Koran' published in the Arabic language.
According to data published by the Japanese government, it has given temporary residency to only 2 lakhs, Muslims, who must follow the Japanese Law of the Land. These Muslims should speak Japanese and carry their religious rituals in their homes.
Japan is the only country in the world that has a negligible number of embassies in Islamic countries.
Japanese people are not attracted to Islam at all.
Muslims residing in Japan are the employees of foreign companies.
Even today, visas are not granted to Muslim doctors, engineers or managers sent by foreign companies.
In the majority of companies it is stated in their regulations that no Muslims should apply for a job.
The Japanese government is of the opinion that Muslims are fundamentalist and even in the era of globalization they are not willing to change their Muslim laws.
Muslims cannot even think about renting a house in Japan.
If anyone comes to know that his neighbor is a Muslim then the whole neighborhood stays alert.
No one can start an Islamic cell or Arabic 'Madrasa' in Japan.
There is no Sharia law in Japan.
If a Japanese woman marries a Muslim then she is considered an outcast forever.
According to Mr. Kumiko Yagi, Professor of Arab/Islamic Studies at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, "There is a mind frame in Japan that Islam is a very narrow minded religion and one should stay away from it."
- Freelance journalist Mohammed Juber toured many Islamic countries after 9/11 including Japan. He found that the Japanese were confident that extremists could do no harm in Japan.
My personal estimation of the Japanese has risen dramatically!
VERY SMART PEOPLE
From: Burr Deming, May 13, 2010
Re: NEVER KNEW THIS ABOUT JAPAN
Thank you for forwarding that message to me.
I really don’t know if the accusations against the government of Japan are true or if they are slurs.
I can say that several of the Americans with whom I have worked over the years, with whom I am friends, are Muslims. They have prayed with me, they have prayed for me, for members of my family in times of desperate illness, for our young Marine when he was in combat in Afghanistan.
When I have brought news of their joys and concerns to the House of God at which I worship each week, Christians have prayed for my friends.
Frankly, I’m tired beyond exhaustion at the too common practice of hating people for the way they pray, for the way they worship, judging them harshly because of others who worship in similar ways, but who act out very differently.
If the United States were to take on the policies the author of that message ascribes to Japan, it would be a departure from the ideals that make my country America. It would be hard for me to look my fellow Americans, my friends, in the eye, knowing that my country – their country - had turned away from them in the name of bigotry.
Fortunately, that has not happened, and will not happen. The America I love is too strong to surrender to the sort of closed minded views of freedom embraced so eagerly by your correspondent.
That writer is entitled to such UnAmerican views. That’s part of freedom.
So is repentance.
I hope your friend will act on the freedom to feel deeply ashamed.
You can tell that individual for me that I said so.
The conversation was decades ago but, amid the fading of other recollections, it remains clear in my mind. "I don't like Reagan," my friend said. "I don't like the way he says 'gummint'."
I don't ever remember President Reagan mispronouncing "gummint" or much of anything else. Precise vocabulary was part of his persona. The n in "govern" was discernible before the "ment".
In fact, there just was very little in the public image of Ronald Reagan that I found the slightest bit irritating.
Most politicians come across that way. Natural, I suppose. The most irritating pols, apart from ideology or scandal, would fall to the side of the political road of life. It's a sort of natural selection.
There have been exceptions. As Dwight Eisenhower's Vice President, Richard Nixon presented just the sort of image that was ideal, to my mind, for a conservative of that era. Watching snippets of the Kennedy Nixon debates brings some of it back. The stereotypical heavy beard was not as striking to me as was the sweaty, nervous demeanor. The darting eyes were the big thing.
The Nixon public persona was moderated a bit during the remaining years of his political life. But he still carried the heavy weight from which most other politicians remained free.
In fairness, it is irrational to oppose Nixon because he looked so devious. The fact that he actually was so devious, committing what can only be viewed as near-treason in order to get into the White House, using the power of the Presidency to target his opponents, is decidedly more rational.
And it is not fair to admire President Reagan for his good-natured television presence. He came across as a strong but charming fellow, but I didn't care for President Reagan because of his politics and his policies. I thought he hurt a lot of good people.
I try to compensate a bit for the irrational reaction to irrelevant quirks. But they are undeniably there.
Vice President Quayle came across as a little like Nixon, but without the intelligence. He combined a bit of Richie Cunningham dopiness with a rich boy sense of entitlement. When Lloyd Bentson smashed him with the "No Jack Kennedy" line, it was a direct hit to the solar plexus. That was because most folks were kind of turned off by the inept, rich kid with high self-regard type image. Getting taken to the woodshed by the sad and fatherly Lloyd pretty much destroyed any chance of escaping the typecast.
In fact, Dan Quayle was diligent in preparing himself for governance, once he became Vice President. He convened a sort of traveling University of Dan, immersing himself in study, inviting conservative luminaries to school him. On the couple of occasions that President Bush left town, he served quite credibly as acting President. On one occasion, he was able to guide the Philippines through a crisis, preserving that fragile democracy while keeping the US out of direct intervention.
Very adroitly done, Mr. Vice President.
You served the country well.
Man, it was hard to take him in public.
President Bush, the younger President Bush, was irritating on a purely irrational level. It was like watching someone who was still possessed by a teenager's obsession with manliness. The chest thrust strut, the noble scanning into the distance as others spoke, and, of course, the smirk.
There was a lot not to like about President Bush, but my reaction to his public demeanor had to be about the silliest. And I knew it at the time. I tried to compensate. He became "my President" in conversation, to the annoyance of just about everyone I knew. I tried to focus on policy. I liked his stand against anti-Muslim bigotry. In fact, I kind of miss that in contemporary conservatism.
Paul Ryan irritates me with a different set of mannerisms.
For quite a while, I thought it was the exaggerated wrinkling of his brow. When someone wears a sign pasted above his eyes to broadcast to the world an I'm-serious-and-sincere-and-I-really-really-mean-it-really-I-do blinking message, I grab at my wallet, just to be sure I still have it. Still, that theory was not completely satisfactory. There was something else I couldn't put my finger on, something oily and suspect. Something put me off that I knew wasn't quite fair.
An old episode of the Andy Griffith show pushed me roughly into a thorny epiphany patch. The next time I saw a few moments of Paul Ryan on a news program pretty much sealed it.
Those of us in the worn out generation will for sure remember Barney Fife. When Don Knotts left Mayberry, writers introduced a new character played by Jack Burns. Most folks won't remember Deputy Warren Ferguson by name, but his image brings back memories.
Barney was easy to laugh at, easy to mock, and easy to have a sort of empathy with. He was the character we were all secretly afraid we might, at times, come close to being. Warren was so well stocked with a new set of quirks he annoyed pretty much every viewer. His constant repetitions were not funny, they provoked a sort of reincarnation, raising hackles from the dead.
I think Paul Ryan provoked a dim sort of misty recollection with an annoying mannerism that I now think reminded me of Barney's successor. When Deputy Warren talked, he often moved his head in a sort of circular pattern, keeping his eyes focused on his subject as he moved, as if watching carefully for the reaction he was after. It was, I guess, a screenwriter's attempt to get across a sort of conversational awkwardness. The adjective it brings to me, even in memory, is "shifty." It was stagey, it was contrived, it was ... well ... annoying as all get out.
That head movement is what Paul Ryan does when he's getting a little cagey, explaining his latest bargain basement special investment deal. His eyes stay focused on you while his head moves around like some small moon around an imaginary planet. The exaggerated wrinkling of the forehead to show he really really means it just adds to the endless cycle. If he would just tilt his head a little while he talked and revolved, he would have it just right. Summer, Spring, Winter, Fall, let's do it again.
The furrows on his brow deepen in sincerity, one atop the the next, until they disappear under his hairline. His head moves toward us, then away, to the left, then the right, as he convinces us to voucherize Medicare, eliminate Medicaid, privatize Social Security, lower the share of taxes carried by the wealthy.
Look, I know it isn't fair. He's not looking at you or me. He is not trying to gauge a reaction in order to contrive what to say next. All he sees is the unblinking eye of the camera moving back and forth in relation to the repetitive path of his head.
It is not at all a signal of personal dishonesty.
It is not the mark of a shifty and untrustworthy personality.
The resemblance of his public mannerisms to his dishonest programs is completely coincidental.
Podcast: The Path of Paul Ryan's Head
Watching the flames blaze forth from a cabin in the woods, a sense of finality dominated. The finding of a murderer's body was almost anticlimactic. The nightmare of shootings of police, murders of family members, and a self-aggrandizing manifesto was, at last, at an end.
Rage, I am guessing, most frequently comes from frustrated expectation, disappointment combined with a sense of injustice. Suffering is often hard to bear. Injustice can sear the soul.
Ambition, professional and otherwise, powers human progress on an individual and a community level. And there is a strong human impulse against unfairness. How do these common traits go so wrong in a few tragic and dangerous cases? How did they spin out of orbit for this would-be officer of the law, the man who once carried a badge?
For many of us, family and job are the twin pillars of self esteem. Our sense of self-worth becomes fragile when these collapse.
Dorner felt that a dream of professional success as a police officer had been unjustly broken. His second chance, that of a Navy reservist fell away as well. That was not all. A series of romantic relationships, including a marriage ending in divorce, became successive disasters. The marriage lasted less than a month.
Pain is a part of life, and injustice is the way of the world. Everyone has experienced both. It is pointless to compare degrees of anger. Anger and its causes are not easily measured. "I know how you feel" is almost always untrue.
But we can say that identification of self with career and relationships is sometimes exaggerated. In Dorner's case, it seems to have gone way beyond reason. It happens to some. In my own experience, two acquaintances, one of those a co-worker, have been lost to suicide.
Whether by religious faith, or by wisdom through introspection, the singular milestone of life is the discovery of an inner value that is independent from circumstance or accomplishment. The best among us go beyond a proscriptive respect for the rights of others, managing a recognition of an inner worth possessed by each of us.
Most religious faiths would call for mourning for the victims and, as well, for a lost soul. I grieve for the daughter and her fiance, the young couple who were the first of those murdered. I am stunned and saddened by the ambush style killing of a succession of police officers. I am disheartened by the injuries to innocents by panicked members of law enforcement.
But I confess my share of human failings. Whatever his complaints, whatever the injustice he experienced, there is little feeling left in me for the tattered soul of Christopher Jordan Dorner.
Those of us who have never served in the military have a respect for those who have, a respect that borders on awe.
When my stepson came back from Afghanistan he stumbled a little in answering his mother as she pressed him on his experiences. You can't actually lie to your mom. Did he come under actual gunfire? Well, yeah, "but I wasn't in any real danger."
We got word the other day that he was promoted. He is now a corporal in the United States Marine Corps. When he was awarded a medal for the incident that he had kept from describing in detail for his mother, he wrote to say that he felt better about that medal than about his promotion. There are several medals that can be awarded, depending on circumstance and level of personal action, and we don't have word yet of the particulars. We are mostly happy that he is out of danger, at least for the present.
At a church service, shortly after we heard from him that his tour in Afghanistan was ended, I was called on by the pastor to relay the good news. I was allowed to speak about the time we had waited for word. We only had news of two attacks on the base at which he was stationed. As we prayed that he was not among those lost in those attacks, it came to me that there was a dark side to my prayers. We knew the number of Marines killed. In a way, as I was hoping we would discover the tragedy had missed us, my prayer was that it befall some other family. I told the congregation about the zero-sum life of waiting for news.
There came to be a touch of guilt in my relief when we eventually heard from him. He had been out of contact during his transport out of that war torn country and couldn't reach us to say he was safe. We have since learned to breathe again. There are those for whom life has become an exercise in the unthinkable: somehow learning to live when a son or daughter, a parent or sibling, will not be coming home.
I was struck by the largely unknown story of actor Charles Durning, who died on Monday. Durning is known more for his supporting roles, with a recognized face and a forgotten name. He was a corrupt policeman in The Sting and the would be suitor to the cross-dressing Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie.
Behind the scenes, out of public view, his life was warped by war. He struggled after World War II to break through to the surface from the terrible aftermath of combat.
He was part of the force that landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He seldomed talked about his experience, but once opened up about the perilous swim to shore. Those who were dying summoned strength to throw themselves in front, acting as human shields from the hail of gunfire. He himself was wounded, a bullet remaining in his hip for the rest of his life. Every other member of his unit was killed that day. He was the sole survivor.
In Belgium, he was wounded again, stabbed with a bayonet in desperate hand-to-hand combat. He killed the German soldier with a rock. His company was captured while fighting to free embattled US troops at the Battle of the Bulge. He was one of those force-marched to Malmedy, where Germans carried out orders to execute prisoners of war by machine gun fire. He was one of the few to survive.
Worrying as we did for our own young Marine, I wonder about the depths this soldier must have endured. Surviving by chance, the only one in his unit, protected by a host of dying combat troops, surviving again the war crime at the hands of Nazis, the brutal individual combat - up close and personal.
He is quoted about his experiences:
I forget a lot of stuff now but I still wake up once in a while and it's still there. I can't count how many of my buddies are in the cemetery at Normandy.
The flow of ribbons and medals didn't stop at the end of the war. Recognition has its own momentum. But it didn't prevent a downward spiral. For a decade, he seems to have survived in a huge vortex of trauma. He drifted from one job to another.
After he eventually found his way into acting, he still was haunted by his experiences. The New York Times recounts an interview much later in life, as he remembered.
“I was crossing a field somewhere in Belgium,” he said. “A German soldier ran toward me carrying a bayonet. He couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15. I didn’t see a soldier. I saw a boy. Even though he was coming at me, I couldn’t shoot.”
They grappled, he recounted later — he was stabbed seven or eight times — until finally he grasped a rock and made it a weapon. After killing the youth, he said, he held him in his arms and wept.
I have listened to the stories of those who have avoided death by slight chance, by inches. I am impressed most, I think, by the absolute lack of drama in their accounts. I cannot account for it. A soldier in Vietnam leaned against a tree and, in exhaustion, slid down a few inches, as a bullet smashed where his head had just been. "So it missed me," he says simply.
And a young Marine tells his mom he was fired upon, "but I wasn't in any real danger."
We can't forget those who are put into harm's way. We can't forget the cost that sometimes follows as experience catches up. We can't forget what we owe them.
And we must remember the human cost whenever we contemplate military alternatives.
The execution style slaying of a classroom of children in Newtown, Connecticut, reminds us again of the fragility of life in the face of breathtaking evil.
The Christmas story itself is not only about angels singing to shepherds, a harsh stay in a manger, a birth and wise men following a star. It also includes a desire to maintain power at great human cost. It is undocumented outside of scripture that Herod actually engaged in the killing of babies in an effort to end the life of an unidentified messiah. It is believable because such acts were not outside human experience even then. We are reminded that human history carries tragedy to us still.
Matthew recounts more ancient scripture from the book of Jeremiah:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled...
The voice of Rachel is heard from ancient times to the present, as lives of little one are taken.
Evil in the world is one of the twin challenges to a thoughtful person who takes spirituality seriously. Evil directed at children is especially hard to take. If there is a good answer to that, I do not know or comprehend it.
We strive for answers to the unanswerable. Sometimes our feeble efforts lead us to absurd claims to a wisdom that is beyond us. Thus a national figure tells us that evil was aimed at children in a school because "we have systematically removed God from our schools." We recoil at the idea that a loving God takes revenge on children for a nation's freedom of religion. It is not more comforting that our Creator would passively allow evil to be directed at innocents.
When we try to explain the incomprehensible, when our emotional response is to demand from ourselves answers that are not forthcoming, the result is often a morally muddled confusion. Sometimes what seems like a cold indifference to tragic suffering is simply an addled reaction to moral paradox.
The demand for certainty brings to us more than insufficient answers to evil. It sometimes brings about evil itself. A loyalty to an ideal that elevates that ideal above the value of mere humans can have staggering consequence.
For Christians, and I believe for pretty much everyone, the unanswerable reduces us to a more primal, existential question. As we eventually abandon, as we must, the quest for a satisfying answer to evil in the world, we engage in a more immediate, urgent, search: what do I do in answer to evil?
For some the answer is to reach out to those in need. We apply the words of the contemporary hymn "as deep cries out to deep" to ourselves as temporary instruments of a higher source. When there is too much pain in the world, everyone has the ability in one way or another to become a healer.
The hopeless cries of Rachel in Matthew cannot be answered by most of us. They can only be addressed with empathetic suffering. As Christians, we sometimes find hope in the belief that we are not alone in our pain: that Jesus has experienced hopelessness, despair, and death.
Matthew, in quoting Jeremiah, focused on the despair of loss, Rachel weeping for her children. We dare not give answers, because our answers will be incomplete. There is no passing answer to give on the test of endless suffering.
The original scripture in Jeremiah may carry a bit of reassurance for some, the promise of healing of recovery. The most important part of the passage is "Thus says the LORD."
For those of us who witness while helpless to help, "I wish I had the words..." are sometimes the only words we can honestly say. Sometimes wishing we had the words might be words enough. Knowing that we are mortal and that our wisdom is slight, we do not offer answers we do not have.
We cannot do everything.
We resolve to do what we can.
The American day of Thanksgiving, by popular tradition, began with a celebration in Plymouth not quite four centuries ago. The thanks was given for an end to hungry times as a bountiful harvest came in that year. Meeting primal needs after seasons of profound anxiety will sometimes do that.
That celebration, and the beginnings of the tradition itself, are not well documented. In fact, the habit of hosting a day of Thanksgiving might go back a hundred years before that to a reaction against some religious practices in Europe.
Holidays were taken very seriously in those days, and there were social penalties, sometimes legal penalties, to be paid for non-observance. But religiosity was taking a toll. The popular consensus in the early 1500s was that there were just too many holidays. It was beginning to interfere with economic life. Counting Sundays, the number of days of productive standstill was nearly 150 every year.
So a church reformation, which is to say a Catholic reformation, reduced the number of official holidays by almost three fourths. The more activist fringe of religious folk, the forerunners of today's conservative evangelicals, wanted more. They thought holidays were just a touch short of blasphemy. Puritans campaigned to eliminate all religious holidays, every one of them.
Yup. The original War on Christmas started with religious conservatives. The War on Easter was what might be considered an unquiet second front.
Those Puritans wanted to replace all religious holidays with sort of ad hoc days of fasting or thanksgiving. These would be held as needed. If times were hard or there was a plague or the harvest was lousy, or war was at hand, days of fasting would be the order of the day. War, famine, or pestilence would provoke prayers of penitence. And, if things were good, food was plentiful, there was peace in our time, and folks lived long and prospered, days of prayer and thanks would be appropriate.
Back when things were more than a bit rough in my life, I invented a practice of responding to the ordinary greeting of "How you doin'?" with a sort of private affirmation. I'd say "Better than average." Nobody had to know my average at the time was horrible, and my private little ceremony reinforced the notion for me that, every day in every way, things were getting better and better. Well, it was one way to deal with situational depression.
I kept the practice. The how-you-doin produces an absent minded better-than-average even today. At this stage of life lots of things are absent minded. Better than average, though.
Some friends, those in the know, tease me a little about my better than average disposition. A couple of days ago, I answered "Better than average" and a friend responded, "Yeah, but what is your average?" I thought quickly and said, "It's a little worse than I am now." He gave me a courtesy laugh. Or maybe it was more of a sympathy chuckle.
Okay, not every formula works out to be a positive affirmation. Still, I remain better than the average Burr.
I'm grateful for a lot of things today. Life itself is a gift. I live in a time and place of relative freedom and security. I am surrounded by family and friends, even if some of that surrounding is at an inconvenient physical distance. Our young Marine has served his country well and is safely out of Afghanistan.
Wars are closing. The nation is coming out of a desperate economic period. Marriage rights for different sexual orientation has received four, count em four, ratifications. More are on the way. The nation's first openly gay US Senator will take office in a couple months, accompanied by several gay Congressional representatives. A very good President has been re-elected, and now has a realistic chance of becoming a truly great President.
All in all, taking everything into account, the arc of the moral universe is ever so gently bending toward justice. Birds are singing. Skies are blue. God's in his heaven.
Things are better than average.
Every year for nearly four decades, Nikon has received hundreds of entries in its Small World microscope photography contest. Every year, the images are more amazing, and this year's winners -- selected from nearly 2,000 submissions -- are undoubtedly the best yet.
Super-close-ups of garlic, snail fossils, stinging nettle, bat embryos, bone cancer and a ladybug are among the top images this year. The first place winner (above) shows the blood-brain barrier in a living zebrafish embryo, which Nikon believes is the first image ever to show the formation of this barrier in a live animal.
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I confess I don't care that much for Woody Allen films. I get fidgety when a point is hammered home over several minutes that most anyone could have gotten in 30 seconds. I appreciate a lot of Woody Allen in retrospect. His cinematic moments join a vast collection in my life that I enjoy remembering but which I would not want to experience again. Your mileage may vary. Woody Allen is much more popular than am I.
One memory remains pretty good. Allen's conversation with Diane Keaton's character, Annie Hall, is interrupted by a loud blowhard standing standing behind them in a movie line. The bombast holds forth a monologue about media guru Marshall McLuhan. Finally, Allen provokes an argument with the pompous one. Allen thinks the man's views are, not to put too fine a point on it, without merit. The fellow is indignant.
"I happen to teach a class at Columbia University called ‘TV and Culture’" lectures the man. He holds forth his views as authoritative. "So I think that my insights into Mr. McLuhan have a great deal of validity."
So Allen responds. "Oh do you? Well, that's funny. I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here." He pulls Marshall McLuhan from behind a movie poster. "I heard what you were saying," McLuhan says to the man. "You know nothing of my work ... How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing."
Woody Allen turns to the audience. "Boy, if life were only like this." Here is a brief clip.
For a while, I have had occasion to refer to a proposition by conservative Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute. He describes an entire information system that forecloses any alternate view or information. As I read him, he observes fellow conservatives wrapping themselves in a cocoon, accepting as possible worldviews only those that fit comfortably into this system. He refers to the system of exclusive information as "epistemic closure."
I have sought to apply the Sanchez proposition to what I see as a sociological phenomenon. It seems to me destined to destroy the Republican Party as a credible national presence. Most disagreement with my own proposition is either personal (Burr engages in wishful thinking), or misapplied (lots of liberals are closed-minded, too).
I do speculate about why the left has not gone into an equivalent system of leftward epistemic closure. I haven't found a satisfactory answer.
I reject the wishful thinking objection as unresponsive. Anyone who thinks I am wrong does me a basic courtesy by explaining where my logic or evidence is flawed. Those who do not do me that courtesy might forgive me for thinking their refusal is based on inability.
Rejection based on "lots of folks are closed minded" misinterprets that message, I think. The issue I present is not based on closed mindedness, which is an individual characteristic. It is based on a larger phenomenon and borrows a bit from the controversy stirred by Julian Sanchez.
Even a review of the Julian Sanchez proposition by the New York Times a couple of years ago seemed to misapply the concept. The entire piece seemed based on whether conservatives are closed minded.
So, last week, I wrote a protest piece of sorts. The title pretty directly described the theme: Epistemic Closure Is Not Closed Mindedness. The response might lead us to believe the point was largely lost. Not entirely, though. There was one surprise.
My friend T. Paine wrote to suggest that I am guilty of epistemic closure. "The fact that you don’t see that liberalism, in general, is particularly guilty of this strikes me as your own personal iteration of epistemic closure, my friend!" Which either means that I am closed minded (sigh) or that we should strive for a more complex explanation.
This would describe a system of information that closes me off from liberal views that are in turn closed off from other views and data to the point of an alternate reality. My alternate to the alternate would be, I suppose, an epistemic closure that is entirely contained within, yet closed off from, the proposed liberal closure. Kind of a universe within a universe within the mainstream universe.
As I see it, either my friend T. Paine should go into a new branch of quantum physics, or he has actually conflated, once more, epistemic closure with an individual state of being closed minded.
Another close friend John Myste, writes to say that his contact with conservative debaters reveals to him an openness that is equivalent to that of liberals. If only my pal had left out one sentence, we could have explored a self-selective process. His contact with conservatives who consider his opinions shows that one hundred percent of those conservatives are quite willing to consider a worldview outside the conservative structure proposed by Julian Sanchez, which is to say that everyone who considers his opinion is willing to consider his opinion. Sadly, John included this: "On the conservative sites, liberals are considered intolerant of opposing views and on the liberal sites, conservatives are." So we are back to conflating a closed mind with the Sanchez observation of Epistemic Closure.
Fortunately, to my delight, Marshall McLuhan jumped from behind the curtain his own self, without my even speaking to the camera. After our publication of the piece and the comments in response, Julian Sanchez wrote to us a reply that may serve as a final word on what he meant.
FWIW, as I think I tried to clarify in a follow up post, I did not mean EC as a synonym for "closed-mindedness," or any other characteristic that could be ascribed to an individual. It was really a collective phenomenon: When you have enough ideological information sources quoting and referencing each other to constitute a full blown ecosystem. The "closure" happens when it's built up enough that any contrary information seems like an outlier that automatically discredits its source rather than prompting reevaluation. (At some level this happens with any information system, and can be useful: If a paper reported the earth was flat, you'd correctly decide you should ignore that paper from now on.) It has nothing really to do with individual propensities to open-mindedness; it's a description of an environment, not any particular people within it.
Boy, life sometimes really is like this.
More, much more, of Julian Sanchez can be found at his own site.
John, I defy you to find an instance from Burr or me where we use the words "fact" or "truth" in reference to a chart we've created. Your entire argument is based on a false premise of your own invention.
The Heathen Republican, July 4, 2012
Today, Republican members have the ability to choose what news, and what interpretation of that news, will filter through. This is sometimes called "epistemic closure" by political types. Democrats do it too, although to a lesser degree. Liberal ideology demands evidence. Conservative philosophy does not need it.
- Burr Deming, August 2, 2011
In answer to a challenge that “facts” are not proof, Burr not only produced a chart, but
Democrats have stayed with dreary old Keynesianism. In and out of fashion, they have stuck like glue to the pages of Economics 101. In downturn, increase government spending, in good times, cut spending and balance budgets.
Facts can be stubborn. In this case, as Ryan wisely points out, the facts don't prove either case to a moral certainty. They do tend to support only one side.
- Burr Deming, May 11, 2012
His visual aid, was a very precious small part of the picture. His “facts” included both charts and stats (not spelled out by the way), and did not include anything but a narrow set of data specifically designed to “prove” the philosophy. This is recent. I simply don’t have the time to go find you more examples, and it would be pointless anyway, because as Burr proves, “Liberal ideology demands evidence. Conservative philosophy does not need it.” Normally, I would debate such a claim, but I cannot debate it with you, as you agree that “facts are facts.”
As for your use of charts and stats, we have had this discussion many times on your site. I do not have the time (and frankly or the interest) to revisit your site and revive old discussions.
I will reiterate the same point I made previously: if you have the facts to support your philosophy on your side and Burr has the facts to support his philosophy on his side, and you both spend a great deal of time digging into data, not to support your philosophy, but to learn what is actually true, it seems only reasonable that the two of you get together and solve this paradox: you have opposite views. You or he could claim that you don’t have the time, but that does not make sense to me. You both dig into very deep pools of confirming evidence and produce it on your sites. Why are you not happy to have each other demonstrate the missing “facts” that each of you have. It is a very large body of ignored truth.
I especially have this question for Mr. Deming, as per his own admission he does require evidence for his philosophy. If that is so (and ironically, I know it is), why does he not also require the analysis of good counter evidence (with the Heathen Republican produces). Instead, he quotes the most absurd of absurd conservative positions and refutes them, and in so doing believes he used “the facts” to refute conservatism. You have real intellectual conservatism at your fingertips. It would be a real challenging discussion on both sides. Yet, neither of you seem especially interested in actually being challenged.
John Myste also writes for his own site, where challenging discussion is usually real.
Please visit John Myste Responds.
When, in 2004, conservative Bruce Bartlett was quoted, accurately and selectively, in the New York Times, his views on President Bush, as they were presented, were devastating.
This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can't be persuaded, that they're extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he's just like them...
This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts. He truly believes he's on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.
That wasn't bad enough. The article continued: "Bartlett paused, then said, 'But you can't run the world on faith.'"
Every word had been accurately reported. In fact, a staffer at the Times had called him to verify the entire interview. He had been rushed and, I suppose, had not paused to consider the implications. The interview had focused on other things and the criticism of the President had seemed a minor aside.
When he saw the article, he was surprised at how bad his criticisms were in print. They had become a full fledged, cannons roaring, broadside. Not long after that, he attended a big conservative event. Every major conservative office holder and opinion maker in the Washington, DC, area was there. He knew he would get a lot of hostile reaction to his attack on the President. He braced himself. But he was unprepared for the amount of abuse he actually got.
There wasn't any, "and not in that embarrassed/averting-one's-eyes sort of way," Bartlett later wrote. "They appeared to know nothing about it." After a time, he began asking folks if they had seen the article. The only hostility he got was to the insult of the very thought that they would read anything in the Times or that they would read anything written by anyone who would read the Times. "Even if they felt they had no need for the information content of the nation's best newspaper," wrote Bartlett, "one would have thought they would at least need to know what their enemies were thinking."
The phrase "epistemic closure" was first invented by Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute as a criticism of fellow conservatives. He described a tendency to cut themselves off from any news source, opinion source, or relationship that would introduce them to facts that might contradict their conservative views.
As I understand epistemic closure, it goes beyond an unwillingness to consider other views. It goes past what most of us would consider a closed mind. It is, rather, a complete isolation from anything that might provide even a secondary contact with such views. Conservatives, as Sanchez critiques his comrades-in-arms, do not simply decline to consider the views of others, they take their entire reading of reality, of the world itself, totally from each other. I have accepted his analysis to a point. I do not accept it as a universal characteristic of conservatism.
Over the past several days, I have been in debate with my friend John Myste who, for reasons that remain murky to me, is on a rampage of sorts against the use of graphic charts in debate. In one exchange, he defined epistemic closure as "where you assert that Republicans disagree with you in spite of real world data because they are simply closed minded and will not examine your data."
I do not recall advancing the obligation of every conservative of honest intellect to read what I write. It would be fortunate if they did. Readership has gone up exponentially in the past year, but the craving for new readers is endless. But John's apparent definition of epistemic closure contracts it to any attitude of closed mindedness. It is not something he alone takes as the meaning and significance of the phenomenon. Conservative columnist Jame Wigderson wrote to us last year with his take on epistemic closure. He also seems to view it as a simple closed minded view, combining it with an intolerance of differences. "...my experience with closure of that kind is more on the Left with the enforcement of orthodoxy and Political Correctness. I believe I responded to Sanchez at length on my website."
Indeed he has, but still with variations on the same limited definition. Liberals are closed minded, so they are more guilty of epistemic closure. For example, the firing of Juan Williams was a case of epistemic closer because it is a "display of the close-mindedness of the liberal worldview."
A New York Times (there we go again) exploration of the term itself, unintentionally reveals a sort of flattening of meaning over time. Almost every conservative or liberal in the piece seems to accept the less useful definition advanced by my friend John Myste.
I think they miss the point. Maybe it is understandable. Many ideas tend to degrade after their introduction into the popular culture. Increasing use dilutes meaning back to the familiar.
Still, epistemic closure as originally proposed is a useful idea. Julian Sanchez was onto something, something distinctly modern.
I have speculated on the cause as technological.
The new tendency of at least some conservatives to go into a cocoon type of environment, shutting off the rest of reality, was not easily done in decades prior to the Bush administration. It was technology that began the process. The luxury of closing out any contact with uncomfortable views came with cable television and the internet. It quickly extended to the easy avoidance of any contact with uncomfortable reality.
Intuitively, we would expect the sociological results to extend to every segment of the political spectrum. It is a mystery to me why liberalism, in general, has not succumbed. Maybe that lies in the future.
From Classical Values:
Sometimes I have trouble sleeping peaceably in my bed at night because I know that rough men stand ready to do violence to quotations on the Internet.
I should probably point out that I am not losing my mind. Yet. I was merely expressing my frustration by deliberately mis-paraphrasing a famous misquotation of Orwell and morphing into it a well-known cartoon which offends me because it ridicules my plight.
I have a long history of getting annoyed by lies, misrepresentations, and misquotations on the Internet, and back in the day, I used to imagine that I could "correct" or "debunk" them, and that they would stay debunked.
In response to: John Myste's
A Heretical Challenge to the Gospel According to Charts
You claim that skeptics ignore "the facts," "won't even consider them." You have a real opportunity to show that you are actually interested in the truth and if the charts are flawed, you wish to discover it, even if they are charts that support a liberal stance.
Aging continues to hold surprises for me. I had thought gray hair would bother me. It didn't. At least not much. As I lost even that gray hair, it proved to be a minor issue. I simply got brave and leaped on in before being completely pushed, shaving what few strands I had left. Aches and pains bother me, but not that much. I had sort of anticipated them, and discounted them as they came along.
I have noticed a tendency to rather pointlessly grunt as I sit or stand up. It's not pain or effort, just some habit. Where does that come from? Health fades a bit with time. Medical people prescribe a host of pills that have to be taken on schedule. All in a life. No deal.
What I did not expect, what caught me flatfooted, was the emotional toll of dentistry. Losing teeth was something experienced by friends who are considerably younger than I am. I don't notice it in them, and they seem to take it in stride. But dentures were a sort of terrible milestone with me. For some reason the continuous consciousness of what had once required only a minor bit of attention is a constant reminder of the passing of a clear demarcation.
I now focus on every bite. No choice. And the concentration reinforces the fact that I am undeniably older than I want to be.
Worst of all is the gradual loss of working memory. I keep lists now. I make sure to follow a rigid routine on major matters, so I won't forget something critical. My medications are divided each week into daily pill boxes. Without them, I simply cannot remember from one moment to the next whether I have taken what I should. I don't want to skip, and I don't want to double up.
When my friend John Myste drops by this site to attack me, I often cannot remember my guilt. His accusations are, not to put too fine a point on it, MYSTErious. Ha-ha-ha. See what I did there?
Sadly, it is not the first time John has had to intervene, pointing out some sin that had completely gone from my mind. Consider this major event from a while back.
This time, John condemns my dishonesty on a number of counts. John has a special dislike to charts and graphs, whereas I regard charts and graphs to be "data" and "gospel" and "truth". I decline to confront those who may disagree with me. Here is a small portion of John's rebuke:
You claim that skeptics ignore "the facts," "won't even consider them." You have a real opportunity to show that you are actually interested in the truth and if the charts are flawed, you wish to discover it, even if they are charts that support a liberal stance.
Since you consider the charts to be "data," "truth," "gospel," I suspect you will rush over their post haste and defend the truth.
John is quite right to condemn my practice of condemning skeptics. It is wretchedly unfair of me. The fact that I cannot recall a single instance of attacking skepticism is no excuse. I am doubly guilty, since I have long considered skepticism to be an honorable and worthwhile attitude.
I open myself to a further accusation of hypocrisy by pointing to an entire piece I wrote about, by chance, John himself. In it, I thought I had made clear the difference between skepticism and cynicism. Skepticism is the constant questioning of logic, evidence, and viewpoints. It is the intellectual challenge that forms the very heart of debate. I pointed, in an attempt at contrast, to cynicism as a reflexive and lazy rejection.
At the time, John sent a comment promising a later detailed reply. He undoubtedly provided one, although I do not recall it, and cannot find any evidence of it. The mind does fade with age, for I know John would not so hastily condemn my unconscious neglect of opposing views if he was more guilty than I could be. That would not have been honest.
Unfortunately, I am not the only debater to suffer John's scathing wrath. Another blogger is also guilty of dishonesty, combined with a blind acceptance of data whenever it is put into chart form. The Heathen Republican goes through considerable trouble to research his point of view. He usually buttresses his argument with his research, making it stronger. I have thought of this as a strength, an unmistakable indication of intellectual integrity. It took John to provoke an opposing epiphany.
I don't have the time to read The Heathen Republican as often as I wish I could. My loss. Every week I make it a point to at least scan his work to find something to comment on in a Saturday post at FairAndUNbalanced.com. It is my hope that those who follow this site will take a moment and experience Heathen's remarkable writing, as do his growing legion of readers. That I usually disagree with his conclusions will not be news to some. The difficulty I have is not disagreement, it is the sheer volume of quality. It is hard to choose from what Mario Cuomo would have called an embarrassment of riches.
Yes, The Heathen Republican is that good.
Until yesterday, I would have favorably compared The Heathen Republican to John his own self. "Everyone has strengths and weaknesses," I would have said. "One visible strength of The Heathen Republican is intellectual integrity. John has other strengths."
My difficulty in following John's profound logic is this:
In my simple world, a chart is simply a visual aid, a tool, a method of communication. If I describe a trend as a series of points tending over time in an accelerating direction, I may put it into graph form for the sake of clarity. I would regard it as "Gospel" to the same degree that I would regard a hammer to be a house.
In fact, in an idle moment, my poor mush filled mind fell absently to substituting other forms of communication into John's condemnation of all things graphical. A number of folks bravely engage in public speaking. I found myself taking out "chartsists" and putting in "public speakers." I came up with this:
I have a partial rebuttal to the Heathen Republican's brutal assault, but I really kind of let it go, because I have long wanted to see public speakers defend their positions honestly, which thus far rarely happens.
A lot of debaters accomplish their debating on the internet. Heathen and I both write, for example. So I absently expanded John's condemnation to writing, taking out "chartists" and "charts" and making a substitution:
Generally, writers do not defend their "facts," even when other writers clearly have writings that refute them. They do not seek out the refutations (not the obviously flawed ones, but the ones of their peers), nor do they generally respond to them. Heathen made a very unusual exception in this case, and I applaud it.
I'm sure Heathen will be pleased at receiving credit for this rare piece of bright and shining honesty in the otherwise dismal gray cloud in which he dwells with his charts. At least he gets out into the cleansing fresh air, even if rarely. As John points out, I am perpetually imprisoned, with no redeeming features at all, stuck deep on the sandy bottom of an ocean of dishonest charts.
In fact, since words themselves are a tool of communication, and they can also be used dishonestly, I started putting in the word "word". This changed John's insight about my hypocrisy, the hypocrisy I can't seem to remember, regarding skeptics:
You claim that skeptics ignore "the facts," "won't even consider them." You have a real opportunity to show that you are actually interested in the truth and if the words are flawed, you wish to discover it, even if they are words that support a liberal stance.
Once I became aware of what I was doing I confess that I went a little crazy, in an elderly sort of way. In for a penny, as they say. Marching along a mental path that would disappoint a purist such as John, I put "communication" itself on trial. John's critique became this:
Since you consider communication to be "data," "truth," "gospel," I suspect you will rush over their post haste and defend the truth.
See you there.
Next week, John will join other Amish folk and condemn the dishonesty inherent in ... you know ... electricity.
See you there.
I have no memory of the earliest part of my life in the small village where I was born. I didn't grow up there. My very young parents took their new-born baby and moved away to other opportunities. In some ways, my childhood experiences were as a visitor to my grandparents. That made the environment one of a sort of iconic measure of a different normalcy.
My grandparents had a large back yard with a garden and a small one row vineyard. A bird feeder and stone birdbath could be seen out of the kitchen window. A small shed in a corner of the yard was just large enough to house a grass mower and a few other lawn care utensils. I grew up associating my grandparents with the magic garden, filled with grapes, vegetables, and birds.
At the end of the street was a little corner store with just enough stock to serve the local neighborhood. Those old enough to remember ancient episodes of Dobie Gillis will recall the little store owned by Dobie's dad. And each midday, everyone set their clocks by the village fire whistle. The whistle went off and clocks went to noon.
That whistle came to represent a minor regional legend of sorts. There was normal time, and the strange varying time of the village of my grandparents.
The source was a primitive feedback loop. Every morning, a local fireman would stop along his walk to work and look through the store window of the local clock shop. The clocks had all been fastidiously set the day before. They did not differ from each other by as much as a second. The fireman would set his pocket watch by the clocks, to the exact second, then walk the rest of the way to work. Each day at noon, the fireman would pull the whistle cord. Most folks in the village would set their watches and clocks by the fire whistle.
Among those setting clocks by the fire whistle was the owner of the little clock shop. Little by little, over time, the clocks in the village became a little off, then a little more off. The lack of an outside source put them outside the correction of the outside world. Gradually, more of the village folk stopped depending on the fire whistle. Those who kept the practice, putting their faith in the trusty whistle, might have occasionally wondered why radio and television stations started their programs at the wrong time. Crazy networks, can't even start programs on time!
I recently wrote a piece presenting evidence about the correlation between deficits and economic recovery. I focused on the Roosevelt recovery from the Great Depression, concentrating on the 1937 interruption to that recovery, which was caused by a brief government focus on reducing deficits. I went on to the 1941 - 1945 massive surge in government spending, which ended the depression completely. I then looked at more recent evidence, showing the correlation between the Obama recovery from the Bush recession and the stimulus program. The evidence seems to suggest that, with some exceptions, deficits are good during economic bad times. The bigger the better. And surpluses to pay down the national debt are good during prosperous times.
Any part of those correlations can be explained by other coinciding factors. My proposition was that the amassed volume of consistent evidence points to a rational economic policy. Still, any discussion is an invitation to alternate explanations of what we know happened.
Instead of an alternate explanation, the note of disagreement by an honored guest and occasional generous contributor was oddly dismissive:
If we could only do a $2 Trillion stimulus now, maybe we could save the economy. Okay, back to reality now.
That was it. The rest of the comment went to another subject, the evils of government waste.
It occurs to me that a lack of contact with actual evidence produces that sort of easy dismissal. Cable television provides an easy environment in which opinions are no longer tested against evidence. Reality is tested only against consumer desires.
You don't like the idea that climate change is a mainstream scientific consensus? Change the channel. You think voter fraud is a massive problem? Some commentary will depart from fact to reinforce the need to make what is a basic right for many of us into a privilege that must be earned by others. It should be harder to vote, at least for minorities, or the elderly, or anyone who rides a bus to and from work. And, of course, if you don't like an economic theory that goes against the grain, there is no need to research for evidence to test. The television remote provides an easier way.
A few years ago, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer gave a speech praising the new meme.
What Fox did is not just create a venue for alternative opinion. It created an alternate reality.
No need to visit actual data when you can dwell in the parallel world of your choosing, spending quiet afternoons chasing garden gnomes across the magic yard of some long ago village conjured up from the mists of childhood memories. Where facts can vanish with a dismissive wave and the time is determined by the fire whistle of the mind.