A War of Thought

It’s commonplace now to see our political fights attributed to demographics or social evolution or some other giant abstract cause that we all feel but that we can’t change. The Washington Post, for example, said, “The American political system is being torn apart by deep structural changes that don’t look likely to reverse themselves anytime soon.”

This is nonsense. Politics isn’t seismology. There isn’t a party or an office or a person in the country named “Deep Structural Changes.” What’s happening is by, for and about individuals. Whatever a deep structural change is, you can’t change its mind. With people however, changing minds is possible, and that’s where change really happens. It happens in real minds, in real lives, in how people go about the business of living every day.

Conservatives feel what’s happening: in this epistemological war, anti-empiricism that has been fundamental to their thinking for generations is being abandoned or discredited rapidly and pervasively in the real practices of living because it’s increasingly useless.

Only the most rabid true believers still embrace absolutist anti-empiricism, and even they can’t live by their own standards. There is no territory for it anymore, no border behind which it can retreat and secede, and no place in the economy where anti-empiricism serves its user for long. Rick Santorum is incorrect when he suggests that churches and families are safe bastions for anti-empiricism. The battlefields in this war are everywhere an empirical decision proves itself to be of greater value than an anti-empirical one. Conservatives are fighting inside their own minds.

Standing athwart history yelling Stop stopped Conservatism, but everything else accelerated. Ironically, the same 21st century technology that has been weaponized by Web and broadcast media Conservatives with terrible effect on their own unity is being used by individuals, including Conservatives, to undermine the traditional Conservative mindset. The same technologies that Glenn Beck uses to sell anti-empirical passion and unexamined truths permit the user to use the antithesis: fast, rigorous deliberation towards an empirical decision.

It demonstrates how badly Conservatives misunderstand this war that, in their rage, they arm themselves for war with firearms — weapons that are, in this conflict, totems against change and fears that can’t be stopped and that no gun can soothe. Some Conservatives embrace fear itself. The people most passionately devoted to the Second Amendment are carrying a weapon against change they can’t see and can’t shoot.

The real weapons in a war of thought are better ideas. On battlefields where rational deliberation delivers an advantage, any technology that supports rapid, distributed, empirical decision-making is a weapon wherever it is applied: broadband fiber, computer technology, data storage and analytics, APIs, wireless transmission, ever-greater processing speed and memory, portability and ease of use. They’re far more powerful in real living than any firearm.

Imagine a homeowner who has been told by a right-wing radio personality that solar panels don’t and can’t work learning beyond doubt that for his house they will, that the financing is advantageous, and that solar will save money and make the house more valuable. Imagine how many people have been indoctrinated against the very idea of such a practical measure, not on its merits, but on the blanket dismissal of it in the first place not on any actual merit, but because it is somehow not Conservative. Imagine someone emerging from a trance of assumptions and prejudices and actually investigating, testing it in his real life, and making his empirical decision function as a tool instead of succumbing to an anti-empiricist mood.

Instead of living with a perpetual, costly commitment to epistemic closure, every Conservative in the rank and file can now instantly test almost any allegation, supposition, or thesis made by Conservative leaders or media in actual application and gain for himself an understanding that may or may not jibe, not just with what he is being told, but with the whole school of thought behind what he is being told. He can strip politicized assumptions from his thinking as a voter and as consumer, and weigh, on his own, rationally, situation by situation, his emotional allegiance to dogmatic ideology against the utility of it applied in his own life. Or, he can choose not to test, and go on assuming. But one way or the other, he’ll have to be accountable for the outcomes. The right to willful obliviousness is still around, of course, but the utility of it is vanishing.

People are armed as never before to make those decisions for themselves in real skirmishes, with greater speed and in greater numbers than ever. Every such decision in which empiricism vindicates itself in practice is a subtle defeat for the Right. Even the smallest decision that weighs anti-empiricism against empiricism is a fight in this war of thought.