An Orwellian Threat in a Huxley World

As regular readers here know, I’ve long thought that Julian Sanchez’s explanation about epistemic closure was a brilliant description of what is going on with conservatives these days. A month into our experience with a Trump White House, it is helpful to re-read what he wrote almost seven years ago as a way to understand what we’re seeing.

One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile…Internal criticism is then especially problematic, because it threatens the hermetic seal. It’s not just that any particular criticism might have to be taken seriously coming from a fellow conservative. Rather, it’s that anything that breaks down the tacit equivalence between “critic of conservatives” and “wicked liberal smear artist” undermines the effectiveness of the entire information filter. If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely—maybe even when it comes from the New York Times. And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation. A more intellectually secure conservatism would welcome this, because it wouldn’t need to define itself primarily in terms of its rejection of an alien enemy.

I was reminded of that today when I read Ishaan Tharoor’s post titled, “The Trump presidency exists in a bubble.”

Some American conservatives mock their counterparts on the left, particularly student activists at the country’s liberal colleges, for clinging to their “safe spaces” — that is, avoiding conflicting opinions and refusing to tolerate the views of those who don’t share their outlook.

But Trump is now the one groping for a safe space. His incessant derision of journalists and his apparent desire to hide behind campaign theatrics are both symptoms of his divisive brand of ultra-nationalist populism. They are also possibly a coping mechanism for a president already buffeted by intrigue, scandal and allegations of incompetence just a month into his tenure.

When Trump declared that the mainstream media is the enemy of the American people, he was attempting to reinforce the hermetically-sealed bubble in which both he and his supporters live. As Sanchez says, that is their source of solidarity and energy.

Recently Sanchez added a bit of a gem to this discussion on twitter.

My response was to remind folks that it is actually possible to say something profound in less than 140 characters. That one sparked a lot of thinking on my part because he captured something that is vitally important for all of us to consider.

Back in 1985, Neil Postman wrote this about the contrast between the “Orwell threat model” and the “Huxley world.”

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

Notice that Sanchez didn’t deny the reality of the Orwellian threat we face. He simply said that it is happening in the context of a Huxley world. Trump and his supporters are so comfortable in their bubble that any attempt to challenge them is seen as a threat from the “alien enemy.”

But in his original post about epistemic closure, Sanchez gave us a clue about what might be the most powerful tool for the resistance when he said, “there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation.”

How that conversation is engaged is perhaps the biggest challenge we face today. I certainly don’t have an easy answer to questions about how that’s done. But regardless of whether he becomes the next DNC chair, I think Tom Perez is on to something when he says this:

No matter where they live every American should hear our message of inclusion and opportunity. It’s not enough to shout at people from Washington, DC, or try to re-engage only when election season rolls around. We need to be listening and talking to voters – from rural communities and urban, on the coasts and in the middle of the country – year-round, with state parties driving the conversation.

That is where a real grassroots resistance movement begins.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.