Sunday, October 11, 2009

Republicans Or The World? You Must Choose

A lot of smart people in America are uncomfortable with the idea that they should treat similarly educated folks from other advanced democracies as generally ignorant, deluded, or crazy on global political issues. Instead, we should treat them as what philosophers call 'epistemic peers' -- people just as intelligent as us, working from the same body of evidence, who are roughly our equals in ability to know the truth. In the case at hand, the bodies of evidence differ somewhat, since we have different news sources. But we can mostly solve this problem by sharing our evidence in discussion. If the evidence conflicts and we try to argue that their news sources are unreliable, all we usually have to go on is our news sources, and they can argue the same against us.

Similarly, a lot of smart Democrats are uncomfortable with the idea that they should regard Republicans as generally ignorant, deluded or crazy on global political issues. Many of the same considerations apply here. If we argue that their news sources are unreliable, they can argue that ours are, they're in possession of a basically isomorphic argument. Ordinarily, treating Republicans as epistemic peers would be a reasonable position, just as treating foreigners that way is. But the trouble at our historical moment is that we're no longer able to treat Republicans and educated people throughout the world as epistemic peers at the same time.

I think the following is a fair characterization of the reasoning that resulted in Obama's recent honor: The Republican Party has gone mad and become so destructive of world peace that you get a Nobel Peace Prize for removing them from power. That's an incredibly strong way to to put the point, and I don't know if the consensus of educated people outside America is willing to go quite that far. But if it stops short, it doesn't stop too far short. The 2008-2009 jump in favorable views of America, especially in Western Europe but including many other nations, is a sign of how differently people see Obama-era America from what preceded it. Foreigners will have many different views of what exactly is going on, but they're generally going to include the idea that Republican views on foreign policy are so tainted by the xenophobia, bloodthirst, and misinformation of influential people in the party that they can't be regarded as epistemic peers.

Republicans regard world opinion as badly as it regards them. You can see it even in their relationship with mainstream American opinion, where they've constructed an alternative news infrastructure in Fox News and talk radio that they regard as free from the distortions of the mainstream media. While Democrats have their own preferred blogs and websites, they haven't built full-fledged Fox-News-style alternative versions of mainstream news institutions. Globally, this becomes even stronger. Republicans' relation to respected international institutions like the UN (on the political side) and the BBC (on the news side) has long been hostile. When international weapons inspectors claimed that Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction, Republicans ridiculed them. Thinking the Wikipedia editors of the world are biased against them, Republicans created Conservapedia. If you don't regard educated people throughout the rest of the world as your epistemic peers, this is what you do, and maybe you start ordering freedom fries. Of course, this leaves you in a situation where the rest of the world isn't going to think you're an epistemic peer of theirs.

So where does this leave Americans who aren't Republicans? I don't think it's possible for us to treat both Republicans and educated people throughout the world as epistemic peers. This would involve having some level of trust each group's deeply held belief that the opposite group has gone totally off the rails. This leaves you suspecting that two different groups of people are deluded on the say-so of people who you suspect are deluded about issues like who is deluded. That's a pretty bad position, and not one we can stay in very long. We could also just regard global affairs as a huge area of general confusion where nobody knows what is going on, and withdraw from politics. If we're going to continue doing politics, however, we need to decide which group we're going to treat as epistemic peers and whose opinions we're going to regard as tainted by bias and misinformation.

There's plenty to be said about how exactly we should make that decision. But I'm going to conclude this post by observing that the noble intentions of Democrats and independents to treat both Republicans and educated foreigners as epistemic peers about global affairs can't be satisfied in our unhappy world. If we're going to engage in politics, we have to be either xenophobes or partisans. There are no other options.
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