EPISTEMIC ENCLOSURES: What holds us back?


Part 1—David Gregory’s search: Fifty years after the March on Washington, what is America like?

The question may seem large in scope. But yesterday morning, David Gregory said we’d be exploring that question on a special Meet the Press.

Fifty years ago this Wednesday, Dr. King gave a world-famous speech. How does America measure up now? Gregory wanted to know:
GREGORY (8/25/13): This Sunday, a special Meet the Press: The American Dream.

Fifty years ago this week, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., change history with his "I Have a Dream" speech. He had a vision for equality and economic progress, and he issued a challenge to America—live up to its democratic ideals.

How does America measure up today? I'll ask our guests, civil rights pioneer and Georgia congressman John Lewis; mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Cory Booker; and governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal.

Also this morning, we will explore the overall state of the American Dream—civil rights, the struggles of the middle class in this economy, immigration—issues at the heart of our political debate. Our roundtable weighs in—host of MSNBC's Politics Nation, the Rev. Al Sharpton; Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and business executive, Sheryl WuDunn; Republican congressman from Idaho, Raul Labrador; and unique perspective from historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin as well as New York Times columnist, David Brooks.

I'm David Gregory. All that ahead on Meet the Press, this Sunday, August 25.
Gregory was going to ask a cast of thousands to answer every question on earth. He wanted to know about Dr. King’s famous dream—and about the general state of the so-called American Dream.

Fifty years later, how does America measure up? Gregory’s first guest, Rep. John Lewis, said, “Our country is a better country.”

Lewis one of the very rare people who seems to have an actual world view. “I think in the past 50 years we have witnessed what I'd like to call the non-violent revolution in America,” he said, “a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas.”

Whether he’s right or wrong, Lewis can actually explain what he means by such statements. But Gregory’s subsequent questions were lame, and Lewis’ answers to his questions were a bit non-responsive.

The bather continued from there. At the end of the show, Gregory’s panelists went one by one, exploring the current state of the American Dream.

As we often are, we were struck by the fatuous nature of the discussion. We thought of the famous three (or six) blind men who were asked to determine what an elephant is like by feeling different parts of his body.

For the record, there’s nothing wrong with lacking sight; some women lack sight too. But there is none so “blind” as those who appear on our TV news shows! The first Q-and-A about the elephant of the American Dream went to David Brooks.

To watch this full pseudo-discussion, click here:
GREGORY: But the big question is, what is the state of the American Dream today?

BROOKS: It's become harder. You know, I want to pick up on what Cory Booker said earlier, the phrase, "a conspiracy of love." We talk a lot about jobs and wages and all the economic policies we do well here in Washington, but inequality shows up phenomenally early, by age two and three, and it's the interplay of economic stress and social and emotional stress. And so getting the economic pieces right, but it's also right to get policies and have families that have secure attachments, constant and disciplined love, large vocabularies, lack of stress and dysfunction in the home—those are the things that leave permanent scars and make it impossible for kids to graduate from high school.

So we have a firm argument on economic policies. We're not good at talking about the word "love" in Washington. If you use that word in a congressional hearing, they look at you like you're Oprah. But that is what we need to do.
According to Brooks, we need to talk about the word “love” in congressional hearings. We think his statement is accurate, though we thought it was poorly expressed.

But then, Gregory turned to Sheryl WuDunn. Her soliloquy struck us as just empty:
GREGORY (continuing directly): Look, we know, Sheryl, that people around the world still want to come and live in America. This is a country of enormous wealth and influence and opportunity still today, for all the tough stuff. But is the American Dream what it has always been?

WUDUNN: Look, the American Dream is still available, but for the well-educated. So a couple of doctors coming from China or India, you know, in the middle class they can come here, and they can live the American Dream. But for an inner-city single mom who lives in a bad neighborhood with bad schools—that's a challenge. And that's the problem right now.

So the civil rights scandal isn't Jim Crow laws, it's actually that a poor minority kid living in inner-city Chicago, you know, he has nowhere to go, whereas the rich white kid living in the suburbs with first-rate schools, you know, he's got everything. And education is the escalator out of poverty but, unfortunately, that escalator is broken for the kids who need it most.
We’ll admit it. That statement about “bad” and “first-rate” schools struck us as clueless and unknowing to the point of being uncaring. On the other hand, the statement was tremendously safe—familiar to all, well-scripted.

WuDunn will be back as a guest! An insider pundit can’t go wrong shoveling that kind of palaver.

For the purest of palaver, needless to say, it must be Doris Kearns Goodwin. She groped the elephant next, as if from the far planet Zarkon:
GREGORY (continuing directly): What the president was speaking of, Doris, is this idea that there's huge inequality in the country in terms of median income. We have a chart here. This isn't purely an economic discussion, but this is one of those data points that really illustrates the point. You look at the bottom 10 percent, it's like a straight line, it's not going up. For the top 5 percent, it has steadily progressed as you go back and look to 1963. I don't have to tell you, you look at that chasm among women, it's also horrible 50 years later. And the feeling that there's not as much opportunity to move out of that state of affairs.

GOODWIN: I mean, the fact that studies are showing now that people born in poverty are likely to be trapped in poverty belies the whole idea of what America was founded on, the idea that if you come here, you use your talents, you work hard, you'll have a more generous life for you and your children.

We have to make a national commitment again. I think the lesson of the civil rights march, there must have been doubt that you could change an entire system of segregation, but they overcame that doubt.

We now have to overcome the doubt that we can change poverty. There was a national commitment to poverty under LBJ. He had a multi-pronged approach. He had Model Cities, he had work studies, he had Job Corps, he had education. The war in Vietnam cut it short. There were some flaws in it. He once said, "We're going to crawl, walk, and run, we're going to get this thing." We need to recommit to that, and it's not a zero sum game. Poverty is for us, as a classless, supposed, society, one of the scourges on our system.
Gregory spoke about "huge inequality in the country in terms of median income," then limited his focus to the bottom ten percent. Goodwin took his unhelpful prompt and ran. Speaking as it from an undisclosed location the dark side of Zarkon, Goodwin proposed a return to the War on Poverty—a suggestion that is completely absurd, given the current political context here in her native land, which she may not visit often.

Does warring on poverty still sounds good to the people Goodwin addresses? At this point, Gregory turned to Al Sharpton to see if the idea made sense:
GREGORY (continuing directly): Reverend, is that a blind spot for this president—that he is focused maybe too much on the middle class not large on poverty?

SHARPTON: I think it's a blind spot on the Congress. When you can't pass a jobs bill, when you can't deal with any of the economic inequality that the president has addressed and talked about, what we're really seeing in this present Congress is they are trying to revoke any remnants of The Great Society that came out of the '60s with Lyndon Johnson.

We cut Head Start this week. We are retreating on the very thing the young people need to step out of poverty. So you can't on one hand say that we want to see young people advance and have one America but we're going to take away the things that could bring us there.
Sharpton at least returned to the here and the now. He said we need a jobs bill. We shouldn’t be cutting Head Start.

At this point, Gregory reached his final panelist, a Republican congressman who seemed to be groping a totally different mammoth. And how odd! Gregory already seemed to know what he was going to say!

“I would argue that you would argue the American Dream is alive and well for people like yourself,” he prophetically said to Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho). And sure enough:

“I would, and it saddens me, actually, to hear some of the things that I'm hearing here, because I think the American Dream is alive,” Labrador said in reply. He recited an upbeat story about his parents’ perseverance and success, as Cory Booker had done earlier—as Bobby Jindal did yesterday on State of the Union, as David Brooks did near the end of Meet the Press, speaking about someone else.

Within the pundit population, everyone has a story about somebody’s heartwarming success! Aside from that, various panelists seemed to grasping different parts of the elephant during this pseudo-discussion.

The conversation was sprawling and pointless. The attention span resembled that of the flea on the elephant’s hide.

We need to restore the War on Poverty! We need to see that low-income kids go to schools that are “first-rate!” We’ll admit it—we found DuWunn’s cheerleading against “bad schools” offensive in its cluelessness, while Goodwin simply sounded like an Austin Powers adviser.

But overall, we were struck by the familiar vacuity of TV’s imitation discourse. It’s one of the obvious modern impediments to the American Dream.

Late in the discussion, a tiny bit of reality was allowed to escape from the panel. As Gregory spoke to WuDunn again, she mentioned the elephant in the room, a beast of whose ginormous size she seemed to be unaware:
GREGORY: Sheryl, what is the optimistic case? I mean, facts are facts and, again, the challenge is of the American Dream being within reach are still facts that government has to deal with; that individuals have to deal with. What is the more hopeful case, though, about the American Dream?

WUDUNN: Well, I think that the problem is government gridlock, it really is. I mean, Head Start, as the Reverend said, 57,000 kids have been shut out of Head Start, and illegal immigrant children have no way to move up.

The chances of an American moving up is worse. It's one out of twelve, versus in Britain it's one out of eight. So what does that mean? That means as Washington dithers, America burns. And that's really important. The government used to be the provider of opportunities—mass education, you know, local community high schools, secondary and tertiary education.

The president mentioned Head Start, and that may be the single most critical thing that actually could help us build the American Dream again. But as Washington dithers, America burns.
Really? Head Start may be the single most critical thing we could do?

“Head Start is not a successful program,” Brooks quickly said, interrupting the perfect script-reading to which DuWunn had repaired.

Is Head Start a successful program? You'll never see such a topic discussed on these TV “news programs.” Instead, you’ll see ciphers like WuDunn offering pleasing scripted remarks right out of a well-known can.

“The government used to be the provider of opportunities,” she said, citing Head Start as a pleasing example. She didn’t seem to understand why, as matters currently stand, “the government” can’t possibly function that way right now.

Brooks was aware of the various studies which suggest that Head Start has not conferred long-term academic advantages on its young recipients. At this moment, one might glimpse the partial shape of the elephant, the one in the room.

Such gaps in perception start to explain the elephant DuWunn skipped past. As everyone knows, nothing is going to happen at all because of that “government gridlock” to which she so briefly referred! And that government gridlock stems from vastly different understandings which prevail “out in the country,” among the electorate.

This includes vastly different perceptions of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and programs like Head Start—or, much more centrally, the president’s health care law.

What explains the current problems with the American Dream? The dumbness of our Sunday discussions is one of the obvious deficits blocking society’s advance. All week, we’ll explore other intellectual shortfalls which keep the society stalled.

“Epistemic” shortfalls are all around the modern American landscape. Our own tribe likes to mock the other tribe for its “epistemic closure”—and the conservative tribe we liberals deride is very much closed, in an array of ways.

That said, our liberal tribe is nothing to brag about either! Might we the liberals be penned in by our own tribal enclosures?

Fifty years after Dr. King spoke, epistemic enclosures are all around us! On Wednesday, we’ll look at his concept of “love,” comparing it to our own tribe’s modern political instincts.

But first, we’ll look at another roadblock which stands in our way—our own tribe’s love of the concept of race.

“Epistemic closure” is quite real in the other tribe. But how about over here? Are there any epistemic enclosures on the streets where we live?

Tomorrow: Can race block us liberals in?


  1. Wonderful essay, Bob.


  2. Beginning with Sesame Street and Electric Company, video editing and programming has involved quick cuts and very short segments. This is standard now in all but Indie films, standard even on TV shows. There has been some talk that today's children cannot focus attention for long because of video games which feature the same quick cuts and relentless action. Some people skip description in novels and only read the dialog, and if nothing happens, they lose interest. Might today's news programs have adapted to this competition and perhaps the characteristics of its audience by deliberately moving discussion forward without going deeply into anything, and by using a scattershot approach to cover a broad territory instead of a single topic in depth?

    I also notice in the quotes an inability to understand the difference between a positive and a negative statement. So Brooks says: "...families that have secure attachments, constant and disciplined love, large vocabularies, lack of stress and dysfunction in the home—those are the things that leave permanent scars and make it impossible for kids to graduate from high school."
    Clearly he means that these are things that prevent such scars, but that is not what he said. Goodwin says: "There was a national commitment to poverty under LBJ. He had a multi-pronged approach." Clearly LBJ was committed to eliminating poverty, but again, that is not what she says. These people all seem to be painting tone pictures with their words, not speaking precisely. Have children been taught that the words go by too quickly to think about what they mean, so all that is important is to catch the gist, that poverty is bad, for example, so that it doesn't matter what someone is actually saying about poverty? Seems to me, these two problems are related.

  3. Could it be that "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in" was the true pioneer of video quick cuts and blackouts?

    Oh, well, it's interesting how the Sunday shows were able to turn the anniversary of one of America's loftiest moments of oratory into something that caused me to shout "OHNONOTAGAIN!" at the TV.

    Throughout MTP, I couldn't stop thinking of David Gregory as the liberal going around at a party introducing people to his only black friend Martin.

    Every time Gregory shows us one of those vintage clips of the old MTP,I pray to Jesus that all three broadcast networks would go back that boring old format, to wit: a panel of middle-aged, unglamorous print journalists, an equally non-descript moderator, and some public official, elected or not. Maybe in its way it was just as staged and the current show, but at least it looked serious.

    And I'd like to go back to 30 minutes per show. Plenty of time to download the cranial content of the average politician. They could give the other 30 minutes back to local religious hucksters for all I care. I never need to see another international corporation "We Care" message again.

    I know, I know, it's like wishing the Cleavers could have a family reunion, presented without irony. Not gonna happen. CNN is even bringing back "Crossfire" after a moment's uncharacteristic embarrassment. It's as if Jon Stewart had never opened his mouth.

  4. I was under the impression that Head start helped, but was not enough, and that in order to really help kids, Headstart would need to be paired with programs that continue to support children into elementary, middle and high school. Am I mistaken about this? I mean, if this is true, would you say that Headstart does not work, (like Mr. Brooks did) or that it simply does not work on its own?

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