Half-Baked Musings on American Epistemologies: A Different Way to See “Disinformation”

Danielle Lee Tomson
10 min readFeb 15, 2022


Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire” — Another cyclical view of history?

Ideology vs. Epistemology

Last summer, in teaching a class on Information Warfare Reporting, we had a guest who suggested that it was not ideology, but differing epistemologies that motivated a lot of the disagreements (and conflicts) in our public sphere around things like vaccination, the 2020 Election, COVID19, or abortion. I could not agree more.

As a refresher, an epistemology is a theory of knowledge, or how we know what we know of the world and distinguish between “justified belief” of what is true, or merely an opinion. What the speaker meant was, we disagree not on just what we know, but how we come to know and justify it.

However, the speaker suggested that “epistemology versus anti-epistemology” was the paradigm we are seeing in the United States. They could have made this comment off the cuff musing, but I totally felt compelled to step in. This tendency towards binary (true/false, fact/fiction, left/right, educated/uneducated, black/white) is something Americans seem to love in politics. Comparatively, a dear friend introduced me to Anekantavada recently, or a Jain epistemological doctrine that translates roughly to “non-one-sidedness doctrine.” It is a doctrine of “maybe,” that no single truth can be stated to absolutely describe existence.

In America, and around the world, we see a wide variety of epistemologies — there is not just one way to know reality though your knowledge system might claim that is the case. For instance, some cultures may see the belief in god or gods as a justified belief — something that is a fact or true based on observation, tradition, or history. Other cultures or groups might see belief in god as a mere opinion that cannot be proven or disproven. Culture, power, social organization might flow out of these beliefs.

As a consequence of having many epistemological postures, it begs the question of what is “true” information? Thus, approaching “disinformation” as a binary — true and false — as opposed to situated in an entire knowledge system, is doomed to failed short-termism and media effects studies trying to figure out if “corrections” will solve the “problem” of “bad information.” It is like fixating on cleaning up an oil spill when you could be regulating fossil fuels or creating new energy systems.

What other epistemological postures govern the way we understand reality and how can we approach those in the interest of peace, stability, and equality (already not necessarily agreed upon values)?

As much as we would like to think in the United States that we are governed by an Enlightenment epistemology that borrows from Ancient Greece and Rome, I believe this country has a very diversified epistemological community, lending in part to our short history of the Founding, various immigration waves, promise of religious freedom, utopias/dystopias, enslavement of Black people, and conquest of indigenous peoples. This informs the way they see history, facts, time, narrative and reality generally speaking.

This little blog post is just put out to get some feedback on an idea I’ve been kicking around. It is not fully baked. As a scholar of the American Right-Wing media ecosystem, I would say there are four dominant epistemologies at place in this country:

1) the Enlightenment

2) the Traditionalist

3) the “End Times” Evangelical

4) the Progressive

These epistemologies can overlap and intermix, just as people do, creating the unique friction we see in this country between religions, cultures, knowledge systems, races, political leanings, and value systems. (I’m indebted to other schema of American thought, such as Walter Russell Mead’s Special Providence archetypes on American foreign policy).

Here is a light sketch:


Many people in power and especially many in the contemporary academy might look at America as being founded on an Enlightenment-based epistemology: that there is an objective truth that must be uncovered through scientific discovery, that humans are capable of rational thought, and that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, or at least some greater understanding of how the universe operates. There is a notion that the universe is governed by “rules” that we must discover, ranging from the laws of market places (think Capitalism), to the weather, to physics, to social psychology. The American Founding Fathers were highly influenced by Free Masonry, a fraternal order founded during the Enlightenment that ritualized values of science, discovery, and monotheism. The American Constitution, with all of its tragic flaws and ambitious promises, has a notion of progress built in. It is not to say Enlightenment is anti-religious or atheist, though those leaps could be made. In some ways, folks have argued that Communism and Socialism are as much Enlightenment outflows as Capitalism is (for another blog post). All three believe in some kind of inevitable human progress — nearly guaranteed by the nature of scientific discovery — and that humans can be guided, by markets, science, or governments, towards that end.

In this epistemology, we might believe that we can set up institutions that are governed by and adapted to rules that we discover that dictate reality, nature, humanity, and systems. Enlightenment ideals believe in the power of human rationality, equality, and human development. “Trust the Science!” “Justice!” “Progress!” “Education!” “Equality!” are the mantras of this system.

For every rational, enlightenment strain, there is also what Isaiah Berlin has called a “counter Enlightenment” that pushes back with romanticism, anti-progress views of history, and anti-rationality, perhaps hardening the mantras and convictions of both as they get further from a shared sense of reality. My late mentor Todd Gitlin, in critiquing the near religious faith in the system of “hard sciences” (that are really an iterative process contextualized by power, institutions, and interests), reflects: “The practice of making a fetish of the ‘hard’ behavioral fact in sociology grows along with the use of ‘hard news’ of the mediated fact as ‘technological propaganda’ or in ‘propaganda of the facts’ which functions to discourage reflectiveness.”

Both Republicans and Democrats have championed Enlightenment language and rationality, both sincerely and suspiciously, particularly during the Cold War. It bred the era’s “celebrated” Centrist Consensus. Enemies of the Enlightenment adherents might call them globalists, neoliberal shills, or centrists.

Truly, not everyone in America has or believes this hopeful impulse of Enlightenment.


In the U.S. as with other parts of the world like Brazil or Russia, Traditionalism with a capital “T” has made a raging comeback. Traditionalism rejects a view of history that is naturally progressive, or bending towards moral justice. Time is much more cyclical.

In the US, Steve Bannon has been its main champion. In his book, War for Eternity: Inside Bannon’s Far-Circle of Global Power Brokers, Ben Teitelbaum describes Traditionalism as viewing history as “both fatalistic and pessimistic,” repeatedly cycling through different ages of virtue, depravity and collapse, with each age belonging to a different caste of people — priests, warriors, merchants, and slaves. Ages ruled by priests and warriors were golden eras of virtue; ages ruled by merchants and slaves (or slaves that though they were priests) were signaling collapse. Part of life was understanding what age you were in, and behave accordingly. Traditionalists often appear to not even map to contemporary right or left politics — they seem beyond it entirely.

Traditionalism in its Western, modern understanding was repopularized by a French Muslim convert named René Guénon, who believed there was a core, timeless Tradition that had been lost, but manifested in parts of a variety of religious paths. Important to the idea of Traditionalism is the discovery of this hidden, ancient knowledge, religious practices of prayer and meditation, and an idea of the waking up of consciousness, possibly to begin to break the cycle. It was highly influenced by 19th century esoteroic, Oriental, and occult circles.

For this reason, Traditionalists have a penchant for cyclical theories of history informed by Eastern thought. There are references to this being a time of Kali Yuga, the fourth and worst of the “yugas” or ages that is full of delusion, discord, and violence in Hindu philosophy. Bannon has also popularized the idea of the Fourth Turning, a cyclical theory of American history laid out by William Strauss and Neil Howe. They posture history is laid out in a repetitive unit of time called a saeculum, which mimics the human life cycle of birth, maturity, crisis and death. The Fourth Turning — which Bannon believes we are in — is a time of crisis that ushers in a new system. There is a fight for what the terms and values of that new system will be.

The Traditionalist view of time and history can almost feel like reading history as astrology to an Enlightenment thinker. In a moment where my generation is turning to astrology, personality assessments, and New Age practices for meaning as old systems and institutions collapse under the weight of mistrust, elements of Traditionalism have captured the imagination of even left wing New Age types. The result can be a strange blend of what has been called “Conspirituality,” or a penchant for conspiratorial thinking grounded in an alternative spiritual New Age lifestyle that has rejected other institutions or epistemological traditions out of the trauma of intense events (9/11, the pharmaceutical opioid crisis, the Iraq War, the 2008 financial crash) having felt institutions that promised to take care of them are untrustworthy, deceptive, or at the mercy of powerful financial interests.

Traditionalism, in its anti-progressive posture, might also view sin and libertine lifestyles as much part of life as good deeds. In fact, darkness or evil might be necessary to usher in light.

My guess is that Traditionalism, at least contemporarily, is more of a last century European import into the United States as well… which perhaps given its newness as an old tradition gives it appeal.

“End Times” Evangelical

American thought has long been punctuated by Millenarian beliefs that “End Times” are here or nigh, which would be followed by Christ’s return and the creation of his kingdom on earth. Since colonial times, revival culture, the Great Awakening, Shakers, the Oneida Community, and other persecuted religious groups all believed that America would be the site of a new millennial kingdom of God. In many ways, fringe Christians coming to America to prepare for and create a new City on a Hill is as American as the Enlightenment ideals under-girding our constitution.

This belief continues today. This is where the heart of the QAnon and Christian Nationalist movements lie — in a belief that there is a much anticipated and imminent Second Coming of Christ and can be observed through historical events as prophesized in the New Testament. This can also be mapped syncretically to secular contemporary events by those who might have lost faith in God or Christianity — that there is a strong man who is coming or came (Trump) who can usher in a new promised era in America and “save” the forgotten men and women who must do everything they can to support in the birth of this New Age.

Why do I distinguish this from Traditionalism? In many ways, Evangelical thought has more of a conversion urge than Traditionalism — the latter of which is more more informed by Eastern and esoteric thought. It also has a less cyclical vision of history because it is grounded in Christian eschatology, which is inherently a bit more linear. There is only one Christ, after all.


Progressive epistemology is what one might call “woke.” It is a strain of seeing the world that views human progress contingent upon a variety of collective liberation projects — particularly of groups but also individual consciousness. This makes it a bit distinct from the more staid, individualist posture of Enlightenment thought which believes through deliberation and interrogation, not revolution necessarily, individuals will be able to understand and create more egalitarian and perfect systems. These liberation projects of progressivism are predicated on the deconstruction of social constructs that create hierarchies in sexual preference, gender, race, religion, and nationality. We can think of the anti-racist, feminist, LGBTQIA+, anti-capitalist, and anti-colonial revolutionary movements as part of this urge.

In the way Traditionalism and Evangelical epistemologies are related, so are the Enlightenment and Progressive postures. Progressive epistemology also sees history as bending towards justice, progress, and moral development, but particularly through the deconstruction of old systems, which naturally gives it a more collective and revolutionary edge. There is a belief in the power of collectives to do this kind of liberation, the question is which? In some ways, Progressivism is the grandson of disillusioned Marxists who did not have their historical predictions of international worker liberation come true. There still is a hope that by liberating other oppressed groups from the shackles of patriarchy, capitalism, or other legacy systems that have privileged white men over others, through a process of revolution, a liberation promise will be fulfilled. The belief in revolutionary promise, of course, has its own inheritance from Judeo-Christian stories of liberation and freedom.

How to Move Forward?

So what to make of this? If you want a country to survive with such intense disagreement, you need a meta-epistemology to sit on top of this that fundamentally puts survivability, compromise, and a kind of agape, or universal love of humanity, on top.

In a country with highly varied epistemologies that have agreed (barely) to co-exist in a sort of inefficient yet resilient political system, this does not mean that there will not be conflict at times — political, cultural, economic, or even physical. Additionally, the compulsion to “convert” or “educate” varies within each epistemology — meaning numbers will change! This urge must be acknowledged as a variable, especially in a nation with a storied history of religious fundamentalism and “born again” conversion narratives (I say this as a willing and practicing convert myself).

To sit too pretty in one epistemological posture in a place like America surely spells trouble. The party or group that speaks to a variety of urges finds power, messaging, and possibility.



Danielle Lee Tomson

Personal Musings of a Scholar and Strategist Navigating Propaganda, Tech, and Power