Fox News' psycho-social #Benghazi world: The right's fear of facts and the "reality-based community"

What happened in Benghazi vs. the way it's covered: A right-wing fever dream will lead them to electoral ruin

Published May 12, 2014 4:23PM (EDT)

Sarah Palin, Roger Ailes              (AP/Fred Watkins/Reuters/Fred Prouser)
Sarah Palin, Roger Ailes (AP/Fred Watkins/Reuters/Fred Prouser)

Maybe the graphic in my Twitter feed didn't say everything about the GOP's renewed Benghazi frenzy. But it certainly said more than enough: The five stages of Affordable Care Act grief, it said, were Repeal, Replace, Defund, Benghazi and then Acceptance.

Who knew? Not that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross could tell us everything we need to know about the arc of GOP Obamacare politics, with only the “wild card” of Benghazi thrown in — but that she, more than anyone, could help us understand the “wild card” better than any panel of pundits possible could have. Of course, it's not really just a matter of individual psychology. So it was reinforced by what Chris Hayes on MSNBC's "All In" called “the Obamacare/Benghazi cross-fade at Fox News in one graph,” from Jed Lewison at Daily Kos. Head over there and check it out.

His next graph, however, has a somewhat more baroque form, incorporating Cliven Bundy coverage as well, which better explains the trajectory of both lines above before Benghazi exploded.

Ah, that's more like it! We knew it all along, really: The renewed Benghazi hysteria is all about what Republicans need, psychologically, as a group as well as individually, and no one knows that better than their perennial parental surrogate, Fox News. Their Obama hatred, which gives meaning to their lives, has to be cast into some narratively cohesive (if not coherent) form that they can collectively rally around.

It's a commonplace truth that as soon as one form falls apart, for whatever reason, a new one must be found to take its place. ObamaScare has been the most fruitful and enduring such narrative, and now that its pragmatic viability is unexpectedly on life support, it's no surprise to see Benghazi suddenly rocket to the top of the charts. In England of old it was said, “The king is dead! Long live the king!” In America today, the GOP — our very own Tories — have their own equivalent, when the king is not of their own party: “The bogeyman is dead! Long live the bogeyman!”

All this reminded me of Karen Armstrong's discussion of mythos and logos in the introductory chapter of "The Battle for God" — two distinctly different ways of making sense of the world. “Logos,” Armstrong explained, “was the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world.” In contrast:

Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning. Unless we find some significance in our lives, we mortal men and women fall very easily into despair. The mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal. It was also rooted in what we would call the unconscious mind.

We all have need of both logos and mythos in our everyday lives. And yet, it's obvious that liberals focus collectively and politically around logos — they don't call it “the reality-based community” for nothing — while conservatives do the same around mythos, instead, albeit a rather paranoid version of it.

This difference helps enormously when it comes to trying to get a deeper understanding of the politics of Benghazi vs. “#Benghazi,” as Hayes savvily refers to it. In the real world, the attack on Benghazi in which four Americans were killed was a regrettable tragedy — but just one such example among all too many. Just one week after the Benghazi attacks, a Pakistani newspaper published a list of 44 attacks on U.S. embassies since 1958 (13 of them under George W. Bush), and MSNBC's Timothy Noah topped that recently, writing:

Deadly violence against U.S. diplomats, sadly, is a frequent occurrence. The State Department counts 86 “significant attacks” against diplomatic outposts just in 2012, the year of the Benghazi attack. The death toll from these 2012 attacks was not four, but 24. And this is not a new problem. Since 1970, there have been 521 attacks on U.S. diplomatic targets, killing 500 people. The deadliest of these was not Benghazi but a truck bomb explosion in Nairobi, Kenya that killed 213 people, 12 of them Americans. Since 1977, 66 American diplomats have been killed by terrorists.

Needless to say, no other attack on U.S. diplomats has gotten anywhere near the prolonged attention focused on #Benghazi. Certainly not the 1983 Beirut Embassy bombing, in which 63 people were killed, including 17 Americans, on Ronald Reagan's watch — not to be confused with the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, six months later, in which 241 American servicemen were killed, along with 58 French servicemen, six civilians and two suicide bombers. Ronald Reagan is a beloved, god-like figure on the right, who can Do No Wrong. Barack Obama is the exact opposite. By the dictates of mythos, investigations are arranged accordingly — the number of casualties is not even an afterthought. Facts simply do not matter in the framework of mythos and #Benghazi.

Meanwhile, in the real world, facts do matter. Facts about the attacks on Benghazi, about the context surrounding them, about how the Obama administration responded to them, even about how they talked about them. And because facts matter, it matters that the facts uncovered by past investigations have failed to validate hysterical right-wing claims. (See Media Matters on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee report, and the declassified transcripts from House Armed Services Committee hearings, for example.) It matters that even Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in early April that he was satisfied with the military response to the attack:

"I think I've pretty well been satisfied that given where the troops were, how quickly the thing all happened and how quickly it dissipated, we probably couldn't have done more than we did"

But in the psycho-social world of #Benghazi, facts just don't hold much sway. Mythos, not logos, is in charge there — and a very specific kind of mythos at that. To understand why that is, I turn to the work of Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan, starting with something he wrote at the highly respected Balkanization blog in 2005, with the provocative title, "What Fearless White Men Are Afraid Of." He began:

Why are white men less concerned with all manner of risk (global warming, gun accidents, various medical procedures, etc.) than are women and minorities? Known as the “white male effect”... this phenomenon has long puzzled scholars of risk perception. Various hypotheses -- that white men are more informed than women and minorities, that women and minorities feel more vulnerable or less able to protect themselves, that women (and perhaps minorities) are more empathetic than white men -- have all been found wanting in empirical tests.

The phenomenon of “cultural cognition” suggests a different explanation, one that has been confirmed in a national study of culture and risk. The reason white males are less fearful of various risks is that they are more afraid of something else: namely, the loss of status they experience when activities symbolic of their cultural worldviews are stigmatized as socially undesirable.

Kahan has done a lot of work since then, and even then there was a good deal of conceptual complexity behind what he wrote. But what he's describing in the second paragraph above is what he came to called “identity-protective cognition," and the logic behind it is easy to grasp.

According to Kahan, there's nothing special about white males; everyone engages in identity protective cognition. But it's not hard to see that white males in America have a good deal more to lose than anyone else. It's also not hard to see that white males make up the overwhelming majority of the House GOP Caucus, while they're actually a minority among the Democratic Caucus. Thus, it would not be surprising at all to find the House GOP particularly in tune with white male fears more generally — fears that would also tend to be raised by the prospect of either a black man or a white woman holding the highest office in the land.

This was the prospect that Republicans faced in 2008. And it did not occur in a vacuum. After George W. Bush's disputed “election” in 2000, he pursued an agenda that was strongly supported by conservatives at the time, but that had become widely discredited, even before the Wall Street crash of September 2008, leading to the Great Recession. To the extent that there had once appeared to be logos-based, rational/empirical foundations for the policies he had pursued, these foundations had crumbled into dust. Conservatism itself was in crisis, and there was no obvious logos-based way to try to rebuild it, even if conservatives had wanted to.

Instead, conservatives created a new mythos, reinventing themselves in the image of the Founding Fathers. Welcome to the Tea Party! Of course, it had nothing to do with the original Tea Party — Massachusetts was a high-tax colony before the Tea Party, and a high-tax colony it remained — but it was all about mythos, not logos, As long as the participants could feel themselves at one with the original Tea Party, no petty facts could get in their way. As Armstrong also explained:

Myth only became a reality when it was embodied in cult, rituals, and ceremonies which worked aesthetically upon worshipers, evoking within them a sense of sacred significance and enabling them to apprehend the deeper currents of existence.

But even before they identified themselves as the original patriots, they identified Barack Obama as the ultimate other — a socialist, a terrorist (or at least “palling around” with one), a Muslim, a foreigner trying to pretend he was an American ... the ultimate Manchurian Candidate! Neither of these acts of identification was rooted in logos, both were almost exclusively products of mythos.

Indeed, taken literally, as a matter of logos, birtherism simply makes no sense. Obama's mother and father were living in Hawaii, that's well attested to; even the current governor of Hawaii, Neil Abercrombie, knew the couple. Obama's birth was announced in the local papers, and his birth certificate was issued accordingly. But according to the birthers this is all a big lie. Obama was actually born in Kenya, and his U.S. birth was faked — but why? So that he could someday run for president?

Hello! Obama's mother was American (just like Ted Cruz's) so he could still run for president no matter where he was born. What's more, if she had the foresight to know her son would run for president someday, and that his birthplace would somehow become an issue, then why not just stay put in Hawaii, rather than secretly fly to Kenya and then pull off an elaborate deception to make it seem like she had not? If you try to understand birtherism from the insider, using logos, as a character like Philip Marlowe might, you will inevitably conclude that it simply makes no sense. You're not in a world created by Raymond Chandler, you're in some sort of disjointed postmodernist text, and the only way you're going to make sense of it is to get outside of it, and see where it came from — and why.

Taking this approach,the broad outlines are fairly simple. Obama's biracial origins clearly made him unusual in American politics — and hence a likely target for scurrilous ad hominem attacks. But this was enormously complicated by two factors: First was the fact that racially based narratives had become increasingly suspect over time. Second was his political persona, defined by the speech that introduced him to a national audience, keynoting the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when he said, “there's not a liberal America and a conservative America there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America.” The loss of traditional racial attack language was bad enough. Here was a black Democrat passionately embracing a message of national unity that made any ad hominem attacks against him a de facto attack against American unity. He had, as he said, “flipped the script.”

And yet, the social psychological need for identity protection felt by conservatives was higher than ever. It didn't go away just because it was more difficult to pull off. Instead, it became more subtle. Toward the end of the 2008 primary season, questions began to be raised about his birth, so he posted his standard Hawaii birth certificate to his website — case closed, his logos-minded campaign staff assumed. But, of course, the basis for the ad hominem attacks against him had never had anything to do with facts, with logos. It was about identity protection for the white male conservative Republican base, and a meaning-making mythos that would serve that end.

There had to be some way to cast Obama as irredeemably other, and birtherism became a prime narrative for doing so — something that made no sense at all from a logos-based perspective, but proved itself enormously appealing as a form of mythos for the Republican base, to make sense of a very threatening, rapidly changing, out-of-control world. And the way this unfolded was quite typical of yet another form of thinking that contributes to epistemic closure: conspiracist ideation, which copes with unwanted information rather cleverly, by turning it into its opposite. As I wrote in April, discussing conspiracism and climate change:

In the paper on conspiracist ideation and worldviews, the authors wrote, “The prominence of conspiracist ideation in science rejection is not unexpected in light of its cognitive attributes.” For one thing, it provides an out for people who don’t like what the consensus says. “If you are faced with agreement among scientists, you have two choices,” Lewandowsky told me. “You either accept that they are on to something or… You think they all conspire to create a hoax for some nefarious reason. There aren’t too many other options, are there?”

By the above conspiracist logic, any evidence that would disprove the conspiracy is evidence that the person providing it is in on the conspiracy themselves! That's how the initial posting of Obama's birth certificate inflamed the birther conspiracy theory, rather than putting it to rest, as it would have done if logos not mythos were ruling the day. But that wasn't just how birtherism got started; it explains the very essence of how it has grown: That same upside-down logic has turned every expression of common sense — which says the theory is absurd — into yet another sign of a conspiracy so immense, it has no comprehensible limits.

It also explains how no amount of information will ever change the minds of those convinced that there's a #Benghazi conspiracy. There, too, any evidence that appears to refute it actually only shows how much deeper the real conspiracy goes!

This is how the elements all fit together to produce birtherism, and sustain it at remarkably high levels. But a similar dynamic was behind the GOP's opposition to Obamacare as well. After all, Obama's proposal was originally based on the Heritage Foundation's alternative to the Clinton proposal in 1993/94, which in turn inspired RomneyCare. There simply was no logos-based foundation for vehemently denouncing Obamacare as some kind of exotic alien takeover plot — and yet, that's just what their mythos demanded be done. And so it was.

#Benghazi is more of the same. There are legitimate issues surrounding Benghazi, but Republicans have shown zero interest in them. They do not do logos, period. More money for embassy security? You've got to be kidding! Even more so, if you expect them to change. What they are after is political theater, period, end of sentence, end of story. Or, if you will, political ritual:

Myth only became a reality when it was embodied in cult, rituals, and ceremonies which worked aesthetically upon worshipers, evoking within them a sense of sacred significance and enabling them to apprehend the deeper currents of existence.

In short, #Benghazi is a ritual of purification and unification, drawing together all “true Americans” as the likes of Sarah Palin and Cliven Bundy like to call them. Its complete disconnect from the world of logos is a feature, not a bug. In the world of logos, Obamacare has lost its luster as something to run against—and even Fox News knows that. In fact, any logos-based politics risks generating some kind of friction or other. Whenever you have to deal with facts, they can get in the way of uniting different factions, whether it's foreign policy in Ukraine, immigration reform, gay marriage or the new faux concern with inequality. With all the logos-based pitfalls out there, the question isn't why the GOP is rushing to embrace #Benghazi. The real question is: What took them so long?

Oh yes. And one more thing: What happens to all of us, once the circus ends?

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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