‘Scandal’ and the politics of definition

Conservatives often cry ‘scandal’ when they perceive a violation of hierarchy and natural order.

Barack Obama answers questions about the IRS
Republicans have accused President Obama of playing a role in a slew of recent 'scandals' [Getty Images]

The most basic political act of all is the act of definition, starting with the very definition of what counts as political.

Modern second-wave feminism illustrates this point most forcefully. Before its appearance, millions of women experienced personal frustrations – something you take a pill for, maybe. “No,” second-wave feminism said, “what you’re feeling is political subjugation” – something you take political action for.

These are the same feelings, but triply reframed by identifying them as political: first, as universally shared, not individual; second as socially constructed – and hence contingent – not natural and necessary; and third, as the results of changeable power relationships, not immutable biology. All this was summed up in the phrase: “The personal is political.” This reframed everything, redefined everything.

Most acts of political definition are not quite so earth-shaking, but they are still profoundly powerful, as is richly illustrated by the phenomenon of scandal narratives, made manifest in the recent explosion of “scandalmania” here in the US. The disturbing fact that two of the scandals – Benghazi and the IRS – don’t seem to have any real substance to them, at least as the White House scandals they are supposed to be, underscores our need to understand scandal narratives as things in themselves, quite apart from the empirical facts they may or may not be connected to.

 Petraeus testifies in Benghazi attack inquiry

There are two key things we need to understand, both involving matters of definition. First, we need to understand how scandal narratives function differently for conservatives and liberals based on essential differences across the centuries in how they define things. Second, we need a more focused historical understanding of how baseless scandal narratives – BillyGate, Whitewater, Birtherism, Benghazi, etc – have become increasingly important for conservatives in place of policy disputes in the post-Watergate era, as conservatives, redefining themselves while pretending not to, move further and further to the right, while Democratic presidents repeatedly try to narrow the gap, moving closer to conservative positions.

In this recent historical period, scandal narratives function to make conservative-hewing Democrats like Carter, Clinton and Obama appear to be the exact opposite – freakish cultural outliers – which is actually much closer to what conservatives themselves have increasingly become.

Mythos versus logos

There are two different ways to understand scandal, based on a distinction Karen Armstrong explained in her 2000 book, The Battle for God – the distinction between mythos, the way we make meaningful sense of the world and our place within it, and logos, the way we understand how the world works pragmatically. (I’ve written about this distinction previously, here, here and here.)

In terms of logos, scandal is simply a breaking of the rules, once hidden, brought into the light. It is very much about the facts of the case, an empirical investigative process, whether by the media, law enforcement, or some special investigative body, and represents the primary way that liberals understand scandal. But in terms of mythos, scandal is a spectacle, a morality play, whose facts are largely determined by how well they resonate with pre-established meanings – which is the primary way that conservatives understand scandal. As Armstrong wrote:

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.

Within this framework, scandal is best understood as a disruption of the natural, sacred order, which is restored by ritual exposure, condemnation, punishment, and cleansing. Conceptually, the essence of scandal is that things are not as they seem, or as they should be – that supposedly “high” things are actually “low”, that righteous things are corrupt, honourable things dishonorable – and that all must be made right again. But – especially for conservatives – scandal is much more than its conceptual essence: It is a call to moral duty, a call to war.

Many people – particularly, but by no means exclusively conservatives – found second-wave feminism scandalous for daring to claim that women are political subjects, with the same political rights as men. Since women are beneath men in the patriarchal mythos these people lived by, it is scandalous to treat them equally – it is pretending that they are high, when actually they are low. 

Indeed, conservatives generally have always viewed liberals as scandalous for similar reasons: liberals insist on treating people equally whom conservatives just know to be inferior, because their mythos tells them so. When liberals supported black rights, for example, many conservatives attacked them as “race traitors” – scandalous betrayers of their own race. Even today, older conservatives especially continue to insist that gay marriage will destroy civilisation – and that that is precisely what gays and liberals want.

But it goes even deeper than that. Liberalism, humanism, secularism and science all co-evolved together over the centuries, from the Renaissance through the Reformation and the Enlightenment, as the initially scattered fragments of logos were increasingly woven together into a powerful whole, with the modern scientific worldview at its centre. At the most basic level, conservatives regard this entire historical development as scandalous. They see liberals themselves as inferior upstarts who do not venerate the traditional mythos as conservatives do. They see liberal support for religious freedom as an attack against God, bolstered by a range of scientific discoveries, from helio-centrism to evolution and beyond, and see liberal support for democracy as a usurpation of the natural order. 

Modern definitions of conservative and liberal

More than a century before the terms “conservative” and “liberal” came into use, the terms “Tory” and “Whig” carried similar meanings: Tories were royalists, Whigs supported the power of parliament, and conservative lexicographer Samuel Johnson’s definitions from 1755 are revealing to this day. He defined a Tory as “one who adheres to the ancient constitution of the state, and the apostolical hierarchy of the Church of England, opposed to a Whig”. He “defined” Whig as “the name of a faction”, a dismissive “definition” devoid of any actual content. Presumably, it would have been scandalous for Johnson to have provided “Whig” with any substantive content: it would have been treating it like something high. It has no content other than rebellion. 

What most Republicans find scandalous is that Barack Obama is president of the United States.

The same attitude underlay the birth of modern-day conspiracism amongst the reactionary French aristocracy, as I discussed last October in “Communism, hypnotism and the Beatles redux“. They could not imagine that their misrule – along with their king – was responsible for the French Revolution. The people were simply incapable of such an act; everything in their mythos told them so. The people were simple underlings by nature, who could not help but love those who ruled over them. Mere starvation could not turn them against the divinely appointed king – only Satan could do that, via a shadowy perverse reflection of the established Church, which is how the myth of the Bavarian Illuminati originally caught fire.

The second phenomenon to understand is how this conservative view of liberalism as essentially scandalous has manifested itself in the post-Watergate era, a period of time in which the Republican Party has moved far to the right – redefining conservatism several times over – while Democratic presidents have moved to the centre, adopting many conservative ideas only to be called fascists, socialists and tyrants for their troubles. 

Former Nixon staffer William Safire led the way on this after being hired by the New York Times, writing column after column making comparisons to Watergate every time a Democrat burped, but the modern rightwing noise machine was in its infancy then, and the most memorable Carter-era “scandal” was the utterly laughable “Billygate”. By the time Bill Clinton took office more than a decade later, the machinery was well in place. Indeed, Clinton faced an onslaught of scandal accusations beginning even before he declared his candidacy with a failed attempt to pre-emptively knock him out of a presidential bid, which is where the Watergate scandal machinery first began to be assembled.

Today, when a Reagan-era conservative like John McCain is considered too moderate, what most Republicans find scandalous is that Barack Obama is president of the United States. But of course, it would be too blatantly racist to just come right out and say that – so they have to find other ways, other means by which to reframe and define him as an illegitimate leader. This is where birtherism – the master Obama pseudo-scandal – comes into play.

Is President Obama’s long-form birth certificate a fake? Is he really not the president, because he’s not a citizen? As I noted in a previous column, nine months after he released his long form birth certificate, in January 2012, Republicans were more inclined than ever to believe these absurdities, by a 37-27 plurality, meaning that 73 percent of Republicans – an overwhelming supermajority – were either certain that Obama was not legitimately president, or else they thought he might not be. Of course, if his birth certificate were a fake, it would be a tremendous scandal. So of course it must be fake, right?

And who can forget “death panels”? Though most might not think of it in terms of scandal, it certainly would have been a scandal had such panels existed, and had they been central to Obamacare – which actually derived from the Heritage Foundation’s early 1990s alternative to Clinton’s healthcare plan. This was a classic example of how a baseless scandal accusation served to hide the twin facts that a Democrat was embracing a conservative idea and that conservatives were redefining themselves in opposition to what they had been in the past, while at the same time creating the mythic narrative that the Democrat in question was the one who was radically at odds with American history, values and culture.

This brings us to Benghazi. Is it a worse scandal than Watergate? According to a May 13 PPP poll, Republicans say “Yes” by a 74-19, while Democrats say “No” by 66-20. Among those self-identified as “very conservative”, Benghazi is seen as worse by an overwhelming 91-4 margin. As with the birther obsession, this isn’t just a difference of opinion. There are pesky old facts to consider, at least in the realm of logos: In Watergate, 69 government officials, Nixon campaign staff and others were charged with crimes, and 48 were found guilty. These included two attorneys general, Nixon’s two top advisers, H R Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, the head of Nixon’s re-election campaign, two White House lawyers and Nixon’s personal attorney. The idea that something similar in scope and/or illegality went on with respect to Benghazi is simply absurd.

And yet, 74 percent of Republicans think it’s so. Why? Because they already doubt or don’t believe that Obama is legitimately president in the first place. Because he’s a fraud, and Benghazi will finally prove it! In short, they rely on mythos, not logos. Facts need not apply.

The media’s role

Such were the preconditions for the explosion of scandalmania that began on May 10, when ABC’s Jon Karl produced an erroneous report supporting GOP claims that the Benghazi talking points had been altered by the White House for political reasons. Over the course of the next week, it became clear that Karl had outright lied in his reporting, putting things into quotes that were second-hand paraphrases at best. His reporting was challenged by CNN, CBS and by the White House release of the emails in question. But Karl and his network refused to back down, even though he’d been caught red-handed, continuing to insist that his reporting was “basically right”. And eventually the Washington Post‘s hapless so-called “fact-checker” weighed in to back him up, a factually preposterous intervention which richly illustrates how the corporate media’s own mythos helps empower the rightwing attack on liberalism, logos and plain old facts.

The media today not only pretends that it performed spectacularly during Watergate, but that it continues to do so to this very day.

The same day as Karl’s erroneous reporting, another seeming scandal broke – the so-called “targeting” of conservative Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status. This story, too, soon began to fall apart, but a third scandal story – this one actually a legitimate scandal, the covert seizing of AP phone records – broke on the following Monday. With three separate scandal stories in the air, a critical mass had been reached in which the media environment fundamentally altered, and the media’s own narratives about itself and its relation to presidential power kicked in, so that it no longer mattered for the press as a whole that two of the three scandals were bogus. 

The media’s own mythos now fully dominated over who-what-where-when-why logos of everyday reporting. In this mythos, the press as a whole identifies itself as having exposed Watergate, and brought down Richard Nixon, when the truth is almost exactly the opposite. In reality, the official White House press ignored Watergate, and the media as a whole paid almost no attention to it throughout the 1972 presidential campaign. In fact, the neglect of Watergate during the campaign was one of the main reasons Peter Jensen cited for creating Project Censored a few years later, which focuses attention on significant stories self-censored from the mainstream US media. (Disclosure: I wrote one of the five stories cited as Project Censored’s #1 story in 2002-2003, about the long-standing neo-conservative roots of the Iraq War having nothing to do with the reasons presented at the time.) 

Yet, the media today not only pretends that it performed spectacularly during Watergate, but that it continues to do so to this very day – and that comparing Obama to Nixon is proof of what a great job it is doing! Out of that mythos, we got the press asking, in knee-jerk fashion, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” as if the existence of a criminal conspiracy had already been clearly established. The gap between logos and mythos could not be starker.

Weeks later, slowly, haltingly, evidence is mounting that the IRS situation is more snafu than scandal, and had no White House connection at all. Still, the media mythos of Nixon/Watergate comparisons remains prominent, in conjunction with the Tea Party mythos of themselves as beleaguered patriots fighting bravely against the tyrannical “King Obama”.

Meanwhile, the scandal that attracted the least attention – the covert capturing of AP reporters’ phone call records – has proven to be just the tip of the iceberg of how the Obama administration, with the help of Congress, has systematically “legalised” what the Bush administration before it brazenly did illegally. On this one, finally, Obama has found his holy grail of bipartisan Republican support.

This is, in fact, the one real scandal in America today: how the nation’s elite two-party consensus has closed ranks against its founding principles, as well as the people it pretends to protect.

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer, senior editor for Random Lengths News, where he’s worked since 2002. He’s also written for Publishers Weekly, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, LA Weekly and Denver Post. In 2000/2001, he was a principal editor/writer at Indymedia LA. He was a front-page blogger at Open Left from 2007 to 2011.

Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg