Cognitive Dissonance Among the Apologists for Tyranny
20 October 2011
By most accounts Colonel Gaddafi is now dead, killed in Sirte, his hometown. There will, of course, persist stories of his survival and escape by those who want to believe or need to believe in the now deceased dictator, which in this case really means believing that an individual can defy the consensus of the international community. Because Gaddafi was killed in a military assault on Sirte, the circumstances of his death are surrounded by the fog of war. What I have pieced together from several media outlets is that Gaddafi was first captured alive, attempted to flee, and in flight was shot dead in a sewer. Strategic Forecasting additionally claimed that Gaddafi’s body was brought to Misurata where it was dragged through the streets. Similar events were reported in other media.
Throughout the campaign against the Gaddafi regime by NTC rebels it has been fascinating to watch the response to the media coverage of this struggle. The BBC has incorporated extensive reader comments into most of its stories, and I have noted with interest how many of these comment forums were disproportionately dominated by Gaddafi sympathizers who expressed contempt for Western media coverage of the fighting and confidence that Gaddafi and his supporters would ultimately triumph. These views are not likely to suddenly vanish with the admittedly symbolically important end of Gaddafi himself.
Here is a comment on a video purporting to show Gaddafi captured:
Total bullshit! Gaddafi wanted “the power to the people” and they had the power! Gaddafi never murdered women and children, this is a blatant propaganda lie, which was never proven! Even Human right groups stated that 250 people were killed on BOTH SIDES in clashes in Bengazi and Misrata! So don’t talk shit!
In this particular forum the writer of the comment was preaching to the choir. This comes from the Youtube site for RussiaToday, which is an English language news organization that purports to give a Russian perspective on the news, and provides coverage that emphasizes the evil intentions (and sometimes mere stupidity) of NATO and western governments.
We know from the fall of several dictators over the past few years that their spokesmen will go on claiming imminent victory right up to the moment that the spokesmen themselves become hunted fugitives. There is a possible explanation for this in what I wrote about Confirmation Bias and Evolutionary Psychology: believing in oneself against all rational odds probably has a significant differential survival advantage.
I also recently attempted to demonstrate (in David and Goliath) how petty dictators — think of Gaddafi, Mugabe, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosovic, and so forth — are able to hang on to power by appealing to both sides of the dialectic intrinsic to human nature of the simultaneous veneration of power and rebellion against power. The petty tyrant demonstrates his power through internal repression and immiseration while demonstrating his rebellion through external defiance of the international community.
When a dictator falls, this careful balance between internal power to be venerated and external rebellion to be admired collapses along with the power structures of the society created by the dictator. For those who have bought into the dictator’s illusions, this would prove to be a difficult moment in which the world would seem to be out of balance. The obvious response of course, in accord with the survival value of belief in oneself, is to continue even more strenuously to assert that your man was right all along and the nefarious, evil, and cowardly forces that have led to his downfall will eventually be rebuked. History will be the judge, they believe, and this future historical record, with the moral resolution it will provide, can be put off indefinitely, thus preserving the illusion indefinitely.
Still, I have to imagine that some significant degree of cognitive dissonance remains. I also remarked in David and Goliath how Gaddafi’s daughter continued the absurd rhetoric about the “Libyan people.” The consistent line of the Gaddafi regime, its sympathizers, and its mouthpieces, has been that the Libyan rebels were “rats” who would be hunted down, or that they are mindless pawns of a malevolent NATO conspiracy to remove Gaddafi from power. To believe, on the one hand, that Gaddafi represented “the people,” and to see on the other hand masses of Libyan people supporting the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, large numbers of rebel soldiers willing to fight and die in battles of days’ or weeks’ duration, an inchoate anti-Gaddafi political movement that has managed to survive for many months under difficult circumstances, and people celebrating the death of Gaddafi in the streets, must contribute to the cognitive dissonance of even the veteran denier of facts on the ground.
The response to this cognitive dissonance has been the continued assertion of Gaddafi’s good intentions and good works, the continued moral vilification and demonization of the rebel forces, disproportionate reportage of rebel atrocities and regime crony suffering, and the continued emphasis on the role of NATO and the NATO powers in the fighting in Libya.
Where is this all going? In Libya, where people actually had to suffer under Gaddafi, who had family members detained and tortured by his secret police, and who were forced to read his sophomoric Green Book, it is all going nowhere fast. Some few will continue to believe in Gaddafi, but not enough to prevent the political and military forces present in Libya today from attempting to create a successor society to Gaddafi’s Libya. And while the Gaddafi apologists pointed to the role of NATO air cover in the fighting, they will not be able to point to any NATO occupying forces in the reconstruction of Libya, thus making it difficult to rally remnants of the regime against a perceived external enemy and recreating the dialectic of internal power and external rebellion that is the mark of so many sick societies.
Outside Libya, however, the rancor and ressentiment will live on, given voice by Gaddafi’s surviving children and those who fled with the Gaddafi diaspora, transmogrifying itself over time and incrementally folding itself in with anti-Western sentiment the world over. Those within Libya with the strongest feelings will chose an angry exile and contribute to this rancor. However, even this familiar anti-Western and anti-American sentiment will have limits, because the Chinese economy will continue to grow, and as Beijing uses its growing economic power to involve itself around the world, it will not be able to retain an image of beneficence indefinitely, and it has long ago abandoned any pretense to representing the vanguard of revolutionary opposition to Western interests and the international consensus.
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