Blooming, Buzzing

Days are shorter now. The garden and the gardener slow to the rhythm of the season. There is more time to sit on my yellow garden bench enjoying the last blooms of September.  Time too, to mourn the violent deaths of four American diplomats in Benghazi on 9/11/12. My tribal identity as a fellow American Foreign Service Officer (now safely retired) intensified my sorrow.  The mad chirping of my Twitter stream carried the news and views of the experts I follow into my otherwise languid garden sanctuary. 


Yet, the bees buzzing on nearly every bloom of the Caryopteris Blue Mist this time of year reminded me that what appears to be a tranquil garden tableau also pulsates with life and death soon to come. At a distance, the Caryopteris blue and green blur into an indiscriminate billowing fabric of color. Only when I move up close, intent on really seeing, do I notice the variety of excited insects at work within the swarm. From the cartoonish Mr. Bumble Bee to the colorless but busy ground bees and wasps, I can see them all clearly at work harvesting pollen before winter comes. They are protagonists in their own drama and I am but a spectator.

In the great blooming buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.

This patterned thinking written about by Walter Lippmann eighty years ago in his seminal work Public Opinion (1922), was sadly evident in the events of the past two weeks and the rush of commentary upon them. All the stereotypes seemed to be at play as the tragedy unfolded. The West was insulting Islam once again, Muslims were enraged once again, social media was the new speed dialing culprit once again.  

For the most part we do not see and then define, we define first and then see.

Stereotypes, schemas, narratives or paradigm -- pick your favorite template term -- were triggered by political actors and pundits alike attempting to frame the blur of events into a coherent story line for political or ideological purpose. The first week's deforming framing contest seemed particularly egregeous to me. Mr. Romney saw an apology where there was none. The Obama administration saw an anti-American protest mob turned violent in Benghazi when there was none. Public diplomacy scholars saw global social media effects where mass media and domestic political agency offered the better explanations for the convulsions. 

It took some creative mocking of Newsweek's promoted  #MuslimRage cover and hashtag to slow down the rush to judgment and allow space for second thoughts to emerge in the public sphere. Although it is hard work to strain away the emotive, intuitive cognative biases that influence our fast thinking as Daniel Kahneman (2011) demonstrates in Thinking Fast & Slow, we can slow ourselves down and judge more accurately. Still, the early misinforming memes float in the discursive stream. Because, as Kahneman writes (p. 201):

It is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance. 

When we tap into the benefits of slow thinking, we learned that the murders of our diplomats in Benghazi probably resulted from a planned  9/11 anniversary Al Qaeda affiliate attack. We await confirmation and detail from the FBI investigation. Then, we learned that simultaneously surfacing offending video had languished on You Tube for months, only manufacturing outrage when chosen by Salafist political agents and carried on television in Egypt. Regional mass television media coverage of the protests in Cairo then inflamed the political space across the Arab - Islamic world; which in turn, spiked election fever in the United States as well.


Like my autumn asters -- that only look the same at first glance -- there were great differences from country to country as local protagonists manufactured or tempered the emotive storm for their own purposes in their own hyperlocal political contexts. Libya was not Lebanon was not Egypt was not Tunisia was not Pakistan was not Algeria. Our polities are all different and reacted differently: "all the peoples of the globe," as T.S. Eliot wrote in his 1944 Essay On Virgil, were menaced by being "provincials together." Eliot continued, 

 … and those who are not content to be provincials can only be hermits.

"Get our people out of where we are not wanted," was my father's reaction to the murders in Benghazi. "Bring them home." My dad fought in the European theater in WWII and raised me abroad while he was on assignment in Japan and Turkey. Never risk averse, my dad, who always had time to journey into the countries where I served at embassies in Asia, Europe and Latin America, wanted to talk about a technological solution to being at risk abroad. "There isn't one," I said. It is not possible to engineer a solution to the fundamental diplomatic problem of wanting to retain a separate national existence in the context of an interdependent world. To protect and serve our home, we must leave it.

We still need to get off the garden bench, as he and I both did in our time, and go into the world to really look into its hidden corners. If we do not make the journey and immerse ourselves in the living, pulsating tissue of societies transforming themselves during this global political awakening, we cannot form the human relationships that lead to the possibility of understanding them, ourselves and the evolving contexts we share.  From all that I have read, none of the men who died in representation of us two weeks ago in Libya would have us act in any other way. RIP Ambassador John Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen A. Doherty and Tyrone Woods. And thank you to all the Libyans who tried to help, share our loss and have arisen in mass to challenge the militias that plague their democratic transition. 

These days, I too rise from my bench. But for me now, it is to dig up, separate and transplant peonies, prune certain clematis and tame the rose canes that would otherwise whip in the winter wind. Unless I tend to them now, their rebirth in spring will be less than splendid and I will regret indulging in the comfort of the bench.

Except where otherwise noted, all original work produced by Donna Oglesby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License