George Bush I

Ted Widmer in the New York Times Magazine:

Screenhunter_24_jul_25_1202None of us can control our ancestors. Like our children, they have minds of their own and invariably refuse to do our bidding. Presidential ancestors are especially unruly — they are numerous and easily discovered, and they often act in ways unbecoming to the high station of their descendants.

Take George Bush. By whom I mean George Bush (1796-1859), first cousin of the president’s great-great-great-grandfather. It would be hard to find a more unlikely forebear. G.B. No. 1 was not exactly the black sheep of the family, to use a phrase the president likes to apply to himself. In fact, he was extremely distinguished, just not in ways that you might expect. Prof. George Bush was a bona fide New York intellectual: a dabbler in esoteric religions whose opinions were described as, yes, “liberal”; a journalist and an academic who was deeply conversant with the traditions of the Middle East.

There was a time when the W-less George Bush was the most prominent member of the family (he is the only Bush who made it into the mid-20th-century Dictionary of American Biography). A bookish child, he read so much that he frightened his parents.

More here.


Shock Troops

Scott Thomas in The New Republic:

That is how war works: It degrades every part of you, and your sense of humor is no exception.

I know another private who really only enjoyed driving Bradley Fighting Vehicles because it gave him the opportunity to run things over. He took out curbs, concrete barriers, corners of buildings, stands in the market, and his favorite target: dogs. Occasionally, the brave ones would chase the Bradleys, barking at them like they bark at trash trucks in America–providing him with the perfect opportunity to suddenly swerve and catch a leg or a tail in the vehicle’s tracks. He kept a tally of his kills in a little green notebook that sat on the dashboard of the driver’s hatch. One particular day, he killed three dogs. He slowed the Bradley down to lure the first kill in, and, as the diesel engine grew quieter, the dog walked close enough for him to jerk the machine hard to the right and snag its leg under the tracks. The leg caught, and he dragged the dog for a little while, until it disengaged and lay twitching in the road. A roar of laughter broke out over the radio. Another notch for the book. The second kill was a straight shot: A dog that was lying in the street and bathing in the sun didn’t have enough time to get up and run away from the speeding Bradley. Its front half was completely severed from its rear, which was twitching wildly, and its head was still raised and smiling at the sun as if nothing had happened at all.

I didn’t see the third kill, but I heard about it over the radio. Everyone was laughing, nearly rolling with laughter. I approached the private after the mission and asked him about it.
“So, you killed a few dogs today,” I said skeptically.
“Hell yeah, I did. It’s like hunting in Iraq!” he said, shaking with laughter.
“Did you run over dogs before the war, back in Indiana?” I asked him.
“No,” he replied, and looked at me curiously. Almost as if the question itself was in poor taste.

More here.

THE TECHNIUM AND THE 7TH KINGDOM OF LIFE: A Talk with Kevin Kelly

From Edge:

Kevinkelly200 The main question that I’m asking myself is, what is the meaning of technology in our lives?  What place does technology have in the universe? What place does it have in the human condition? And what place should it play in my own personal life?  Technology as a whole system, or what I call the technium, seems to be a dominant force in the culture.

There is a common sense that each novel technology brings us many new problems as well as new solutions — that it offers many things that we desire as well as many things that we want to eliminate. What we don’t have is a good framework for responding to this ceaseless generation of novelty, or even a framework for understanding whether technology is something that we should, or even can, respond to.  Or, for that matter, whether we should manage our technology by not creating it in the first place.  And how we might possibly “not create.”

More here.

The history book that has everything

From The Guardian:

Cordoba It is The New Penguin History of the World by JM Roberts and it’s the history book that has everything. It is an amazing synthesis of knowledge and interpretation that carries you along not with stylistic bravura but a lucid presentation of themes other writers
struggle to explain. It’s so restrained in language, so measured in argument it might be mistaken for a textbook except it’s shot through by strong untextbooklike opinions such as the confident assertion that Cordoba’s Great Mosque is the most beautiful building in the world.

The author JM Roberts was an eminent British historian who died in 2003, and this is the final edition of a book he first published in 1976. By hideous good luck, Roberts was finalising the 2002 edition when the planes struck the Twin Towers, so it is a book of our era that deals with September 11 and the reaction it provoked. It’s worth reading this great book now, because when the current edition goes “out of date” there will be presumably be no other.

More here.

the deepest and most secret crevices of the human soul

Williamtrevor

If there is a theme running through William Trevor’s brilliant new collection, it is reticence. Again and again, lives are altered, or ruined – or, less often, saved – by things that are left unsaid. Such silence goes against the grain of a culture obsessed by disclosure and personal revelation, but that is not to say that Trevor is old-fashioned, much less squeamish. Within these twelve stories are many crimes: the murder of a prostitute, a child hit by a car whose driver does not stop, a youth beaten to death in a suburban garden. Terrible things happen, or threaten to happen. Two nine-year-old boys push a dog out to sea on a lilo; a paedophile takes a young girl – ‘her bare, pale legs were like twigs stripped of their bark’ – for a walk by a canal; a tramp blackmails an innocent priest.

more from Literary Review here.

physical expression pictured, comprehended, and archived before it passes away

Dillon1

“By the end of the nineteenth century, the gestures of the Western bourgeoisie were irretrievably lost”: so writes Giorgio Agamben in his 1992 essay, “Notes on Gesture.” The early years of the twentieth century were marked, the philosopher contends, by a frantic effort to reconstitute the vanished realm of meaningful movements: hence the exaggerated articulations of silent film and the mad leaps of modern dance. Certain “invisible powers”—the economic forces responsible for the simultaneous loosening and mechanization of the social sphere—had rendered daily life, for many, almost indecipherable. It’s a complaint that has echoed through the decades since, as subsequent generations have been characterized as increasingly shambling, ataxic, and slack, but also regimented, uniform, somehow less than human. The gestures of the (racial, national, or generational) other appear both random and programmed, meaningless and mechanical. Why, the gestural conservative wonders, do they keep doing that thing with their hands, arms, shoulders, crotches?

more from Cabinet here.

Africa’s Village of Dreams

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Sauri must be the luckiest village in Africa. The maize is taller, the water cleaner, and the schoolchildren better fed than almost anywhere else south of the ­Sahara.

Just two years ago, Sauri was an ordinary Kenyan village where poverty, hunger, and illness were facts of everyday life. Now it is an experiment, a prototype “Millennium Village.” The idea is simple: Every year for five years, invest roughly $100 for each of the village’s 5,000 inhabitants, and see what ­happens.

The Millennium Villages Project is the brainchild of economist Jeffrey Sachs, the principal architect of the transition from ­state-­owned to market economies in Poland and Russia. His critics and supporters disagree about the success of those efforts, often referred to as “shock therapy,” but his role in radical economic reform in the two countries vaulted him to fame. Now he has a new mission: to end poverty in ­Africa.

more from The Wilson Quarterly here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Islamic Optimist

Malise Ruthven on In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad and three other books by Tariq Ramadan, in the New York Review of Books:

Tariq_ramadanTariq Ramadan is a Swiss-born academic and a prolific writer on Islam who has achieved fame—and notoriety —on both sides of the Atlantic for his engagement with the issues that concern the millions of Muslims now living in Western countries. In France, especially, he has been depicted as an Islamist wolf in sheep’s clothing. Strip off the wool, say his critics, and you will find a hard-line fundamentalist hostile to the values of freedom and democracy he claims to espouse. Two causes célèbres have been, first, the fierce polemics arising from Ramadan’s claim that leading French intellectuals including Bernard-Henri Levy, Daniel Gluckstein, and Bernard Kouchner put their commitments to Israel before their humanitarian concern for Palestinians; and, second, the famous encounter with Nicolas Sarkozy in 2003, before six million French television viewers, when Ramadan at first refused to condemn outright the penalty of stoning for adulterers, but called for a “moratorium” while the Muslim world engaged in “debating” this issue along with other harsh punishments. He went on to say that “we should stop” the practice. But this has not satisfied his critics.

More here.

WWI cognac continues to surface in Macedonia

Dubbed ’nectar of the gods,’ 90-year-old spirit now worth $7,000 per bottle.

From MSNBC:

070723_congnac_hmed_1p_hmediumVillagers unearthed the first case of 15 bottles about 15 years ago. Since then, digs have yielded several cognac caches, usually of about two dozen bottles each. Some have been found by farmers plowing fields, and at least two batches came to light after a glint in the sand of an old trench caught a villager’s eye.

The old-fashioned cognac bottles can fetch up to nearly $7,000 from collectors, according to Mihail Petkov, professor of viticulture and oenology at Skopje University.

“I never had a chance to taste something like that,” he said. “What the villagers drank was probably a cognac, not a wine. The wines were intended to be consumed immediately … and not to last for a long period of time.”

“But with cognac the situation is different,” Petkov said. “The older, the better.”

More here.  [Thanks to Ruchira Paul.]

Benhabib on Turkey, Secularism and Hirsi Ali

Also in Dissent, an interview with political philosopher Seyla Benhabib on Turkey, mosque and state, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

[Daniele Castellani Perelli]: Ayaan Hirsi Ali has recently written about Turkey in the Los Angeles Times. She writes: “The proponents of Islam in government, such as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and their Justice and Development Party, have exploited the fact that you can use democratic means to erode democracy. After an initial attempt at Islamic revolution failed in 1997, when the military engineered a ‘soft coup’ against elected Islamists, Erdogan and his party understood that gradualism would yield more lasting power. They surely realize that Islamicizing Turkey entirely is possible only if they gain control of the army and the constitutional court. Well-meaning but naive European leaders were manipulated by the ruling Islamists into saying that Turkey’s army should be placed under civil control, like all armies in EU member states. The army and the constitutional court are also, and maybe even more importantly, designed to protect Turkish democracy from Islam.”

[Seyla Benhabib]: Miss Ayaan Hirsi Ali has now assumed a public role of exaggerating and driving Islam and everything related to Islam into the corner of fascism or a kind of theocracy. Her statement is simply uninformed. It is not a statement that can be taken seriously by anybody who is a democrat. First of all, there is no danger of Islamic theocracy in Turkey. I can assure you there will be a civil war in Turkey before there will be a theocracy.

Anyway, I don’t think that the AK Party wants a theocracy. They are carrying out an incredible experiment and it is unusual for some one who is a democratic socialist like myself to be supporting, and watching very carefully, a party like them. But we are all watching carefully because they also represent a kind of pluralism in civil society which is absolutely essential for Turkey.

Sam Anderson Reads Harry Potter

In Sam Anderson’s blogged account of his reading the new Harry Potter novel, we see a descent into madness reminiscent of Yevgeny’s in Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman.

Saturday, 12:45 p.m. Page 231. Harry and the gang are so deep in Mission Impossible–style reconnaissance (the plan is to break into the Ministry of Magic) that I take a nap.

Saturday, 3:35 p.m. Page 286. The plot has been washed away on a hormonal tsunami of teen angst. Things are getting Blair Witch–ish: endless bickering on a never-ending camping trip. Hermione tells Ron to kindly insert his wand into his anus. They keep saying “effing” and “hell.” Some entertaining idiomatic wizard cursing: “Merlin’s pants!” and “what in the name of Merlin’s most baggy Y Fronts” and “why in the name of Merlin’s saggy left—” (I’m thinking “wizard-teat”).

Saturday, 6:02 p.m. Page 434. I smell terrible and am eating peanut butter directly out of the jar and fighting off another nap. Reading this novel apparently creates the same symptoms as major depression and agoraphobia.

[H/t: Maeve Adams]

A Review of Cohen’s What’s Left

Via Crooked Timber, Johann Hari reviews Nick Cohen’s What’s Left for Dissent, posted over at his website.

This book appears to have been written as Cohen hit a personal tipping-point. At times, he presents himself as the last true left-winger, but at other moments, he appears to be abandoning the left in disgust. A passage where he complains that the benefits system “provides a perverse incentive for single motherhood”, says that “the liberal professionals of the welfare state were aggravating the poverty and racism they said they opposed”, and rants about “the two-faced civil liberties lawyer”, sounds like Norman Podhoretz circa 1968, and an admission that Cohen is sliding into full-blown neoconservatism.

After this, there are even worse moments, when his views disintegrate into a drizzle of dismaying right-wing talking points. He describes the Spanish people’s democratic decision to elect a Socialist government after the Madrid train bombings as a victory for al Queda. So the Spanish people should have voted for a right-wing government to prove they were left-wing? That’s the ludicrous and contorted position Cohen has ended up in. Out of nowhere, he accuses Edward Said – a man who took Palestinian teenagers to Auschwitz to educate them about the horrors of Jew-hatred – of anti-Semitism and “pardoning” the 9/11 hijackers. In one column, he has suggested that the British government should be sanguine about sending suspected Islamists to countries where they will be tortured, because the sole criterion should be Britain’s “national interests.” This is an abandonment of the universalist language of the left for a parochial conservative agenda.

‘Why Do They Hate Us?’

Mohsin Hamid in The Washington Post:

Hamid Recently, I found myself in Dallas, a place I’d never been before. As a Muslim writer, I felt about going there pretty much the way an American writer might have felt about heading to the tribal areas of Pakistan: nervous, with the distinct suspicion that the locals carried guns and weren! ‘t too fond of folks who look like me.

So I was surprised by the extraordinary hospitality I encountered on my trip. And I still remember the politeness with which one elderly gentleman addressed me in a bookshop. He held a copy of my latest novel, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” and examined the face on its cover, comparing it to mine. Then he said, nodding once as if to dip the brim of an imaginary hat: “So tell me, sir. Why do they hate us?”
That stopped me cold.
More here.

ash on grass

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Yet even here, let me attempt a rescue which goes beyond the realm of conscious intentions. What will be the effect of Grass’s belated revelation? As he approaches the end of his life, as the memories of Nazism fade, as the activities of his SS-Frundsberg division become the object of weekend leisure war games in the United States[9] , Grass suddenly demolishes his own statue— not as a writer of fiction, but as a moral authority on frank and timely facing up to the Nazi past—and leaves its ruins lying, like Shelley’s Ozymandias, as a warning beside the roadside. Nothing he could say or write on this subject would be half so effective as the personal example that he has now left us. For sixty years even Günter Grass could not come clean about being a member of the Waffen-SS! Look, stranger, and tremble.

When I was starting to think about this mystery, I discussed it with a German friend, just a couple of years younger than the novelist but with a very different wartime biography. “You know, I have a theory about that,” he said. “I think Grass never was in the Waffen-SS. He’s just convinced himself that he was.” I’m sure my friend didn’t mean this literally. Rather, I understood his remark as a kind of poetic insight into the tortured and labyrin-thine quality of German memory. “But don’t write it,” he added. “Otherwise Grass will sue you for claiming he was not in the Waffen-SS.”

more from the NYRB here.

more pepper

Beatles

This, of course, is the summer of the Sergeant. The glossy British pop monthly MOJO has issued “Sgt. Pepper: With a Little Help from His Friends,” a multi-artist re-creation of the Beatles’ psychedelic apotheosis, which turned 40 in June. In addition, BBC Radio 2 broadcast an all-star Pepper extravaganza last month, with the likes of Bryan Adams, the Kaiser Chiefs, and Oasis re-recording the album at Abbey Road Studios. Next year is certain to bring epic revisions of the double “White Album”; and the year after, “Abbey Road Redux.”

But only the weakest tributes are predicated on the happenstance of an anniversary. The best seem to come from the musician’s faith that the song hides something — a truth, a realization, a key to her own desires and drives — that only she can find and make visible. The result is not a revisiting of familiar terrain but the opening of a new landscape, where the signs remain readable but now point to different destinations.

more from Boston Globe Ideas here.

Cook’s art, after all, is about people

Beryl1

Beryl Cook: a homely, round name for a woman we imagine is also round and jolly and homely. Her art depresses me. I thought I would be able to summon some sort of enthusiasm for its Englishness, its playfulness, its sauciness. But I can’t. The best that can be said is that Cook celebrates ordinariness – large women with large appetites, broad-shouldered men, hen parties, booze-ups, dances, dinners, shopping, sunbathing, a bit of slap and tickle. At least ordinariness in Cook’s art is more various than one might think: the bloke next door is a shoe fetishist, and even Saga members like a bit of kinky sex. All the girls, and some of the boys, like a sailor. Cook’s is an art without any pretentions other than to please.

more from The Guardian here.

Smart, Curious, Ticklish. Rats?

From The New York Times:

Angier Between reading recent news reports about altruistic behavior in rats and watching the slickly adorable antics of Remy the culinary rodent in this summer’s animated blockbuster, “Ratatouille,” I’ve had a change of heart. My normal feeling of extreme revulsion toward rats has softened considerably, into something resembling … a less extreme form of revulsion.

And though rats have yet to produce an Albert Camus or design a better mouse trap, a host of new behavioral studies makes plain that the similarities between us and Rattus extend far beyond gross anatomy. They’re surprisingly self-aware. They laugh when tickled, especially when they’re young, and they have ticklish spots; tickle the nape of a rat pup’s neck and it will squeal ultrasonically in a soundgram pattern like that of a human giggle. Rats dream as we dream, in epic narratives of navigation and thwarted efforts at escape: When scientists at MIT tracked the neuronal activity of rats in REM sleep, the researchers saw the same firing patterns they had seen in wakeful rats wending their way through those notorious rat mazes.

Rats can learn to crave the same drugs that we do — alcohol, cocaine, nicotine, amphetamine — and they, like us, will sometimes indulge themselves to death. They’re sociable, curious and love to be touched — nicely, that is. If a rat has been trained to associate a certain sound with a mild shock to its tail, and the bell tolls but the shock doesn’t come, the rat will inhale deeply with what can only be called a sigh of relief.

More here.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The other Lonestar state

Edward B. Rackley

Lib_flagAfter a couple of rain-soaked days and nights in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital and on record as one of the world’s wettest cities, it was time to venture out for a quick run.

There is no green space in Monrovia, only piles of human waste and decades of accumulated debris from buildings rocked by fourteen years of civil conflict. The decline is accelerated by the pounding rainy seasons and years of neglect. Utterly evaporated is the Monrovia described in Graham Greene’s Journey without Maps: “a life so gay, with dancing and the cafés on the beach.” From my lodgings in a dilapidated convent near the beach, I thought I might head in that direction. I’ve always associated coastlines with escape and was needing one now.

According to local legend, the Liberian coast was an international surfing destination in the seventies and eighties. Huge swells were visible from my dank quarters on the convent’s second floor. Today the beach is a no-go area for ordinary Liberians, as the city’s criminal elements congregate there to wait for nightfall. It also happens to be chemically toxic. Monrovia’s open sewers dump their contents directly into the coastal surf and local rivers, and passing oil freighters have been discharging their bilge inside unguarded national waters for years.

The result is a noxious coastline; the city itself is close to being the foulest urban environment I’ve ever seen or smelled. The town of Kismaayo in southern Somalia wins that title hands down: an urban coastline where goat and camel herds bleat into oblivion awaiting slaughter in the chop shops on the beach. Blood and offal drain into the wet sand where vultures congregate, shuffling around in a thick cloud of flies. Sharks navigate the shallow water where the blood stream from the abattoirs meets the sea. Hundreds of Somalis wander this rancid stretch, reaching the water only to defecate in the open surf. A real inter-species beach party.

Dogs and bones

From the convent gate I run to the end of the street. It is populated by would-be mechanics and Flintstone-era cars propped up on piles of rocks. Boys roll 50 gallon oil drums around the cracked tarmac, and bony dogs stand stationary, panting in the muggy heat. A twenty-foot cinder block wall separates the end of the street from the beach, topped by coils of barbed wire. Where a steel gate had once granted access, only rusty hinges are now visible. I poke my head through and take in the northern coastline. Waves rush up to the wall; the beach has eroded away almost entirely. Teenagers, students perhaps, huddle in groups close to the wall against the strong winds. Running on the beach here is not an option.

As I linger, I recall a story about the one open grassy area in Monrovia, behind the abandoned presidential mansion. The mansion ignited in flames during the inauguration festivities in early 2006 and was never repaired. A colleague told me he used to run his dog there until a thief was electrocuted last week stealing live electrical cables from the mansion grounds. Security forces then cordoned off the area. The same thing happened at Monrovia airport when I was flying in: our flight was re-routed in order to make a daytime landing. The electrical cables serving to illuminate its landing strip had been dug up and stolen.

I turn around and head past the mechanics and into the thick of Monrovia traffic. Between the moving cars, trucks and throngs of pedestrians were dozens of shifty, ravenous canines. Not exactly menacing, they look like diseased, gaunter versions of our own dog at home, an African mut who came from nearby Togo. Among the occasional pecking/scratching chicken and the bands of street kids, I notice one dog suddenly perk up and launch into a sprint. As my gaze returns to the path before me I see a small boy holding a section of boiled cow’s spine, picked off the curb near a street side vendor.

Seeing the dog coming at him, the boy positions himself behind a burned-out vehicle carcass. He stands on tiptoe to peer over the door handle through to the other side of the vehicle, reading the dog’s next move. The dog stops and raises his head; from my vantage their eyes appear to lock. Immediately the dog lunges around the corner of the vehicle in pursuit. As I pass alongside their encounter, the boy is tightening his grip on the spinal section, the dog now a blur. I keep running, not breaking my pace. How many times has this boy fought off dogs in order to eat? How many times has this dog stolen food from a child?

Freedom and nothingness

I was last in this corner of West Africa about five years ago, when Charles Taylor was running Liberia under an iron grip of fear, loathing and frequent sprays of lead. Fighting in Sierra Leone had spilled over into southeastern Guinea where I was based, about 120km north of Monrovia—it’s a very compact neighborhood. Liberian refugees had already been camped in the area for years, surviving on handouts from aid agencies.

In an ungoverned and thickly forested corner of Guinea called the ‘Parrot’s beak’, Liberian and Salonean refugees numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The venal Guinean president-for-life, Lasana Conté, full of xenophobic ire, was on the radio daily, inciting his countrymen to ‘protect the homeland’ and to ‘deal with the foreign invasion by any means necessary’. Guinea was indeed descending into chaos, but not because of the refugee influx.

Roadblocks were everywhere, manned by armed adolescents appointed by Guinean soldiers. Refugee camps were attacked in the night; Guinean towns were sacked, eviscerated and scorched to the ground in apparent reprisal by the refugees. Eyewitnesses attested in confidence that the Guinean army was responsible for the attacks on the towns. Disgruntled and unpaid, often of the same ethnicity as the refugees, Guinean soldiers were profiting from the chaos. Unsalaried Salonean rebels used the same method, ‘Operation Pay Yourself’.

UNHCR and the handful of NGOs operating in the area prepared for Guinea’s imminent collapse and the explosion of yet another massive refugee crisis. The mire of West Africa was sucking another country down. Taylor was believed to be behind all of it.

At the height of this hot-headed xenophobia, Guinean civilians and military decided our presence was hostile because we were assisting Liberian and Salonean refugees. Under international law, refugees are entitled to relief assistance and protection, having fled civil and ethnic conflict in their own land. Local Guineans were jealous and resentful of the assistance offered the refugees. As clashes between refugees and Guinean civilians began to reach our operational base in Kissidougou, we piled in jeeps and fled northeast to Kan Kan.

Our presence was clearly no deterrent against these state-ordered pogroms and the destruction of refugee encampments. We did at least meticulously document these acts as violations of the Geneva Conventions and international human rights, for which Conté was ultimately responsible. Yet here we were, leaving the refugees to their fate. Would this be another Rwanda? No one wanted to stay to find out.

I remember standing on the street in Kan Kan along the Milo River, a tributary of the Niger, and not far from the Mali border. Kan Kan is home to the famous Malinké people, the tribe of Guinea’s most famous son, Sekou Touré, anti-colonialist militant and the country’s first president. Like Conté who overthrew him in 1984, Sekou Touré the visionary would become a paranoid, tyrannical and incontinent ruler, his socialist experiment an abject failure.

Bridge_2Kan Kan is a university town with a strong Sahelian feel, where used textbooks are sold by hawkers beneath tall palms and the few remaining colonial structures in this part of Guinea. As I walked among the dusty titles lying on the ground, I noticed a volume of Sekou Touré’s revolutionary poems, Poèmes militantes, published in Moscow in the early 1970s. The tone of the collection was a cross between Mao’s Red Book with its clunky paeans to the proletariat, and the intoxicated ramblings of the Sartrean psychoanalyst and anti-colonialist Franz Fanon. Added to the mix was a strident anti-Gaullism, full of bloodlust and probably shocking to French readers of the day. I laughed at the thought as I turned to haggle with the seller for a better price.

Monrovia abuzz

Today Conté is still in power, more venal and paranoid than ever. The country teeters on the brink. Guineans protest sporadically for reform, but without momentum or cohesive strategy. In Liberia things are much more positive, if tentative and still quite desperate. Taylor is long gone, and awaits his fate in The Hague. The current president is a former World Bank economist, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state. She won close elections in late 2005 against world soccer star George Weah. This gives you some idea of what many Liberians think is important in a leader.

As Sirleaf steps into her new role, the tasks facing Liberia are massive—resettlement of vast numbers of displaced persons and refugees, solidification of a still-fragile peace, training and equipping armed security forces and police, a complete rebuilding of the country’s government, economy and infrastructure. Control of the diamond, timber and rubber trafficking is another task, essential to filling the national treasury. Monrovia, named after US President James Monroe, is engorged with over half the country’s population (3.2 million). 85% of Liberians are jobless; only 15% are literate.

Yet Monrovia is buzzing along. I hop in taxis and wander around comfortably, enjoying the American gangster rap blaring from storefront loudspeakers. There are no military roadblocks, and unarmed police in their NYPD blue uniforms conduct traffic and chase down road violations on foot, waving truncheons and yelling to all and sundry. The only automatic weapons or heavy artillery I’ve seen in public were at the airport. UN tanks and APCs are no longer doing patrols. Liberian refugees are slow to regain their homelands and the interior remains completely cut off from the outside world. Many fear the resulting security void when the 14,000 UN peacekeepers leave.

Liberia_coat_of_armsThe Liberian coat of arms depicts a coastal scene at sunset, where white doves fly above a three-masted schooner. On land a plough and shovel rest against a swaying palm tree. Above the image runs a phrase that, along with the ship, suggests that the idea of Liberia originated elsewhere: “The love of freedom brought us here.” Look no further than the Liberian flag, with its lone white star on a blue field and red and white stripes, to learn where the country and its founders originated.

Never colonized, Liberia was not ruled from Washington DC the way other African countries were ruled by colonial powers. Starting in the early 1820s, hundreds of freed US slaves were sent to coastal West Africa by anti-slavery societies. In 1847 they founded the continent’s oldest republic. For most of the country’s history, Liberian-Americans, descendants of the freed slaves, have ruled the country and controlled its wealth by excluding the nation’s indigenous people.

Earlier this year I wrote a piece about the need to reverse brain drain and exile if post-conflict countries like Liberia or DR Congo are to reconstitute themselves, ending decades of dependency on foreign aid. At the time, this was a counter-factual scenario, as I knew of no post-conflict country where the educated elite living abroad had actually returned to lead reconstruction and assume roles in government. Liberia today is such a place. Liberian-Americans like Johnson-Sirleaf are returning in large numbers, taking official positions and opening businesses.

How are they being received? Given Liberia’s historical tensions between the indigenous African demographic and those with historical ties to America, relations are strained. In 1980 Samuel Doe led a malicious and bloody coup against the American-Liberian leadership of William Tolbert (in whose government Sirleaf served), protesting a long history of marginalization and discrimination. A new era of just governance and ethnic non-partisanship is promised. Doe lasted a mere ten years before a long, ritualistic murder ended his rule. His trial by kangaroo court, gruesome torture sessions and ultimate execution were filmed on VHS; the tape circulated widely in West Africa throughout the 1990s.

‘Out out damned spot’

Every Liberian overthrow and assassination since that of Doe v. Tolbert in 1980 has come about through violence. Every victor has promised to restore rule of law and to correct the abuses of the former regime, often framed along ethnic lines involving American-Liberians and indigenous groups. Where political transitions frequently involve bloodshed—and there are many Liberias in Africa—I tend to frame the process in terms of laundry detergent. Don’t laugh too hard, I have good reasons.

Of the African warlords I have met in different contexts all them were driven and deluded by a savior complex. Some were politically savvy and well-educated (Jean-Pierre Bemba in DRC), others knuckle-dragging Neanderthals (Omar Jess in Somalia; Minnie Minawi in Darfur). Yet all of them spoke the language of laundry detergent: they would ‘cleanse and heal’ the nation of previous injustices and wrongheaded policies.

Laundry detergent has good explanatory power for a second reason: it’s as common and ephemeral as the dictators and warlords themselves. No need to glorify these people with a ‘savior complex’. Despite their using a shared language of restored social justice etc., none of Liberia’s coup leaders since 1980 has been able to ‘out the spot’ left by vanquished regimes. President Sirleaf seems apprised of the tidal forces behind political upheaval in Liberia’s recent history. She appointed her son as Minister of Defense. He’ll have to deal with someone’s laundry detergent dreams one day down the road.