Death of a clown?

Death of a clown?
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Colonel Momar Quaddaffi was one of the most evil, murderous tyrants of the 20th century. He was also a wacky eccentric who enjoyed wearing funny clothes and saying silly things. Are these two factoids equal in relevance?

In the press coverage following Quaddaffi’s long-overdue murder, I’ve noticed it’s been distressingly common for journalists to spend just as much column space — if not more — assembling lurid lists of trivia about the slain dictator’s quirks as they do documenting his four decades of crimes against humanity. We all know, for instance, that Quaddaffi had all-female bodyguards and a Ukrainian nurse, but what about the fact that Libyan embassy officials once opened fire on street protestors in London, England? Or that Quadaffi tried, on no less than three separate occasions, to invade and conquer the neighbouring nation of Chad, killing around 35,000 people in one of Africa’s bloodiest state-to-state wars?

This profile of the man in yesterday’s National Post breezily summaries a few of his war crimes, but mostly as a segue into a panoply of “wacky” facts such as his love of flamenco dancing and pathetic acrophobia. Personally, I would have rather heard a few more words about Quaddaffi’s role as a patron of the Red Brigade, the notorious Italian terror group responsible for the 1978 assassination of prime minister Aldo Moro. But instead we got some funny tweets from Piers Morgan about how hard it is to spell “Quaddaffi.”

For whatever reason, the western press has a long history of getting its priorities wrong when it comes to offering balanced coverage of global despots. It’s now widely acknowledged by historians, for instance, that part of the reason the world didn’t do more to stop the murderous regimes of Idi Amin (1925-2003) of Uganda or Emperor Bokassa (1921-1996) of Central Africa was because the media found it more fun to talk about these guys’ garish outfits, lavish appetites, or childish collections than the very real horror they were unleashing upon their own people. (Colonel Quaddaffi was an enthusiastic backer of both regimes, by the way).

At the time, the assumption was that the public was more interested in hearing about the exotic colourfulness of foreign lands than their actual problems — a problem which has only compounded in the modern era, where we’re increasingly disposed to merge hard news and entertainment together outright. In the age of cable and the internet, Quadaffi can’t just be a gory headline, he must also be a meme, a punchline, and a Halloween costume. Every major story of the new cycle must be able to straddle journalism, comedy, human interest, and celebrity gossip simultaneously, since we now ingest our media out of a large common pot, where everything swirls around together. Only in the year 2011 could the story of a Middle Eastern civil war also be a story about Charlie Sheen, or Usher, or Jeffery Ross.

There are signs of change, though. Ruling for an insane 42 years, Quaddaffi was perhaps destined to die an anachronism, a living reminder of a time when dictators were, in fact, considerably more flamboyant and erratic than they are today. You look at someone like Bashar al-Assad or Hu Jinato and they’re just normal-looking, suit-wearing guys who have inherited control of a terrifying, but undeniably monotonous and drearily bureaucratic authoritarian regime, lacking the ghoulish hilarity of renamed calendar months or rotating golden statues or whatever. One hopes that as these, and other dictatorships, continue to feel the squeeze of political opposition — both internal and external — the press will be forced to simply cover the explicit facts of their rule, lacking any entertaining diversions about clothes or concubines to distract their energy into irrelevant puff pieces.

As an editorial cartoonist, obviously I’m sympathetic to the idea that humor or absurdity can be a useful vehicle to deliver important political messages, and that dark humor in particular can often hit harder than darkness alone. With Quaddaffi, however, it seems that the scale broke at some point, and the man reached his heights of comic silliness in the public imagination at precisely the time when foreign opposition to his regime should have been the most steadfast and serious.

The lesson of Quaddaffi is that it’s entirely possible for evil and eccentricity to exist in the same body, and that an undisciplined personality of excess can elevate both to the level of truly grotesque spectacle. But that doesn’t imply equality between the two hobbies, or even that one directly abetted the other. To give equal coverage to crime and spectacle is to imply a flippant moral equivalency that ultimately discredits our ability to be accurate historians of our own era.

As they reread some of their own trite coverage, I hope it’s a conclusion the journalists of the world will belatedly appreciate.

After all, one day Kim Jong Il will die, too.


  1. @Andy928766

    And do not forget about the talk of gas prices as well.

    His eccentricities might have been hilarious but the man was evil, pure and simple.

  2. @ThePsudo

    I don't think evil is simple.

  3. Gastel

    I think evil is more simple than good. That's why we don't have governments lasting for 42 years in Canada, eventually the people express they want a change. Evil is simpler – the people want a change – kill the people – the people no longer want a change, they just want to live.

  4. @Kisai

    I don't think people make a conscious choice to "do evil", but rather they can't or won't see their own motives as anything but good. It's the mishandling of responsibility is when things escalate to the point of no return. Famine and Genocide are seen as the same thing.

    You see this all the time. Wars break out because someone got an itchy finger, and/or disgree about the right to use a resource and nobody wants to back down.

    Businesses go bankrupt because everyone kept passing the buck of responsibility until there was nobody left to shift responsibility to. The entire OWS protest comes from nobody wanting to take responsibly for their actions both in Washington and on Wall ST. It's all blame shift and finger pointing with no responsibility.

  5. @ThePsudo

    Evil is perhaps simple to implement, but it is not simple to understand or predict or restrain or define.

  6. Chris

    I don't know how new this is. The stories about the 'bad' Roman Emperors, for example, are mostly funny stories about them. Often it is hard to tell why, exactly, they were bad at ruling (Except, perhaps, that rulers should not be funny.
    So we hear about Nero insisting on playing the lyre, even though he was terrible at it and making his horse a senator, of Commodus renaming Rome after himself, of Elagalabus crushing a banqueting party to death with rose petals, and of Qin Shi Huang (to change location completely), struggling to free his flamboyantly overlong sword from its sheath during an assassination attempt.

    I think it is because once these people are gone, in any time, people don't want to recall how truly evil they were, because look how long they got away with it. But we do want to voice our disapproval, to violate the norms against speaking badly of the deceased, and to make light of the very regimes that took them so seriously.

  7. J.J. McCullough

    That's a wonderful summary. I never quite thought of it that way before, Chris.

  8. PTBO

    Small point- was Qaddaffi murdered? I was under the impression that he was 'accidentially' caught in crossfire after he had been captured by the rebels. (I haven't been following very closely).

    I believe that the rebels would have preferred to have taken him alive so he could have been held accountable for his crimes (i.e. Saddam Hussein style). Then again that was a preference not an essential requirement of dealing with Qaddaffi.

  9. anon

    Gaddafi being held in NTC custody long enough to send him to trial would've been a miracle. There's a Telegraph piece out there that says that the revolution was sustained pretty much by Libya's almost universal hatred for the man himself. The rebels were out for blood and the fact that they didn't shoot him right then and there in that drainage pipe is suprising.

  10. @Cristiona

    Now I feel bad about tweeting the "now you don't have to spell his name" joke.

    Although, I'm a nobody, so maybe it's okay for me to do crap like that.

  11. @ThePsudo

    They say you should wear the uniform for the job you want. I'm sure that's intended to be in addition to cultivating the right habits and behavior, not a replacement for it.

  12. David Kendall

    I still say that the world should just have spelled his (last) name القَذَّافِي‎ the world over. What is wrong with learning a bit of a foreign language this way? Knowledge is power, and knowledge of another's culture and language aids in understanding.

    (And, yes, I know that choosing this part of the article to comment on is completely missing the point, almost thumbing my nose at the point, of the article, but it was a point I wanted to make. Not much I could say about the main point ("don't forget how evil he was") except "me too".)

  13. @ThePsudo

    What is wrong with learning a bit of a foreign language? Well, there are hundreds of alphabets composed of hundreds of thousands of characters in the actively-spoken languages of the world. That alienation of foreign names behind an insurmountable expectation of universal literacy would be just another factor preventing foreign news stories from garnering local attention.

  14. David Kendall

    Country X wants good relations with Country Y, so Country X institutes an education program of basic Y-ese in the schools, thereby improving relations and ensuring trade relations and diplomatic exchanges especially after the Xian children who grew up under this policy reach adulthood.

    Again, I foresee nothing but good in learning even the basics of another language.

  15. Slightly Observant

    How do you even type that?

  16. Thomas

    I find it interesting that Obama is turning into the president that old leaders that the US doesn't like are getting killed under. Bush had Saddam, but Obama has already doubled that dead world leader count and is still going.

    I'm betting its Kim Jong il next. Won't be Castro, he's got invulnerability due to Cuban cigars (why else wouldn't they import them right? ;D)

  17. J.J. McCullough

    It's interesting…. if Kim Jong Il died of whatever disease he has, which I think he likely will soon, I wonder if Obama will get credit. Obviously not direct credit, but I wonder about some larger media narrative that will be like "the Obama administration has seen the demise of several key US enemies…."

  18. Dude

    And when he dies, all the media will talk about is his love of Cristal and American movies and his fear of flying in airplanes.

  19. Gastel

    Actually, I noticed that the I and l of his last name look so similar – maybe they could devote some time to how our alphabet has some funny quirks.

  20. @ThePsudo

    It depends how you draw the capital i or lowercase L whether they look similar or not. Serif and/or monospace fonts tend to make them look quite distinct, as does cursive handwriting.

    Next lets talk about the double-story miniscule 'a' vs. the single-story 'ɑ'.

  21. Dan

    Why hasn't Stephen Harper received credit for getting Gahdaffi? Canada played a role in the NATO operation.

  22. Dude

    The media is not your friend.

    As an institution, I would call it evil.

  23. anon

    Really now? True, we're probably not your friend. But evil? Where's that coming from?

    As an actual member of "the media" I can tell you that, yeah, there are people in this institution that have lost their way and are doing evil things. There's also many people out there that are doing quite good things with their time. And then there's the majority, including people like me, who are just trying to do our jobs and provide what we've been asked to provide by our editors, our advertisers, and – most importantly – our customers.

  24. anon

    And that's what it boils down to. Most media institutions are for-profit businesses, and if we do not function as such we will eventually be overtaken by our competitors and collapse. And in this business, being profitable means giving the people what they want. In the case of Gaddafi, what Chris said earlier was very relevant – people really don't like being taken out of their comfort zone. In my own experiences, when you DO try and take people out of that zone, reader response is almost completely negative. Sure you can cover the death of a dictator, but if your article become a long litany of how many people he murdered and how many people were tortured, then people will shift in their seat, stop reading, and turn back to the Jumble or the Crossword.

    Ultimately, the media as an institution is much worse than simply evil – it's a mirror, reflecting what we, as a society, want and demand.

  25. @ThePsudo

    Part of the problem, I suspect, is that truly engaging reporting brings the customer's mind to bear on the topic covered, not the institution covering it. They see the story, not the reporter. Thus, the better you do the less aware the customer is of the need to thank you for a job well done.

  26. anon

    Which brings up the problem of how to truly engage the average reader in a format with incredibly strict content limitations. It's relatively simple for the average writer of Slate or National Geographic (or even the weekend edition of the NYT) to spin a narrative that is engaging and in-depth without being repetitive or pedantic. However, when it comes to your 800 to 1200-word news section article or your typical two-three minute cable news piece, from my experience most reporters will end up relying on existing narratives or memes to fill in the blanks where time or space constraints prohibit the writer from creating his own – by doing this the reporter can avoid wasting time trying to wrangle 40 years of bloody history into something that Joe Blow Fraser can read as he waits for the 46A to Scarborough.

  27. anon

    Hence why I suspect the NP article that JJ linked to dealt with the executions and kangaroo trials in the first couple of paragraphs – the reader already knows Gaddafi was a dictator that had little regard for human life. Why spend any more time trying to engage her with more of the same when it will be much easier for me (and my employer) to keep him on the page with stories about his harem of kung-fu vixen bodyguards (and so on)?

    I imagine that, as i'm typing this, there are incredibly competent writers researching and drafting articles and profiles on Gaddafi that will not only be engaging, insightful, and incredibly precise in their documentation of Gaddafi the vicious Dictator, but also free of the nonsensical and shallow coverage of Gaddafi the cartoon character. I would wager that not too many of them are going to be found in the hands of office drones riding the 46A to Scarborough.

  28. Jon Bennett

    It shouldn't be surprising that a nutjob would have funny quirks.

    I dunno. Maybe trivializing these madmen makes it easier to gloss over what they do and the deals we have to make with devils to survive as a culture. I think the ordeal with Saddam's Iraq (and clean-up thereafter) shows that a nation trying to act as an international do-gooder creates near-lethal strain on their society.

    It may be necessary to dismiss Qadaffi, Kim Jong Il, Ahmadinejad, Chavez, et al as hilarious cartoon villains. It nullifies our desire to fix problems we cannot fix.

  29. drs

    Assad might be ‘boring’, but don’t we still have Central Asia to give us our chessmaster dictators?

    “Qadaffi, Kim Jong Il, Ahmadinejad, Chavez”

    Bit of a miscued list. AIUI the President of Iran has little actual power; it’s Khamenei you’d want to look at — but he keeps his mouth shut. I have little trust for Chavez, but he’s hardly in the same class as Gaddafi and the Kims or Mugabe, though certainly his symathies are in the wrong place.

    Causes of evil:

    * sociopaths who just don’t care

    * “Might makes right, survival of the fittest, you’ve got to look out for number one, everyone else is doing it, anyone claiming to be good is just hypocritical”

    * “They deserve it”/”I deserve it” (different ‘it’s obivously)

  30. @ThePsudo

    What about good men doing nothing?

  31. Taylor

  32. loroferoz

    Call it the trickster principle.

    Evil and obfuscation of purpose, diversion, eccentricity and entertainment value should exist in the same mind

    Plain, honest evil is suicidal, period. A sociopath would have a very short career if they just stated that they do terrible things for their own satisfaction and advancement and that they don't care about snuffing you if that produces benefit or amusement.

    Funny, charming and evil is the only way to go. The sociopath becomes the proverbial trickster dispensing some sort of twisted and ironic justice and getting the most of life, sticking it to The Man and for the underdog (no matter how powerful you are actually are it always works), throwing around outrageous crowd-pleasing soundbites, making it seem they care about the little man. People forget that they are liars, thieves and worse who would sell their own mothers and you for amusement value.

    These guys might be eccentric and narcissistic; but they are not stupid. They are masters at getting away with a lot of bad things, and surely realize that they get away with even more when they divert attention to their "eccentricities". Hence their antics.

    I thought I spoke about Batman's Joker. Then I realized that that Joker was terribly honest in his being a monster; He was out to prove everyone could be as mad as him.

  33. Bambul Shakibaei

    I never really thought about it until now, but you're totally right about the media really dropping the ball on these eccentric dictators.