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.