African Dictators and You

Posted on August 3, 2011 by

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by Chantal James

Louis Farrakhan wants you to know that contrary to what many would have you believe, his pal Col. Muammar Gaddafi is a stand-up guy. Former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney concurs. Both Farrakhan and McKinney currently seem engaged in the attempt to link the continued struggles of Americans of color to the struggles that brought Muammar Gaddafi to power in Libya when they were young. McKinney, after all, was only a child forty-two years ago, when Gaddafi first assumed the leadership he is clinging to with life and limb today.

I was enraged, but not surprised, to recently watch Minister Farrakhan enumerate the reasons why we should really be on Gaddafi’s side, not on the side of the “wickedness of the West.” There may certainly be truth to his claims that the United States—home to internal injustice, purveyor of injustice abroad—hardly stands on the moral ground to condemn Gaddafi as unjust. I’m just confused as to how he seems to imply that his audience—an imagined black America—should support Gaddafi’s right to rule Libya despotically. As though Gaddafi is Libya’s only natural choice, against the will of the people of Libya themselves. I’m not necessarily a fan of NATO’s intervention there. But President Gaddafi seemed to be doing a decent job of murdering Libyans on his own before the wicked West swooped in.

I couldn’t help but to think of Cynthia McKinney, whose debut on Libyan state TV I had already seen, with horror and sorrow, a few months ago. For some reason when I’d first heard that the former congresswoman was traveling to Libya, I thought it was to stand in solidarity with the Libyan revolutionaries, not the psycho ruler they were trying to get rid of. When I watched the clip of her speaking in Libya, I wanted to laugh and cry at once. I felt embarrassed—for McKinney as much for myself, whom she claimed to be representing.

McKinney’s stance assumes that she speaks on behalf of a wide base of American progressives, particularly African-American progressives. It’s possible that she may be speaking for many who are as uninformed as she has demonstrated herself to be about Africa and the Middle East. She may, in so doing, be tapping into a dangerous, widespread naivety, an African-American mythology of the Motherland which arose from the desire to redraw our historical connections to Africa (as if they had ever been totally erased). Out of the yearning for a simple past that predates American racism, there’s a common vein of African-American thought that finds it difficult to make distinctions among the people and politics of the continent of Africa, wanting to scoop everybody up in a big family bear hug.  McKinney may also be expressing a widespread liberal disillusionment over Barack Obama, who ran for president under a banner of “change,” yet seems as interested in waging war as his predecessors. She is far from alone, and far from wrong, in her suspicion of NATO’s sudden urge to take down any one particular corrupt leader, in a whole wide world of corrupt leaders to choose from.

* * *

Before the events of this year, I will admit to finding a bit of gratification in following Gaddafi’s antics on the international stage from my cozy perch in the first world. He seemed to be straddling that very fine line between gutsy and foolhardy. He was nutso, without a doubt. He said a lot of things a sane man might not have, but his critiques of Western imperialism were bold, acute, and sometimes—between the madness and the rambling—apt. Sure, he kept the nation under his rule quaking in fear. But remember when he insisted on pitching a tent outside the G8 summit, in homage to his nomadic ancestors? That was pretty funny, right? And wasn’t it kind of bad-ass that he had trained an elite guard of female assassins to keep watch over him at all times, and that each of his trained lady killers was required to be a virgin? One would have to pick up a comic book or a spy novel to find a more fantastic super-villain than good old Muammar Gaddafi.

But a few months ago, things began to change very quickly in the world around Gaddafi. A street vendor in neighboring Tunisia had had enough one day, and as his country witnessed his self-immolation, its own collective rage finally became unbearable, sparked by a new courage that enabled the country’s people to do what had once seemed impossible: send their president of the past twenty-three years, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, packing. At first, it seemed possible that Tunisia could have been an exceptional case. It’s a tiny enough country. But the idea caught on in Egypt, the most populous state in the Arab world, and in a mere eighteen days Egyptians were able to non-violently topple their president of more than thirty years, Hosni Mubarek. Now Libya was bounded on two sides by countries who’d ousted leaders whose resumes read frighteningly close to Gaddafi’s own: Absolute Head of State for Decades Running. Now that they could see with their own eyes that another world was possible, it couldn’t be long before the Libyan people decided enough was enough for them too.

We know the rest of the story. Muammar Gaddafi wasn’t going down like that.

Many of the stubbornest dictators on his continent are the aging relics of African liberation movements of the 1960s and ’70s. They came to power, usually via some sort of coup, under heady ideological banners. They were bolstered by the thought some of the intellectual powerhouses of their time (or any time since): Malcolm X, Amilcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah. I’m not sure anyone could have guessed that so many heroes of the Pan-African liberation movement that wrested the arms of Europe from the continent—if only in name—would still be in power decades later. We can count not only Libya’s Gaddafi and Egypt’s Mubarek among these, but Zimbabwe’s Mugabe—another murderer of thousands who gets the thumbs-up from Farrakhan and the NOI. Was their rhetoric empty? How could the people who put so much of their hope and energy and ideals behind these leaders have known, so long ago, that they were trading imported imperialism for home-grown corruption? Is it really power, itself, that corrupts?

Given the climate under which their politics came of age a generation ago, I can nearly see where Louis Farrakhan and Cynthia McKinney are coming from. Farrakhan’s times, to be sure, were different times. The Black Power movement from which both McKinney and Farrakhan draw political ground drew explicit Pan-African parallels to liberation struggles on the continent in the 1960s and ’70s. I’m using the term “black power” super loosely here, to encompass the views of the Nation of Islam, which was styled as a religious sect and founded in the 1930s, and of Cynthia McKinney, whose career in state and national legislation began in the 1980s, since both Farrakhan and McKinney were shaped by a 1960s pathos of universal black liberation. Maybe the two of them feel bewildered that the kids today have grown tired of being crushed under the boots of their radical comrades from back in the day. “What’s wrong with a little good old-fashioned revolution?” they might be asking themselves. Which I suppose is exactly what the Arab and African youth of today have said, in so much more action than words.

Though Farrakhan and McKinney seem worlds away from North African dictators like Gaddafi—and are worlds further removed than McKinney, in her naivety, presumes—they all share the view that the policies of the Western world, and the United States in particular, cause grave harm to far more people than they benefit. This is a view shared by many in its most basic form, and well-enough supported circumstantially that it can be arrived at independently. But somewhere the logic takes a dangerous turn. As an alternative to white supremacy, the Nation of Islam has offered blind faith in a warped dogma that most practitioners of actual Islam can barely recognize. As an alternative to colonialism and Western neo-liberalism, Gaddafi and many other leaders on his own continent and across the global south—too tragically numerous to each be called by name—offer their subjects fascism, hungry lives under state-sanctioned brutality, and corruption as the law of the land.

I do not think Pan-Africanism is inherently naïve. It provides a worldview that accurately frames certain realities. I think that like many ideologies it can also be used to lead people toward ends that are not their own. But I certainly believe in the basic unity of peoples across the Diaspora, and the basic parallels of our experiences. I also think that not knowing where and when to draw lines of distinction between different cultural and historical experiences across the Diaspora wreaks a world of havoc. It has Cynthia McKinney on Libyan State TV sanctioning the slaughter of thousands of Libyans by her African brother Muammar Gaddafi, and Minister Louis Farrakhan entreating the African-American community to support his friend, the president of Libya, who in his estimation is the enemy of its enemy: the United States of America and all that it stands for.

More than anything, I want us all to see past any manipulation of our shared sense of identity toward misguided, megalomaniacal goals. I suppose what hurt me the most about watching Cynthia McKinney, whom I have often heard lauded by progressives here in Georgia, condone Gaddafi’s rule, was that she seemed to imply that we citizens of the world have no better choices than between a dictator and an empire. It’s as though warring factions are fighting over us, by appealing to our most noble yearnings—for freedom, for justice, for the right to live without fear. It’s as though they are using our hearts against us.

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