The Pageant of Death

So Gaddafi is, apparently, dead, taking with him all the answers to the innumerable questions that we should have wanted to ask him.  I hardly think this bodes well for anyone.  Nevertheless, he was a malicious, violent, cruel despot whose people overwhelmingly deserve and demand far better.  After all, I felt nothing but glee when Mubarak and Ben Ali fell (although they were not murdered).  I even felt excited for the prospect of Gaddafi’s death back in April.  So, now that it’s happened, why the depression?

Admittedly, it is somewhat hard to maintain the idea that Gaddafi’s death is exactly the sort of swift, clean break that Libya needs in order to move on from 42 years under the Jamahiriya when nearly every news network is filling the airwaves with yet more grainy footage of a blood-ridden Gaddafi, either before or after his death.  Even the BBC, which waited a few hours before removing the quotation marks from the word ‘killed’, showed this stuff, and insisted on calling him a dictator, a loaded word if ever I heard one.  What would be wrong with “deposed Libyan leader”? The Grauniad, which I have increasingly little time for these days, is desperately trying to ignore the grotesque manner in which they covered Gaddafi’s death, pictures, footage and all, with a new article which, while decrying the fact that his body, along with that of his son Mutassim, is now apparently on display in a meat shop in Misrata, announces that his wounds appear to confirm he was killed in cold blood, as if no-one could have suspected this.  Not only is the footage aired repeatedly, but after watching it we are then asked to believe a version of events that blatantly contradicts what it shows! Rarely have I seen such a sharp U-turn in the space of 24 hours.  Meanwhile, Western leaders continue to try to strike a balance between co-opting the revolution for themselves (“we helped do this!”) and reminding everyone that this is the will of the Libyan people.  Suddenly all the tripe about due process in law and sending people to the Hague – issues which the international community was very keen on back in August when Saif al-Islam was supposed to have been captured – has been forgotten.  A spokesman for the NTC even told the BBC that he did not think an investigation into the circumstances of Gaddafi’s death was necessary.  I would be more pacified in my reaction to this if a single politician (or, better still, a media outlet) were to stop in this middle of this festival of splendrous gore and say “Hold on a minute.  Are we really celebrating someone’s death?” A few months ago, most of the world stared aghast at footage of jubilant Americans parading deludedly around the White House when Osama bin Laden was killed.  There was, indeed, a fair volume of muttering from Europe about the fact that, where foreign affairs are concerned, the Americans have the subtlety and emotional range of a five-year-old.  Naturally, the rest of world has to allow the Libyans a little bit of leeway in dealing with the man who used to be their leader.  On the other hand, that is the point of the rest of the world in these situations: to look at the outcome and remind everyone that due process of law should take precedence over revenge.  But I have far deeper and more melancholy feelings than simple decent revulsion at the televisual pageant of death – I am, aesthetically, genuinely sad at the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime.

There is something in the artifice of dictatorship that attracts me.  Not, perhaps, in the violence or corruption of it, but in its aesthetic qualities.  This, in today’s democratic and pluralistic society, is a wildly dangerous thing to admit, about as socially acceptable as defending a child molester, but it’s thoroughly true.  The idea of mass (enforced) participation in a state ideology, the sight of banners and flyers and signs covering every inch of every city.  Posters of the Dear Leader everywhere.  Enormous sheer buildings, usually of a Stalinist design (North Korea is the best example of this, but there are others).  The linguistic tics of an autocratic speech which flatly denies reality and ties everything back into whatever the cause of choice might be – Communism, pan-Arabism, African Socialism.  Even the national titles, like the People’s Republic, the Socialist Republic, the Democratic Republic. Democracy’s feeble offerings – elections, debates, political party conferences – come nowhere close to the aesthetic spectacle of autocracy.

From this point of view, Gaddafi came out way ahead, and in a twisted way I admire him for it.  There is also something quite anti-establishment about this admiration – Ben Ali and Mubarak were not the state in themselves: they had helpers and ministers and assistants and were, in a sense, mere functionaries of a larger, inanimate tyranny.  Their financial crimes and human rights abuses far outweigh whatever meagre personality cult they may have been allowed.  But Gaddafi did things properly, in the way of Türkmenbashi or Saddam.  He WAS everything.  The presence of ideology is important – I feel nothing towards monarchy, perhaps because I’ve spent most of my life living in one (admittedly a rather low-key one), but also because in a monarchy the enforced political culture is far more subtle.  Whether the ideology is right or left is irrelevant: I am as interested in North Korea as Franco-era Spain.  In the end, it might just come down to an obsession with the unfamiliar.  But there’s something more there – a desire to understand autocracy, to understand why human nature goes along with it so readily.

In any government there is a ruler and the ruled, and the emotional position of those ruled over by an autocratic government is one with which we are (somewhat) familiar.  The emotional world of the tyrant, however, is something we never look into, because it is not considered worthwhile.  But, as with terrorism, if a force is to be successfully repelled, it has to be understood rather than just attacked.  This is linked, I am fairly certain, to the genre of dictatorship novels common in Latin America.  Because they act as cathartic reflections on dictators past and present and attempt to work through the issues raised by such inhumane excesses, you might expect these books to focus on the effect of autocratic government on the people.  However (with a few exceptions, such as Vargas Llosa’s Conversación en la Catedral), these works focus exclusively on the mentality of the dictator.  One of the earliest dictator novels was Tirano Banderas, written by Ramón del Valle-Inclán, a man whose stated views on aesthetic autocracy were extremely similar to my own, and although it narrates an uprising and the eventual overthrow of the Tyrant Banderas, he is the central character, and the novel ends when he dies.  Similarly, El otoño del patriarca by García Márquez depicts an island suffering under a 200-year dictatorship.  He makes no attempt to hide the devastation caused by this system, but his primary interest is in the psychology of the autocrat.  Valle-Inclán and García Márquez both want to understand the mind of the dictator, how he came to be, and how he justifies himself to himself.  In the same way, I would be immensely curious to know how Gaddafi viewed himself in his final weeks.

If all this seems (a) self-indulgent waffle and (b) unreasonably kind towards a man who murdered tens of thousands of his own people, in a sense that’s probably accurate.  But I am not the only person who feels this aesthetic affinity with autocracy – the popularity of Soviet kitsch should be enough to tell you that – and it’s important because I can already tell that the final stages in the process of transforming Gaddafi into some latter-day Hitler are underway.  In his later years, Gaddafi was a cruel and tyrannical leader, and he was no longer fit to run the country.  But he started as a revolutionary, and the political and economic ideals set out in the Green Book – if you ignore the bits where he states that women are biologically different from men as if that’s some new information only he is party to – would actually have worked fairly well if he had been brave enough to put them into practice himself.  We are, of course, supposed to forget all this, and focus merely on the last seven months, with a side salad of Ireland, Berlin and Lockerbie.  The initial decade of Western support in the 1970s will probably also vanish from the version of events handed down to history, but I doubt a similar fate awaits the rapprochement in 2004, and that is some comfort: when Gaddafi becomes the Hitler of the 21st-century, at least Blair will be Chamberlain.

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