Benjamin Barber and the Devil We Know

by zunguzungu

My father once told me that he didn’t enjoy The Godfather, because, as he put it bluntly, they’re all terrible people and he just couldn’t find a way to care. There might be an interesting story being told from a certain perspective, he said, maybe, but he simply couldn’t see it, feel it; the Corleones were, as I believe I am quoting him accurately, just violent assholes. I’ve thought a lot about that position, and not only because he’s my dad. After all, why would we sympathize with Michael Corleone? Why isn’t he the villain of the story? In a way he is, of course; but also, in a way, he really isn‘t. He is glamorous. He is Al Pacino. He is strong, manly, and smart, an inescapably attractive — and therefore sympathetic — character.

In other words, without denying that “evil” can be compelling subject for art — or demanding that our appreciation of a book or movie has to be strictly guided by some simplistic notion of who the good guys and bad guys are — we should ask why it is that Michael is the character we are asked to feel, identify, and sympathize with. Why would the plight of a gangster prince — who chooses to be the gangster king and do things like kill his own brother — be seen as anything but a horrifying descent into madness and evil? Why would it scan as sympathetic? I would suggest that just as it says something about the mass psychology of Americans that Charlie Sheen has become a bizarre kind of “bad boy” hero — and it’s a something that starts with misogyny — it says something about us that we would sympathize with Michael Corleone, something The Godfather should make us be uncomfortable and thoughtful about.

I bring this up because Benjamin Barber wants us to think of Saif al-Qaddafi as “Michael Corleone, the good son in The Godfather”:

…The war hero, the civilian, the son who’s not going to be part of the Sicilian mafia. And then you know they attacked the Godfather. And Michael comes to his father’s defense, throws away his reputation and the good works he’s done to distance himself from the family, and becomes, you know, one and the same. Blood over chosen identity.

He says the same thing in an op-ed for CNN:

Saif’s “reform face” seemed to have considerable credibility. Two weeks ago, however, Saif abruptly put on another face. Like “The Godfather’s” Michael Corleone – the World War II war hero and educated civilian who was the “good son” until he turned bad – so Saif had been the “good” Gadhafi until he turned bad last week. Saif took off his reformer face and let his Libyan clan identity define him.

North Africa, Sicily

In other words, while “the father” stands as a representation of tribalism, patronage, and society organized by blood-kin relationships and violence (the deeply alien “Sicily”), Michael enters the story playing a different — but no less familiar — narrative role: the American child of immigrant parents, torn between blood ties and the promise of American individuality. And this narrative, the struggle to escape the (Sicilian) family towards (American) self-determination takes the place of the struggle of good against evil. And while the tragedy will turn out to be that he cannot (“Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in,” etc), the “family“ comes to stand for a sympathetic reason — and thus excuse — for doing evil things. Defending the father is good, right? And killing the brother, well, he has to do it to defend the family, right? Right? Poor Michael, poor Saif…

One way to respond to this way of framing the situation would be to point out that Michael Corleone “is” the good son in the same way that Satan in Paradise Lost “is” Lucifer, the Light Bearer. Which is to say, he was, right up to the point where he decides not to be. At that point, he is no longer chief among the angels. He is now the devil. Just so with Michael Corleone: he was “good” up until around the moment when he decides to kill lots of people. When he decides to side with the bad guys, you see, he becomes “bad.” But Milton’s Satan is an attractive character — and could, perhaps, be played by Al Pacino — for a different reason, as Stanley Fish has argued: his attractiveness is meant to test us, to make us aware of the attractiveness of sin, all the better to prepare us to defeat it in practice. The point of making Satan attractive, in other words, is to make us better readers, so we can learn from the experience of being beguiled, and sin no more.

In real life, of course, the shades of grey are sometimes finer. But since it was Barber’s allusion — and he was implicitly directing us to think in terms of Tragedy, Good, Evil — let’s entertain it. Because in this case, the decision to use large-scale violence against the Libyan people is actually fairly stark: either kill thousands of people or, you know, don’t. The “Good Son” chose to be on the side of the killing-lots-of-people-to-stay-in-power side. There is actually video tape of him doing this, rallying a group of police officers to go and kill protesters, and he uses fairly non-ambiguous phrases like:

The protesters you confront are nothing; they are bums, brats and druggies. Today brothers, Tripoli that you live in, will be cleared…I shall leave now, and I will send you weapons. Tonight I will return with more people and weapons.

I mean, say what you want about why he made this choice, that choice he made was clear. When the chips were down, he elected to arm the police, empower them to kill people whose lives he specifically flagged as being worthless, and to lead them in doing so. He may have once promised to be something different; when the time came, he decided to be a murderous devil.

I make this point because Benjamin Barber says things like this, trying — again — to make the devil sympathetic:

…as I wrote before, it’s not clear whether the son of Qaddafi, the scholar/reformer, or the European playboy would win the struggle. My own fear, when Qaddafi came under attack, was that blood, family, clan — which is powerful in ways we don’t understand here — would become overriding. And in a certain sense, there was a kind of perverse courage, just the way there was with Michael Corleone…if you think that someone is trying to kill your father or your mother from a family like that — and you’re faced with a choice: Do I go abroad and continue to try to change my country for the good of people and watch my father die? Or do I defend him? Well, I wish he’d gone abroad. But in a tribal society…

He doesn‘t finish that sentence; the interviewer cut him off, so he doesn’t complete the thought. But that also seems about right. His Jihad vs. McWorld essay makes it pretty clear that he simply means the easy, lazy pre-modernism of the other by which they only care about and respect those who are like themselves. And in that essay, it’s clearly a bad thing, as clearly as being part of a gangster mob is a bad thing in America. But notice the second-person there, the rhetorical framing behind a sentence like “if you think that someone is trying to kill your father.” He’s trying to put us in Saif’s position, to make us sympathize with his Very Difficult Choice. Even as he reminds us that Those People Are Very Different From You and I, They Are Tribal, You See, he is working to make us put ourselves in his shoes (TribalMuslim shoes, but still). And thus, the inexcusable-by-definition is, well, not excused, but rendered comprehensible (as the comprehensible thing that incomprehensibly others do).

In this sense, while he briefly declares himself to “feel really bad” about the thousands of Libyans who have been killed by Saif’s forces, Barber quickly returns to telling the story of the Libyan Michael Corleone, the place where his real narrative interest lies:

…I feel really bad for the people being murdered in the streets; that’s the biggest tragedy. But there is also a real human tragedy — call it a sidebar tragedy to the main event where our real compassion belongs — the tragedy of a young man who 10 years ago made a decision not to do what all his brothers did (either take military commands or simply take the money and run, enjoy the high life, and beat up servants in Geneva) and who instead took on the responsibility of trying to change the system into which he was born and to which he was supposed to be the heir. He had the capacity and the courage to do this, and for years he worked for a freer media, for human rights, and for a more democratic Libya. And then the tragedy, the fateful choice — whether coerced, whether it was blood thicker than water — he gave up so much good work in the course of a 45-minute speech. He made the decision that jettisoned, sacrificed, and martyred everything he was and everything he had done. I guess in that there’s a perverse courage to this act of clan loyalty in which he destroyed the scholar and reformer he had labored so hard to create.

Sadly, my own view is if his father doesn’t survive, Saif is unlikely to survive either…And the tragedy will be that his death, which once might have been mourned by Libyans seeking freedom, is now likely to be welcomed.

What Barber is really mourning here, I would venture to assert, is the death of the ideological choice he made a few years ago, a death he will not accept. When Qaddafi began his rapprochement with the West, a group of intellectuals — Barber, Joseph Nye, Anthony Giddens, Francis Fukuyama, and Robert Putnam — were hired as paid consultants for the Monitor Group, an organization that was paid $3 million a year by the Libyan government to burnish its image internationally. This Mother Jones article gives you the dirty details, but it’s not the details of this particular imbroglio that I’m interested in, other than the broad outlines: Qaddafi paid the Monitor Group to rehabilitate his image and the Monitor Group, in turn, paid Benjamin Barber to write glowing op-eds like this one. Maybe Qaddafi actually didn’t hand the money directly to Barber to write that op-ed. But maybe we’re not idiots, and we can follow the logic of the money with sufficient clarity to see the connection. Perhaps, since he’s heard of the Godfather, Barber understands how the concept of money laundering.

But while it’s an embarrassing thing to have been caught getting paid to give good press to a murderous dictator, it may well be that Barber, Nye, Giddens, Fukuyama, and Putnam went in with good intentions. For the sake of argument, let’s give them the benefit of that doubt and say, simply, that they were used against their will. Let us notice that they made a bad decision, and then let us extend the charity of accepting their excuses, their apologies, their regret, and their introspection.

Except — and this is my point — Barber will not admit that he was wrong. When he is asked “How is it that so many people got Saif al-Qaddafi so wrong?” he responds this way:

BB: Who got it wrong? I don’t think anyone got him wrong…Until Sunday night a week ago [Feb. 27], Saif was a credible, risk-taking reformer…Well today of course, it’s all radically changed. But second-guessing the past, I mean, it’s just 20/20 hindsight. But if you want to ask what do I think happened — why did Saif, a guy who spent seven years writing a doctoral dissertation and two books, working as a reformer at considerable personal risk to himself, and using his name to shield the Libyans doing the hard work inside of Libya — why then, during the period of the uprising last week, did he change sides? That’s a good question about which I can try to speculate. But the question is not: How did we all get him wrong — he’s a terrorist; he just conned all of us — but rather, how did a committed reformer who had risked a good deal to challenge his father do such an abrupt headstand in the course of a few days?

FP: You don’t think there was a certain degree of naivete?

BB: No, I do not, I do not. The naivete is the people who want to rewrite history and now want to specifically indict the intellectuals who were there trying to work on the inside during times in which Muammar Qaddafi was totally in power with no seeming hope of his being taken out

The reason I want us to extend Barber the benefit of the doubt, to accept his claim that in 2006, he engaged with Saif and Libya in good faith, is because I want to emphasize what it is that he is doing right now: he is arguing, forthrightly, that you can do a thing for good reasons, have it blow up catastrophically in your face, but that you can then escape all consequences or blame for that catastrophe, because good intentions are all that matters. Even if you end up in hell, in other words, he is arguing that you still have not sinned. Benjamin Barber is not only not surprised by sin; he is still in love with Lucifer.

Let us just re-assert that, in hindsight, it is utterly clear — to everyone but Barber — that Libya was paying the Monitor Group to help it clean up its name, and that Barber received money — from Qaddafi, the father — through the Monitor Group for that purpose. While Qaddafi the father was making nice with Blair and Bush — and Libya’s oil sector was doing all kinds of business with Western capital — the Monitor Group was using Western intellectuals like Barber to create the narrative that a reformist successor was in the wings. Qaddaffi lite: the same great dictator taste, but (soon) with only half the human rights abuses. And since hindsight is 20-20, as he puts it, there would be no great shame — well, at least less shame — if Barber would simply say that he got duped, and think about why. Which is why I don’t care about that original decision; what I care about is his decision to categorically refuse to learn from experience, and to make a principle out of that refusal. Note the way he rails against anyone who would

“go back and say in 2006, 2007, 2008, when the U.S. recognized the government of Muammar al-Qaddafi, when the sovereign oil fund that Libya set up and that people like Prince Andrew and Peter Mandelson, or organizations like the Carlyle Group and Blackstone, were doing business with, and the heavy investments oil companies were making while others were running around and making all sorts of money — that those of us who went in trying to do some work for democratic reform, that we somehow got Saif wrong?”

How dare anyone use the facts of the present to revise the (less informed) opinions we held in the past? How dare they.


“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

–John Maynard Keynes

Barber’s demand that we fail to note that Saif’s actions have proved that they got him wrong is ideological. Note, for  example, how he wants to set up an opposition between the governments and corporations that engaged in formal relations with Libya (bad) and those, like him, who merely produced useful propaganda for the regime (good), propaganda like these paragraphs from his now infamous Washington Post op-ed:

Surprisingly flexible and pragmatic, Gaddafi was once an ardent socialist who now acknowledges private property and capital as sometimes appropriate elements in developing societies. Once an opponent of representative central government, he is wrestling with the need to delegate substantial authority to competent public officials if Libya is to join the global system. Once fearful of outside media, he has permitted satellite dishes throughout his country, and he himself surfs the Internet.

The devil, you see, is not so bad; he even surfs the internet! Part of it, I’m sure, is purely selfish: by refusing to understand that having a Western educated, “reformist” son is a good thing for an authoritarian despot to have — because it gives Western governments an excuse to get in bed with them, allowing everyone to pretend that change is on the way, and thereby ignore that it sure as hell hasn‘t come yet — he gets to excuse his own complicity in putting to together. But I’m not as interested in complicity as I am in the continuing defense of the right to make a mistake. To reiterate: Barber’s refusal to connect the dots, his insistence on not seeing how putting on a performance of “democratic reform” allows a regime like Qaddaffi’s to stay in power, and how writing op-eds like that one helped it happen, is a way of defending — and thereby maintaining — the ideology behind it.

That ideology is simple, and it is shared by the entire Qaddafi clan: apres moi, le deluge. There is no alternative; the people cannot be trusted with democracy, because they will fuck it up.

Note, for example, how similar Barber’s current interpretation of what is happening in Libya is to the line both of the Qaddafi patriarchs are trying to sell. It is a choice between the safe, authoritarian governance of a dictatorial petro-state and the tribalistic anarchy that will inevitably succeed it. Here, for example, is Saif arguing on Feb 20th that “Libya is not Tunisia or Egypt”:

Libya is different, if there was disturbance it will split to several states. It was three states before 60 years. Libya are Tribes not like Egypt. There are no political parties, it is made of tribes. Everyone knows each other. We will have a civil war like in 1936. American Oil Companies played a big part in unifying Libya. Who will manage this oil? How will we divide this oil amongst us? Who will spend on our hospitals? All this oil will be burnt by the Baltagiya (Thugs) they will burn it. There are no people there. 3/4s of our people live in the East in Benghazi, there is no oil there, who will spend on them? Your children will not go to schools or universities. There will be chaos, we will have to leave Libya if we can’t share oil. Everyone wants to become a Sheikh and an Emir, we are not Egypt or Tunisia so we are in front of a major challenge.

And here is Barber, yesterday:

…this isn’t Cairo, but a civil war with tribal overtones that threaten to overwhelm the genuine desire for freedom of many of the protesters…I’ve been arguing for some time that this is a tribal society. What you’ve got here is not Cairo, but the makings of a tribal war among two parts of Libya that before 1931 were distinct provinces (Cyrenaica and Tripolitania and among whom there’s long been bad blood). Tripoli versus Benghazi is a very old story.

Whether or not you believe this is true depends, more or less, on your willingness to believe that Libyans are tribal people who just want to kill each other and spend our oil. And it depends on you refusing to notice that people like Barber and Saif al-Gaddafi have a terrible track record, that their credibility is somewhere between nil and nonexistent. Which is precisely the point: while Barber wants you to consider finding him credible, he also wants to build up the credit rating for the idea he propounded, the idea that a “reform” dictator — that figure for whom Saif was such a great poster boy — was the only option.

There are alternatives, of course. Michael didn’t have to kill his brother, Saif didn’t have to stand with the regime, and Benjamin Barber could have admitted he was wrong. As my father would have pointed out to him, he might have once been a smooth, cosmopolitan fellow who promised you the world, but now that he’s chosen to be a violent asshole, fuck him, right? And with that in mind, we could, like Milton’s ideal reader, recognize the attraction of the devil as a means of better understanding how it is that we get seduced by evil: he tells us what we already want to believe to give us permission to ignore reality. Wouldn’t it be great to believe that the political order which just happens to provide us with maximum oil and consultant’s fees (and minimum democracy for Libyans) is the only option? Wouldn’t it be nice to have our imperial cake and eat it too?

But we can be better readers. We can observe what Barber is incapable of seeing; for example, that Saif al-Qaddafi’s dissertation was blatantly plagiarized. Click that link; the documentation is unmistakable, and is surely only the tip of the iceberg. But Saif’s academic dishonesty is only interesting because of the way it leaves Barber exposed, because it’s such a nice figure for how this entire system of reputation capital works: the Orientalist asks to be seduced with a particular type of lie, the devil performs for him exactly the kind of “neoliberal pantomime” (as Timothy Burke called it) he requires, and all go home happy and secure in having confirmed exactly the “truth“ they needed to believe. “…he quotes me, all kinds of people. He quotes me on my book Strong Democracy…” cries Barber, as if plagiarism meant quotation. For on such tautological echo chambers are empires built, and as Barber is not wrong to observe, unmasking this kind of “knowledge” would be revolutionary, would undermine the entire feedback loop on which even his own scholarly edifice is built. “If Saif is a plagiarist, then so is everyone else who has written a dissertation,” he proclaims, not because he’s looked at the evidence — it is clear he has not and could never — but because the reputations at stake are far more important than anything so vulgar as facts. Without Western expertise confirming that the Arabs are anarchic tribalists, you see, we would see the moral legitimacy of our support for the autocratic tyrants ruling them crumble and fall. After me, says Barber, le deluge.

I cannot, at this point, put it any better than Manan has in his article “Flying Blind,” for The National, which is well worth reading in its entirety, so I‘ll close with a brief excerpt and encourage you to read the whole thing. Manan’s point is simple, elegant, and powerful: for the American empire to acquire real knowledge of the broad stretch of Oriental fantasy-lands we wish to control would expose us to facts we cannot, with that intention in mind, ever bear to accept. And so we turn to people like Barber, who happily turn to local expertise like that of Saif, who happily trumpet back to them their own half-informed beliefs, now fully laundered of the stain of their origin. Here, Manan is speaking of “Fouad Ajami or Thomas Friedman, or George W Bush.” But he might as well be speaking of Benjamin Barber and the dashed hope that his tragic Michael Corleone represented:

This hope, being irrational and racist, actually requires blindness to the immediate and the real. Notice simply the befuddled faces of area experts when confronted by Tahrir Square. Notice simply that it isn’t the masses in the street that confound but the lack of explicit violence from the masses and the lack of religiosity of the masses.

The appeal of the drone’s eye is precisely that it does not see everything, because it carries no understanding of the things it records. The experts who are required to imagine Afghanistan or Pakistan traverse those spaces in a manner similar to the drones, on their own preprogrammed missions where every little thing becomes a target on which to pin their policies.