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Qaddafi Canon a Primer for Translating Tyrants: Jeffrey Goldberg

November 02, 2011

Nov. 1 (Bloomberg) -- There are certain writers whose deaths leave us intellectually impoverished. Imagine if Tocqueville were here to explain the Tea Party, or if we could read Solzhenitsyn today on a revenant Russia, or Naguib Mahfouz on Tahrir Square.

And just imagine what further illuminating thoughts the great Libyan writer Muammar Qaddafi could have shared with us, had his people not turned on him with such terrifying finality.

I will miss so many things about Qaddafi: the funny hats, his voluptuous Ukrainian nurse, those charming sons of his, and the female bodyguards who comprised his very own Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. But what I will miss most is the belle- lettrist Qaddafi, the Qaddafi who brought forth so many treasures of scholarship that his work will be studied around the globe for at least another six, or perhaps even nine, months.

His literary output was extraordinary, given the amount of time he had to spend on bleeding his country’s treasury, plotting terrorist attacks against civilian airliners and torturing dissidents. If you commit yourself to a careful reading of Qaddafi’s work, as I have, you will be astonished by the breadth of his knowledge in matters governmental, philosophical, theological and menstrual.

Menstrual, you ask? In the now-legendary “Green Book,” Qaddafi’s summa, he writes: “Women are females and men are males. According to gynecologists, women menstruate every month or so, while men, being male, do not menstruate or suffer during the monthly period.”

So true! And so sad that the world misinterpreted such profound truths, unfairly labeling them gibberish from a despot.

A Reintroduction

There was a moment, a few years ago, when the opportunity arose for Qaddafi to be reintroduced to the world, and here now is the tragedy of our story. Recall that shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Qaddafi, then known as a bargain-basement Saddam Hussein, decided to give up his nuclear program and work his way into the good graces of the West.

Some attributed Qaddafi’s volte-face to fear. Specifically, fear of President George W. Bush and his demonstrated desire to dismantle the rogue regimes of the Middle East. But others asserted that the change we saw in Tripoli was genuine, that here was an example of a leader who after a period of on-the-job training (more than 30 years, in fact) realized that political moderation and democratic reform were in the best interests of his country.

Granted, many of the people who asserted this were paid to do so, including the top-shelf minds of the Monitor Group, a Massachusetts-based consulting company that selflessly offered to help the Libyan regime improve its reputation for a fee of $3 million. One of Monitor’s clever methods was to pay U.S. academics -- including Joseph Nye Jr. and Benjamin Barber -- to meet with Qaddafi and, with any luck, report back that the despot was, in fact, a changed man and a misunderstood philosopher.

Another method was to propose that Qaddafi produce a book that would reintroduce the world to the profundities expressed in less-accessible fashion in the “Green Book.”

In its original proposal to the Libyan government, Monitor suggested that its main interest was to expand “the dialogue around the ideas” of Qaddafi, who has “made significant efforts to think through many of the critical political and philosophical issues of the day, and to publish his thinking to a broader audience.”

Thoughts on Democracy

Of course, Monitor hoped to charge Qaddafi more than $2 million for producing such a book, but quality intellectual output doesn’t come cheap. How much would be too much to introduce Western elites to such thoughts as this: “There can be no democracy without Popular Conferences and Committees everywhere. First, the people are divided into Basic Popular Conferences. Each Basic Popular Conference chooses its secretariat. The secretariats of all Popular Conferences together form Non-Basic Popular Conferences. Subsequently, the masses of the Basic Popular Conferences select administrative People’s Committees to replace government -- " well, you get the point.

The experts at Monitor understood that the U.S. had much to learn about democracy from their Libyan client.

Alas, Monitor’s book project was not to be. During the revolution that led to Qaddafi’s demise, Monitor finally admitted that mistakes were made. “In the spirit of enabling the country’s reintegration with the global community, we at one point proposed to help write a book representing the views of Mr. Gaddafi,” read one of the company’s mea culpas. “During subsequent discussions regarding this proposal it became clear to us that it was a serious mistake on our part, and the work did not proceed.”

I think Monitor was too hard on itself. We can learn so much about dictators when they actually put their thoughts to paper. There are great books out there waiting to be written by celebrity tyrants. I, for one, would like to read Robert Mugabe on agrarian reform, and Alexander Lukashenko on bringing the KGB into the 21st century. Hugo Chavez, I’m sure, has inspiring words for those battling cancer, and Bashar al-Assad, who is facing a Qaddafi-type situation himself, could write a book with Monitor’s help arguing that he is actually a humanitarian leader, because he has so far murdered such a small portion of Syria’s citizens.

If Monitor was willing to take on the Qaddafi account, why not help Assad? After all, tyrants are people too.

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)

--Editors: Timothy Lavin, Stacey Shick

To contact the writer of this article: Jeffrey Goldberg at goldberg.atlantic@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.


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