Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Colonel Gaddafi's Conan The Barbarian Moment

Ah, the unpredictable world of the dictator. One minute you’re a living god with a gold toilet, multiple palaces and a personal bodyguard of nubile female ninjas, and then the next it’s all over, as if all that splendor was nothing more than a very long - and mostly quite pleasant - dream.

Such is the reality Muammar Gaddafi finds himself inhabiting right now. Until recently he was not only the planet’s most famous colonel (after the guy who makes fried chicken, of course) but also Africa’s longest reigning head of state. Less than nine months ago he was still being feted by world leaders and fawned over by a prestigious English university hungry for oil money. His children enjoyed expensive educations at European and American institutions. And what about those tender, personal moments spent leafing through his album of Condoleezza Rice portraits?

All gone. Today the “Brother Leader” is a fugitive in the desert, pursued by an unsavory coalition of jihadis, tribal enemies and possibly one or two secular humanists, all of whom are very keen to do bad things to him and his family. How fitting then that Libya is filled with relics of the Ancient World, where men once lived in awe of that fickle goddess Fortune!

I am fascinated by the mind of the dictator and especially by what happens to a man’s psyche when he is surrounded exclusively by craven bootlickers who, from a mixture of ambition and fear, supply nothing but affirmation. Being surrounded by terrified sycophants all the time may be nice for the ego, but it does little good for one’s sense of reality, which is a problem if you intend to hold onto power. For instance, perpetual flattery clearly rendered Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak disastrously complacent - unable to distinguish between his own power and that of a military elite that no longer supported him, he was completely defenseless when his people rebelled against his rule.

Gaddafi’s disconnect from reality was less extreme. Confronted by the initial uprising in Benghazi he did what any dictator worth his salt would do and started killing people, and he would certainly have crushed his enemies had not NATO started shooting down his planes and blowing things up on humanitarian grounds. A few months later, fifty thousand people are dead and Gaddafi is out in the desert spitting defiance, urging the Libyans to drive the rebels from Tripoli. Does he really believe this is possible? I suspect he does, for- as TS Eliot once observed- humankind cannot bear very much reality.

This lesson was driven home to me last week when I read an interview with the screenwriter of the new Conan movie, which recently experienced a catastrophic opening at the box office. He described the process of denial that had persisted right up until the moment the receipts came in. Although the signs were obvious that the film was doomed, most of the production team kept telling themselves that it would all be OK in the end.

I suspect a similar process of self-deception is taking place in Mitt Romney’s skull right now. He is almost definitely going to lose the Republican nomination to Rick Perry, and if he doesn’t then he stands next to zero chance of beating Obama in the election. Millions can see this, but Romney persists in spending lots of his own money on his hopeless dream of becoming president. I’m no different: I have put energy, time and money into projects long after they were obviously dead to those who did not have my emotional investment. 

Denying ugly truths is only human, and not entirely a bad thing: it can comfort us in the immediate aftermath of terrible shocks. But it can be a serious problem if it persists. How much worse then must the tendency be for a man whose word was life and death, and who has now lost everything?

Gaddafi has vowed to fight to the death. If his powers of denial are strong enough, then he probably doesn’t think it’ll be necessary: any minute now he’ll be back in Tripoli. But when reality does kick in, a glorious death will probably seem like a good option. Surely it’s better than to be dragged out of a hole like Saddam Hussein, dirty and bearded, and then hanged before an audience of voyeurs with cell phone cameras? Or to expire quietly in a cell in The Hague, like Slobodan Milosevic? By surrendering to other’s justice you abdicate your throne as a Great Monster; you become a mortal - and a pitiful one at that.

Then again, if Gaddafi can make it out of Libya, there’s probably a nice mansion waiting for him somewhere; I hear Nicaragua may have one. And a life in angry, luxurious exile has attractions stronger even than death - such as access to the Internet and, of course, lots and lots of pictures of Condoleezza Rice.