Liberia from America: No Zion in Babylon

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf may be barred from politics for her sketchy past: consider this a cautionary tale to those calling Liberia “Black America’s Israel”.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was recently a focus of confused attention in the US after Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Liberia recommended she be banned from seeking future political office.  Johnson-Sirleaf, a former World Bank bureaucrat who later became an apparatchik in the True Whig Party near the end of its 100 year single party rule of Liberia has her share of skeletons.  Her career as politician, surviving as a functionary of Tolbert and the True Whigs, her falling out with the gerontocracy and revival after Doe’s coup government, has been one which would make any Chicago party boss proud.  She compromised with just about anyone for a slice of power, including Charles Taylor and other such unsavory characters.

Despite this, she’s made herself beloved of US liberals with her Feminist grandmother persona, recently highlighted in the US tour promoting her best selling, insipid memoir.  Johnson-Sirleaf is far from evil but she’s no saint and no hero, despite her self serving cooptation of the women’s movement against Taylor and the Civil War. She was complicit in his coming to power, and has not had cleaner hands than any politician of the era. So seeing her being feted by Oprah, Tavis Smiley, PBS’s Frontline and Charlie Rose on US television over the last year provided me a regular opportunity to strike my head on the coffee table.

The fact is that President Johnson-Sirleaf oversees the best government Liberia has had in a generation, but that’s not much of a standard.  Her government pushes neo-liberal policies which no developed nation would accept for their own people, invites foreign corporations (like Firestone) to treat its citizens like dirt, sucks up to the United States, volunteers to host American military expansion in the guise of AFRICOM, and has overseen the the arrest, detention, and harassment of those citizens who criticize the government.

That professional idiot Bill Kristof, as well as piles of Western liberals, were stunned by this week’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission report (which will likely never be implemented) has provided me another head shaking concussion. It’s also a reminder that ignorant stereotypes we have of Africans, even positive ones, can be destructive.

As both a sometime historian and an American of Irish decent, the 2007 statement by BET founder Robert Johnson that African Americans should “support Liberia like Jewish-Americans support Israel” made for a moment of cringeworthy recognition.  The US (collectively) OWES Liberians.  White folks in particular continue to rake up debts they owe Liberia (see Bush’s recent involvement there), but the solution to this is not to idolize a Liberian politician.  We did a lot of damage with the “white man’s burden” style colonialism that created the state in the 19th century, and African Americans should not fall into the trap of idealization of a foreign country now. Nor should they idealize what will come with focused U.S. capitalist intervention, even when led by African Americans.  Like Jewish American’s support for Israel and Irish American’s support for the Republic, idealization plus naivete plus US capitalist interests have the potential to not only warp the self definition of Americans, but to empower all the most craven interests of both societies.

Years ago I was lucky enough to spend time in my own idealized ethnic motherland. I got on well in Dublin as a student, in large measure because of who I was not.  The Irish capitol, at least then, was flooded with the most meat headed, Notre Dame baseball cap wearing stereotypes of Irish Americans.   These folks insisted to all and sundry that they were, by dint of heritage alone, “Irish.”  This further meant they never felt a need to actually learn anything about Ireland, but could instead lecture the locals about “their” history, government, economic structures, and so forth.  Ever a beneficiary of low expectations, I won many a drink for simply not being one of those fools.  This dysfunctional relationship with an idealized homeland is common to most United States “ethnic communities”.  The idealization provides the perfect rationale for blissful — for the Americans at least — ignorance.  Ask Italians what they think of visiting Italian Americans, and prepare to learn some colorful vocabulary.

While these examples might be merely annoying/amusing, there remain larger consequences of such a typically American mindset.  The export of US style capitalism, financial speculation, and military involvement has never been far behind the horde of “ethnicity”-Americans connecting to their roots. Israel is the prime example, described during the cold war as “an American aircraft carrier in the middle east”, with its politics pushed farther and farther rightward by US interests coupled with ignorant Americans convinced they are really something else.  This is not a disease unique to the US, but the history of this continent — combined with the murder of its original inhabitants — has made us a nation of Diasporas so unlike others.  Most Americans must seek their own heritage somewhere they will never even visit. While this puts us a step ahead of European’s blood and soil type nationalism, it has some negative consequences.

African Americans have a right to reconnect to a heritage so brutally stripped from them, but they also have an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of other ethnic communities.  Citizens of the rich West, and the US in particular, must involve themselves in Liberia and other African nations: we owe them that and we owe ourselves all that African society can teach us.  But part of knowing your history is seeing that our distant relations are three dimensional human beings with their distinct brilliance and tragedy. It is recognizing that those living in other cultures are different people with unique histories, which we didn’t share.  Americo-Liberians — as well as so-called “natives” — have had a rich history of their own since the 19th century, just as African Americans, Italian Americans, or Irish Americans have had on this side of the sea.  Their relations with the other ethnicities of Liberia can deliver lessons for all of us, some positive some cautionary, but unique and their own.  If Americans use other nations solely as places for their ethnic homecomings or as a symbolic pole of identification within US culture, we’ll never really know these places, and we’ll still be using them for our ends.

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