An Unlikely Leader

May 16, 2009

Once again I’m drifting slightly from this blog’s stated purpose, but I decided it was worth noting an interesting book review from today’s online edition of the NYTimes.  The review, written by Helene Cooper, is of the new memoirs of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia.  The book is entitled This Child Will be Great.

I generally don’t care for memoirs or biographies, as they by definition focus on one person for a great length of time and I find it difficult to maintain interest in any but the most fascinating of people.  For the record, I haven’t read this book yet (not many bookstores here in Kabul), but I intend to at the first opportunity.  I have been a fan of Johnson-Sirleaf since her election as president of Liberia and have followed her impressive career as closely as one can without ever setting foot in West Africa.

That said, the tone and style of Cooper’s review is disturbing to say the least.  The opening paragraph reads more like a feminist rant than a book review.  Consider:

In November 2005, Liberian women strapped their babies on their backs and flocked to voting tables all across their war-racked country to elect Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Africa’s first female president. It was a seminal moment in the political history of not just Liberia but the entire continent, where patriarchal rule has long dominated, leaving African women on the sidelines to fetch water, carry logs, tend farms, sell market wares and bear the children of their rapists, while their menfolk launched one pointless war after another.

Note that, according to Cooper, one could draw the conclusion that no children are born in Africa without the occurence of rape.  Note also that Africa’s wars are apparently all “pointless,” a fact which is undoubtedly lost on those who instigated or participated in them.  While it is true that Africans in general, and Liberians in particular, have suffered a long series of brutal and often inconclusive wars, I don’t think that those fighting and dying in them, on whatever side, would consider them “pointless.”  Cooper makes it sound as if a bunch of bored African men just randomly decide to go out and kill each other for lack of something better to do.  The myriad causes of African conflicts, just and unjust, deserve better explanation than that, even in the context of a book review.

Later, Cooper describes Johnson Sirleaf as “the heiress to this line of long-suffering yet rock-strong women.”  

“Rock-strong?”  How did she come up with that overblown metaphor?  Has funding dropped so much at the NYTimes that they no longer supply a thesaurus to their writers?

Cooper also refers to the other leaders of Liberia, rebel and legitimate alike, variously as “madmen” or “lunatics.”  Liberia has had it’s share of brutal dictators, even more brutal rebels and assorted violent warlords.  They were not however,  all crazy.  In fact, most acted out of misguided but nevertheless real grievances against other tribes or the political leadership.  Their tactics and methods may appear reprehensible and indeed incomprehensible to a NYT writer who lives in D.C. but they were based on actual events and perceived injustices, not mental deficiency.

Cooper is no Africa expert (neither am I).  In fact, she’s the White House correspondent for the Times.  I wonder if President Obama will read this review and quietly pull Helene aside to ask if, in her opinion, all African men are lunatic murderers.

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