Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Liberia Continues to be a Joke

To start, let me say that I decided against entering the fray of the Vice Guide to Liberia controversy earlier this year. Once other bloggers had so thoroughly and eloquently expressed their views, I didn't feel like I had much left to add. Although, as one of just a handful of young, white American males in Monrovia, I felt the whole sophomoric, hyperbolic, melodramatic drivel was especially unhelpful. I don't mean in the sense that I had to worry about being a target for some kind of backlash against me personally. I was not envisioning a scenario where I would be harmed in an Anti-American street protest, or personally attacked. But at the same it also isn't going to make my time or my work in Monrovia any easier.

In my experience, Liberia is a remarkably safe, friendly, welcoming place, with incredibly warm and approachable population who have, in both an individual and communal sense, an ability to put a foreigner at ease, and extend a gracious hospitality that I've not encountered elsewhere--and certainly remarkable for people who have faced and continue to encounter so many problems. I'm not the only observer of this point (see comments), verbalized especially in reaction to Vice's depiction of a dangerous, chaotic hellhole. Liberia has plenty of problems, especially within its still-fragile social realm, and I wouldn't walk down Broad Street at 2AM by myself or anything, but to depict the city as some kind of danger zone is utterly false.

Aside from however annoying and disappointing one finds the lazy sensationalism and gross ignorance of the Vice Guide, it is dangerous to the people of Monrovia, and not the other way around. Once again I am repeating what others have better articulated (see comments), but what we are talking about is Liberia's reputation, how it is perceived by the American public. The Vice Guide's misrepresentations make Monrovia and Liberia seem even worse than they really are, and are therefore doing harm (by the way, Vice eventually apologized). Unfortunately, the Vice Guide is only the most severe and extensive of Liberia's recent appearances in popular video, in which Liberia doesn't get the best profiling.

Earlier this summer, I learned that an episode of a show I had not previously heard of: Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, was going to Liberia. I put this up on Facebook and was excited to watch it, and have Liberia gain some exposure, even if it was on one of those American-never-heard-of-this-place-before type of show.

At the end of of the half hour show, having been served palm butter and trying to surf in Robertsport, the schleppy, middle-aged New Yorker concludes:

"Liberia was tough for me, not so much physically as trying to wrap my mind around the place. The past is still too close and the good, I fear, too weak to overcome the bad just yet. This is a place that has endured the worst, that deserves better, much better. I'd like to sum up with hopeful words; a look forward to a brighter future...but I don't believe it."

A lot of people I know were really bothered by that. Of course, what he said was his opinion, and its his show. And I am sure he is not alone in assessing Liberia and feeling that its hopeless. But some of my friends felt that, in a public forum, he could have said something hopeful and encouraging, even if he didn't feel it personally. He might have felt a responsibility, if his sentiments were genuine, to be more positive, and improve Liberia's public profile.

As difficult as it is to admit, I will readily agree that Liberia is a tough place, with challenges so huge that sometimes its overwhelming. I get really frustrated in Monrovia, and I can be very critical and negative at times, and even feel hopeless. But then I go off to spend a lot more time and effort encouraging people to get excited about Liberia, to invest there, to believe in its future. Its therefore annoying when a celebrity chef from Manhattan drops in for a few days with a production crew, and informs his followers that Liberia is hopeless.

My third example is from the Daily Show, where Ellen has appeared previously. In an otherwise ingenious (and surprisingly enlightened, considering the judicial ruling at the end of the segment) report by Wyatt Cenac about Staten Island's lack of Supreme Court Justices, Liberia unexpectedly comes up.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Staten Island Supreme Court Justice
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorRally to Restore Sanity

At the beginning of the segment, a Staten Island Assemblyman, when asked by Wyatt to list some of the good things on Staten Island, almost immediately mentions the Liberian Community as one of the borough's main assets. I was momentarily optimistic, but I could already see that the Assemblyman had completely served up a softball for the comedian to swat back. Just as I thought, Wyatt, whose job is specifically to look for any joke he can crack, took the opening provided by the Assemblyman, and offered up another laugh at Liberia's expense:

Assemblyman Matthew Titone: We happen to have a lot great things going on here.

Wyatt Cenac: Talk to me about some of those great things.

Assemblyman: [pause, audience laughter] Staten Island is immensely diverse..we also have

THE largest Liberian population outside of Liberia.

Wyatt: No offense, but its Liberia.

Assemblyman: Well, clearly people coming from a civil-war torn country prefer to be on Staten Island then Liberia [audience laughter].

Wyatt: Its kinda like saying, 'Oh, do you want to get punched in the face, or punched in the balls?' [audience laughter]

Please read Palaver Hut's post, as I largely share the view expressed there. But beyond those comments, what I am talking about is the specific damage that can be done when Liberia is mentioned in American popular culture, in a negative connotation. Personally, professionally, and emotionally, it bothers me and worries me that Liberia continues be portrayed in this light, and used as a punchline. For large audiences of young people, such as the Daily Show, this might be one of the only contexts in which they hear about Liberia at all, and the country was served up for a laugh.

Do these personalities, entertainers, and programmers have a responsibility to use their platform to help Liberia? What about the Daily Show, with its flirtations with serious journalism, such as inviting President Sirleaf, only to equate the place with a kick in the groin a year and a half later? These wisecracks are more than unhelpful-- they are, I feel, actually harmful.

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