At the Imperial Court

The emissaries had been warned
to watch their tongues
for what was said in jest
during a visit to the countryside
or to the stables
where the imperial thoroughbreds were kept
would soon enough be relayed back.
Now word had leaked
that an emissary from a distant province
had spoken lightly of the imperial line
and even hinted that the emperor
might not be divine.
His tongue had been ripped out,
his body flayed,
and he had been sent home
with an order to his province
to double its tribute in rice and in wine.
Ever since the emissaries eye each other warily
whenever they congregate in the court
or lift a glass in drinking
to the emperor’s eternal health.

Auctoritas

If kings of yore were prone
to adorn their courts with ceremonial rites,
what is one to make of the lot
who have since taken their place?
They seem so much in love
with the ornate trappings of Versailles,
the Kremlin’s dizzying spires,
military parades,
assembled press corps waiting on their every word,
one half expects the skies to open
and a voice to cry out,
“All hail, these earthly gods!”
Puppeteers are hard at work
pulling at the strings,
and as before mere mortals
are meant to marvel at their craft.

The Mayan Route

(Banampak, Yaxchilan and Palenque)

To wander amidst these ruins,
grandiose each in its own way –
stelae sketched in the immortal ink of stone,
the ruler of a city-state,
his lineage in hieroglyphic script,
frescoes rescued from the elements,
trumpets, drums marking a ritual event,
blood offering to the gods
with spirits from the underworld
speaking through a serpent’s mouth,
mighty walls and endless hewn steps
that meld into the mountaintops,
a playing field
where mastery of a rubber ball
determines life or death,
captives prostrate at a ruler’s feet,
the head of a beheaded king –
is to recall old lessons
regarding rise and fall,
antiquity’s hubris that ends in cruel defeats,
the jungle ever-ready to reclaim its own,
vicissitudes of fate that weigh us down.

Port of Call

What do we know about each other,
the British tourists on a yacht
who stop to swim in the cove,
briefly step on shore,
and then take off to their next Aegean mooring;
the French couple here for a week
to consummate their vows;
the Serbs who like Damouchari
because it isn’t Croat
and the fault line between Orthodoxy and Rome
runs deeper than the postmodern set might suppose;
Israelis who come in droves
because Greece is close
and there aren’t places in their immediate neighbourhood
to feel at ease;
northerners who love the beaches
and the pace of life of the Mediterranean south
but would not trade in their GDP
and ordered lives
at any price;
the restaurant staff,
mostly Albanians here for the season
with the odd African
who has slipped in between the cracks;
disco jockeys and hotel operators on the make,
local fishermen and cultivators of olive groves,
the gypsy vendor with his fruit,
kayakers churning the waters of the coast
like would-be Argonauts
in search of the golden fleece;
and you, unofficial scribe,
treating this port of call
as a writer’s retreat?

Desert Camp, Merzouga

The Bedouin in you stirred
at the sight of undulating dunes
and camel caravans waiting
to take their charges across the sands.

The guttural sounds of a Semitic tongue
drifted across the compound where you sat
wondering whether this evening
a voice might yet resound.

You had come in search of something more
than a swanky desert camp
or a glimpse of one more sunset
atop an ochre-coloured land.

You hankered for a message
from across the pale of time,
a fragmentary image
to reconnect the dotted lines.

Sahara Nocturne

If you come to the desert with longing
the longing will pull you in
for you carry deep within you
the cold swooshing of the wind
and the memory of distant soundings
from an ancient threnody
along with words once uttered
which you never scribbled down
doubting that you’d been chosen
to return from whence it began
if but for the briefest of moments
before the desert turned longing to sand.

Messengers

Messengers who flash warnings
of what the end of time portends,
messengers who whisper cryptic lines
of life’s mysteries and the great beyond,
messengers who ride off on a camel’s back
in search of a holy land,
messengers who lose their footing in the dunes
and cross sanity’s fatal bounds.

She’s been a friend of many years,
loyal and steadfast almost to a fault,
but when the subject turns to Macedonia
and the faltering attempt to resolve
a lingering dispute about a country’s name
all measure disappears.

The Macedonians given half an inch
would soon claim the whole of northern Greece,
the Bulgarians would join in
gobbling up both bits
and only the greatest vigilance by patriotic Greeks
can forestall a catastrophe foretold.

Naively you had thought the Balkan Wars
had ended a century ago.

— Philip Resnick

Atavisms

Everywhere you look, they’re sprouting,
Shiites, Sunnis
rekindling the prophet’s spirit,
Orthodox in countries which had abjured religion
rediscovering connections long forgotten
which their autocratic rulers nourish,
retro-Catholics in Poland
merging the Black Virgin of Czestochowa
with intolerance for their opponents,
Hinduvistas dreaming of a purified  homeland,
Jewish zealots of a reconsecrated Temple Mount,
Buddhist incendiaries in Myanmar,
evangelicals in the New World,
a veritable smorgasbord of beliefs
which a scientific age
had prematurely dismissed.

The Minders

Her talk is fluid/fluent,
the ups and downs of relations between Europe and the Porte
over two centuries,
a Sultan journeying to the West,
wars, atrocities,
mirror images and stereotypes to this day.
And through it all
– though the speaker is careful
how she weaves her tale
to not dwell overtly on the new Sultan,
his prisons overflowing,
the bleak Islamic turn his regime now takes –
three figures in sober attire from the Consulate
noting carefully every word she states,
lest she cross the invisible boundary
that spells dissent.

One part of us knows all too well
the risks of doubling tanker traffic through the port
and what an oil spill like the Exxon Valdez
would represent.

The other part knows equally well
just how dependent we have all become
on the bloodstream of an industrial age
and how quickly we would feel the pinch
without a drop of oil.

The valiant and romantic part,
NIMBYish in its way,
dreams of a green-red pact, a pristine coast,
and unadulterated ocean views.

The pragmatic part
feels a larger national vision is at stake
and tradeoffs the price
of keeping two quarrelling provinces aligned.

And so the kettle-drums beat on,
waiting for a prince to lay down the law.

Sesquicentenary

You would have been more acerbic
in your salad years,
convinced as you were back then
that our somnolent dominion of the north
had missed a historical beat or two,
spurning revolutions,
holding on for dear life to the apron-strings
of two empires in rapid succession,
our leaders always reaching for the middle,
no clear goals to lift the spirits
or excite the imagination.

Now that you’re a senior
and Canada’s even more so,
your former disdain has given way
to a spirit of reconciliation.
It isn’t easy managing a country
with awkward platelets that see themselves as distinct nations,
with far-flung regions
and a macédoine of peoples
which elsewhere might incite internecine hatreds.

We have fended off the worst traits
of the giant to the south,
while coexisting reasonably amicably beside it.
Our social compass resembles that of Europe,
and our vision of the world order
combines a Boy Scout’s earnestness for alliances
with peacekeeping missions and UN-sanctioned conventions.

We have had our share of failings
– the excessive influence of corporations, foreign and domestic,
politicians on the take,
policies which haven’t really helped to integrate First Nations,
closed doors to refugees fleeing Europe in the ’30s,
wartime deportation of innocent Japanese-Canadian civilians –
but in the larger scheme of things
we haven’t screwed up too badly,
neither plumbing the depths of failed or fragile states
nor suffering under despotic rulers,
though we’ve sometimes come quite close,
with autocratic Premiers and nepotistic tribal chiefs.

Still, you don’t feel out of place
lifting a glass to Canada’s sesquicentenary,
much as you might wish there was a bit more drama
to a country which has learned to live in peace.

On a passage in Kant

The starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.
— Kant

The stars with their pointillistic luminescence
dot the night sky over Damoukhari
underlying our glaring insignificance
in the cosmic scheme.
But what about the moral law within
which Kant extolled,
has it fared any better
in the two centuries that have elapsed
since he walked Königsberg’s tree-lined streets?
One contemplates the Anthropocene,
the deep inequities that continue to creep in,
a ruthless quest for ends over means,
a population bomb rivalling the ballistic ones,
our sapping the finite resources of Mother Earth,
and one wishes the stars above
would somehow wipe our muddied escutcheon clean.

Vergina

You came to visit these royal tombs,
most probably those of Philip II of Macedon
and his consort,
and the wrought gold jewellery and silver vessels
are truly regal,
as are the size and scale of the portico
and columns where they lay buried.
Yet something rankles
in this glorification of Macedon,
of Philip and of Alexander
and of the Hellenistic age which was to follow.
No mention of the king’s archfoe, Demosthenes,
who had rightly seen in him the undoing of the polis,
and of the freedom which Athens had enjoyed
in the two centuries when the civilization
which we so venerate had flowered.
Instead, it is the force of arms,
the lust for power,
the perks and privileges of rulers,
that in this underground museum/mausoleum
are given the celebratory status
befitting tyrants.

The Demos

The demos can be so fickle,
excoriating the first honest politician they’ve ever seen
– an Alfonsin in Argentina,
a Gorbachev in the ex-USSR –
because economically times were tough,
or a rotten old regime had finally bitten the dust,
embracing the most loathsome and corrupt
– a Berlusconi or a Trump –
who know how to traffic notoriety and pilfered wealth
for naked power.
It makes one almost despair
of the larger creed we Westerners so earnestly profess,
forgetting how democracy among the ancients
had its share of assemblies easily swayed
by demagogues and knaves
for every Pericles or Demosthenes that came along.

Canada at 150

       We don’t need any kaiser.
       — Heinrich Heine, A Winter’s Tale

What courage, back in 1843,
for the bard to give voice
to what was still a faint stirring
somewhere in the forest depths
of a Germany still asleep
to the longing for a springtime of the people.
And we,
in this Dominion of the North,
who have been sleeping for a full 150 years,
putting up with regal flummery,
with all the trappings of Old World monarchy,
have yet to break the bonds of a mentality
that ties us to our colonial dregs.

Modernism

Modernism came at a stroke
amidst the carnage and the cold
that swept muddy battlefields,
leaving the old order fractured in its wake.
Scales fell from a generation’s eyes,
becoming an atonal twelve,
bodies on canvases disengaged,
squares, cubes and asymmetric blobs
displacing classic harmony for good.
We were growing up,
or so it seemed,
learning to live with bold designs,
urban centrefolds that swelled until they reached the sky,
movement at a speed
foretelling the eclipse of linear time.
Some say the world has become a better place,
that the multitude has never thrived as it now does,
despite the lapses of major wars and minor ones,
and regimes no less repressive than those that came before.
Perhaps the data point to sunnier days,
but in our gut we kind of sense
the breakdown which the modernists sketched
has become the lethal norm.

 

Cementario del Norte – La Recoleta

July 26, 1991

Past chiselled tombs,
crypts of publishers, cardiologists and rectors
ministering to the soul or body,
along the alleyways of a deserted city,
no blade of grass to disturb the grey cement and marble,
you wander.
A cat or two has made a home
in amongst these necro-villas with their coffins,
guardians tending to the flowers and the dust,
sweeping the portals clean,
much as concierges might do in the world of the living.
Suddenly around the bend TV cameras whir,
a whole cortège of mourners
– wreaths of the finest roses, orchids, passion flowers at their feet –
has gathered around the Duarte tomb
to mark the 39th year since her passing.
A balding trumpeter, out of a’30s movie,
plays in her honour,
as a sea of hands, each with two fingers held aloft,
salutes to the cry “Viva Perón!” “Viva Eva Perón!” “Viva la patria!”
Many of the women are in furs,
a few in simpler cloth or woollens,
their eyes moistening to the power of a legend.
Which is the real Evita,
the stricken saint they mourn,
Madonna to the decamisados,
heroine of Broadway musicals?
Or the spider-lady behind a fickle venturer
who for decades kept a country in his thrall?

Making America Great Again

Once again the pollsters,
those diviners of auspices and entrails,
have been proven wrong,
and a wave of Nativist disenchantment
with the Beltway, the urbane elites,
the icons of Wall Street
rolls from the Deep South to the Rust Belt
and across the Plains,
upsetting the political applecart
and giving a new Magus carte blanche
to tear up trade deals
that hollow out factories and towns,
to keep foreign riffraff
from infiltrating liberty’s domain,
to turn the clock back to a time
when the Constitution in all its Second Amendment splendor
held full rein.
Where all this will end
only historians of the future will know,
but for the moment irresistible forces bubble up
from the subterranean layers
and ressentiment becomes the flavour of our era.

Europa after the rain

In its own inimitable way,
Europe undoes the stitches that bind its wounds,
north against south,
the frugal ones against the party-goers,
mistrust the flavour of the month,
disenchantment seeping through the corridors
where emissaries meet for negotiations without end,
Penelope’s thread unable to withstand
the constant fraying, the weatherbeaten elements,
for the continent has too many mountain ranges, verdant islands,
rivers pursing through its veins
to be a single integrated space,
and already the ghosts of Holy Roman Empires past,
Napoleonic conceits, and Congresses to spell an end to war
remind the chastened eavesdropper at the door
that dreams and nightmares are really twins
and fir trees and olive groves
splintered witnesses to all that came before.

Éric Zemmour, Le suicide français.
Paris: Albin Michel, 2014. 527 pages.

A significant shakeup in European politics is underway. In the 2014 European Parliament elections, parties of the populist right like the National Front in France and the United Kingdom Independence Party in Britain made significant breakthroughs, with parties of the populist left like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece doing the same.

A lot of attention in recent months has been focused on Syriza, which won parliamentary elections in Greece in January 2015 with a strong anti-austerity program, setting off a new round of debate about an eventual Greek default on its international debts and/or withdrawal from the euro (Grexit). Of potentially greater significance, however, is the continuing ascension of Marine Le Pen, the charismatic leader of the National Front. Though presidential elections are not due in France until 2017, François Hollande, the current incumbent, is terribly unpopular, as is the likely candidate of the centre-right, former president Nicolas Sarkozy. Public opinion polls show the National Front to be the leading party in France, and in regional and local elections it has been cutting deeply into traditional bastions of support of both the right and left.

Marine Le Pen has made clear her disdain for the course the European Union has been following and the loss of sovereignty France has experienced ever since the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. She supports a French exit from the euro and increased state intervention to promote French jobs in an economy that has been buffeted by globalization. She has also made clear her opposition to what she sees as the Islamization of France and ongoing immigration from North Africa and beyond, a position rendered even more salient in the aftermath of the attacks by jihadi extremists on Charlie Hebdo and a Parisian kosher supermarket earlier this year. She has also expressed support for Vladimir Putin’s incursions into Crimea and Ukraine and for the Assad regime in Syria, breaking with the dominant Western position.

All this by way of introduction to Éric Zemmour’s Le suicide français, which has sold over 500,000 copies since publication in France and will be appearing in an English translation shortly. In it Zemmour, a well-known journalist and controversial public figure on the right, has chronicled more than 40 years of French political, cultural and social developments with the intensity of a surgeon honing in on a tumour in a stricken patient. Only the patient in this case is France, and the disease, according to its author, beyond remedy.

France has a long tradition of books chronicling the nation’s decline – Alain Peyrefitte’s Le mal français, published in 1976, comes to mind, as does Julien Benda’s La trahison des clercs of 1927. There is an even earlier history of authors on the right like Charles Maurras and the Action française around the turn of the 20th century or, a century before, Louis-Gabriel de Bonald and Joseph de Maistre, monarchist opponents of the French Revolution, denouncing the decline of France’s traditional values. Their perceived sources of decline are “outsiders” – Jews at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, intellectuals of the Enlightenment (la faute à Voltaire et Rousseau) in the aftermath of 1789. The tone is strident and unforgiving.

17_General_charles_de_gaulle_visite_isles_sur_suippe_1963The same can be said of Zemmour’s book. He, however, has a more contemporary target. The student revolt of May 1968 opened the floodgates of social and political innovation, undoing the tightly knit fibre of French society that had allegedly existed until then. Like the Commandatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the ghost of Charles de Gaulle haunts Zemmour’s book, casting a disdainful look at his incompetent successors. For Zemmour, like many right-wing intellectuals, is a temporal irredentist, and the golden age for him lies in the heyday of Gaullist France.

What are some of his main beefs against post-1968 France? May ’68 unleashed societal impulses that could no longer be controlled. Feminism, largely imported from the United States, began to sap the foundations of the traditional family. Close behind came gays with their demands for equality of treatment, up to and including same-sex marriage. The discourse of human rights began to creep into French legislation and judicial proceedings, reinforced by the rulings of the European Court of Justice. France was becoming more individualistic, less republican, closer to the Anglo-Saxon Protestant model than to its earlier Catholic or Jacobin traditions.

Zemmour has it a bit too easy. In 1967, a year before May ’68, the Gaullist government legalized birth control pills. Was it simply aping the United States or was it reacting to the new reality the invention of the pill entailed? Did it take May ’68 for the hold of the Catholic Church to weaken or had the process begun well before then, given the wave of secularization sweeping through western Europe in the decades following World War II? As for human rights, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights dates from 1948 and many Western countries promulgated human rights legislation in the decades that followed. There was nothing uniquely French (or American) about this development, as Canadians certainly know. The same is true where gay rights are concerned.

One of the more controversial features of Zemmour’s book involves his recasting of the role of the Vichy government in the deportation of French Jews during World War II. For many decades, this sordid piece of French history got little play – much as the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which ended toleration of the Huguenots, had little play in earlier French historiography. It took the publication in 1972 of a major study by an American historian, Robert Paxton, to cast a critical look at the complicity of the Vichy regime with the Nazi occupiers. Zemmour, himself of Jewish origin, goes out of his way to downplay Vichy’s responsibility, if not entirely exculpate the regime. He emphasizes the fact that it was mostly foreign-born, rather than French-born, Jews who were shipped off to the concentration camps by Vichy, and that its anti-Semitic policies were mild compared to those of Nazi Germany. And he spends many pages excoriating the attention that recent French presidents from Jacques Chirac to Sarkozy to Hollande have paid to Vichy’s policies, acknowledging France’s guilt in the process.

Here again he overplays his hand. Without the intervention of outside historians like Paxton, the reevaluation of Vichy’s role might never have taken place. To be sure Vichy France was not Nazi Germany, but it was a compliant ally, and many Jews, both foreign- and French-born, paid for it with their lives. This was not a little “detail” of France’s World War II history – as Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s far more pugnacious and anti-Semitic father, would have put it – but an important one. Not the whole of what the Occupation, the Resistance and the eventual outcome of World War II were ultimately about. But all the more relevant given the tendency to ignore it in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Some of the other major developments that Zemmour castigates also have little to do with May ’68. One of these is globalization, the decline of French manufacturing and a new international division of labour with China a rising power. It is well and good to hold up the decade of the 1960s, with its dirigisme and protectionism, as a model. But how well would France have fared with such policies, even with de Gaulle at the helm, 50 years later?

What is interesting in Zemmour’s take on France’s economic evolution is that he is no neoliberal. His views are those of a more traditional European (in contrast to North American) conservative, sceptical of the blandishments of liberal capitalism. At times, his views are closer to those on the left in their critique of global capitalism; he is not unlike Marine Le Pen in this regard.

He is also close to Le Pen when it comes to Islam and the threat it poses for France. Too many of the new immigrants (many of whom, incidentally, predate May ’68) have not been prepared to integrate into the mainstream of French society as earlier waves of immigrants had done. With the concentration of Muslims in many of the banlieues surrounding French cities has come a wave of Islamization and the reduction of traditional republican authority figures such as magistrates, police and teachers to a vestigial role. Hence the pressure on Muslim women to wear the hijab, the demand for halal meals in French school cafeterias, insistence on segregation between men and women in athletic facilities, etc.

The debate has grown more intense in the aftermath of the jihadi attacks in Paris in January. But the muscular response of the French government, singling out Islamic radicalism as a direct threat to the Republic, and the huge subsequent demonstrations in Paris and elsewhere by defenders of republican values suggest that France is not quite ready to roll over and play dead when faced with jihadi extremism. Le suicide français – not quite!

One further aspect of Zemmour’s book that bears attention is his strongly anti-European stance and claim that Germany has emerged as the true master of continental Europe while the French foolishly have played along. Zemmour’s anti-German sentiment recalls the anti-Boche cries of an earlier era – a jarring and unpleasant note. The truth of the matter is that France played an equal, if not dominant, role in the French-German couple through the first decades of the European Economic Community, and that its weakness in recent decades owes far more to its weakened economic position relative to Germany than to anything else. Has Zemmour anything to propose to turn things around? Not really, other than pulling up the drawbridge and playing Asterix against the Romans.

On a positive note, Zemmour writes well and has a mordant sense of humour that can hit home. As an example, this passage on Oscar Wilde: “Poor Oscar Wilde. Condemned in Victorian England for his homosexuality, he is celebrated 100 years later for exactly the same reason, though he would be ostracized in our society for what would be called his misogyny.” Zemmour is an equal opportunity offender, putting the entire French political class, left and right, through his grinder. Some of his observations, on the downside of globalization, for example, or on the problems of Muslim integration in the banlieues, ring true.

On the other hand, he overwrites, to a point where the reader begins to pine for the brilliant French aphorists of yesteryear who could capture in one sentence what takes Zemmour page after page. He can be terribly unfair, as when he castigates Simone Veil, one of the more honourable French politicians of the last half century and a concentration camp survivor herself, for her “imaginary“ tears when invoking the Holocaust. And his commitment to French patriotism and great figures of the past like Napoleon or de Gaulle has a retro feeling to it two decades into the 21st century.

Though Zemmour is not a card-carrying member of the National Front, in more ways than one his views parallel Marine Le Pen’s and those of the millions of French, urban or rural, traditionalist or simply disenchanted, who are rallying to her camp. One can see Zemmour, in the Gramscian sense, as an organic intellectual for the National Front. And that makes his book important.

My own affinities – no surprise – are closer to intellectuals of the left like Pierre Bourdieu, Pierre Rosanvallon or Thomas Piketty. But I cannot deny that the populist right in France has found in Éric Zemmour a robust champion of its cause.

The Arab Spring, as the rapid-fire events that began in Tunisia, spread to Egypt and have since engulfed Libya and much of the Middle East have come to be known, is a phenomenon of historic importance. Comparisons have been made, not unfairly, with 1989, the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall and of revolutions in eastern Europe, and with 1848, a year which saw revolutions sweep through much of continental Europe. It is far too early to tell where the process will lead, and whether some lasting form of representative democracy will take hold in the region. What is certain is that 2011 marks a turning point, and that there will be no easy going back to the old-style authoritarian regimes that had dominated the Arab world through modern times. Some like Tunisia or Egypt may have begun a serious transition; others like Morocco may slowly shift from an executive monarchy to a constitutional one, where parliament and political parties acquire greater power than before; and still others like Syria, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia may be the last to see major institutional change.

Libya has been something of a special case. In the beginning, Muammar Gaddafi was seen as an heir to the mantle of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic leader of post-1952 Egypt who nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956. Gaddafi did the same with the oil fields of his country. Subsequently, he was seen as a supporter of terrorist movements, culminating in the Lockerbie bombing of 1988. Later he was a strong proponent of African unity, and still later, in his opposition to Al Qaeda, a welcome ally to the West and to a plethora of oil and other multinational corporations (including Canada’s SNC-Lavalin) that rushed to profit from the country’s wealth.

Through it all, however, the regime has been notable for its internal repression. Earlier uprisings in eastern Libya were put down ruthlessly. (This helps explain why the current insurrection against his rule has been most successful in that part of the country.) Nor was any opposition to the regime, however tame, tolerated. Gaddafi laid claim, interestingly enough, to having established a form of direct democracy in his country through a green revolution that had done away with the need for traditional political parties and elected institutions. Popular committees filled the void, controlled, to be sure, by regime loyalists, while Gaddafi himself, abjuring any formal office, exercised his authority as Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. An ubuesque world, made even more so by the ever-changing pronouncements and positions of the Brotherly Leader. Shades of Mao’s China, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea and other regimes of a hard-line authoritarian bent.

In the evolution of the Libyan situation in recent years, high-profile Western intellectuals have had significant interaction with the regime. A number of these have been leading exponents of democratic theory and democratization in the English-speaking world − political theorists like Benjamin Barber and David Held, sociologists like Anthony Giddens.

The most serious form of engagement has been through the operations of the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, and through ties with one of Gaddafi’s sons, Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, an MA and PhD graduate of the London School of Economics. A gift of $2.5 million from the Gaddafi Foundation to the LSE for a Global Governance Institute followed the awarding of Saif’s PhD. The Monitor Group, an American consultancy firm in receipt of $3 million from the Libyan regime, has also played an important role in bringing well-known academics like Joseph Nye, Francis Fukuyama and Robert Putnam to Libya. It is also widely suspected of having done a lot of the research for Saif’s PhD, now subject to examination as to its “academic authenticity” by an inquiry into the LSE-Libya connection headed by Lord Woolf.

Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi has come to world attention in recent months because of his very public role in defending his father’s regime in the face of popular revolt. It was not so long ago, however, that he was seen as a liberalizing bridge between his father’s old-style authoritarian regime and a more democratic Libya. One of his academic advisers at the LSE was David Held, author of such books as Models of Democracy and Cosmopolitanism: Ideals and Reality; Saif’s PhD thesis was entitled The Role of Civil Society in the Democratization of Global Governance Institutions, a promising title for a would-be reforming figure. Saif was chosen to deliver the Ralph Miliband memorial lecture at the LSE in May 2010, in which he told his audience that democracy was the best way forward for the future of Libya; and until the Libyan uprising, Oxford University Press was on record as having offered Saif al-Islam Gaddafi a book deal for publication of his thesis.

The most sinister part of the story lies in the things some of the academics who visited Libya were to write about the country. The worst offender was Anthony Giddens, now Lord Giddens, a former director of the LSE, prominent adviser to Tony Blair and author of the idea of a third way between capitalism and socialism. Here are passages from what he wrote in the New Statesman and the Guardian about his meeting with Gaddafi in 2007:

Dressed in a brown-gold robe, he cuts an impressive figure.

You usually get about half an hour when meeting a political leader. My conversation with Gaddafi lasts for more than three. Gaddafi is relaxed and he clearly enjoys intellectual conversation. We sit close together and occasionally sip mint tea.

He likes the term “third way” because his own political philosophy, developed in the late 1960s, was a version of this idea.

Our conversation is wide-ranging and The Leader, as he is universally known in Libya, makes many intelligent and perceptive points. Over the past three or four years, Gaddafi has come in from the cold internationally.

Gaddafi’s “conversion” may have been driven partly by the wish to escape sanctions, but I get the strong sense that it is authentic and that there is a lot of motive power behind it. Saif Gaddafi is a driving force behind the rehabilitation and potential modernisation of Libya.

As one-party states go, Libya is not especially repressive. Gaddafi seems genuinely popular.

Will real progress be possible only when Gaddafi leaves the scene? I tend to think the opposite. If he is sincere in wanting change, as I think he is, he could play a role in muting conflict that might otherwise arise as modernisation takes hold.

My ideal future for Libya in two or three decades would be a Norway of North Africa: prosperous, egalitarian and forward-looking.

For those with historical memories, all this is reminiscent of starry-eyed Western intellectual pilgrims to Moscow in the 1930s, returning from meetings with Stalin and acolytes of the regime with accounts of having visited the promised land. Nor was Giddens the only one to be charmed by the Gaddafi magic. In an op-ed piece for the Washington Post, shortly after a 2007 visit to Libya, Benjamin Barber called Gaddafi “surprisingly flexible and pragmatic.” He said he was convinced Libya could become the first Arab state with “direct democracy locally and efficient government centrally.”

It is no accident that until mid-February 2011, Barber was a board member of the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation. (Other board members have included Hernando de Soto, the neoconservative Peruvian economist. David Held had accepted an initial offer to be a board member in 2009, but backed off after the LSE suggested that there might be a conflict of interest because of the foundation’s grant to the Global Governance Institute which Held codirects.) For his part, Joseph Nye of Harvard’s Kennedy School, another Libya visitor, in a piece he wrote for the New Republic, highlighted Gaddafi’s interest in discussing direct democracy with him.

When I first heard about these goings-on, I was shocked. Surely Western academics with a serious commitment to democratic principles could not be taken in by a Gaddafi, who had been running an authoritarian regime for decades. But then my shock was tempered by a realization that there was nothing all that surprising about what had transpired. Philosophers and political theorists through the ages have sought to change the world. And one of the surest – and undoubtedly most dangerous – ways is to try to convince rulers to follow their advice.

Plato deluded himself into thinking that the tyrant of Syracuse might follow some of his precepts about governing. For his pains, he found himself clapped into a dungeon, and was lucky to make it back to Athens alive. Aristotle no doubt had great hopes for the deeper principles he could instill into his pupil Alexander. Alexander had other worlds to conquer and did so. Seneca may have hoped to nurture Nero in the ways of philosophy. Suicide was his only recourse when Nero condemned his tutor, like so many others, to death. Voltaire may have flattered himself regarding the influence he had over Frederick the Great. Diderot conversed with Catherine the Great about the Enlightenment. But despots remain despots – enlightened or not.

So the LSE’s attempt to mould the son of a modern despot into a model liberal democrat builds on an earlier tradition. Many intellectuals love the lure of power, much as entrepreneurs revel in money, and the possibility of influencing a future leader is not one to be lightly spurned. Academics like Jeffrey Sachs acted as consultants to governments in post-1989 eastern Europe. Intellectuals entered politics actively in Latin America after its democratic turn in the 1980s and 1990s (Fernando Henrique Cardoso in Brazil and José Castañeda in Mexico come to mind), and have played an ongoing role as advisers or participants in the politics of Western liberal societies. The desire to translate theory into practice could have an elixir-like appeal to Western intellectuals of an overtly democratic persuasion. Who was to know that the call of family and tribe, the family business of ruling Libya, would win out in Saif al-Islam Gaddafi over the higher democratic principles that David Held or Anthony Giddens professed? Who was to know that the call of family and tribe, the family business of ruling Libya, would win out in Saif al-Islam Gaddafi over the higher democratic principles that David Held or Anthony Giddens professed?Or that in the world of Libyan realpolitik Benjamin Barber’s conceit about direct democracy would be just that, a conceit?

Have we learned anything from this disaster? The LSE, renamed by some wags the Libyan School of Economics, has lost a director, Howard Davies, and a good deal of its reputation. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s PhD thesis will shortly join that of ex-doctor and German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg as a cause célèbre of academic plagiarism. The Gaddafi Foundation will enter the dustbin of history as a blatant front organization for a regime tainted with blood. And maybe, just maybe, a few of the figures who have burned their fingers badly in the recent conflagration will remember the old precept about needing a long spoon when supping with the devil.

More to the point, let us hope that the Arab Spring brings meaningful change to the Middle East, that autocrats cease to rule the roost, and that the peoples of the Middle East, the true repositories of any democratic aspirations, can actually see some of their dreams come to fruition. This is where Benjamin Barber, Anthony Giddens and David Held should have focused their attention, rather than on converting the Gaddafis to democratic ideals. But the Gaddafis had power, and the Arab street did not. And sadly intellectuals, even overtly democratic ones, are not to be trusted to speak truth to power, when those with power come calling for their advice.