Mary Moran, an anthropologist, did fieldwork in the southeast of Liberia in 1982–83. Since that time she has continued to follow the twists and turns of Liberian affairs from her vantage point in the United States, benefiting from the possibilities offered by modern communication and by the presence of an important Liberian diaspora. This book was provoked by her frustration at the ways in which Liberia has been represented in international media since its descent into war in 1989. In her view, moreover, proponents of some academic disciplines—political science comes in for criticism in this regard—have not done much better.
She follows fellow anthropologist Paul Richards in labeling the common journalistic view of wars in West Africa as the New Barbarism Hypothesis. Briefly, this is shorthand for an opinion that wars like those in Sierra Leone and Liberia have been caused by ancient tribal hatreds and by various other obsolete cultural attributes that, in the U.S., have been superseded by more rational ways of organizing politics, namely formal multiparty democracy.
For both Moran and Richards, the arch-proponent of New Barbarism is the journalist and travel writer, Robert Kaplan. To judge from Moran’s introduction and a summary statement (156), her prime concern is to counter the New Barbarism Hypothesis. This she does in seven chapters which, although going off at [End Page 161] various tangents, collectively aim to show that the Liberians she knew in the early 1980s had indigenous political systems of their own that were certainly not devoid of democracy and that these systems have remained substantially intact even after a devastating war. In short, Liberians do not need lessons in how to be democratic.
One audience for Moran’s exposition seems to be students like one undergraduate she quotes who was “surprised to discover that customs such as polygyny, belief in sorcery, or veneration of ancestors ‘still’ exist” (15–16). But, while many undergraduates may have led sheltered lives, and while Moran may be right in identifying many journalists and some academics as purveyors of views she rejects, it is not clear that publishing an extended essay with an academic publisher is really the best way of putting things right. Few academics would really subscribe to the New Barbarism Hypothesis as she sketches it (although some may hold views in more refined form that can be assimilated by a polemicist to New Barbarism). If the aim is not so much to dispute with fellow academics as to refute the devil Kaplan for the benefit of American students, then a popular publisher might have been more appropriate. Moreover, the book could have been more focused in its aims; it resembles, at times, a collection of ethnographic essays written for other purposes and brought together to serve a new purpose.
Moran has interesting passages on the social institutions of southeastern Liberia and on understandings of elections, but her general argument is less than fully persuasive. This is so not least because it is based on memories of Liberia as it was more than twenty years ago and on a reading of Glebo political institutions that, while instructive, is predicated on a liberal view of society whose applicability to Liberia is not beyond question.
- Paperback: 200 pages
- Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press (July 17 2008)
- available here on amazon.com
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