Sunday, December 19, 2010

Gaddafi and the City

In continuing with the Gaddafi sub theme that has crept into this blog over the years, I came across the following Guardian article. While Gaddafi is best known, literarily at least, as the author of his Green Book, outlining the theory and practice of "Islamic Socialism", Gaddafi has also turned out a series of what are apparently supremely terrible short stories come rants.

A favorite topic of Gaddafi in these stories is apparently the decadence and evil of the City. Gaddafi, very much in the vein of Victorian-era Western European (especially German) literature portrays cities as inherently corrupting and corrosive to collectivism with it's focus on the individual. To Gaddafi, the City does little more than isolate the individual and drive a wedge between man and God.

From the Guardian article:

"This is the city: a mill that grinds down its inhabitants, a nightmare to its builders. It forces you to change your appearance and replace your values; you take on an urban personality, which has no colour or taste to it... The city forces you to hear the sounds of others whom you are not addressing. You are forced to inhale their very breaths... Children are worse off than adults. They move from darkness to darkness... Houses are not homes – they are holes and caves..."

Part of Gaddafi's anti-urban bent may, as the article notes, have to do with his Bedouin roots and his constant insistence of shoring up his Bedouin credibility, something made explicit to an almost stupefying degree by his insistence on erecting a giant Bedouin tent in New York during his visit last year to the United Nations.

Gaddafi's anti-urban reactionary stance, is, like all things with Gaddafi, perhaps in some way reasoned by largely given over to extreme bombast in parlance:

"Yesterday a young boy was run over in that street, where he was playing. Last year a speeding vehicle hit a little girl crossing the street, tearing her body apart. They gathered up her limbs in her mother's dress. Another child was kidnapped by professional criminals. After a few days, they released her in front of her home, after they had stolen one of her kidneys! Another boy was put into a cardboard box by the neighbourhood boys in a game, but was run over accidentally by a car."

In a way, Gaddafi's anti-urban tirades remind me greatly of the near propaganda films about the City Lewis Mumford made in the 40s and 50s as a vehicle to help sell Ebenezer Howard's Garden City and Patrick Geddes' regional city ideas to the United States. Indeed, the City in these films, is perpetually painted as a dirty place corrosive to man's long-term health, enlightenment and general edification. There was something to this, the conditions in early 20th Century major cities were in many places despicable, resembling the West African, Asian and South American slums of today. Much of the Urban Planning throughout this period centered upon redevelopment, de-densification, and generally how to disburse the urban poor population. A lot of these ideas did not change until Jane Jacob's The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a spirited celebration of traditional urban development and the hussel and bussel of downtowns, that encouraged planners to begin to view cities differently.

What is most striking about Gaddafi's anti-urban slant is that it has so much in common with anti-urban reactionary movements that have driven suburbanization. Many people in suburbs ringing decaying urban centers such as Detroit and Cleveland believe the city to be a place of evil, corruption and decay. In a way, Gaddafi has more in common with the Middle American suburbanite than perhaps either would like to admit.

5 comments:

Morgan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Morgan said...

Nice. What’s the character of Tripoli? That town, not so muchAl Bayda, must inform g’s conception of citylife no sir?

Dr. Bob said...

Not sure you can equate G's anti urbanism as being parallel to or particularly reflective of the anti urban screeds of the 1950's and 1960 US.
It is a far cry from deploring urbanism from the Bedouin point of view and then equating it with Geddes or Mumford. You will not have found them riding around on camels with sand in their boots.
Bob

Alex Deley said...

Bob,

Thanks for the comment. I'm not so sure - it strikes me as a highly similar influence. The Colonel's sense of urbanism is that cities are sin-filled place full of long-standing evils.

The community I serve in Lake Oswego believes the exact same thing and spends a lot of time worrying about keeping what they view as the degenerative social values of Portland out of their suburban enclave. I think that both Gaddafi and many middle American suburbanites are responding to the same conceptions about cities, which, if you look at any high density slum-development, be it in Africa or late 1800s Europe and America, some of those things are/were true. I think they are actively reacting to the same phenomena, even if the constructed rationale are different. All the mythos about the countryside being this bucolic paradise seem in tact either way.

Alex Deley said...

Morgan,

I wish I knew more about Tripoli - I know it's only around a million people and appears to be somewhat developed, so that is something.