Liberia: The Violence of Democracy

Article excerpt

Mary H. Moran. Liberia: The Violence of Democracy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. 190 pp. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $49.95. Cloth.

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been caused by ancient tribal hatreds and by various other obsolete cultural attributes that, in the U.S., have been superseded by more rational ways of organizing politics, namely formal multiparty democracy.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 summary statement (156), her prime concern is to counter the New Barbarism Hypothesis. This she does in seven chapters which, although going off at 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. …