Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Nothing Exceeds Like Excess

March 18th, 2010 · 12 Comments


Yesterday’s New York Times featured a piece on the lavish lifestyles of South African president Jacob Zuma and his fellow African National Congress bigwigs. The article was accompanied by a photograph of Zuma sitting on a gilded banquet chair, which bears a striking resemblance to a throne. (Note to Zuma’s handlers: If your boss is weathering corruption charges back home, best not to let him be photographed on anything throne-like while abroad.)

The photo couldn’t help but remind us of one of the most sensational episodes of megalomania in modern history: the December 1977 coronation of Jean-Bédel Bokassa as emperor of the Central African Republic. Bokassa actually crowned himself, and spent $22 million on the ceremony at a time when the CAR’s average per-capita income was just $122 per year. Blessedly free of any shred of self-awareness, Bokassa let Werner Herzog film the whole sad affair; if you only have a few moments to spare, we highly recommend you just check out the actual crowning, which took place atop a two-ton golden throne shaped like an eagle.

It probably goes without saying that Bokassa was wholly undeserving of his exalted title, though we think he is a strong candidate for “Worst Person of the 20th Century.” A Montreal Gazette reporter broke it all down on the eve of the coronation:

Tomorrow, Bokassa will be crowned at the Bokassa Sports Palace beside Bokassa University on Bokassa Avenue, hailed by thousands, many in clothing imprinted with the Bokassa portrait, waving Bokassa flags and gathered around the Bokassa statue in Bokassa square.

What we wouldn’t have given to see Bokassa duke it out in the Thunderdome with Turkmenbashi.

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12 Comments so far ↓

  • scottstev

    I love the official gov’t notice in the article that prescribes holiday business hours. I wonder if that’s still the case up North.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    The Boxing Day prohibition on commerce (at least before 1 p.m.) seems economically unwise. And I wonder if those laws affected 7-11s (assuming they existed up North back then).

  • Jordan

    There should totally be a Microkhn Obscure Evil Political Leaders of the 20th Century bracket. Hilter, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot are out of the running, but there are plenty of others to choose from.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Brilliant idea–I may have to run with that.

    The sad part is that I could probably fill out a whole 64-dictator bracket, no problem. The 20th century was a heyday for monsters in human form.

  • Jordan

    No doubt. And it’s even scarier how many of them had nominally good intentions. I remember the PBS series “People’s Century” describing it as “the century when we turned leadership over to the intellectuals”, with obviously dire results.

    Just off of the top of my head (with a little help from Wikipedia), there’s Augusto Pinochet, Manuel Noriega, Omar Bongo, Mobutu Sésé Seko, Cecil Rhodes, Francisco Nguema, Suharto, Chiang Kai-shek, Josip Tito, Francisco Franco, Papa Doc and Baby Doc (let’s count them as one), Rafael Trujillo, Robert Mugabe (I can’t believe the bastard is still alive), Idi Amin, Baron Ungern (though you’ve got to respect that kind of crazy), Charles Taylor, Mengistu Mariam, Sani Abacha, Teodoro Obiang (can’t believe he’s still alive either, let alone taking pictures with Obama), Ferdinand Marcos (though he might be a tad bit too well known for this list), and Enver Hoxha (if only for the name), Kim Il Sung (again, maybe too well known).

    Man. Way to depress myself on a nice, sunny day.

  • scottstev

    @Jordan. Impressive and quite depressing catalog of human horrors you came up with on the fly. I’m fascinated by the theory that rule by intellectuals caused such carnage.

    Surely many dictatorships fit this mold (China, Europe, Cambodia). But I wonder if post-colonial African despots are of the same kind. My sense is that tribal rivalries were given a modern gloss in light of the Cold War. Interesting to think about especially in light of the fact that href = “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ramBFRt1Uzk” > violence and warfare are, in fact, decreasing overall; at least according to this persuasive Steven Pinker presentation.

  • Jordan

    @scottstev

    I think the idea that the 20th century was handed over to the intellectuals tends to be more about Western democractic and fascist countries as well as Communist countries. That leaves a lot of the globe out, but it’s still worth thinking about. My sense is that there were a bunch of people who sat around thinking up how best to run the world in the early 20th century. And for various reasons, a fair number of people agreed to let those thinkers implement their ideas. This led to everything from Socialism/Communism to the more authoritarian/centrally controlled elements of Western government. Basically, it was the sense that some people were just smarter and should be allowed to run things for the benefit of everyone else, with differing degrees of power and trust being handed over by the general populace. This played out both in terms of Communist authoritarianism and central planning, but also in America’s domestic spying, Prohibition and Keynesian attempts to regulate the economy (which eventually led to the economic crises of the 1970s). I think a lot of the push-back against intellectualism that we see these days is at least partially driven by how disastrously those forms of government often turned out. Central planning has a lot of issues, not the least of which is human fallibility. Just about any system will work perfectly with perfect people. but some imperfect systems work better than other given the imperfections inherent in human beings.

  • hubcap

    Interesting. But I would also throw in that there have always been people who thought they should allowed to run things for everyone else.

    I’d argue that a fair number of people on your (impressive!) list weren’t particularly intellectual. They just wanted to run things in the same way that some people have always wanted to run things. The 20th century just gave them the tools for more effective control, and gave outsiders the ability to see and be appalled by more things than ever before.

  • Jordan

    @hubcap

    Those were really supposed to be separate points. Dictators of the 20th century were definitely not all intellectuals. It was more that there were some particularly powerful semi-utopian sets of ideas that put intellectuals in charge of a fairly broad swath of the globe. There were still plenty of run-of-the-mill thugs to go around.

    I think some of it had to do with the sense at the time that science could solve all our problems. Everything could be analyzed to a degree where everything became predictable. While science has given us a lot of tools, we should never imagine that it explains everything. Especially seeing as good science should generate more questions than it answers.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Too swamped with work to add anything halfway decent to this awesome dialogue. But I did want to note that before he became a billionaire dictator, Mobutu worked as…a journalist. Not sure if that qualifies him as an intellectual, but I’ve always considered his career change one of the most radical of the 20th century.

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