Gadhafi's gold-plated excesses outlive him

Ousted Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's gilded excesses outlive him, revealing a spectacle in the waste laid to a country and its people.

Ousted leader's intimidating 'dictator style' obvious in waste laid to Libya

As the body of Moammar Gadhafi lay in state in a meat locker, Libyan citizens lined up to marvel on his fate.

Knowing he was dead was one thing. Witnessing the despised dictator's fall was another. They all knew about his golden statues, giant portraits and palaces.

"I remember once seeing a photo of Moammar Gadhafi's master bedroom and it showed a circular bed with black silk sheets, black headboard — black everything really, including above the bed, a set of black panther figures of the sort won at a transient funfair arcade," Douglas Copeland wrote in the forward to Peter York's book, Dictator Style.

And pay attention to those panthers. York says one of the basic tenets of the esthetic taste of dictators is lots of animal statuary, preferably gawdy, overpowering and intimidating.

"Very bloodthirsty animal heroes," York told me this week on CBC Radio's Day 6. "They have eagles and lions. A golden eagle, a golden lion, studded ideally with jewels in the most improbable places."

South African President Jacob Zuma, left, meets Moammar Gadhafi in Tripoli on May 31, 2011. (EPA/The Independent)

Gadhafi’s not in York's book, but when he saw this photograph, right, of Gadhafi entertaining South African President Jacob Zuma, with the gilded eagle front and centre, he said: "Everything was completely predictable. It absolutely followed dictator style."

This is the week Libya was returned to the Libyans. Decades of rule under the autocratic and bizarre dictator Gadhafi ended on a dusty road after the despot was pulled from a culvert and killed.

The man who called himself "king of kings" was dead and Libyans marked it with euphoria and incessant celebratory gunfire.

But there's also the tragedy and spectacle of the waste laid to a country and its people, held in stasis for generations.

Gadhafi’s excesses outlive him; they’re obvious in the palaces he built, lived in and decorated.

In Dictator Style, York has made a serious study of the Marcos bedroom, the bathrooms of the Ceausescus, Mobutu’s Chinoise pond. The Financial Times called it "a perfect example of a post-modern coffee-table book." And it is arch and funny. But York says that’s not the way Saddam's statuary would have been seen in his Iraq.

"We look at these things with a 21st-century ironic eye. Post-modern ironic eyes didn't exist in these societies. No other symbolism would be understood. In countries which often don't have a free press, or much of an educated middle class, it has to be cartoonish."

The subtext of excess is power

"Once you understand their sense of style, you understand the way they operate," says York.

"It's designed to intimidate and impress. It’s designed to say — usually to the people of their own country — 'I could have you boiled in oil tomorrow.' It’s a very violent style because overscale is intimidating. It's meant to be intimidating, shocking people in the face with your money.

 "All the worship of animal heroes, pictures of yourself are meant as reminders: I am very very powerful, and a very loose cannon."

This is the most interesting part of York’s argument.

He's saying there's a threat attached to the outrageous esthetic decisions of a Gadhafi. Bad taste is not the exclusive domain of the world’s worst dictators. But when it's magnified by unlimited funds, bad taste transcends esthetics. It bullies and diminishes the people exposed to it.

'Great respect for predators'

It reminds me of a story Jon Ronson tells in his book The Psychopath Test.

Ronson is visiting the home of Al Dunlap, CEO of Sunbeam appliances in the mid 1990s, and a man with a  terrifying reputation in the corporate world. Dunlap fired half of Sunbeam’s 12,000 employees, the largest layoff of its kind in history.

He axed workers with a gleeful satisfaction that Ronson suspected was the hallmark of a psychopath. Business Week reported he failed to show for both his parents' funerals.

Ronson describes his home: "This first obviously strange thing about Al Dunlap's grand Florida mansion and lavish manicured lawns was the unusually large number of ferocious sculptures there were of predatory animals. They were everywhere.

"Stone lions and panthers with teeth bared, eagles soaring downward, hawks with fish in their talons, and on and on, across the grounds, around the lake, in the swimming pool health club complex, in the many rooms. There were crystal lions, and onyx lions, and iron lions, and iron panthers, and paintings of lions, and sculptures of human skulls.

" ‘Lions,’ said Dunlap, showing me around. He's wearing a casual jacket and slacks, and looking tanned, healthy. His teeth were very white. ‘Lions, jaguars, lions. Always predators. Predators, predators, predators. I have a great belief in and a great respect for predators. Everything I did, I had to go make happen.’

"Cunning, manipulative, I wrote in my reporter's notepad. This was ice and fire from the Bob Hare psychopath checklist. Al's statements may reveal a belief that the world is made up of predators and prey, that it would be foolish not to exploit weaknesses in others."


Listen to Jon Ronson on Day 6 here.

King of bling

Not all the esthetic taste displayed in Dictator Style has a Machiavellian value. Some of it is merely, as York says, "a very wild, free range, bling taste." And within those exceptionally wide boundaries there are some basic definitions of the style:

  • Go big. If you’re going for a French chateau, double it.
  • Repro not real old. Go for reproductions, not antiques because real old is shabby.
  • Think French.

And most of all: Go for the gold.

"The basic esthetic of a petro dollar world," says York, "is to do it in gold."

And why French?

"Pre-revolutionary French furniture is the new big money style of the last 150 years. It's the language of international wealth because it's either gilded or covered with gilded metal.'

In other words, French regency is preferred because of the gold.

Ronson remembers talking to Dunlap about the gold in his residence.

"I'd been prepared for the gold, having recently seen a portrait of him sitting on a gold chair, wearing a gold tie with a gold suit of armour by the door, and a gold crucifix on the mantle piece.

" 'Well,' said Dunlap. 'Gold is shiny. Sharks.' He pointed at a sculpture of four sharks encircling the planet. 'I believe in predators,' he said. 'Their spirits will enable you to succeed. Over there, you've got falcons, alligators, alligators, more alligators, tigers.' "

Gilded trophy

When he was finally killed on Thursday, Gadhafi was carrying one of the solid gold weapons he liked to brandish while in power. This final trophy, displayed alongside the corpse of the former dictator, appears to be a 9-mm handgun, a special edition of a Colt 45.

The Telegraph reported: "Gaddafi loved gold: he had a flyswatter with a gold elephant on top, kept gilded statues of himself, used a gold-plated tea trolley and commissioned a gold chaise-longue in the shape of a mermaid with his daughter Aisha’s face."

"Gold is for flight capital people", says York on Day 6. "Gold is what you ensure yourself with if you’re in the flight capital mode, if you’re running away. Grab the gold gun."

On the run, cornered, probably aware of his fate, Gadhafi couldn’t drop the last remaining embodiment of his stolen wealth and power.