Ouch. It’s some harsh criticism that isn’t undeserved. The VICE Guide to Liberia, which I did a post about a few weeks ago, has ignited a cauldron of contempt on the blogosphere. Big-time media attention from CNN and the Huffington Post led to impassioned and eloquent arguments against the documentary, and some frighteningly truck-rally-esque endorsements. It’s got me thinking a lot about the travel series I’d formerly enjoyed and endorsed, despite its arrogance, and wondering: did VICE go too far?
Well, the answer is yes. Clearly. As I dug into the dozen or so blog posts, and the scores of ensuing comments, I learned more about the current situation in Liberia. VICE didn’t portray it fairly, or even close to fairly, and fell woefully short of providing the kind of context one would need to draw any kind of informed conclusions about the country. But I don’t think the series was entirely without merit, entirely evil and shallow. And buried beneath smirks and bro language (“heavy vibe” is used a lot), there’s still an emotional depth to the documentary that keeps it, for me, from being too simple of a case: black and white, Western and African, exploiter and exploited.
Most of the voices crying out against VICE are from people personally invested in the country—they’ve lived there, traveled there, done development work there. If I were emotionally linked to the country, I’d be pretty pissed too. Penelope MC’s post post relates stories and experiences of positive progress in Liberia, while Kate Thomas’ post shares some of the tourist-friendly spots. On The Faster Times, Adam Karlin delivers the most seething and meticulous critique of VICE I came across, picking apart the faulty journalistic practices employed. On the other end of the spectrum are the positive comments that fill the VBS website, which basically amount to a Beavis & Butthead “Whoa.” I found only one blog from someone with experience in Liberia that lauded the series, and the rationale there was a little odd. Christine Scott Cheng offered a more nuanced review, as does Ethan Zuckerman, arriving at the point that the series, however flawed, deserves to be watched. I agree.
The VICE Guide to Liberia paints a bleak picture—so much so that I was surprised, only a week after its release, to come across a New York Times article about the country’s burgeoning surf scene. I began to suspect VICE hadn’t captured the entirety of the situation in Liberia.
Indeed, one of the main qualms people have with the series is that it only shows the most fucked-up parts of Liberia, largely within the capital Monrovia. While it’s true that “this is just what VICE does,” I think that reasoning is a cop out. VICE hypes the situation: the first episode makes it seem like the war is still going on (though I’d argued subsequent episodes firmly depict the war as over), and the UN is claimed to be leaving the country, an incendiary claim that isn’t exactly true.
I don’t have any experience in Liberia, so I did what I always do in this situation: related it to Oakland. Someone could certainly go in to the worst neighborhoods of Oakland and do a series that made the whole city look like a dangerous, drug-riddled hellhole. And that would have pissed me off, for the exact same reason it did people invested in Liberia—the 80s are past, crime is down in Oakland, and a lot of people and organizations are working hard to enrich their communities. That being said, I don’t think going into those places, documenting and interviewing and excavating stories, would be entirely without value. They are hard, painful stories to hear, images to see, but they are true and deserve to be heard. More context certainly should have been provided—something like: “we went to the worst slums and interviewed former warlords”—so that the series didn’t appear to be a blanket of this-is-what-Liberia-is-like. But just because the stories featured weren’t representative of the whole doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be heard.
Other arguments against the series include sensationalism, stereotype indulgence and bad-assedness. People argue that host Shane Smith is exaggerating the situation so that he can look tough, and the series more daring, and that in the process he dehumanizes his subjects, treating them like animals in a zoo. There’s a lot of validity to these arguments. The war is over-hyped, and less discerning viewers could certainly draw erroneous conclusions. Shane Smith, to me, looks scared and freaked out in most of the footage; rather than a bad-ass, as many of the site’s commenters lauded him as, he seems wholly untough to me. Not saying that I’d react any better, just that the series didn’t make him seem cool to me.
But the argument I’ve been grappling the most with is the stereotyping and dehumanizing one. Africa is again portrayed as a hellhole, Africans as savage cannibals. I can agree with this statement, but my experience with the series was completely different.
Granted, I’m coming from a pretty left-wing perspective, but to me, the series didn’t evoke an Us Vs. Them reaction. To me, it served as an exploration of how generations of war, poverty and exploitation create dire situations not easily remedied. It’s not an African issue, but a human one. What happens to former warlords and child soldiers? Do they try to reform and make amends for their actions, like Joshua Blahyi, or stay whacked and ready for combat, like former General Rambo? What about the kids growing up in all that, the women and all those folks just trying to live life as they best they can?
The most interesting part of the series to me wasn’t the shocking wartime footage or discussions of cannibalism—it was the visits to the boys school of former soldiers, to the brothels and heroin dens. Not because it was shocking, because it wasn’t, but because of the eyes of the people shown, the pain-beyond-pain. For me, it was incredible humanizing, touched on that part of me that makes me feel like we’re all connected, together in this often fucked-up world. I can see how that wouldn’t evoke the same reaction in a lot of viewers, and maybe the emotional depth wasn’t in the coverage at all, but in my own reaction to it.
At the end of his review, Adam Karlin touched on what the real shortcoming of the VICE series is, to me: “Bad travel is about going somewhere and reconfirming everything you thought you knew before you left, and this is exactly what Vice does in Liberia.” I don’t feel like anything was learned by the people making the documentary—they were shocked, sure, but their ideas and opinions about what was going on appear to have remained unchanged. I’ve never been on a trip like that, where something in my understanding didn’t change. And I hope that I can retain enough open-mindedness and humility not to ever.
Whatever the conclusions, one thing’s for sure: the VICE Guide to Liberia garnered a lot of attention for the country. And for VICE. It got people talking, even if they didn’t want to, and got people like me, who had a hazy understanding of the present-day situation, spending hours online to dig deeper and learn more. It won’t be easily written off, which means there’s more to it than mere caricature and hip packaging. And it might mean that VICE does a more thorough, honest job next time. Cause God knows they certainly have the resources to.