Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Firestone and the Warlord (WGBH/PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The other PBS program I watched last night was in some ways even more interesting: it was called Firestone and the Warlord and was about the succession of coups, revolutions and civil wars that afflicted Liberia in the 1980’s and 1990’s and how those affected the giant rubber plantation the Firestone company built there in 1926 (archive footage of the company’s founder, Harvey Firestone, announcing it was accompanied by the Bix Beiderbecke-Frank Trumbauer recording of “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans”). The focus was on Firestone’s determination, once the plant was taken over and trashed by revolutionary warlord Charles Taylor in 1989, to get the place reopened no matter how much money they had to pay Taylor to support his revolution and how many scummy deals they had to make with him and his henchmen. The show also goes into the fascinating history of Liberia — a topic briefly touched on in the last book I read, Forrest Church’s So Help Me God, which was mostly about the religious conflicts between the Founding Fathers (and in particular between the established Congregationalist and Unitarian churches in New England and the Baptists, Catholics and Jews — with the Baptists in particular emerging as the staunchest defenders of the separation of church and state, a quite different picture from what one would think based on their current views!) but also touched on the two elephants in the room to any consideration of the U.S. as a country founded on freedom and justice: the foul treatment of the Native population and the existence of slavery. There were plenty of racists even among the early Abolitionists, and many people of varying views about slavery were convinced that the U.S. should not have an African-descended population at all — so they formed the American Colonization Society, whose objective was to buy the freedom of as many slaves as possible, send them back to Africa and create a settlement for them on African soil.

The result was the foundation of Liberia in 1847 (its capital, Monrovia, was named after President James Monroe, a strong supporter of the American Colonization Society who was convinced it would solve the problem of slavery and eliminate the African-American population) and the domination, for over a century, of Liberian politics of so called “Americo-Liberians” — the descendants of freed slaves, who lorded it over the native Liberians the way their former slavemasters had lorded over them. (It’s yet another example of W. H. Auden’s statement that “Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return” — like the example Auden was writing about, the German people responding to the injustices of the treaty of Versailles by putting Hitler in power; and the policies of Israel towards the Palestinians.) When Firestone built their rubber plantation — which ended up supplying 40 percent of their entire supply of raw latex — they ran it like a colonial outpost, creating their own community with lavish housing for the whites sent to run it, golf courses and the compound’s own Coca-Cola bottling plant. Things continued like that, with the Americo-Liberian elite giving Firestone free rein and Firestone operating like colonials in the African countries that had been taken over by European powers, until 1980, when the last Americo-Liberian President, William Tolbert, was killed in a coup by a soldier named Samuel K. Doe — who took over the country until he himself was overthrown and killed by Charles Taylor, a bloodthirsty creep who seems to have anticipated many of the tactics of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, including forcibly recruiting child soldiers and training them to be his bodyguards, and murdering (today we’d call it “ethnic cleansing”) just about anyone his people captured who was part of any tribe other than his (most notably Doe’s tribe, the Krahn).

When Taylor was on the march he captured the Firestone plantation, drove off the whites who worked there — who fled and abandoned the Black workforce to their fates (one woman talks matter-of-factly about being gang-raped by the Taylor soldiers who had just killed her husband in front of her) — and looted the place before using it as a headquarters, because it had access both to a seaport (the town of Harbel — named for Harvey Firestone and his wife Idabelle — which Firestone had built to export its product) and an airport (Roberts International). Later, in the early 1990’s, with the civil war between Taylor’s army, Doe’s and a United Nations “peacekeeping” force that itself ended up bombing innocent civilians raging and the outcome uncertain, Firestone cut a deal with Taylor to reopen the plant and pay “taxes” that Taylor would use to finance his revolution and set up the final takeover of Monrovia. (He never captured the capital, but in 1997, in control of the rest of the country, he ran for president — and won overwhelmingly, courtesy of an intimidated populace that realized their choices were Taylor as a quasi-legitimate president or Taylor as a berserk warlord murdering people willy-nilly.) The show’s main point was that Firestone was only interested in getting the plantation up and running and didn’t care who they had to deal with to get it, and it was only exposed by a lawsuit filed years later by the Cigna insurance company (of all entities) against Firestone. It would have been nice to have an explanation of how that suit came about and what its outcome was, and overall the show has an air of “I’m shocked — shocked! — to find that capitalists will do deals with mass murderers just to make money,” but it’s still a fascinating story even narrated in the matter-of-fact tones of Frontline’s usual narrator, Will Lyman, who when he isn’t working for PBS is also the voice of BMW in its commercials.