One of the saddest patterns of Western discourse is believing an up and coming dictator when he claims to be a reformist liberal. In 2001, George Bush looked into Vladimir Putin’s soul and saw a good man, he didn’t feel the need to look into the eyes of the 20,000 civilians killed in the Second Chechen War. Brutally suppressing the Chechen’s dream of independence, which had been Putin’s first act as a President, established his tough law and order persona. But that was an inconvenient truth for Western leaders who wanted to believe Putin represented a new liberal Russia. Until recently, I mocked George W Bush for this and wondered how our governing elites could be so willfully blind. Then I watched Tiger King on Netflix.
It follows a medley of cult leaders and psychopaths in America’s bizarre and horrifying big cat grooming industry. How crazy are these people? One of the less morally reprehensible of the bunch was probably the inspiration for Scarface. And yet, I couldn’t help but find myself rooting for the central figure of the piece, Joe Exotic, who has the same irresistible charisma made up of overconfidence mixed with insecurity hiding just below the surface which Robert Downey Jr brought to Iron Man. Watching the Tiger King, I wanted to believe he was a good person. Coming to terms with him being a cult leader who abused animals and people alike, gave me a newfound grudging respect for George.
In the 1980’s, the press heralded Mugabe as ‘Africa’s Clem Attlee’ and ‘the thinking man’s guerrilla’. Unsurprisingly, this continued up to the point when Mugabe began seizing land off white settlers in the late 90’s. During the 80’s, when his regime brutally suppressed the defenceless Ndebele people, he continued to be heralded as a liberal reformer by the West. Recently Mohammad Bin Salman (or MBS to his fans) was heralded as a young liberal reformer in Saudi Arabia. Boris Johnson called him the “most exciting thing happening in the Middle East”, it was hoped he would liberalise the press and relax the kingdom’s sexist laws. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 ended Bin Salman’s applauding headlines. However, this wasn’t a unique act by the young autocrat. Much like Putin, who he famously high-fived at a G20 summit, he had built his domestic image through a violent war. He ordered the kingdom’s intervention in the Yemeni civil war, which has so far killed over 10,000 civilians.
And then there’s Xi Jinping, who was feted in the Western press at the time of his inauguration in 2012 as a liberal reformer based on only the most resounding evidence. You see, his father had been a liberal reformer, exiled by Chairman Mao in the 1970’s, and throughout human history, sons have never rebelled against their fathers. He had spoken about the importance of free trade and a rules-based international order, lambasted senior party members for their corruption, and promised change. As if any world leader stands up and praises global chaos, adding that they’re a great fan of corruption and greed. Actions, not words will always define a leader. What have Xi’s actions been in the last eight years? Over a million Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps, organ harvesting of political dissidents, and the strangulation of Hong Kong’s democracy movement.
It wasn’t all my fault that I feel for Joe Exotic. Tiger King brilliantly humanises him by showing us his tragic early life. A gay man rejected by his father, who set out with a dream to create a sanctuary both for the animals he loved and people who had been left behind. He employed anyone at his zoo, giving them accommodation, food and a job to care for the most beautiful animals. It was only when one of his senior lieutenants revealed that Joe would purposely hire people who had nothing, that I realised I was watching a cult leader. He thought they would work harder since without him they’d be destitute and back on the streets.
I feel for the idea, Joe was helping save these endangered animals through breeding them. Happily ignoring the reality that he fed them expired meat from Walmart. Or how everyone ominously talks about how the cats are most appealing to visitors when they’re less than two years old and young enough to pet. The older cats aren’t as profitable, not worth keeping for long. I wanted to believe this charismatic weirdo was a good person. That while his world wasn’t mine, he was helping his people and moving them in a positive direction. Of course, it was nonsense. One of Joe’s two husbands admitted he often felt afraid Joe would violently attack his rival Carole Baskin, an animal rights campaigner. She had successfully sued Joe, leaving him in a financially ruinous position.
Today, Joe is in jail for the attempted murder of Carole. Xi, Vladimir and Bin Salman are all still world leaders with thousands of their critics in jail. Might might not make right, but it is powerful. Those of us who live in the free world must take to heart not to fall for the lies and spins of the world’s tyrants and remember to look for the ugly truth of charismatic leaders’ actions, no matter how attractive the alternative may be.
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