Grand hypocrisy is an old sport. Thus there is little new in the amusing story of Saif al-Islam al-Gadhafi's London School of Economics doctoral dissertation, which called for increased global democratization and international "good governance," even going so far as to justify liberal interventionism with phrases such as: "The isolation and eventual transformation of outlaw states is of primary importance for global stability."
Saif, the son of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, was recently filmed in Libya brandishing a Kalashnikov and leading partisans in the heady cry of liberal pluralists everywhere: "Only God, Moammar and Libya!"
This is no doubt an embarrassment to the LSE, which also accepted sizable donations (£1.5-million) from the Gadhafi family. It has also done little for the reputation of Saif's adviser, David Held, who rationalized his university's acceptance of this money by portraying his relation with Saif as a noble but ultimately failed attempt to win him over from the dark side. There is the added embarrassment that the dissertation is now alleged to have included plagiarized material, although this seems to be giving unwarranted comfort since it makes the LSE appear to be the victim of a fraud, rather than accomplice to moral corruption.
Now, nobody should be too smug about the LSE's moral compromises. Scholars are ever beggars, and private donations are like sausages - too much detail about their origins can spoil one's appetite. But if few gifts are entirely without stain, it is seemly to have a few more degrees of separation between the scholar and the guy physically firing bullets.
What is most interesting about this story, however, is the fact that Saif even wanted this doctorate in the first place - sufficiently that he was willing to spend the time, money and effort learning to spout Rawlsian pieties for the right to have "PhD" attached to his name. Sure, it is rumoured that some of the effort of composition (or Googling) was delegated to Libyan officials, including some in military intelligence, which, if true, would confirm the old joke about military intelligence being an oxymoron. But making the rounds of the conference cycle requires some work, and it is rather dreary compared to the pleasures of private Beyoncé concerts.
There is clearly an important symbolic currency in both the title he purchased and the terminology he adopted: civil society, cosmopolitan democracy, "soft power." Incidentally, we in Canada have often prided ourselves on our soft power - and rightly so, it appears. Petro-Canada and SNC-Lavalin have joined in global governance and cosmopolitan democracy with lucrative contracts in Libya, including a prison SNC-Lavalin says is being built "according to international human-rights standards." (Might Saif himself have written the brochure?)
Like Col. Gadhafi's glittering medals, these terms appear purely decorative. Yet one would be incorrect to conclude from this shoddy affair that concepts don't matter. It is significant that Saif sought to master this language and not, say, another lingo. His father first dabbled in socialist, then pan-Islamist jargon. If a so-called Islamist despot is no more true to the ideals of the Koran than an autocratic despot-princeling is to the ideals of "democratization," the differing colour of their bull is surely an important indicator of where hard power lies.
It will be interesting to see whether the young Gadhafi continues to employ this terminology after the crackdown has wiped out the Libyan opposition. If so, will the words bear the strain? But we may be deprived of this spectacle if the opposition wins and hangs Saif from a lamppost built according to international human-rights standards. Whatever the case, in the coming weeks, he is sure to experience something more challenging than his doctoral thesis defence.
Robert Sparling is a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University.