The Vice debate

A recent Vice Guide to Travel on Liberia has provoked mixed reactions among Liberia observers, journalists, and bloggers.  There are two camps.

The first camp is fuming.  They find the travel guide “idiotic, sensationalizing, simplistic” (David Sasaki). “Nothing constructive is going to come out of this documentary. All it does is further fetishize the same scenes and stories that are always associated with Liberia.”

“This has left me seething,” says Kate Thomas. “‘Documentaries’ like this widen the gap between Liberia and ‘the west’ and discourage understanding and interest in the burgeoning tourism industry.”

“In four and a half years of watching Liberia coverage in the media, I can safely say that the Vice series is the most irresponsible, exploitative, morally bankrupt, stereotype-confirming, thinly-researched, dishonest—even harmful—parachute hack-job I’ve seen,” says Josh Chaffin.  ”Discussing wartime conditions, the excesses of wartime, as if they were still the norm. In the case of sexual violence, ok, it’s still rampant. But flesh eating? Murder, mayhem, etc? You’re purposely trying to make Liberia seem worse than it is, just so that you can have a story.”

The second camp is less mad.  ”I’m fascinated by VBS because they appear to be getting people to pay attention to a part of the world that receives very little media attention,” blogs Ethan Zuckerman.  ”At minimum, Vice’s documentary demonstrates that there are stories to tell about Africa’s history that can reach an audience beyond the NPR/PBS community.”

I’m firmly in the first camp.

One of the journalists involved in the Vice project, Myles Estey, has a fantastic blog.  He has a great series called “Gettin’ By,” where he tells the stories of people working in Liberia’s informal economy.  The series counters the oft-cited statistic that 85% of Liberians are unemployed.   “While Liberia certainly lacks locations for official, regulated employment, that only 15 % of the population works is an absurd assumption, and one that would be practically unattainable. While severe poverty is rampant, Liberians are not starving to death,” Myles writes.

Yet this Vice series does exactly the opposite of what Myles does on his blog–it perpetuates the idea that Liberia is violent and dirty and squalid.   It feels like a modern version of a colonial travel diary.  The harm done by the series far offsets any of the gains made by bringing attention to Liberia.

It would be good to get the opinion of some Liberians.  Have any Liberians responded to this series yet?

26 thoughts on “The Vice debate

  1. Megan

    Oh, and another source of insight on Vice Liberia viewers who were not previously familiar with the nation can be found by searching “Liberia” on twitter. Average of 8 out of every 10 tweets over last 2 weeks with Liberia#, link to Vice and are along the lines of “them cannibalistic, raping niggaz are CRAZY” etc

    Maybe a lack of coverage is better than hipster, sensational “I’m a badass” bullshit? Or maybe it’s not a big deal?

  2. josh

    Nice post, Shelby; good balance. You know the real tragedy here is that VICE probably couldn’t care less what people think, since nihilism has always kind of been their shtick. They’d probably be thrilled if their work started generating negative attention in major media. Sadly i think these guys are going to get famous doing this stuff. For all its horrific faults, it’s a new approach, and the controversy it generates will certainly bring notoriety to the people involved.

    I wonder how Myles Estey manages to write for a group called Journalists for Human Rights while at the same time claiming to be “stoked on the final product” of his work with a team that harasses desperately poor prostitutes in West Point and films children smoking heroin. What does he think “human rights” means?

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  4. Donna

    Although I am a US citizen, my mother is serving as the City Mayor of Monrovia. She has known President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for a long time (over 30 years), assisted her in both unsuccessful and successful presidential bids and has watched her country turn from one page to another. Yes, Liberia’s war-torn history is a fact that many have had to suffer through, but I find Shane Smith’s depiction and exploitation of Liberia’s past reprehensible and irresponsible. He has done a huge disservice to the years of progress being made by government officials and aid workers alike. Many Liberians take offense to this kind of exploitative “conflict porn” because it diminshes the work being done to move forward. This “documentary” reeks of sensationalism, ignorance and ethnocentricity . It is so easy (moreso lazy) to create a one-sided image of a country that has been ravaged by war while misrepresenting statistics that the average person is likely to take at face value.

    I’m so hurt and disgusted by this because it flies in the face of everything that the new administration is working toward. Liberia will be a beautiful country again and anyone visiting with an open heart and mind will realize that very quickly. Shane Smith, however, went out of his way to highlight a small sliver of the past, a past that has marred the country forever but will not dictate its future.

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  6. Ms. Teage

    A friend told me about this “vice-guide” to Liberia. As a Liberian myself, I’ve lived through three civil wars, one when i was 5, another 7 and the last one 10. I have lived in the U.S since the age of 11. I went back to Liberia, by myself in 2008. I walked around with a huge green Versace bag that my step-father bought me a camcorder and a camera, and I traveled to places (open market) with only my 12 year old newphew, i never got robbed, nobody attempted to rob me nobody attempted to kill me, and everyone could tell that I had traveled recently to Libera. As A Liberian I was apalled to see this video. I went to Libera at age 22 and I had nobody try to rob me. THere were times I had 10 plus children around me but they all wanted their pictures taken, they all wanted to see my video I even handed them the camera to mess around with and they gave it back to me. I was so angered watching this video.
    I meet “Evangelist Blahyi” when i went to Liberia. I was kidnapped by NPFL rebels (Charles Taylor rebels) while running away from him in 1996 when he was general butt naked, he was an evil man but that man is truly changed. Shane or who ever he is a very decitful man, he “intentionally” forgot to mention that the last war that Mr. Blahyi fought in was the ‘96′ war when Blahyi was only 25, there was a war in 97, 2000, 2003 (the worse wars which Liberians refer to as WW I, II and III) and many other outbreaks of war in different areas and Mr. Blahyi has never fought in a single war since his transformation in 1996. He has traveled from displacement camp to displacement camp throughout Liberia, Ghana, and Ivory coast telling his story, and begging for forgiveness from Liberians he wronged since 1996. He even told me that there are attempts on his life daily. People that he fought against LURD and NPFL rebels now work side by side because of the rehabilitation home he started to unite ex-combatants and take them off the street. Shane also fail to mention that Mr. Blahyi takes these boys back to people that they’ve wronged and have these boys ask for forgiveness and is also equipping them to fix houses that of people they’e destroyed during the war. This Documentary is a bunch of BULL, I was in Liberia in 2008, The LIberia i left in 96 and the Liberia now are worlds apart. Beautiful locally owned beaches, clean streets in parts of Monrovia, public buses, trash trucks, electricity, running water in parts of Liberia, many foreign investors; even many Leabones who lost there business in the war have return and feel safe in Liberia. I will admit that there is poverty, there are lots of uneducated ex-combatants, Liberia has only had 7 years of peace since the choas that lasted from 1980- 2003, poverty and unemployement can be expected for any country that has gone through what Liberia has gone throught, it takes years to rebuild a country. This documentary is soo false, it has distorted many facts, it has used the situation of desperte people in Liberia and has painted a picture that couldn’t be any further from the truth about Liberia. Here in Washington D.C the drug poverty and AIDS rate is alarming, and D.C is the capitol of the United States of America, who would have thought, there are horrible places in every country. Liberia is a bit worse beause of the years of civil war. But this documentary was just rediculous.
    Cannabalism, this was something that rebels practice ritualistically, people did not eat human flesh because there wasn’t any food, what is known as witch doctors, and warlocks are the one who practice these horrible things; Liberians as a whole do not adhere or condone such a thing. In 1990 @ the age of 5 i still remember what we did when we ran out of food in the supermarkets and street vendors, we lived on the food from the land; We ate catfish for weeks, than we ate ‘bubu’ john greens, then we ate paupaya, then green banana, then we ate sugar cane, then people who had shared with other people who did have; This lie about people eating humans because there were no food, is this guy serious; in Liberia it’s nasty disgusting and dispicable to eat a human being as it is frowned upon in America and the West. The few idiots who did these acts drugged up and high on stuff do not represent the majority of Liberia, I’m done ranting,
    Mr. Shane Smith really did a diservice to many Liberians and it’s a shame that many people will believe that mess of a Documentary!!!

  7. Shelby Post author

    Ms. Teage,

    Thank you for taking the time to share these thoughts. While the series was difficult for me to watch, I imagine it must have been much more so for you to watch.

    -Shelby

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