Sunday, March 7th, 2010...7:16 pm

Just Finished Reading: King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild

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For the first two-thirds of this book, I felt immensely guilty that I didn’t feel more compelled by the story.  The recounting of the colonization of the Belgian Congo shouldn’t be that hard to ache over.  Maybe it was the mass scale—I just couldn’t get my head around it?  Maybe it was that the picture of a greedy European king willing to exploit Africans for his own personal economic gain (and be just an all-around dick otherwise—sleeping with teenagers, disinheriting his daughters, abusing his wife) wasn’t all that surprising? 

What was more interesting was the part of the book after King Leopold dies.  First of all, the epilogues for the “good guys” are so poignant.  They remind us that there’s nothing particularly superhuman about being heroic—it’s just flawed human beings like the rest of us deciding to choose the harder path, simply because it’s the right thing to do.  Then there are the moral questions Hochschild poses—the crux of every human rights issue ever—do we aim for what we know is right, or do we do what’s possible given the political context of the times?  And why do some conflicts grab our attention while other mass violations slip under the headlines?

I did a lot of thinking about this last question just after the Haiti earthquake.  I was more overwhelmed by that disaster than I’ve ever been by a foreign crisis in my lifetime.  I kept wondering why that was.  I have no natural affinity for Haiti.  I’m not Creole.  I’ve never been there.  I don’t have any close friends who are Haitian.  Maybe it was the scale of destruction?  Maybe, but I certainly wasn’t this affected by, say, the tsunami in 2004.  Why is it that we focus our attention on some crises and not others?  Why is a Haitian, in my mind, more worthy of my sympathy and attention than a North Korean or a Darfurian?  I still haven’t come up with a good answer for this.

The expediency vs. what’s right conundrum was maybe the lasting impression from the book.  In the Congo context, E.D. Morel, the most vociferous of the anti-Leopold organizers, was often trying to balance his own deeply-held belief that African ownership of African land was the ultimate goal with the reality that he could lose everything else if he pushed too hard on that issue:

“Despite some doubts raised in his private correspondence, Morel decided to publicly claim victory.  ‘I do not wish to paint the present in roseate hues.  The wounds of the Congo will take generations to heal.  But…the atrocities have disappeared… The revenues are no longer supplied by forced or slave labour.  The rubber tax is gone.  The native is free to gather the produce of his soil… A responsible Government has replaced an irresponsible despotism.’  The one major goal not achieved, he acknowledged, was African ownership of land.”

History, naturally, has proven Morel right:


“In Morel’s writing of the period, we can begin to see signs of how his involvement with the Congo had changed and deepened him.  In 1909, decades ahead of his time and in stark contrast to the self-congratulatory mood around him, he wrote a trenchant warning of the ‘far-reaching consequences over the wider destiny, not only of South Africa, but of all Negro Africa” that would flow from the fact that Britain had set up the new, independent Union of South Africa with an all-white legislature.”

Of course, it was beyond the realm of human imagination at the time to consider putting Africans in charge of their own government.  If Morel had taken up the cause of land ownership and self-governance instead of fighting against the image of an evil king committing atrocious acts, would the Congolese ever have been freed?  Or could he have brought people around and laid the groundwork for a healthy African continent in the 20th century?

This question reminds me of another book I read recently, a masterpiece (really, a life changing book) called Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon.  It’s about the era of reconstruction and Jim Crow in the South, and argues that the glaring human rights violation of American slavery was in some ways less oppressive than the sheer terror inflicted upon African-Americans in the hundred-plus years that followed it.  The lack of political will to follow through on protecting the rights of freed slaves—by the very people who had been committed to ending slavery—paved the way for levels of economic, psychological, and physical devastation that are still being worked out.

By nature, I’m pretty temperate, and I tend to look for workable solutions to problems rather than holding fast to all-or-nothing positions.  Sometimes that’s the right path, but that position is much easier to take when it’s not my rights being violated.  As MLK said in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’ then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.  There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.  I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

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