Friday, October 29, 2010
History is a funny thing. Today, you can join the throngs of tourists and schoolchildren who visit the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Turvuren, just outside of Brussels. The museum is housed in one of the many palaces built by the Belgian King Leopold, and it purports to tell the history of Belgian involvement in the Congo. You can see taxidermied animals, the famous Henry Morton Stanley's "Stanley cap" (he of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" fame), and thousands of pieces of sculpture, art, cooking utensils, outfits, masks, and other objects from the Congo.
What you will not see is a placard, a sign, a brochure, or a video that tells the visitors that under Leopold's very personal direction, approximately eight million Congolese were killed.
You will not see this because Belgian wants to pretend it didn't happen. Yes, little Belgium, the plucky tiny hero country whose invasion by the Nazis finally galvanized the world into starting World War II. Belgium wants to pretend this so badly that, not content with burning much of the official documentation relating to its activities in Africa, it has lost or kept classified what material did survive. In fact, much of the existing documentation was kept secret until the 1980s.
And what a story it is.
Like Meredith's Guns, Diamonds, and War, the conquest and subsequent ravaging of Congo - first for ivory, later for rubber, all harvested by slave labor well after the transcontinental slave trade had been banned - was spurred on by the determined actions of a few driven men with outsized personalities.
The first was King Leopold I, the King of the Belgians. It was under Leopold's aegis, a man who ironically never set foot in the Congo, that it began. Obsessed with owning a colony, Leopold understood that tiny Belgium could not compete with Britain, France, or Spain, and with his own monarchical powers limited by Belgium's government, Leopold began to orchestrate one of the biggest and most skillful swindles in history.
The man who would be responsible for the deaths of several million Congolese, the displacement of countless others, and the maiming of a vast swath of the continent so successfully dressed up his interest in Africa in philanthropic language that he became known as the "humanitarian king." Hiding behind the facade of several shell organizations with names like the "International African Association," Leopold told observers that his motivation was to "pierce the darkness" in a "crusade worthy of this century of progress" and claimed that his ambition was to civilize the Congolese and in no way benefit materially from his activities in Africa.
Through the skillful manipulation of other monarchs, elected officials, the co-opting of the efforts of several well-known explorers" and a simply brilliant use of the press, Leopold managed to gain control of a massive amount of land. Leopold dispatched Belgian administrators, and money from ivory began pouring back to him - yet not actually enriching Belgium, as Leopold very neatly kept the profits hidden, instead using the money to build massive public works, particularly palaces and architectural oddities.
King Leopold's Ghost also details the exploits of the era's most famous explorer, Henry Morgan Stanley.
Stanley is a lie. Henry Morgan Stanley invented himself, in more ways than one. Born illegitimately in Wales as John Rowlands, the man who would become Stanley spent the rest of his life desperately trying to escape the ignominy of his beginnings. Foisted onto unwilling relatives by his mother, he was later taken to a workhouse and abandoned (his mother would reappear with two of his siblings in tow, which she also dumped at the workhouse), John became a shipboy, ending up in New Orleans, where he experimented with a number of different identities before renaming himself Henry Morton. He appropriated the last name of Stanley from his new employer, a cotton broker, claiming that the man loved him like a son and demanded that Henry adopt his last name. Actually, Stanley's relationship with his employer was fractious and he was eventually fired, but this didn't prevent him from putting his fictionalized account in his memoir. Stanley would later go on to claim to be a native-born American, which he often referred to when trying to gin up support from American sources.
The image of Stanley, intrepid in his slightly goofy looking Stanley cap, trekking along the rivers with a trusted retinue of natives in tow, is equally false. Stanley's expeditions were only saved from disaster by luck, he was a vicious and temperamental boss whose porters were essentially enslaved and often worked to death, and he cheerfully used Africans encountered along his trip up the Congo River for target practice, as apparently encountering someone wandering along with a spear or large stick is sufficient provocation to have to open fire with your repeating rifle from your boat in the middle of the river.
As Leopold's interests emerged from their tissue-thin humanitarian and philanthropic veil, he began dispatching adminstrators to the Congo, charged with keeping order over massive plots of land. As the popularity and need for ivory waned and the demand for rubber grew, Leopold rushed to capitalize on the presence of wild rubber in the Congo before his European competitors could mobilize in their own colonies. As with the ivory trade, the rubber trade demanded the use of forced labor, and his administrators expanded their campaign of terror that included the enslavement, murder, and mutilation of millions of Congolese.
At the same time, missionaries from Europe and American began arriving, and again, a few outsized personalities began attempting to expose the atrocities committed against the Congolese. These men included Richard Casement, an Irishman who served as British consul, and E.D. Morel, a writer and agitator, who would become lifelong friends. Both men dedicated their lives to 'Congolese reform,' and both would be imprisoned in the same jail, and Casement hanged. Their efforts, along with those of other missionaries, activists, and writers, including George Washington Williams, a black American who was one of the first to report on the slaughter and systematic abuse of the Congolese, would eventually focus global attention on the Congo and the ire of an international group of reformers against King Leopold.
Adam Hochschild's book is fascinating and alternately enraging, terrifying, and incredibly sad. Hochschild, the author of similar works of historical excavation, including The Unquiet Ghost: The Russians Remember Stalin makes a number of unorthodox but thought-provoking comparisons between the activities of the Belgians in the Congo - not just Leopold in distant Europe, but the actual men who wielded the whips, shot the guns, and maimed the Congolese - with the concentration camps of the Nazis and the men who ran them and between the dissolving of the lines between callous brutality and outright sadism with the actions of Americans in Vietnam.
What emerges in an examination of both a system that enabled such horror and a look at the individual men, revealed in their letters, diaries, and other records, who committed the acts.
In understanding the "sick soft blob" of Zaire, as Martin Meredith calls it, and the rule of Mobutu Sese Seko, you have to go back to where the seeds of such a systemic brutality were sown, and as Hochschild reveals, it originated in Leopold's Congo.
Thursday, October 28, 2010
A combination of awe, envy, and hero-worship.
Candy Blog is amazing. I'm a sugar junkie, but this takes it to a whole other level.
What I like about this blog is that it a) doesn't have any of that whining about how the golden days of American candy are over, to which I will point out a lot of nostalgic American candies were actually fairly gross, and the average consumer can get much more stuff, from many more places, much cheaper than ever before and b) isn't elitist in the slightest. The author, Cybele May, just eats, and eats, and eats candy, any type of candy, and then tells you how she feels about it.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Candy Professor focuses rather narrowly on American candy, and Dr. Kawash is particularly mesmerized by the evolution of the idea of candy, particularly the heyday of 'scientific cookery' in the 50s, which spawned some awesome ideas as sugar being the ideal diet food:
The candy debate rears its head again after the recent implementation of taxes on candy in Washington State. But, as it turns out, it's harder to figure out what is candy and what isn't than you may think. Granola bars? Well, since you can buy them stuffed with M&Ms and dunked in chocolate (or, the coyly named 'chocolatey coating') why aren't they candy? Washington State dealt with it by publishing an exhaustive list of what they consider candy and therefore taxable under the new regulation, which you can find here. Washington State has decided that stuff made with flour is exempt, which a lot of candy bars are, but stuff like Belly Timber, an absolutely fabulous-sounding concoction made with dates, soy flour, and peanut butter, is.
Candy Professor is funny and breezy, but Kawash does delve into some of the weird psychological underpinnings of the idea of candy, from the old razor-blades-in-the-chocolate Halloween tropes to scare campaigns against "candy drugs" like Strawberry Kwik, a candy-flavored meth product that was allegedly luring high schoolers into its sweetly chemical clutches. Strawberry Kiwk prompted the drafting of legislation criminalizing the act of manufacturing drugs to make them more appealing to minors. The only minor hitch was that Strawberry Kwik didn't ever exist, and no one ever found anything approximating candy-flavored or scented meth.
Of course, the debate rages on, with products like flavored cigarettes from Camel and the latest, a caffeinated, alcoholic, sugary carbonated beverage called Four Loko that is being blamed for cases of severe alcohol poisoning among the newly-legal set - and I can totally understand the appeal, since I used to drink a particularly noxious caffeinated, carbonated, orange-flavored drink called Sparks that tasted like a melted orange SweeTart and had to be drunk ice-cold, because it tasted so awful otherwise (and which, I would argue, is not any different than pounding a Red Bull and vodka). Of course, now that my worry is less the vexing how-do-I-stay-awake-late-into-the-night conundrum facing the kids in the NYT's article and more the God-I-hope-I-don't-nod-off-before-finishing-one-chapter-of-my-book, I can't imagine wanting to drink something so awful, sort of like how no one over the age of 23 should ever consider purchasing an Axe product.
But anyhow, getting back to candy, Candy Professor fills me with nostalgia for the candy shops of my childhood, having grown up in a country known both for its chocolate and its fascism. German candy shops are pretty epic, and on the first day of school every year, you will see adorable rosy-cheeked blonde cherubs tromping off to school with giant, three foot long cardboard cones stuffed full of sweets and chocolate and tied at the top with string. It's a German tradition, the idea apparently being that children will make friends faster if they go to school armed with sugary ammunition, and the resulting unloading and trading of the loot forces them to interact with each other.
Candy shops there are more like American candy shops of the 50s and earlier (and some throwbacks, particularly stores like excellent Sugar Cube in Alexandria), with bins of loose candy. Armed with tongs, you stuffed clear plastic cones with the various types of candy (peach rings, gummy strawberries, gummy frogs, mint drops, gummy bears, licorice wheels, both strawberry and raspberry, sour straws, sugar coated jelly fruit, citrus slices, white marshmallow mice, gumballs wrapped in foil patterned to look like soccer balls) which are sold by weight. My mom would buy the more expensive chocolate, but it was pretty clear from the price and the division of the candy that the bulk candy was meant for kids - both cheaper and more potent, the most sugar for your Deutschmark.
Candy Professor is more fascinating, particularly when Kawash gets into stickier sociopolitical and economic issues surrounding candy and the weird connection between candy, medicine, and science during various nutritional fads in America.
Monday, October 25, 2010
If anyone tells you that they don't see why Africa has faced such challenges in development despite having gold, diamonds, minerals, farmland, etc., please throw a copy of Martin Meredith's Diamonds, Gold, and War at them. It's a hefty book, so hopefully the resultant bruise will serve as a reminder that for countries like Africa, parts of Asia, Latin America, Ireland, the Pacific Islands, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, the Caribbean, and the former French Indochina during Europe's age of empire, the best thing for a country to have was nothing at all of value (and even that didn't save Australia, whose one very valuable asset was lots of empty space, into which Britain promptly dumped a few tons of felons).
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Friday, October 8, 2010
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Jessica Stern was the expert on terrorism before everyone else became an expert on terrorism. Her 2001 book, The Ultimate Terrorists, and her 2003 book, Terror in the Name of God, showed what everyone else was missing: that terrorism was, and is, a unique force in shaping the idea of conflict in the 21st century. While everyone else was grubbing around in the rubble of the collapsed Soviet Union and spending billions of dollars of elaborate missile shields and ever more massive destroyers, Stern was traveling through Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan and interviewing the modern architects of terror.
That Stern saw the threads of the modern terrorist threat before many others were listening or taking it seriously is remarkable, but even more fascinating is that Stern, a Jewish woman, successfully interviewed dozens of terrorists, even during and after the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl. How did Stern do it?
Denial: A Memoir of Terror is Stern's attempt to explain that, both to herself and to readers. Denial traces Stern's revisit of her and her sister's rapes as young teenagers in safe, suburban Concord. What Stern found out during the course of her research is no less astonishing, and infuriating, than what she's uncovered in her other work.
Stern had, or thought she had, successfully moved past the trauma of her rape. She credited her psychological survival, and her later success at interviewing some of the world's most dangerous men, to her ability to disassociate herself from her emotions and completely eliminate any feelings of terror. But at the same time, Stern writes that as she felt less and less terror, she felt less and less joy. The numbness was spreading.
Stern discovered that the idea she had harbored of her attack as a grotesque aberration in an otherwise safe town was an illusion, and her research also exposed fault lines in her family that had lain dormant for decades.
In the course of her research, Stern discovered that despite her attacker committing similar crimes with nearly identical characteristics, the Concord police refused to believe that there was a serial attacker in their district. They closed Stern's file after barely two weeks of lackadaisical investigation, insinuating that she and her sister knew their attacker and lied about it.
Brian Beat went on to assault forty-four other women and girls. One committed suicide.
With the help of a police lieutenant, Stern collected redacted copies of related cases, seeing clearly for the first time how her assault fit into a wider web of violence. Although Beat killed himself before Stern began her research, and she was never able to answer this definitively, Stern's discovery of a ring of pedophiliac priests and their now-adult victims, many of whom knew Beat, in a lower-income town near her upper-class enclave led her to conclude that Beat was one of their victims.
Why did Stern title this memoir Denial? Denial, more than terror, permeates the book, from the reaction of her father to the inaction of the police. In a series of interviews with her father, Stern revisits her assault and her mother's death, and, using the techniques honed in her interviews with terrorists, begins probing at the gulf between her memories and her father's recollection.