I’ve just finished reading King Leopold’s Ghost. I mentioned my first impressions in an earlier post. The easy part of these sort of books is writing about the horrors. Surely all readers can share the author’s horror at the atrocities he accounts. The real challenge for writers of historical atrocities, of course, is to interpret the causes of the atrocity, as well as analyse the post-atrocity situation.
I was struck by an echo between this book, and an article in this week’s Mail and Guardian, entitled The hypocrisy of Mugabe’s critics (available online as Zimbabwe is being hypocritically vilified by West).
The book ends with an analysis of opposition to the Congo, and looks at why the Congo specifically was highlighted, while similar atrocities were being inflicted upon Aboriginal people in British Australia, in US-held Philippines, French Congo, German South West Africa (although always dangerous to try and rate injustices, this in many ways was worse, for example the genocide ordered by the imfamous Vernichtungsbefehl – an order to exterminate every Herero. Echos of today’s vilification of Mugabe, while similar and perhaps worse atrocities occur elsewhere.
There are easy and not so easy answers to this. Perhaps a more cynical view is that to the British public (who led the opposition, although it later spread further afield, to the US, Europe and even Belgium), Leopold made an easy, remote, target, while British, French and US atrocities were overlooked, being potential allies in the looming war, or too close to home. There must be an element of truth in this. But I hold a more positive view.
The human spirit recognises injustice, and is called to action. The human mind puts all sorts of barriers in its way, but the call to action is pure. When we see oppression, we feel compelled to act. Fear of authority, consequences, colleagues, even laziness, all inhibit action. If the enemies of Leopold’s Congo chose to act there, and were blind in not attacking the entire colonial structure, they must be applauded for at least acting. Their circumstances made it easier for them to do so – it was almost unthinkable for a British citizen to question colonialism in those days, or to see an African an anything more than someone to be looked after, a lesser being.
If the British public today choose to attack Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and ignore far worse oppression in Sudan, or continue to vote for a government that lies in order to make war, the spirit of that action must be supported, and applauded. We need more people to act out of the right instincts rather than remain in apathy, watching sitcoms or smoking tik.
It’s easy to criticise. Criticism can easily become mean and petty, its heaviness discouraging action. People make mistakes, have limited perspectives, and continually pointing these out achieves little. It’s easy to criticise Live 8 with all its failing, point out the gloomy, helpless victimology it depicts of Africa (Ethan Zuckerman has a post called Africa’s a Continent, not a Crisis, where amongst other things he responds to a friend’s challenge to earlier comments about Live 8 that did come across as snarky and mean), or its ineffectiveness, or quibble about better use of money. Similarly, its easy to criticise people calling for action in Zimbabwe as being hypocrites for ignoring worse conflicts. But there’s something worse than being flawedly active, and that’s doing nothing. It’s easy to criticise those, such as an apartheid policeman, a Nazi prison guard or a Belgian Congolese soldier, blindly following orders, passing responsibility onto others. This is what allows oppression to flourish, not an evil genius at the top. But it’s easy to choose distant examples to lull us, to blame the other. But we are all responsible. Watching TV, playing another computer game, turning off that unpleasant discussion about the war, and turning on a sitcom, all allow oppression to continue uninterrupted.
So John Vidal’s Mail and Guardian article seems petty and mean-spirited, a comment I’ve heard often about the Mail and Guardian. It’s just too depressing. (In trying to find a quote I was looking for for this post, I came across a fantastic post by Walton entitled Gnostic Liberation Theology. While going off on a slightly different tangent, he puts the call to tear down the walls, and have fun while doing so, far better than I.)
Criticism should be constructive, so that it soints out the failings in understanding, leads to greater, more effective, more coherent action, not discouraging so that it leads to apathy.
So why did the Congo become the issue it was? Because of the action of a few small people, such as Edmund Morel, who devoted his life to the cause and influenced other influential people , such as the authors Arthur Conan Doyle and Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness (which I’d like to reread after this). Others included Roger Casement, an Irish British diplomat. Yes, a few small people can make a difference. The same Morel was a pacifist, fell out of favour when he opposed British involvement in World War I, and was imprisoned for his efforts. Roger Casement, knighted for his earlier efforts, was later executed for treason for attempting to secure German aid for an Irish uprising in World War I.
Just as apartheid South Africa used abuses in Australia, or other African countries to try deflect attention, so does Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Criticism of white opposition to Mugabe (from the DA, or Britain) should point out the inconsistency of their position, and how it can play into Mugabe’s hands to paint all his enemies as white and ex-colonial powers. But it’s indefensible to demolish people’s houses, destroy the only means they have of providing an income as is happening there. The same goes on in South Africa, India, Sudan, the US, all over the world. Choose your action. It will be based on who you are, your history, your experiences. It may not seem the best use of your time to others, it will be flawed, contain inconsitencies, sometimes be counter-productive. But whatever it is, recognise the spirit that informs it, and celebrate it in others.