Wednesday July 03, 2019
King Donald's Ghost
While on vacation in Belgium, I read Adam Hochschild's excellent “King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa,” which is a little like reading “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” while drinking beer in Germany. The book is all about how the Belgian king, Leopold II, realizing he needed a colony or colonies to accrue the riches he desired, and without an army to do so, stealthily carved out a huge chunk of Africa from under the noses of his European counterparts and made it his own. In the process, he destroyed civilizations, cultures, lives. An estimated 10 million lives were lost during his reign of terror. While being held up as a paragon of liberal virtues, he was actually reintroducing the slave trade to Africa. And even when others began to condemn him, including such international names as Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle, it took years before his grip on the continent was loosened.
The book, published in 1998, is much-recommended, and there's a lot to quote from it, but probably nothing as relevant to my country and my time as the following.
Whenever the voices of Leopold's critics grew louder and louder, the King would bankroll, or have cronies bankroll, a sham “investigation” into the charges, which would inevitably clear him. He did so in the 1890s and again in the first decade of the 20th century. But the latter investigation backfired.
... one of the judges, while listening to a succession of witnesses with atrocity stories, had broken down and wept. It was now obvious to the king that the process had backfired: to his horror what was intended to be a sham investigation had slipped out of his control and become a real one.
So what did Leopold do? This. It will seem very similar to anyone who's been paying attention to American politics in the Trump era:
With his modern sense of public relations, the king understood brilliantly that what matters, often, is less the substance of a political event than how the public perceives it. If you control the perception, you control the event. He also knew that journalists dread having to digest a long official report when writing against a tight deadline—all the more so when the material is in a foreign language.
On November 3, 1905, the day before the Commission of Inquiry report was scheduled for release, every major paper in England received a document with a cover letter explaining that it was a “complete and authentic résumé of the report.” This timely and helpful summary came from the West African Missionary Association, which surely sounded reliable. Missionaries, after all, had been among the Congo state's most consistent critics. Most conveniently of all, the summary was in English. Delighted, nearly all the British newspapers published the summary, thinking they were getting a one-day jump on the big news of the week. The Associated Press transmitted the summary to the United States, where it was also picked up by major newspapers. Only during the next few days, as reporters and editors had time to read the full text of the report in French, did they realize that the so-called summary had little to do with the report. Again and again it took major points in the report and “summarized” them beyond recognition.
Leopold is Trump, the West African Missionary Association is Attorney General William Barr, and the press hasn't changed.
When I got home I checked to see if Hochschild had written on this sad historical similarity but couldn't find anything. BTW: I assume Trump doesn't know this history. He didn't look at Leopold and said, “Let's do that.” He just has a similar sense of marketing and morality as this 19th-century genocidal king.