February 10th, 2008

SHGWWC (politics)

tiny daily revelation

Oh hey wow damn.  It makes sense now!  He's Belgian! 

I have been reading about the history of the Congo, specifically the part where King Leopold II, who had turned a huge chunk of Central Africa into his personal property and business venture, engages in a propaganda campaign.  Mindful of the attitude of Europe (this is the tail end of the 19th century, America was not a major world-politics player), Leopold weaves together several themes in his publicity.  Putting himself behind the scenes, he presents the narrative that the charitable International African Association is running the Congo Free State as a project to civilize the peoples of the Congo, save them by spreading Christianity, and - very importantly, given Europe's relatively recent abolition of slavery - protect them from villainous Arab slave-traders.  It's a guro-beautiful cocktail of the prevailing memes of its time, appealing to all the things that the colonial powers found it pleasant to believe about themselves.  It shouldn't be hard to guess, though, that those pleasant things did not happen in the Congo: Leopold's policies halved the population of the Congo, which means at least 5 million to 7 million dead.

On into my mind wanders Tintin.  I read a lot of Tintin books growing up - almost all of them, in fact - and the characters and plots are still resident in my long-term memory.  The Red Sea Sharks is one of the high points of the Tintin adventures, to my mind.  It's from Hergè's later work, brings together characters from several earlier books, and combines several light comedy moments with the rousing adventure narrative that is the main feature of Tintin stories.  In it, Tintin, a Belgian reporter for a Belgian newspaper (this changes between translations along with Tintin's own nationality, but the original is all that's relevant at the moment), finds himself protecting a bunch of Central Africans from villainous Arab slave-traders.  He re-enacts Belgian national myth, in other words - he's the heroic white Belgian rescuing a bunch of childish Africans from scheming Arabs.  A little research quickly reveals that this is far from the only time disturbing semiotics appear in Hergè's work, or even the first time that that particular national myth is tapped. 

It's distressing to find this sort of thing out - it puts a pall over something associated with childhood's innocence and certainty.  I draw two lessons from it.

First, Rule 34 only ruins icons of your childhood if you're afraid of sex.  There are far more effective ways to render things of childhood unpalatable and bitter.

Second, history is full of unexploded land mines.  If you, the American reader (I know most of you are), start exploring American history seriously, you'll quickly find that it's littered with ugly, ugly events regarding people with power stomping on the necks of those with less.  This too can be a very distressing discovery - but don't fall into the trap of believing that America is unique in vice, villainy, and venality any more than it's unique in virtue.  People with power all over the world behave in predictably[.doc] toxic (and stupid) ways.  Consider Belgium a lesson.