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I Never Do This

It’s a bad idea, responding to comments on stuff that I wrote, especially responding to a review. But I’m doing it this one time.

Yesterday, a commenter¹ left his response to my review of The Prince And The Dressmaker. You can go back and read both review and comment, if you like.

As I said, I have no doubt that the naming of TPATD‘s King Leo, echoing the real-life King Leopold II, was an unintended failure of editing and that neither Jen Wang nor :01 Books would have ever intended this reading; as I said, they have a choice to make for future printings.

Truth be told, I expected pushback on this review, arguments that I was reading things too narrowly or inventing a problem where none existed. I’d have been fine with those. I’m writing because of two arguments that were made in the comment; one refers to the creator’s thoughts, the other deals with history. The first gets a response to clarify, the second gets a rebuttal.

Creator first:

Jen [Wang] could have set [the book] in Ruritania and avoided all the history stuff, but that’s a bit of a cop-out. Was Belgium chosen for its history? I don’t think so, but what did Jen think?

I’m not going to respond to the story-related comments, as it’s opinion territory and I’m pretty sure I made mine clear. With respect to the notion of what Ms Wang thinks, that’s not my job this time around. Had I decided to write a reported news piece on the book, I would have absolutely sought out her response. But I don’t think it’s the place of a review to do reporting of that nature. I welcome the rest of the comics/YA press to ask those questions if they feel that my review is worth following up on.

Now, history:

Alas, that’s history for you. If you go back 50 years into history, everyone is pretty evil. Go back another 50 years and you are looking at the people that the people 50 years ago thought were evil. Churchill was advocating using poison gas against African tribes (more survived than with rifle attacks). Belgium in the first world war, and Belgium was ‘Gallant Little Belgium’ standing up against ‘The Hun’. Conrad gives an idea what was considered ‘fair game’ in Africa.

I’m not saying that Leopold was a good guy, but he was a greatly respected member of the European aristocracy at the time, and his sons may have looked on his African project as little more than a sensible investment, if they looked on it at all.

I’m calling bullshit on every bit of this.

The fact that Belgium was seen as heroic in standing up to an army with equal (or superior) armaments is neither here nor there (and one guess as to why the Congolese who tried to fight their murder and enslavement weren’t seen as gallant). Leopold II’s reputation as a monster was well established in his own lifetime; the very first time the specific phrase crimes against humanity was used, it was to describe his treatment of the Belgian Free State in 1890. Five years into his vile project, still in the ramping-up phase, and we were inventing new concepts in international law to describe what he was doing.

The argument that was just seen as fair game for Africa back then is just this side of saying we don’t get to judge their actions. Guess what? I’m judging their actions. Not judging this particular crime — carried out at the orders of one man with a private army, in just 23 years — is no different from saying Germans just really didn’t like Jews in the ’30s and ’40s. Yes, I’m saying that particular historical handwave is no different than making excuses for the Holocaust.

When the Belgian government, responding to international outcry, forced Leopold II to give up the colony, he required a personal payment of 60 million gold francs. Math time: one franc was 290.322mg of gold, or 0.009334 troy ounces; in 1908 one ounce was US$20.67, so a franc was worth about 19.3 cents. That means US$11.6 million in 1908, or roughly US$283 million (in 2017 dollars) was his personal cut (plus another US$215 million in 2017 dollars for his pet building projects back home).

I don’t give a fuck if his son and daughters regarded his genocide in sterile, economic terms; he worked 10 million people to death and had uncountable others mutilated for his enrichment. Not for the wealth of the state — he’d wanted Belgium to get into the colonial game, the parliament refused, so he did it all himself — not for the good of his nation (as if either of those would have excused this evil), but for his private purse.

Want to argue (and I very nearly do) that nobody would have made the damaging association between Leo and Leopold II? Fine; I’ll mourn the state of history teaching, but fine. Want to say that the suspension of disbelief isn’t stretched too far and that the story stays on the good side of The Disney Line? Awesome; have at it.

But try to say that Leopold wasn’t egregiously bad and anyway it doesn’t matter if he was? I’ll thank you to take that weak tea elsewhere.

tl;dr: Leopold II was a monster by any standard, modern or historical. And the story, by allowing him to intrude, is broken as a result.

¹ I’ve removed his name from the comment; I am dealing with the substance of what he wrote, not with him, and I don’t want to unleash a mob. If the commenter wants to add another comment, claiming the words, I’ll let it through.

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