Violence Sells. Literally.

Last week, I talked about the difficulties occurring in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Conflict Minerals, which are used in nearly every electronic device manufactured today, are mined in situations that have resulted in unspeakable violence for decades. Although many people are trying to help the situation, the solutions often bring whole new sets of problems to the area.

Unfortunately, it isn’t the first period of extreme violence which the Congo has seen–not by any means. On the contrary, mass violence in the Congo goes back at least to the 1800s, when the Europeans, especially the Belgians, colonized the Congo and turned the natives into slaves to create rubber. Natives were not only enslaved and forced to work under incredibly harsh conditions, but the penalties for failing to reach the ‘quota’ of rubber production included mutilation and execution. In total, it is estimated that more than half of the native population died from mistreatment and disease during the main part of the occupation. It was one of the worst travesties of human cruelty that has ever occurred, and it’s repercussions are still felt strongly to this day.

Now you may very well be wondering why I’m bringing up an old conflict that we can’t do anything about, when there’s a very current one that we should be focusing on right now. Well, it’s because there’s no such thing as isolated events, and this very week an issue has arisen which highlights the connections between events of the past and present, and reminds us never to forget–or worse, trivialize–the terrors our species is responsible for.

Alright, you’re going to have to stick with me here, ’cause it’s going to get a bit weird for a minute–but I promise it’s all connected. So, there’s a brewery in Virginia called the Devil’s Backbone Brewing Company, which recently created a new beer. Yep, I told you it would get weird, but hold on. The new beer is a Belgian Congo Pale Ale. Now, even knowing about the Congo/Belgian conflict, most people wouldn’t find anything too offensive about that at this point. A bit tacky, perhaps, but not inexcusable. Here’s where it gets awkward though. The advertisement for this ale is clearly intended to mimic the cover of Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkess, which chronicles the Belgian/Congo conflict. The poster even goes so far as to use the tagline “The Horror,”–a direct, and very controversial, quote from the book–which is spoken by the very character who committed the atrocities.

Shortly after the advertisement went up, an article was published expressing severe concern about the use of such a horrible event as a sales ploy.

“I’ve been alternating between anger and despair ever since I found this ad,” says the author, “as absurd — as impossible — as it sounds, the Devils Backbone Brewing Company, of Roseland and Lexington, Virginia, is marketing an ale that celebrates a colonial regime that was responsible for the deaths of 10 million people, a crime that some argue constituted genocide.” ~John Edwin Mason

The head brewer at Devil’s Backbone responded to the article, carefully explaining his reasons for naming the ale “Belgian Congo”–all of which he claims to be based on considerations of ale-brewing history, rather than the actual Belgian Congo events. But as I said, it’s the direct reference to Heart of Darkness–and thus to the actual events of the Belgian Congo tragedy that is really disturbing here. The head brewer’s response didn’t address the use of the tagline “The Horror,” and in fact, didn’t mention Heart of Darkness at all. Yet a quick comparison of the ale poster above with the original cover of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, makes it pretty obvious that they new what they were doing, even before you add in the quote.

As a society, it is our duty to remember the crimes our species has committed, in the hope and trust that we can prevent them in the future. There is, however, a tremendous difference between ‘remembering’ an event, and using it to sell beer. As one of the comments in the blog so rightly says, it’s the equivalent of creating a “Concentration Camp Ale.”

So, the question is, what do you say to a company that uses genocide as a sales pitch? Even worse, a company that knowingly uses such a device, when people in the same region are dying every single day in a continuing civil unrest that has it’s roots in the same European colonization being glorified by their poster? Perhaps Conrad himself said it best:

“He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—“The horror! The horror!” — Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

For myself, I can find no words.

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