So there’s a bit of a predicament that I’ve been thinking about lately. It’s how you’ll occasionally find yourself gazing with awestruck wonder at some magnificent monument, only to find out later it was built by slave labor under deplorable conditions. This is awkward.
For the most part, no one seems to care. Much of the world’s wonders were completed long ago, and with no one around to share their stories, the distance is enough that most people don’t stop to contemplate any tragedy that went into their construction, or use. In some cases, it’s downright entertaining. It might even make for a great photo op.
The most obvious example might be the Colosseum in Rome, whose entire existence hinged on humanity’s morbid fascination with appalling violence. And although we may feel that we’ve advanced as a society to the point that nowadays we prefer our gladiators to compete only to the point of concussions and permanent brain damage rather than outright death, what does it say about our collective ability to move on that we not only visit a place like this, but take pictures with gladiator-costumed buskers stabbing each other with toy swords? Or that we seem to have no problem doing so?
Further east there’s an interesting development, which is the commercialization of Soviet occupation history. On the one hand, many formerly Soviet states have built thought-provoking museums immortalizing their history as mere occupied territory in the clutches of an uncaring imperial overlord; on the other hand, you can enjoy AK-47 tours and be “kidnapped” and “imprisoned” in former KGB prison cells for a night or two.
For those who grew up west of the Iron Curtain, this might seem like an odd, but potentially entertaining activity; for those who grew up on the other side, well… just imagine if the Auschwitz Experience were being sold as a kitschy tourist package vacation, to be commemorated forever with reenactment photos alongside thoroughly convincing actors in original SS uniforms.
The weirdness becomes increasingly obvious as the history edges closer, and it’s easier to react with revulsion than with enthusiasm, but why should long-ago tragedies be consigned to irrelevance? And even if we find ourselves unable to summon the slightest empathy for the dark, distant chapters of our collective history, what of the current spat of monumental engineering achievements built exclusively by criminally exploited migrant labor?
We still have a few dictatorships here and there, not to mention the many absurdly stratified economies, meaning that even thoroughly modern, “civilized” monuments you might enjoy during a visit to a 21st century city may very well have been built by updated versions of medieval peasants. This is especially true of certain Gulf states which shall remain nameless… among many others.
But you know what? They’ll get away with it. It’s been done before, and it’ll happen again. Entire cities have been built on what is essentially slave labor, and visitors do little more than gaze in admiration. Humans have a way of noticing only what’s in front of them, and if the facade is pleasant enough, that’s all we’ll see.
There’s no happy ending here. No solution, no alleviation. But the next time you see a stunning monument and you’re told it was built by Emperor So-and-So, take a moment to remind yourself that it’s never the king who builds the kingdom, but the peasants toiling, willingly or not, who deserve all the credit.