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Conquistadors as Liberators?

The Mad, Mad Mayan World of Mel Gibson

by LOUIS PROYECT

Since I doubt that any CounterPuncher would be inclined to watch Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” except on a dare, I almost decided not to include a spoiler alert. Gibson’s reputation precedes him, so much so that I avoided watching the film for the longest time. On a particularly arid cable TV and Netflix evening a month or so ago, I decided to give it a shot partly out of boredom and partly out of morbid curiosity.

I will give the devil his due. Gibson threw caution to the wind and made a movie that defied conventional Hollywood studio expectations. This is a tale set some time in the distant past in the Mayan empire of Central America that pits a classless hunting and gathering society against Mayan class society, with Gibson standing up for the primitive communists—as Frederick Engels dubbed such peoples.

Ironically, the film echoes “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” with the hunting and gatherers living in a state of peace and harmony soon to be threatened by a technologically more advanced society but one with more retrograde values. Also, like the original “Planet of the Apes” that starred Charlton Heston, “Apocalypto” relies on a deus ex machina surprise ending that is intended as a commentary on civilization and progress.

The plot of “Apocalypto” is quite simple. Within fifteen minutes after the beginning of the film, a Mayan raiding party attacks a small village living in Yanomami-like simplicity deep within the rain forest, killing women and children wantonly. The men are then put in chains and led off to a Mayan city, where they are doomed to be sacrificed to the gods in the grizzliest fashion. A high priest cuts open the captives’ chests one by one and plucks out the still-beating heart to the adulation of the Mayan masses.

Gibson makes sure to make the Mayans look as scary as possible, with tattoos and piercings in such abundance that you might think you are in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

A captive named Jaguar Paw, just about to face the high priest’s knife, gets a stay of execution. He is escorted to a football-field sized area that abuts the forest and led to believe that if he makes it beyond the field, he will be home-free. But the real intention is for him to serve as target practice for the Mayans who hurl spears and shoot arrows at him for sport. Jaguar Paw is desperate to make it back into the forest and head for his burnt out village, where his pregnant wife and young son, having eluded the raiders, are hiding out in a deep pit.

The main action in the film takes place in the forest where Jaguar Paw sets a series of traps for his Mayan pursuers. It is fairly obvious that Gibson modeled the native’s savvy combat methods on those used by Arnold Schwarzenegger against the fearsome Predator from outer space—a film also set in the Central American rainforest.

In the final scene, as the last two Mayan warriors confront Jaguar Paw on the beach, they are startled to see a Spanish conquistador ship in the bay. The two Mayans stand paralyzed in a combination of fear and amazement while Jaguar Paw escapes to rescue his wife and child. The Spanish ship serves the same purpose as the Statue of Liberty wreckage in the finale of “Planet of the Apes”. It is a statement that history is not on some upward teleological trajectory, but more like Stephan Dedalus’s cry that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Deliverance presumably does come for the Mayans in the shape of the Spanish missionaries who are on board the conquistador’s ship.

The question of human sacrifice in the New World is fraught with political implications. For a certain scholarly milieu, such “barbaric” behavior of New World civilizations lets the European colonizers off the hook. The mountains of skulls found in Incan or Aztec ruins are proof that the conquest was no worse than what the indigenous people had always endured.

Most frequently the anti-indigenous scholars debunk Rousseau’s “Noble Savage” iconography in order to make Europeans look benign by comparison. A typical example is Steven LeBlanc’s “Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage”. LeBlanc, who is Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology agreed with NPR interviewer John Hockenberry that the idea of peaceful Mayans was just a myth. He went so far as to agree with sociobiologists Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker that we are much better off today than ever before.

Well, first of all we need to give ourselves some credit. If you look back in past, warfare was far more deadly than is today, that historically about 25% of all of the men, died in warfare and that’s a staggering number never attained in the twentieth century, that even the first and second world war didn’t have death rates like we know uh, exist for the people of the New Guinea highlands or people of the Amazonian jungle or, or even uh, uh, some Australian uh, aboriginal groups.

Since Hockenberry’s book was based on radio transcriptions, the “uhs” were to be expected. However, given the stupidity of this Harvard professor’s analysis, I am inclined to think that a “duh” would be more appropriate. As has been amply displayed by Rutgers professor Brian Ferguson, primitive societies only began to make war on each other after the colonists arrived and began to impinge on their hunting and fishing resources, thus making competition between indigenous peoples inevitable.

That being said, the Incas, Aztecs and Mayans were class societies and relatively advanced in comparison to Jaguar Paw and his ilk. All you have to do is visit the Teotihuacan pyramids north of Mexico City to become convinced of this. Furthermore, there is at least one Marxist anthropologist who would lean toward the “Apocalypto” narrative—Thomas Patterson.

About twenty years ago, when I first began studying indigenous peoples’ history in earnest, I turned to his “The Inca Empire: The Formation and Disintegration of a Pre-Capitalist State”, fully expecting it if not to conform to the noble savage prototype to at least pay the Incas their proper respect after the fashion of José Carlos Mariátegui: “the communitarianism of the Incas cannot be denied or disparaged for having evolved under an autocratic regime.”

But Patterson would have none of that. Even without taking human sacrifice into account, life for Peru’s Jaguar Paws was pretty miserable: “The state had available a series of institutions and practices to ensure the regular and systematic extraction of tribute from the peoples they subjugated. This exploitation was backed up by the army, diplomacy, coercion, and intimidation.”

Of course, we have plenty of first-hand evidence as to what the common folk thought of their masters in Mexico and Peru. The conquistadors took advantage of local resentments to build an allied army of indigenous peoples bent on revenge. That, plus the spread of infectious diseases such as smallpox, had more to do with the collapse of the Incan and Aztec empires than Spanish horses, armor or guns.

In an interview with MTV, Gibson demonstrated some familiarity with the terrain almost as if he had read a book or two—or at least skimmed through the pages. When asked about the violence he portrayed in the film, he replied:

“Some of the stuff they did was unspeakable. You could not put it on film. I really did go light. There are accounts of when the conquistadors first arrived in the Aztec empire and saw something like 20,000 human sacrifices in four days. They must have had four or five temples going at the same time. All these hearts being ripped out — it was a kind of culture of death.”

In terms of the willingness of the subject peoples to be used by the conquistadors, Gibson put it this way: “I think the conquistadors led more of a revolution with the help of the people.” That was some revolution that led Mexico and Latin America into what Galeano described as five centuries of pillage in “Open Veins of Latin America”. It should also be mentioned that around the time that Gibson made the film he was momentarily open to the feeling of discontent that was sweeping the nation and presumably Hollywood as well. Gibson said, “The fear-mongering we depict in the film reminds me of President Bush and his guys.”

Gibson and screenplay co-writer Farhad Safinia, an Iranian-American, strove for accuracy. They hired a mostly Mayan-descended cast and had them speak in the Yucatec Maya language. I will give them credit for that.

They also used a consultant named Richard D. Hansen who was an academic expert in Mayan civilization and a frequent guest on television shows. Hansen stood behind the film when other experts challenged it. A typical dismissal of the film came from anthropologist Traci Arden who posed the question “Is Apocalypto Porn?” in Archaeology magazine.

“Before anyone thinks I have forgotten my Metamucil this morning, I am not a compulsively politically correct type who sees the Maya as the epitome of goodness and light. I know the Maya practiced brutal violence upon one another, and I have studied child sacrifice during the Classic period. But in “Apocalypto,” no mention is made of the achievements in science and art, the profound spirituality and connection to agricultural cycles, or the engineering feats of Maya cities. Instead, Gibson replays, in glorious big-budget technicolor, an offensive and racist notion that Maya people were brutal to one another long before the arrival of Europeans and thus they deserve, in fact they needed, rescue. This same idea was used for 500 years to justify the subjugation of Maya people and it has been thoroughly deconstructed and rejected by Maya intellectuals and community leaders throughout the Maya area today. In fact, Maya intellectuals have demonstrated convincingly that such ideas were manipulated by the Guatemalan army to justify the genocidal civil war of the 1970-1990s. To see this same trope about who indigenous people were (and are today?) used as the basis for entertainment (and I use the term loosely) is truly embarrassing. How can we continue to produce such one-sided and clearly exploitative messages about the indigenous people of the New World?”

Probably the most egregious violence done to indigenous history in the film was the mass sacrifice done before a frenzied mob as if someone was being lynched in the Deep South. In fact, it was Aztecs who engaged in mass sacrifices, not Mayans. Furthermore, the victims were rival elites, not commoners like Jaguar Paw.

Defending the film, Hansen said that the sacrifices were meant to represent late Mayan civilization when the Aztecs had penetrated south and exerted an influence on the empire that predated them.

Although there were obvious reasons for the Aztecs to be either hated and/or feared, I find it hard to take the arguments of a Hansen or a LeBlanc to heart when I consider what the conquistadors likely saw when they first encountered Tenochtitlan, the place that would become Mexico City. Cortés admitted: “Motecuhzoma had a palace in the town of such a kind, and so marvellous, that it seems to me almost impossible to describe its beauty and magnificence. I will say no more than there is nothing like it in Spain.”

Jacques Soustelle, the French anthropologist who specialized in Aztec studies and also ignominiously served as Minister of State in charge of Overseas Departments under DeGaulle during the Algerian war of liberation (he was nearly assassinated by the FLN), wrote “Daily Life of the Aztecs” in 1962, a necessary corrective to the Hansen/Gibson worldview.

The book, which can be read on Google, puts things into perspective:

“Besides, the conquerors saw comparable marvels from the time they first came into the valley of Mexico. They passed the night before their entry into the capital at Iztapalapan. Diáz was entranced by the palace in which they stayed — ‘so large and well-built in the best kind of stone, with the roof-timbers made of cedar and other sweet-smelling woods—very big rooms, and what was particularly worth seeing, patios covered over with cotton awnings. When we had looked through all this, we went into the garden; it was delightful to walk in it, and I was never weary of observing the variety of the plants and their perfumes, the flower-beds, many fruit-trees and roses [sic] of the country, and a pool of sweet water. There was another extraordinary thing: large boats could come right into this orchard from the lake.’ And the old Spanish soldier, writing his memoirs many years later, adds sadly, ‘Ahora todo está por el suelo, perdido, que no hay cosa.’ Now all that is fallen, lost: nothing is left any more.”

At least for today’s versions of the Jaguar Paw in Mexico City, those not fortunate enough to enjoy the splendors of neoliberal capitalism, those words ring true: Now all that is fallen, lost: nothing is left any more.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.