Issue 257 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Arts

Review

   

Cultural currents

God, gold and genocide

Mike Gonzalez looks at a radical bishop of Chiapas active nearly 500 years ago

Delivering taxes to Columbus, although the real worth of the islanders was as slaves
Delivering taxes to Columbus, although the real worth of the islanders was as slaves

'With what authority have you waged such hateful wars against these people, who lived quietly and peacefully on their lands, lands which you have now taken from them, and in doing so left behind such death and carnage? Are these not human beings? Do they not have the gift of reason? Are you not obliged to love them as you love yourselves?'

These words were delivered from the pulpit of Havana's Catholic cathedral in 1511 by a Dominican friar, Antonio de Montesinos. They were among the first contributions to an argument that would rage for the next 40 years--a debate about whether or not there could be such a thing as a 'just war'. In the congregation that day was a recently ordained priest who would later be called the 'Defender of the Indians'--his name was Bartolome de Las Casas. Las Casas had been the owner of a Cuban sugar plantation worked by slaves, but he began to see a contradiction between his religious convictions, and the slavery and oppression that were imposed on the indigenous peoples of Latin America in the name of Catholic conversion. And that was before the genocidal war that the Spanish Empire undertook against the Aztecs and Mayas of Mexico (from 1519) and the Incas of Peru (after 1532).

The rest of Las Casas's life was a determined defence of the rights of the indigenous peoples of Latin America. After all, the Spanish crown claimed that the purpose of the conquest was to draw these new and unknown people into the embrace of civilisation. Each time Columbus landed in a new place he would read out a long legal declaration in Latin, Hebrew and Castilian Spanish giving the justifications for conquest. The local Indians seemed reluctant to respond to long speeches in the languages of Europe.

This was evidence either (a) of their stubborn refusal to accept the authority of god and the emperor, or (b) that they actually belonged to a category of beings called barbarians--not yet endowed with reason or understanding. This then made everything that followed 'legal'--hadn't Aristotle argued, after all, that it was just to force the barbarians into the Christian fold, for their own good of course?

The paradox was that Las Casas's arguments for tolerance were apparently accepted by the Spanish emperor, and enshrined in tolerant and liberal laws and statutes. Yet the genocide continued. Within a generation tens of millions of indigenous Americans were dead. Since this was a just war, however, their deaths could be ascribed to their stubbornness and ignorance--their refusal to acknowledge the god given authority of the conquering power. The reality, of course, was that Spain's overwhelming need for gold and silver to finance the empire--and for the human labour to claw it out of the earth--was the driving impulse to conquest. Evangelising the barbarian was the justifying motive, the legitimation of genocide.

Angry and embittered at this manifest hypocrisy, Las Casas went back to Spain in 1550 to debate with the emperor's confessor. Archbishop Sepulveda, on the issue of the just war, and the right to conquest and slavery. They argued for a long time in the city of Valladolid. The learned tribunal which heard the arguments then retired to consider its verdict. Sepulveda 'maintained that Indians are serfs by nature, according to god's will, and that the scriptures contain examples to spare of the punishment of the unjust'.

Las Casas, who as bishop of Chiapas had refused to take the confession of people who owned Indian slaves. 'proposed that Spaniards learn the language of the Indians and the Indians the language of Castile'.

Sepulveda replied that 'what Las Casas calls abuse and crime is a legitimate system of domination, and he commends the art of hunting against those who, born to obey, refuse slavery' (from Eduardo Galeano's Genesis).

The emperor ordered that Sepulveda's arguments should not be published. But the conquest and enslavement continued anyway. Sepulveda knew that 'the desire to make money, not to win souls, is what builds empires'. Las Casas fired his last shot in 1561 in his De Thesauris: 'All the gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, and all the metals and precious things taken from beneath the earth or under the sea...has been stolen by Spain and must be returned.' The bishop was 89 years old.

The tribunal of elders, incidentally, has still not returned with its conclusions as to how to reconcile the idea of the just war with the imposition of imperial power and control upon the world.


War

WHERE PROPAGANDA IS BETTER THAN ART

Band of Brothers
BBC2

GI blues?
GI blues?

It was always unlikely that Band of Brothers would be pulled from the television schedules in the aftermath of 11 September. Produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg at a huge cost of $120 million, it tells the true story of a US parachute regiment, 'Easy Company', from its D-Day drop into Normandy to the invasion of Germany.

Following in the footsteps of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, the ten-part series is high on realistic scenes of battle. The parachute jump takes place amid hostile fire, with whole planes and their human cargo engulfed in flames. We see soldiers fearful, suffering from terrible wounds and psychological disorders, one of them gunning down German soldiers in cold blood.

All of this is a welcome and timely portrayal of war very far from the gung-ho version of so many films and television programmes. But I also had very serious reservations about the series. The most serious is that in its earlier episodes it has virtually no social content. This will no doubt change as the soldiers experience the liberation in France and the concentration camps in Germany, but it profoundly weakens the story of these men.

Even the propaganda films of the Second World War had a strong social message. Apart from anything else, they had no choice--everyone in Britain knew that the war was as much about civilians being bombed and women being conscripted into war work as it was about armies fighting in foreign countries. Most people also felt, from early on in the war, that it was about a high moral purpose--freedom, democracy, fighting fascism--rather than just the senseless slaughter of the First World War.

There was also resentment against the rich and powerful, and a belief that ordinary people could run the world better than those who had done so before the war. Two of the strongest films of this era, Powell and Pressburger's Colonel Blimp and Cavalcanti's Went the Day Well?, celebrate these democratic values. Heroes of Cavalcanti's film include the young Cockney evacuees, the poacher and the village telephonist, while the Nazi collaborator is a respected pillar of the community.

The mass military and civilian mobilisation in Britain and the US could not have taken place without concessions to such sentiments. Yet they are absent from this series. It is interesting to speculate why. Perhaps its makers wanted a 'pure' military story. But as the 20th century wore on it became increasingly hard to tell such a story honestly and accurately without bringing in wider issues.

There is another problem. The GIs of 1944 and 1945 were greeted as heroes in many countries. Today they are the pariahs of the world, seen as a symbol of militarism and oppression, not freedom. Making a film about them without touching on this change requires its scope to be narrow. This means a great deal about danger, comradeship, fear and bravery, but not much about what these men actually thought and what motivated them. That is the weakness at the heart of Band of Brothers.
Lindsey German


DELUXE! REDUX! MEGABUCKS!

What's Goin' On
by Marvin Gaye

Apocalypse Now Redux
Dir: Francis Ford Coppola

Cynical readers might dismiss this year's reissuing of two key works of 1970s American pop culture. Such recycling to monied baby boomers is typically done to boost the coffers of pensionless, jaded artists or refresh ailing corporate cashflows. But with these particular commodities there are compensating contradictions.

Both Marvin Gaye's soul opera What's Goin' On(1971) and Francis Ford Coppola's movie epic Apocalypse Now(1979) locked horns with their decade's overwhelming political issue--the war in Vietnam. And if an ability to transcend the socio-political context of its inception remains a hallmark of greatness in art, then it's as clear in these instances as anywhere. Both take on fresh meanings with US military forces once again making the world safe for hypocrisy.

Marvin Gaye's work had the merit of confronting the war at its height. His brother had returned from three years duty with tales which motivated this project. Frankie Gaye later recalled, 'War is hell, believe me. Nothing you've ever experienced can prepare you for the terror. And the blood--all my memories of that time are swimming in blood. This horrified Marvin, but what moved him most was the image of children eating out of garbage cans. It's a sight that I don't think anybody wants to see: people--children--trying to live off what you've thrown away.'

Their cousin had been killed aged 21 in November 1968 after five months service with the First Marine Division. In a made for TV movie, The Ballad of Andy Crocker, screened in November 1969, Marvin played Dave, the buddy of a disillusioned returning conscript.

Originally a doo-wop singer with The Moonglows, Gaye joined Motown as a session drummer. You can hear him on all The Marvelettes' work. He had his first US vocal chart hit, 'Stubborn Kind of Fellow', in July 1962. For three years until her brain tumour became fatal in March 1970, he had a string of hit duets with Tammi Terrell. The US Xmas top ten in 1968 included five Motown productions. In 1969 Gaye had a UK and US number one with the company's biggest selling single--'I Heard it Through the Grapevine'.

But added to his depression over the loss of his singing partner and his personal financial difficulties, Gaye was increasingly frustrated by the strictures of the Motown production line. Boss Berry Gordy, his brother in law, marketed him as a sex god. Gaye wanted more overall creative control. He effectively went on strike through 1970, mocked the dress code with a beard, T-shirt and denims, chainsmoked reefers, and listened to what white and jazz musicians were up to. James Taylor's 'Fire and Rain', for example, became a stylistic and thematic influence.

Four Tops singer Obie Benson turned Gaye on to the tune that would become the focus of his artistic change of tack. 'What's Goin' On' featured relaxed, multi-tracked vocals and party whoops, an opening saxophone hook recorded while session man Eli Fontaine was warming up, lush orchestration by David Van der Pitte, and a loose, percussive heavy groove, propelled by James Jamerson's bubbling basslines.

All this was heresy to Gordy, especially the lyrics. This was no 'baby, baby, baybee' twee flirting, though it was strong on a more social concept of love: 'Father, father, father, we don't need to escalate/War is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate.'

Gordy demanded other products to release. Gaye refused. Only one person in Detroit liked the work, creative department manager Harry Balk, though he couldn't get it past quality control. But in January 1971 Motown relented. It was released without Gordy's knowledge.

This single sold 100,000 copies in a day and soon reached number two in the US pop charts--touché. Gaye could gloat. It was a declamation--there's no questionmark in the title. As The Temptations, Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder soon helped him prove, there was a mass market for a radicalised black pop. But now Motown wanted a follow-up album. Putting profits before personal taste and family friction, Gordy agreed to bankroll studio, session and production costs if Gaye could deliver before the end of March 1970.

The final work flows from tender to angry moments of a searing, soaring, emotional blast at contemporary America. Two future hit singles were the most explicit 'Mercy, Mercy, Me (The Ecology)' and 'Inner City Blues'. Not a blues in form, it nevertheless laments a society where, 'Crime is increasing/Trigger-happy policing/Panic is spreading/God knows where we're heading.'

It was the first Motown album to print lyrics--mainly written by Motown switchboard operator James Nyx--and credit the players on a gatefold cover with exceptional photography. This deluxe edition CD includes the original May 1971 album, and a looser, jazzier mix rejected by Gordy a month earlier. The second CD contains a beautiful live concert a year later when the whole album song sequence was proceeded by rearranged versions of earlier hits. 'That's The Way Love Is' is especially haunting. In spite of the highly ambiguous phrase about 'Picket lines, picket signs/Don't punish me with brutality' in the title track, and the pivotal role of blatantly religious laments on two tracks, the total stands up as a wonderfully spiritual and humanistic achievement. Closer to Coltrane's A Love Supreme six years earlier than the rest of his more lascivious output, Marvin Gaye's artistic reputation could stand on this work alone.

A tormented Martin Sheen
A tormented Martin Sheen

Many of us only know Apocalypse Now from the small screen. So the first reason to get to a cinema is to experience the full impact of Vittorio Storaro's photography, Dean Tavoularis's production design and Walter Murch's sound design.

Take the opening scenes. Deep focus jungle treetops. The emblematic phush, phush, phush of copter blades from left to right. An orange flash of exploding napalm. Jim Morrison droning 'This is the end'...

Dissolve to the ceiling fan of a Saigon hotel room. A drunken Martin Sheen is method acting out the torments of the dislocated captain, Benjamin Willard. Confronting his mirror image with a lurching hybrid of karate and tai chi, he smashes through it and slices open a palm. He's summoned from this bloody pit to be briefed on his covert mission--to 'terminate with extreme prejudice' one US army colonel, Walter E Kurtz, who's gone native upriver in Cambodia.

From thereon Coppola manufactured a virtuoso work which has enraged socialist viewers ever since. Why? Because the film glories in its own cinematic spectacle at the expense of a political line. It was far out but not right on. It relied on the sheer force of its shocking audiovisual repertoire to depict but not critique war.

Its dodgy cult status, for example, is proven by the most famous quote--'I love the smell of napalm in the morning'--delivered by the bare chested braggart Lt Colonel Kilgore, a surf Nazi whose squadron has just flattened a village to the pumped-up strains of Wagner. So does an extra 49 minutes of footage alter the political balance of the original? The answer is yes.

The excessive methods and scale of this project over three years were way beyond anything that cinema corporations or audiences could then digest. Crucially, the editing shelved whole sequences of story in keeping to 153 minutes.

It's now clear that marketing pressure forced a conservative edit in 1979. Without spoiling your enjoyment, it's safe to say that the new version introduces passages which do criticise the narrative from within, as well as some rearrangements of existing stuff.

Kilgore, for example, is ridiculed. The Playboy bunnies are revisited in a scene which compares their grotesque dehumanisation to that of the grunts under Willard's command. In particular the French plantation sequence makes for an explicit comment on the nature of imperialism, noting US complicity in creation of the Vietminh, the proto-Vietcong. We also see more of Brando's TS Eliot quoting ogre. This was always the weakest element of the work. Precisely what are we to make of Kurtz, named after the focus of Joseph Conrad's odyssey in Heart of Darkness? Both director and star have voiced contrary explanations of what Kurtz represents, as the evil Frankenstein of Pentagon pedigree who nevertheless has found adoration and some sort of peace.

More intriguingly, is Osama Bin Laden the new Kurtz? Whilst not Pentagon-bred, Bin Laden was adopted by the US military, trained by Norman Schwarzkopf, before biting the hand of Bush Sr. This matter may have been resolved by the time this gets to press by some latterday Willard's intervention.

In retrospect, Coppola sowed his seeds in ground broken ten years previously by Robert Altman's MASH and Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, richly subversive in their different genres. And there were other excellent Vietnam movies at the end of the 1970s like Coming Home and The Deer Hunter. Nevertheless, we are now presented with 200-plus minutes of cinema which knocks spots off modern Hollywood war movies, when Spielberg is busy claiming victory in the Second World War for the Yanks with current TV show Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan.

Indeed, it exceeds the quality and scope of almost any modern film-making, despite still more footage remaining unused and today's armoury of digital FX.

Apocalypse Now Redux stands as a trenchant assault on the American popular self delusion of world benevolence. To all those Stars and Stripes wavers whose innocence claims to have been destroyed by 11 September 2001, we could say that you obviously haven't been paying attention to Coppola--then or now!
Nick Grant


RELIVING A REVOLUTION

The Spanish Civil War: Dreams and Nightmares
Imperial War Museum, London until 28 April 2002

Building solidarity abroad
Building solidarity abroad

The Spanish Civil War began 65 years ago when General Franco and his troops rebelled against the democratically elected government of the republic. Fighting in the name of 'the nation' and 'the defence of Christianity and order', they expected an easy fight. What they got was a massive struggle where the Spanish workers rose to defend their freedom. The civil war is often presented as a straight fight between democracy and fascism. In fact it was more than that. In defending the republic the workers were making a revolution.

This new exhibition in the Imperial War Museum is a fascinating revelation of these events, whose complexity is reflected in the labyrinthine layout of the displays, posters, uniforms, diaries, photos and all sorts of memorabilia, including newspapers, paintings and poetry. Many of the images will be quite familiar to people who have read about the period, but they are given an added personal dimension by the autobiographical details included amongst the exhibits.

The International Brigades figure strongly, and there are photos of the young people who risked their lives. They fought for the defence of an idea and a reality--the idea that a better world was possible, and the reality that the better world was already in the making in the factories, offices and streets of the Spanish republic. Though the complexity of the situation is visible in the exhibition, it does not take sides within the bitterly divided Republican camp. Nevertheless, a strong feeling of idealism and determination which characterised the time comes over very clearly, and in a curious way echoes many of the sentiments and debates which are currently engaging the anti-capitalist movement. You get a sense that you know the people in these black and white photos, and they're not very different to those people demonstrating on the streets of Genoa or on the current anti-war demonstrations.

There are some very famous and brilliant artworks on display-- paintings and drawings by Picasso, Magritte, Dali and others, including preliminary sketches for Picasso's magnificent Guernica

Looking down the list of sponsors of the exhibition you see a roll call of the 'great and good', including many lords and assorted bigwigs who would no doubt have condemned the revolution had they been there at the time. One of the most prominent of these names is Michael Portillo (whose father was one of the few Republican refugees to make it into this country--Chamberlain, the prime minister of the time, said that Spanish children wouldn't like the weather here). Somehow, despite the fact that Portillo was heard recently on Spanish TV bemoaning the lack of idealism in today's society, I don't think we'll see him on the next anti-war demo.
Tim Sanders


Film

AN UNTOUCHABLE STRUGGLE

Amazons in Saris
Dir: Nathalie Khanna

To many people the segregation of the caste system is India's version of apartheid. At the recent conference in South Africa on slavery Indian politicians did everything in their power to prevent discussion about caste inequality, supposedly in the name of religious and national autonomy. It is easy to see why. There are about 160 million Dalits (untouchables) in India. In the northern state of Bihar only 7 percent of Dalit women are literate. Across Indian villages most Dalits perform backbreaking work in the fields as landless labourers. Their wages are extremely low, and more often than not upper caste landlords cheat them out of their earnings as well as land.

This new film by Nathalie Khanna tells the tragic story of Dalits in Bihar, which is the poorest state in India. The life of this community is dominated by violence, corruption and death. In December 1997 there was a massacre in central Bihar--61 Dalits were hacked to death whilst they slept, and their women were gang raped and had their breasts cut off. In this state every hour two Dalits are assaulted. Every day three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered and two Dalit homes are burned. The film describes vividly how high caste Hindu landowners use religion to justify not only the caste order but also their hold on political power.

But they do not just rely on ideology. Ranvir Sena are a private army of hired thugs created by high caste landlords to crush any attempt by Dalit villagers to claim their rights. They have been responsible for many assassinations and massacres like the one described above. When Naxalite groups tried to mobilise Dalits to fight for decent wages and land rights, Sena armies were used to murder activists and Dalit leaders. Khanna explains how the official police force at best ignores this violence or, worse, colludes and actively participates in the violence.

However, Dalits do not just accept this situation. The Amazons in Saris are Dalit women who have taken up guns to defend themselves against oppression and violence. In 1994 Bukhli Devi was brutally murdered for daring to stand up for her rights. Other poor caste women have heroically followed in her steps. Unfortunately Khanna was not able to meet with these women, given their secretive and clandestine existence. However, the film is uncompromising in its opposition to caste divisions, and the horrific levels of poverty and suffering inflicted upon the poor of India. The film exposes how the world's biggest 'democracy' is a sham, infested by violence and corruption. The repression of Dalits and other groups only increased after the BJP were elected. Politicians use one caste against another to gain votes--crooks become politicians and politicians crooks. The film is a tribute to those who challenge this system in any way they can.
Talat Ahmed


Theatre

BETTER DAYS FOR THE KNIGHTS

Luther
by Johhn Osborne
Olivier Theatre, London

Rufus Sewell as Martin Luther in the latest John Osborne production at the National Theatre
Rufus Sewell as Martin Luther in the latest John Osborne production at the National Theatre

'Nothing could ever be the same again', says a lonely figure in the final act of John Osborne's 1961 play Luther. In 1525 a German knight is trying to make sense of the changing world around him. Four years earlier in the town of Worms Martin Luther, a scholar and a monk, had publicly challenged and defied the Catholic church. Luther's theological arguments struck hard at the ideological heart of the decaying feudal order. His public stand precipitated massive social unrest in the wars and civil wars that were to carry on well into the 17th century.

The knight who had known his place now felt like one of the 'left over men, impoverish'd, who'd seen better days'. The knight confronts Luther on the bloody battlefield, but there is little understanding between them. For the knight, his place in the feudal order has been turned inside out by the social upheaval, but he understands little of Luther's theological assertions.

Luther was in fact conservative in his support for the church's political and social power. His disagreement was solely based on the belief that the church had distorted Christ's religious teachings. Luther must have been astonished at how this disagreement had led to such commotion.

Luther was not the first to challenge the Catholic church. A century earlier in Bohemia the Hussites had raised similar objections, and an underground church established in major European cities had survived for over 200 years. But the 15th century, with the arrival of clocks, cannon and the printing press, was becoming a very different society to that which had existed before.

The opening of the play sees Luther's father and his father's friend questioning Martin's decision to become a monk. The two actors magnificently fill the vast, bare stage (as the rest of the company do equally well throughout the production) with their gruff Yorkshire characters. Martin hoped to achieve salvation through his unceasing efforts as a monk.

But Luther discovers that 'good works' (such as cleaning the latrines for three weeks for being late for prayers) do not achieve salvation. Luther believed, contrary to the prevailing orthodoxy, that in religious terms what mattered was the faith of individuals, not the mediation of priests or good works. The Catholic church's offer to 'sell' absolution through 'indulgences' typified for Luther where the church had gone astray ideologically.

The selling of indulgences was central to Roman Catholicism's quest for money to build and adorn its churches, and is rightly also central to Osborne's play. Richard Griffith's almost pantomime-like portrayal of John Tetzel (who sold indulgences across Germany) is superbly comic.

Luther had not chosen an easy battle. Fifteenth century Germany was not a 'state' as we understand it today. Local knights and lords ruled the Holy Roman Empire of Germany, with ultimate authority resting with the pope. The Catholic church was inexorably linked with the ruling classes. Pope Leo X, who ordered Luther's excommunication from the church, was from the Medicis, a wealthy merchant family.

Osborne's play is remarkable in that it does not appear at all dated. Osborne manages to weave the torment and defiance of Luther with sharp humour. This production is well performed, with minimal props. However, the setting of each scene by the ensemble as monks, nobles or peasants circling the stage begins to make you feel a bit dizzy after the tenth time.

Inevitably the play focuses on the character of Martin Luther against the background of the immense transformations occurring across all classes in 15th century Europe. An excellent cast and production make this play a rewarding lesson in the life of a man who, in circumstances he did not choose, made history.
Beccy Reese


BEATING THE BLUES

Jitney
by August Wilson
National Theatre, London

Talking out against City Hall
Talking out against City Hall

Jitney is a new play by black American August Wilson. The central theme in August Wilson's writing is an examination and celebration of black American culture in the light of the experience of slavery and racism. Jitney is the latest of a series of plays, and looks at the marginalisation of the black community from economic and political power.

The play is set during the mid-1970s in a rundown taxi office overlooked by a mill. As the drivers wait for customers to call on the phone they argue, gossip and discuss their neighbourhood. The central conflict is between the owner and his son who has just left prison. Their confrontation is a beautifully staged and acted scene of raw emotion. It can be seen as an analogy for the different ways of dealing with racism.

This conflict is played out as the block is under threat of being demolished for redevelopment. However, none of the characters believe City Hall will deliver, as many other buildings have been boarded up and then left to rot. Instead of leaving quietly they decide to stay until the builders come to start rebuilding.

Wilson grew up in Pittsburgh's Hill district, the heart of the city's black community. He faced constant racism at school, where he was the only black student. Having walked out of school at the age of 15 he educated himself at the city's library. But it was at Pat's Place, a cigar store and pool hall where the community elders congregated, that Wilson learned the history and tradition of the community from the 'walking history books', as he calls them. His writing seeks to articulate and preserve the distinctive voice of the black community.

Blues music is also important to Wilson's view of black culture: 'It made me look at the world differently. It gave the people in the rooming house where I lived, and also my mother, a history I didn't know they had.' Wilson skilfully uses blues and soul music to frame the scenes in Jitney.

Wilson cites the Black Power movement as 'the kiln in which I was fired'. However, the politics of the play are not overtly radical. American society cannot be trusted to deliver equality. So the play offers self reliance--hard work and getting an education. There is a sense that a black business providing a service for the black community is a way out.

However, the experience of war both in Korea and Vietnam is discussed. Philmore, who joined the army to get an education, says, 'How was I to know they would put a pin in the map and go send us off to fight?'

The dialogue is well written, and is full of humour and insight. All the characters are fleshed out and three dimensional, and you feel genuinely concerned for their fate. The drama is well paced and staged, and builds naturally to the conclusion. The acting is consistently good throughout. This is rewarding and good theatre with an underpinning of radicalism.
Peter Gee


Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page