“Exterminate all the Brutes”
I received a good education at my high school. I learned to read, to think, to write, to act, to speak German (well, I can count to one hundred—sorry, Miss Tomlovic), to sing. All of which served me well in the arc of my life. With one exception—and I don’t blame the teacher:
I don’t know what current students read or learn about history, but what we learned in 1966 was seriously lacking. It was informative only if you bought into the myth our textbooks offered, of the founding of the United States. The myth about the founding fathers, particularly Jefferson and Washington. The myth about Andrew Jackson’s heroism. And I could go on and on.
I am talking about facts, not politics. Recently, Kellyanne Conway famously used the phrase “alternative facts,” which was comical, but which stuck for the Fox News crowd. My Trump neighbor uses the phrase frequently. Denying facts leaves one one isolated in a kind of fractured fairytale fiction. Q-Anon is a complete fiction, yet it strangely comforts the white unwashed. Facts, of the founding of the United States of America, will not surprise Black Americans or the First People.
Why are the rest of us in denial? This is the subject of the new four-hour HBO limited series documentary masterpiece, “Exterminate all the Brutes (words uttered by the insane character Kurtz, in Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness”).” The film is written and directed by Raoul Peck (“I am Not Your Negro”), based on the book by Sven Lindqvist. See the rave reviews online for this stunning accounting of historical fact—the facts missing in my high school history class in 1966.
“Exterminate all the Brutes” is a powerful, horrifying yet beautiful, and an exceptional, imaginative film. It uses compelling graphs to show timelines, historical recreations to demonstrate the thesis (Indians versus cavalry, Columbus arriving in what is now Haiti, etc., stunning scenery, a wonderful music score and more). It jumps back and forth in time. We are introduced to beloved people we “know” and what they were really like, and what they said. L. Frank Baum of “Wizard of Oz” fame, for instance, before his life as an author, calling for the complete extermination of the Indians. Civil War heroes who slaughter Indians at Wounded Knee. A willingness to slaughter and steal, couched in manifest destiny, that abhorrent doctrine of white Christianity (Christians, you must watch this film and examine your faith).
The film’s timeline is the evolution of human beings (half a million years ago), migration patterns, and the one migrating African tribe which hit the jackpot by settling in what is now called Europe, with its riches of minerals, fecund soil for agriculture, wild game, and climate. Well-fed and comfortable, its people had leisure to create philosophy, art, and writing, and they became inventors. Over generations the Europeans’ skin tone paled, a biological fact which has led to the myth of white superiority.
The Europeans built ships, and they sailed… to Africa and Haiti (Columbus). And in Africa the now white Europeans encountered “savages” and “apes” and “brutes”—their own ancestors, but they were too ignorant to know that. They were running out of resources and needed those descriptions as justification for the upcoming and somewhat gleeful slaughter. They savagely acted to enslave, and, because they had invented guns, murdered with impunity. All in the name of Christianity.
Then came Columbus. And came the two horrifying sins of this continent, enslavement, and attempted extermination of Indians. This country could not have thrived without slaves—Washington said so. White people were unwilling to work cotton. In Illinois, slaves were forced to work in salt mines, something no white person would do.
The monstrous Andrew Jackson saw to the extermination part. George Rogers Clark happily contributed by terrorizing Indian women and children, hanging them from their fingers from trees and slaughtering them, including scalping, an English invention.
Everything we learned in school: “Remember the Alamo”—lie; Louisiana Purchase—lie; Pocahontas—lie; the noble South—lie; and on and on. The glorious founding of this democracy—lie.
But the film is not just about the United States. The Holocaust is covered in detail and rightly cites Hitler as being influenced by white U.S. Southerners and their depraved slavery. The slaughters of the world are here, all dealing with racism or nationalism. The film gives us ample statistics about massacres and the rise of fascism and imperialism. The slaughter part is staggering, and yet there is beauty and wonder, in some staged scenes and historical photographs.
From my book the Confederate State of Illinois:
“Yesterday, I had a doctor appointment. The nurse came in and prepped me. I hear you’re a writer, she said. What are you writing about now?
“I told her.
“‘My son is a ‘snowflake’,” she responded. “About twice a week, he sits down for dinner and tells my husband and me that ‘we’ owned slaves.’
“She turned away and entered some code into a computer. Pause.
“‘I tell him, ‘we didn’t own slaves.’”
But our ancestors did. Scotch Irish immigrants comprised the majority of U.S. cavalry soldiers and were skilled Indian exterminators. Germans like Werner Von Braun were Nazis but feted in this country for rocketry. Racism was part of the American Revolution, and it is as bad today, not counting slavery.
What can we do? Is this a twenty-first century question? Did we not long ago atone and reach out in brotherhood to mankind? Color is a function of climate. Period. There is one human race. Period. What do we do now? That is for families to discuss. That is for neighbors to reach out to neighbors. That is for white people to see Black people and Asian people and Jews and Latinos and extend a hand and a heart.
My immediate reaction was that every high school kid should see this powerful documentary, and accompanying study guides should be created. Politics is not fact or truth. Right, Mitch McConnell? Kneejerk conservatives, as they did with the New York Times 1619 Project, creating their own untrue myth of the founding of America, will denounce this film as liberal hate. “Exterminate all the Brutes” isn’t politics. It is facts, carefully laid out. If the facts make us squirm, so be it.
“Exterminate all the Brutes” is a great work of art. It joins Voltaire’s “Candide,” Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (and the stunning film of the book, “Apocalypse Now”), Edna O’Brian’s “The Little Red Chairs,” Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” Doris Lessing’s “The Four-Gated City” and Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste”, (and you can add to that list) as the greatest recreations of a people.