I just finished watching Raoul Peck’s four-part documentary “Exterminate All the Brutes.” It documented the process and effects of European colonialism in the Americas, Africa, and South Asia.
Peck is a Haitian-born film maker who directed the award-winning film “I Am Not Your Negro.” Time Magazine called his latest effort perhaps “the most politically radical and intellectually challenging work of nonfiction ever made for television.”
Peck himself describes the documentary’s topic as nothing less than the deep origins of the ideology of white supremacy. He says his film is intended to “counter the type of lies, the type of propaganda, the type of abuse, that we have been subject to all of these years.”
The perpetrators of such falsehoods are not merely right-wingers like Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. They’re the worst, since they actively advocate whitewashed “Patriotic History” lest white civilization be exposed as basically avaricious, racist, and genocidal.
However, unwitting culprits also include would-be progressives who find it understandably difficult to face up to unquestionable historical fact.
Over the last week or so, the latter were exemplified for me in the reactions of two very smart and well-intentioned friends responding to the topic at hand. One of them felt compelled to leave half-way through the first episode of “Exterminate. . .” He commented as he left the room, “This is just too violent for me. It’s all too gratuitously graphic.”
The second reaction had come a week or so earlier in another context. In my blog, I had lamented the magnitude of what David E. Stannard has called The American Holocaust. It wiped out more than 100 million Native Americans in a single century.
In response, my second friend countered that the deaths were overwhelmingly due to diseases the Europeans introduced. Hence the deaths were mostly inadvertent and unintentional. The colonizers, said my friend, preferred to have the indigenous alive in order to enslave them.
While I could sympathize with my first friend’s feelings, I couldn’t agree with his conclusions and reactions. Peck’s film shows that nothing depicted on screen (or even portrayable there) could possibly equal the actual violence of the historical events the documentary so compellingly recounts. There was nothing gratuitous about it. No matter the blood and gore, it remained inevitably understated.
As for the “inadvertent” slaughter of Native Americans. . . That’s emphatically not the story that Peck tells. Nor is it supported by what we know about the nearly endless list of American Indian wars, and historical events such as the Indian Removal Act, and the “Trail of Tears,” along with the declarations of famous Indian fighters like Andrew Jackson and George Custer.
But Peck’s argument goes far beyond Indian wars and Stannard’s American Holocaust. It recapitulates the whole of European history.
According to Peck, three words summarize that saga. They are civilization, colonization, and extermination. That’s where the film’s title comes from. For Peck, the project of the civilizers and the colonizers is clear. It was to exterminate all the brutes – meaning all the non-whites who inhabited the resource-rich territories lusted after by comparatively resource-poor Europeans.
The natives were considered brutes by Catholic theology, by notions of “progress” and eugenics fostered by Darwin’s evolutionary theory, and by the macabre success of mass-produced guns and canons in crushing the poorly armed pre-industrial opponents of the colonizers. That gory achievement enabled Europeans to complete their circle of theological inference with confident invocations of divinely approved “manifest destiny.”
In rebuttal, Peck reviews more than 1000 years of Europe’s false and misleading ideology and narrative. The West’s official story routinely overlooks the continuity between the mayhem entailed in the continent’s religious wars on the one hand and its denial of the holocaust of New World Native Americans on the other. Europe’s official narrative also conveniently disregards connections between the Jewish holocaust and ruling class support (especially by the U.S.) for genocidal dictators across the planet, particularly in the Global South.
“Exterminate All the Brutes” is unique in that it tells the irrepressible story of western civilization from the bottom-up. It tells us that today’s society emerged pari pasu with the development of capitalism in the 10th and 11th centuries. From its beginning, the new system’s accumulation of riches depended on the looting, murder and exile of Jews and Muslims during the Christian Crusades.
Then, with the Spanish Inquisition, the ideological concept of race became enshrined into law by distinguishing between pureblood Christians contrasted with those same Jews and Moors who could be dispossessed with impunity.
The resulting accumulation of wealth facilitated the financing of Europe’s expeditions eastward and eventually into the New World. There it became possible for Europeans to plant their flags and claim ownership of huge swaths of land regardless of who happened to be living there. Such imperial ideology also justified the enslavement of millions of African tribals. All of it was ratified by continental monarchs and by papal authority.
Next came the West’s idea of progress. Spurred by Enlightenment thought, by Darwin’s evolutionary insights and by emerging eugenics, Europeans came to justify wars against “primitive” peoples by the theory that they were genetically inferior to whites and as such were predestined to disappear from the face of the earth anyhow. Killing and/or enslaving them merely abetted and advanced an entirely natural process.
Yes, by his own account, Raoul Peck’s “Exterminate All the Brutes” provides a condensed matrix of histories usually kept intellectually disparate – the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of African tribals, and the extermination story of Jews under Hitler. The matrix shows connections between religion, capitalism, the idea of progress, and the development of weapons of mass destruction all contributing to the planet’s seemingly endemic problems of hunger, poverty, war, wealth disparities — and the ideology of white supremacy.
Concluding with a searching analysis of the Jewish Holocaust, the matrix shows that the Holocaust was no historical aberration contradicting the west’s emphasis on Enlightenment, democracy, humanism and universalism. Instead, the Holocaust was all part of the older “wheel of genocide” that goes back to the emergence of capitalism, and to the Crusades, the Inquisition, Manifest Destiny, Indian Removal, and to more contemporary Regime Change wars.
As for its call to action, Peck’s documentary concludes with a summons to a national dialog on race and white supremacy. The conversation would start with the recognition of the genocide of Native Americans, followed by admission that western accumulation of vast wealth was made possible by the enslavement of Africans. It would then face the fact that after the Revolutionary War, a major purpose of the U.S. military and of police became the murder of Indians, the regulation of slaves, and the control of their freed descendants.
All of this must be faced fearlessly before healing can begin. As Peck puts it, “It is not knowledge we lack. We already know enough. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know.”