Critical Race Theory: How Much Should You Tell 13-Year-Olds about U.S. Crimes?

On Thursday, my granddaughter, Eva, left her home in Westport CT – on of our country’s most affluent towns – for a service project in Panama – which has recently returned to the news because of protests and demonstrations there against policies that Panamanians see as caused by the United States.

Eva’s project is called “Amigos,” and bills itself as following:

“Discover AMIGOS is a two-week group volunteer experience for ages 13 and 14. Travel to Panama with a group of students to learn about environmental issues like conservation preserving endangered wildlife! From exploring beaches for turtle eggs to hiking through nature reserves, you’ll earn 30 service hours. See how local youth are getting involved with issues they care about. Enjoy Panama’s unspoiled Pacific beaches and immerse yourself in the tropical forests of the Azuero Peninsula.”

In other words, despite Panama’s current problems, the trip promises to be completely (or at best rather) ahistorical and almost certainly apolitical. And why not? After all, how much should you tell 13-year-olds about what our government has done in places like Panama? Why spoil kids’ beach vacation saving turtles?

And besides, opponents of Critical Race Theory (CRT) would say that early teenagers like Eva are too young to face such harsh realities.

I disagree. So, despite anticipated objections of CRT opponents, I’ve decided to share as much as I know.

That’s because I care too much about my granddaughter to pass by this highly teachable moment. After all, Eva’s already very curious about politics and history. She’s read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. She also watches Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” every day. And we discuss all of that on long walks together (as shown here in a poem I wrote for Eva on her 13th birthday).

With all that in mind, I’ve thrown caution to the wind and have written Eva the following letter. We’ve already discussed it. And I’ve tried to answer my granddaughter’s questions about references she finds obscure.

I wonder, have I gone too far?

Dearest Eva,

I’m so proud of your plan to visit Panama as part of an early teens group going there for two weeks of service and learning. I know you’ll be doing environmental work, living with a local family, and visiting places of interest in Panama. All that makes me even prouder of you than I constantly am.

I also know, Eva, that you are making this trip with pure intention. You’re not going to Panama thinking you’re somehow conferring benefit on or “helping” your hosts. Neither are you traveling south because your parents or some church youth group persuaded you to do so. You’re not going simply because this “service project” will look good on your college applications years from now.

No. Your purpose we’ve agreed, is to continue our project of learning more about the world and how it works. You ‘re already such a good student of those things. You’ve manifested that by following through on your commitment to watching “Democracy Now” every day. Our conversations about what you (and I) have learned from Amy Goodman demonstrate your interest in understanding how the world really works. You want to know what really happened in the past, what’s going on now, and how to do your part in changing the world.

Of course, I join you in those intentions. Again, it’s what we end up talking about so often on our long walks together.

In fact, Panama is an excellent place for gathering the information that will help you grasp what’s happened in the entire Global South for the last 500 years. As Raoul Peck has shown in his film series, “Exterminate All the Brutes,” it’s been a long process characterized by white supremacy, colonization, and slaughter of non-whites.

You know from Howard Zinn that by “colonization” Peck is referring to the system of robbery whereby Europeans and North Americans have invaded countries in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia to steal the natives’ rich lands, gold, silver, minerals, oil, uranium, and other products. Such colonial and imperial theft has been going on since 1492 and is the reason why countries in Europe along with the United States, and Canada are rich, while those robbed of their land and resources by the whites are either dead or left extremely poor.

The shocking fact is that all the world’s poor countries are former colonies of Europeans and North Americans. That tells you something about the entire larcenous process I’m addressing here.

And yes, it’s all involved with white supremacy. I mean the white colonists (or imperialists) from Europe and North America typically have regarded the black and brown people in countries like Panama as inferiors, as “less than,” and even as animals to be exterminated. (I know you’re aware of all that because you’ve read that book your grandma and I gave you years ago, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States.)

So, keep what you’ve already learned in mind as you work in Panama. It represents a classic case illustrating the imperial and colonial practice of (1) Using force to steal land including entire continents and transferring the riches involved to the “Mother Country,” (2) governing the stolen countries through collaborating (usually white) puppet “presidents” who represent the country’s rich elite 10% (again, usually white) while the poor non-white majority is left in slums, poblaciónes, favelas, and impoverished barrios, (3) replacing the puppets by rigged elections or even assassination should they institute programs that actually help the countries’ poor brown and black majorities by providing benefits such as universal health care, free education, decent housing, low food prices, and guaranteed jobs.  (The process of replacement is called “coup d’état” or “regime change”).

Now, think about how that process evolved in Panama. There, U.S. imperialists actually created the country out of nothing back in 1903. It was then that the Colombian government refused to sell to the U.S. the part of its country which eventually became Panama. Responding to the refusal, President Theodore Roosevelt simply sponsored a “rebellion” of secession against Colombia and immediately recognized the breakaway section as a new country (now controlled by the United States as described above).

And why was the U.S. so interested in Panama? What did it have to offer? Look at a map, and you’ll see.

Panama happens to be located at the thinnest point between the North American continent (including Mexico and Central America). That means that it was an ideal place for digging a shipping canal that would help European and U.S. merchants, adventurers, and “gold rushers” obviate the need to sail all the way around the southern tip of South America (Tierra del Fuego) to reach California. This became extremely important after the 1849 discovery of gold there (on land btw stolen from Mexico whose Spanish colonizers (i.e., thieves) had in turn stolen it from the continent’s indigenous).

Well, the poorer people of Panama didn’t much like that. So, they often rebelled. But their uprisings were consistently defeated by the United States military which installed a large military base on the isthmus to keep the “peace” (i.e., U.S. control). The base was called Fort Sherman and was commissioned till 1999.

The United States also maintained “The School of the Americas” in Panama from 1946 until it was expelled from the country in 1984. In that year pressure from Panamanians forced its relocation to Fort Benning, Georgia. The school trained military officers from all over Latin America as a violent and often brutal insurance policy against the frequent rebellions of poor people against what they saw as exploitative U.S. control of their bodies and work.

One of those rebellions occurred in Panama in 1968. It was then that Omar Torrijos unseated a U.S. puppet and proceeded to change the country’s economy to help Panama’s long-disadvantaged lower classes. He also pressed the United States to cede ownership and control of the Panama Canal to Panamanians instead of the United States. That happened in 1999.

For his efforts, Torrijos was classified by the United States as a “dictator.” Still, because he was so popular with the Panamanian majority, he managed to remain in power till 1981 when he was killed in a plane “accident.” Insiders like John Perkins say the tragedy was engineered by the U.S. government. Perkins should know. He secretly worked for U.S. intelligence agencies (linked to the CIA) specifically charged with thwarting democratic tendencies in Latin America. His work assured continued United States control in places such as Panama. Conveniently, all CIA records about the Torrijos’ crash have somehow been lost.

Torrijos was succeeded by a long-time CIA asset called Manuel Noriega reputedly connected to the Torrijos plane crash as well as to Panama’s flourishing drug trade. But strangely, once in power, Noriega continued his predecessor’s programs aiding Panama’s poorest.

Noriega remained in power from 1983 to 1991. At that time, the United States decided Noriega had outlived his usefulness. So, he was reclassified from CIA asset and ally to a hideous drug dealer whose regime needed changing.

But how did the U.S remove Noriega from power? They bombed an entire neighborhood of Panama’s poorest who had benefitted from the Torrijos reforms. The barrio is called El Chorillo. The bombing killed at least 2000 mostly brown and black people (some say as many as 10,000) and created 15,000 homeless refugees – all, they alleged, in order to remove one man from power. Critics however say it was also intended to test new weapons systems on live people.

In any case, a subsequent “new order” in Panama restored to power the usual suspects (white affluent businessmen) who returned to the United States de facto control of the Panama Canal.

Chief among the businesses controlling Panama is Chiquita Banana (formerly called United Brands and United Fruit). Founded in Boston in 1870, it has controlled (exploited) Central America ever since. In fact, throughout Central America Chiquita is referred to as “the Octopus,” because in all the “Banana Republics” (Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Panama) the firm has its hands in everything. It controls who’s elected president and how long presidents remain in power. It controls wages, the living conditions of its workers, their education, health care, etc.  

Panama is also an infamous center of high finance. It has become a tax haven for businesses from all over the world. This means that such firms can avoid paying taxes at home by “legally” setting up fictitious offices (often mere post-office boxes) as their headquarters in Panama where taxes are kept very low. All of that was confirmed in 2016 by the publication of “The Panama Papers” detailing widespread crime, corruption, and wrongdoing by Panamanians and outside investors backed by the U.S. government.

There’s so much more to say about all of this, dear Eva. But this will have to do for now. If you want more, you should read John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, and/ or The American Trajectory Divine or Demonic? by Process Theology’s David Ray Griffin (pages 328-332), and/or Jonathan Katz’s Gangsters of Capitalism (chapter nine).

With all of this in mind, as you get the opportunity, please ask your teachers and guides in Panama about these matters. You might also share these insights with any friends you happen to make there in your Amigos group.

But I’ll bet you this: even the leaders of your adventure probably won’t know this story in as much detail as I’ve shared with you. Panama’s history (and history in general) is way more complicated and shocking than our “teachers” are willing to admit. They’ll never tell you that “our” wealth has been based on the transfer of resources from the world’s poor to the coffers of largely white bankers and businessmen. They’ll never admit that the United States has been an unrelenting force of hardship and oppression in the Global South. They’ll never tell you the unvarnished history of countries like Panama.

But now you know the rest of the story. You’re now in position to employ your sharp research skills to first of all check out the veracity of what I’ve shared here. Then having done so, you can ask questions and weigh the “experts’” responses.

Needless to say, I look forward to our discussing all of this and your experience when you return home in a couple of weeks.

Till then, have a great time in Panama. Make friends. Keep your eyes open. And if you can, visit El Chorillo. That would be much more interesting than the tour I’m sure they have planned for you.

With great love,

Baba

Time Travel to 1910: A Letter to My Granddaughter

On Saturday, Peggy and I returned from our week on Bustin’s Island in Maine. It was a marvelous time spent not only together, but with our daughter, Maggie, and two of her five children — Markandeya (6 yrs.) and Sebastian (2 yrs.). [Her other three children (Eva 12 yrs., Oscar 10 yrs., and Orlando 8 yrs.) are all away at summer camps.] A dear friend from Berea, Joan Moore, also visited for three days. By way of a report on our collective experience, what follows is a letter to my granddaughter, Eva, who (as I started to say) is spending the last of six weeks at her summer camp (Fernwood) also in Maine.

August 1, 2001

My dearest Eva Maria,

Thanks so much for your two recent letters. It was such a nice surprise to return from Maine to find them waiting for me here — along with the beautiful pin you made for me with our favorite colors, yellow and green. As you suggested, I’ll wear that on my walking duds.

I’m so glad you’re doing the reading you mentioned from Howard Zinn and An Indigenous People’s History. Your comments make me think you’d very much like a four-part film series I’ve just watched (twice!). It’s called “Exterminate All the Brutes.” It’s by Raul Peck (a Haitian born director). He’s the narrator of the series as well. He too loves Zinn and the author of An Indigenous People’s History.

Peck says that all of history can be summarized in three words: civilization (i.e., white supremacy), colonialism, and extermination. The film details the evils of the Native American holocaust and of enslavement of Africans. Grandma Gaga started watching it with me. However, she left after about ten minutes saying that she thought the story and graphics were too violent. So, maybe it’s inappropriate for your viewing at this stage of your life. We can talk about that.

Last night, Gaga and I returned from our week on Bustin’s Island near Freeport, Maine (the home of LL Bean). It was a wonderful experience. It was like going back more than 100 years in a time machine. No cars, internet, plumbing or running water. We fetched our water supply from a town pump, used the outhouse, and boiled all our water including what we used for rinsing dishes. The whole experience was an exercise in simple living. We loved it.

What I liked most about Bustin’s Island was the community of people there. It was formed mainly of families that have been going there each summer for generations. Lots of young people about your age and somewhat older. They were all so enthusiastic about the privilege of living there. I’m sure you’d love it too.

Your mom, Markandeya, and Sebastian shared our experience. Markandeya was especially enthusiastic. Sebastian was fun too. I spent a good amount of time pulling him around in a wagon that belonged to the cottage. Marku loved pumping water and pulling the wagon loaded with more than 100 pounds (including two five-gallon water containers and his brother). Gaga joined the Monopoly enthusiasts. Others of us played Hearts and a bit of Yahtzee. Markandeya’s a fierce Monopoly competitor. (I know you know that quite well!).

Joan Moore, a friend of ours from Berea also spent three days with us. She was a very easy presence – very willing to do her part cleaning, playing with the kids, and generally offering a helping hand. She’s a friend of your grandma Momo’s too and will visit her this week. On her way home, Joan says she may stop off in Westport for a visit. Both Gaga and I love Joan.

Weather at Bustin’s was mixed. But it was never hot. As a matter of fact, at night it was often a bit too cold. Our house was located right on Casco Bay that offered wonderful moments for quiet contemplation.

One morning your great uncle and great aunt, Jerry and Liz (whose summer cottage was nearby on Birch Island), came over and took us by boat to their place. They love it there too. Their house had running water and an indoor composting toilet. I enjoyed talking with both of them.

On the way to Birch Island, we passed some of the Calendar Islands (there are 365 of them) with names like “Sow and Pigs,” “Upper Goose, Lower Goose, and Their Three Goslins.” We passed eagles’ nests that sat like huge card tables on top of giant pine trees. One island that evoked interest from my hermit’s heart was called Moshier. It had only a single house on it. I can imagine living there quite happily.

Your mother and I also had some time together – just one-on-one. We talked over our relationship and other such matters. We both promised to continue the conversation now that we’re back in Westport.

One of these nights all of us here are going to watch the film “NomadLand” on your folks’ outdoor screen. It won this year’s Academy Award as the best film of the year. It’s about people who have left the “rat race” of American life and have returned to simple living of the kind that we experienced last week in Maine. Only, the film’s characters are living on the road in campers, mobile homes, and trailers. I find that stuff fascinating. (Although your mom has hastened to tell me quite emphatically, “Don’t get any ideas, Dad. You are NOT going to end up living that way.”)  

I know your regimen at Fernwood doesn’t allow you to watch “Democracy Now” each day as you’re accustomed to do. And maybe that’s for the best. I mean, the reports on the pandemic, on suppression of voting rights (especially for black people), and on the U.S. support of wars everywhere all border on depressing. Nonetheless, when you get back here, I know you’ll take pains to catch up. I’ll help you with that on our walks together.  

Of course, Eva, I’m very much looking forward to your return (next Saturday!). It goes without saying that I’ve missed you a great deal. I’m looking forward to your account of this summer’s experience at camp. I’m sure you learned a lot and made many new friends. I’m proud of your rock-climbing achievements. As I always tell you, you’re a much better athlete than you give yourself credit for.

So, until Saturday, let me assure you that you’re never far from my thoughts and (yes!) my prayers. I love you so much and am very, very proud of you – especially for your making the best of Fernwood.

Love,

Baba

White Supremacy’s Origin & Mission: “Exterminate All the (non-white) Brutes”

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.”

Whitewashed History

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.

Peck’s Argument

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.

Bottom-Up History

“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.

Conclusion

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.”