The Poisonwood Bible − History Repeats Itself
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (Amazon) is a work of fiction about a baptist family from the American South who embark on a mission to the Congo in 1959. It tells the tale from the viewpoint of the minister’s four daughters with intermezzos told by the mother. The clash of cultures on social, political and military levels is exquisitely woven from these individual strands of experience. The political context is remarkably similar to that in which an amnesiac America has placed itself today, lending ever more weight to George Santayana’s famous quote:
“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Below are passages from the book that I found worth noting.
The Judges/Leah/Pg. 318
Anatole critiques the West’s idea of perfect democracy, disputing its applicability to not only Congolese, but all Africans and, indeed, all humanity.
“To the Congolese, … it seems odd that if one man gets fifty votes and the other gets forty-nine, the first one wins altogether and the second one plumb loses. That means almost half the people will be unhappy, and according to Anatole, in a village that’s left halfway unhappy you haven’t heard the end of it. There is sure to be trouble somewhere down the line.”
The America of June 2005 finds itself only a few months past exactly such an election, which was won by a man who seems determined to keep the half that did not vote for him 100% unhappy. There will indeed be trouble.
The Judges/Adah/Pg. 357-358
This next passage is Adah’s coming of age, in which a secret CIA radio broadcast inadvertently reveals to her that her country is not all goodness and light.
“…as good as dead. Patrice Lumumba. The King of America wants a tall, thin man in the Congo to be dead. Too many pebbles cast for the bottle. The bottle must be broken. The smiling grandfather face has another face. It can speak through snakes and order that a president far away, after all those pebbles were carried upriver in precious canoes that did not tip over, this President Lumumba shall be killed.”
The King of America is Ike Eisenhower, who ordered and/or approved the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the democratically (according to the Western system imposed by the Belgians above) elected president of the Congo. The pebbles are votes cast by Congolese, who placed them in bowls next to items representing the various candidates. Lumumba’s symbol was a bottle. The cast pebbles were carried in precarious canoes to be counted in a central location.
The passage recounts Adah’s realization that, despite the Congolese doing everything they can to play by a foreign power’s rules − even though they don’t fit their own culture − the foreign power still reserves the right to obviate their decision if it finds it unsatisfactory. Lumumba was too chatty about socialism and was forced, through other crass foreign policy moves by the US, to beg the Soviet Union for military aid in order to fend off insurgents who were well-supplied by the CIA.
“By morning, it had lost the power to shock. Really, in daylight, where is the surprise of this? How is it different from Grandfather God sending the African children to hell for being born too far from a Baptist Church? I should like to stand up in Sunday school now and ask: May Africa talk back? Might those pagan babies send us to hell for living too far from a jungle? Because we have not tasted the sacrament of palm nuts? Or. Might the tall, thin man [Lumumba] rise up and declare: We don’t like Ike. So sorry, but Ike should perhaps be killed now with a poisoned arrow. Oh, the magazines would have something to say about that all right. What sort of man would wish to murder the president of another land? None but a barbarian.”
Americans today are almost entirely impervious to the tactic employed in the previous passage; it is known as “turning the tables” or “seeing an issue from the other point of view”. I find it a very effective way of pointing out the fallacy of a point of view, employing the “do unto others” wisdom against the bible thumpers themselves. In general, though, it is frustratingly inneffective. The US actually had to pass a law to prevent presidents from officially being able to order the assassination of foreign leaders. Very civilized. Now they just do it unofficially. Put into more modern terms, the mullah who declares a price on Bush’s head is a primitive zealot who must be stopped with a bunker buster, but Bush’s call for Saddam’s head is a necessary evil in the cause of freedom.
Bel and the Serpent/Orleanna Price/Pg 381-382
Orleanna (the mother) ponders the power of self-delusion in our government.
“…in 1975, a group of senators called the Church Committee … found notes from secret meeting of the National Security Council and President Eisenhower. In their locked room, thse men had put their heads together and proclaimed Patrice Lumumba a danger to the safety of the world. The same Patrice Lumumba, mind you, who washed his face each morning fram a dented tin bowl, relieved himself in a carefully chosen bush, and went out to seek the faces of his nation. Imagine if he could have heard those words — dangerous to the safety of the world! — from a roomful of white men who held in their manicured hands the disposition of armies and atomic bombs, the power to extinguish every life on earth.”
All because Lumumba wanted to follow socialist precepts that would render the bounty of his country unto his people instead of unto occupying foreign corporations. From the point of view of the power brokers and hence the U.S., this cannot stand as it serves as a example of independence from US hegemony. Understandable as the actions of ruthless domineers of the world; the oft-taken moral high ground it is not.
The arguments against Lumumba should cause a feeling of discomfort to those that think that Bush invented evil and was the first to promulgate a foreign policy detrimental to most of the rest of the world. The story is far older, deeper and uglier than anything the twisted little minds of Bush and his cronies can conjure. That does not mean they can end the world as we know it. Just that they’re not the first evil bastards with the power to do it.
21st century America cannot even claim to have invented media zombies and press unanimity. It is an ill that continues, but not one that is new. Those who crave power are beholden to those that have it − they do not contradict it.
“Thirty whites killed in Stanley, two Americans among them — we heard that over the shortwave radio and knew what it meant. By nightfall the United Nations would launch their answer, an air and land attack. The Combined Forces, they’re calling this invading army: the U.S., Belgium, and hired soldiers left over from the Bay of Pigs. Over the next weekswe heard a hundred more times about the whites killed by Simbas in Stanleyville. In three languages: Radio France, the BBC, and Mobutu’s Lingala newscasts from Léopoldville, the news was all one. Those thirty white people, rest their souls, have purchased and all-out invasion against the pro-Independents. How many Congolese were killed by the Belgians and labor and starvation, we will never know.”
Once again, we see the disconnect − the inability to see an issue from the other side. The same actions performed by Americans straining for freedom at the end of the 18th century are still heralded as noble in history books today. If the US puts other countries into similar situations, it is naturally for that country’s own good. Read the People’s History of the United States or The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam to read about how the British people bought the same story about us from their government.
For a more modern example, consider the striking similarities to Falluja in Iraq.
The media has always been able to ignore the deaths of inconsequentials while trumpeting the deaths of important first worlders. All the better to sell the picture of savages who need to be controlled.
“When thirty foreigners were killed in Stanleyville, each one was tied somehow to a solid exchange, a gold standard like the hard Belgian franc. But a Congolese life is like the useless Congolese bill, which you can pile by the fistful or the bucketful into a merchant’s hand, and still not purchase a single banana. It’s dawning on me that I live among men and women who’ve simply always understood their whole existence is worth less than a banana to most white people.”
The over 100,000 Iraqis (lowball estimate by a very scientific clustering survey published in the British medical journal, the Lancet — see More Tales of a Liberal Media (earthli News)) who have been killed not only don’t matter, they are not counted. A study counting them is dismissed out of hand without evidence and easily disbelieved by the populace because they just don’t care. They don’t have to.
Further events in the Congo teach more lessons of America’s idea of democracy. Democracy is what we say it is.
“…foreign hands moved behind the curtain and one white King was replaced with another. Only the face that shows is black. Mobutu’s U.S. advisors even tried to hold elections here, but then got furious when the wrong person won — Antoine Gizenga, Lumumba’s lieutenant. So they marched the army into parliament and reorganized it once again in Mobutu’s favor.
“‘If the Americans mean to teach us about democracy, the lesson is quite remarkable.’”
These problems plague the Americans less in their last two conquests, Afghanistan and Iraq. This is partially because of massive improvements in marketing and public relations for its candidates (Karzai in Afghanistan springs to mind) and partially because of a tighter control over the elections themselves, which are often deemed insufficient by UN overseers (if they are even allowed to observe). However, look how long the interim government still rules in occupied Iraq, simply because of the plurality of Shias who were elected. More “elections” and more interim or provisory or temporary governments will follow until one satisfactory to the US is found. Hell, we already wrote their constitution for them — it’s probably even legal.
And now we get to the parallels for the reconstruction of Iraq. The Halliburtons and Bechtels of the world have always functioned this way, glomming onto the government teat to be paid for acheiving nothing. The only signs of their passing are the crippling interest payments third world countries pay on the money they borrowed and gave to the multinationals who built nothing and blamed the natives for being too primitive. In the Congo’s case, it was for a power line that would only benefit foreign-owned diamond mining concerns located at the wrong end of a large country. So, the Mobutu government, with its people’s interested firmly in mind, agreed to borrow a phenomenal amount of money and give it to a foreign contractor to build a power line that the people would not and could not use.
“The power line was never meant to succeed at all. With no way to service a utility stretching across the heart of darkness, the engineers watched the monster’s tail crumble as fast as the front was erected. The whole of it was eventually picked clean in the way a forest tree gets gleaned by leaf-cutter ants: nuts, bolts, and anything that might serve for roofing material trailed off into the jungle. Anyone could have predicted that exact failure. But by loaning the Congo more than a billion dollars for the power line, the world Export-Import Bank assured a permanent debt that we’ll repay in cobalt and diamonds from now until the end of time.”
This is the standard operating procedure for dealing with resource-rich third world countries. Invade them, instill our market principles on them, push through projects that have no prayer of working in that culture, then glean interest and loan repayments in the form of resources. All on the up-and-up since it works according to well-defined market principles that we, of course, also abide by. We’re just better at it than they are, but there have to be losers in every game, don’t you know? This isn’t colonialism because we haven’t occupied the physical land exactly, just co-opted their economy. It’s economic colonialism. Many African nations pay over half of their GDP in interest on loans to first world countries. Loan-sharking on a national level is not only legal, it’s the preferred way of doing business.
“… Democracy and dictatorship are political systems; they have to do with who participates in the leadership. Socialism and capitalism are economic systems. It has to do with who owns the wealth of your nation, and who gets to eat.”
This is a clear definition that most Americans (and many others, I’m sure) simply don’t grasp at all. Naturally, their failure to understand the rather stark differences are strongly supported by a media and government that is happy to maintain the brainwashed status quo. The less you know, the more likely you are to believe what you’re told. That’s how we can believe that Arabs are religious zealots only interested in a strict religous state who also happen to go out and vote in droves when the U.S. administration needs them to.
“Okay, let’s take Patrice Lumumba, for example. Former Prime Minister of the Congo, his party elected by popular vote. He was a socialist who believed in democracy. Then he was murdered, and the CIA replaced him with Mobutu, a capitalist who believes in dictatorship. In the Punch and Judy program of American history, that’s a happy ending.”
Is it any wonder that peoples (like the Iraqis) who actually read and understand history are so strenuously opposed to the “benevolent” occupation by the United States?
How does this happen? How is it that the U.S. government always has so much money and leeway to invest in “foreign adventures” (as they’re so endearingly called in the US media, to take the edge off of wars that kill countless millions of foreigners)? After the Congo was secured for democracy and freedom (the freedom for US and other western corporations to acquire African raw resources for nearly nothing), the fight moved to Angola, where:
“…the U.S. has now spent nearly thirty million dollars to bring down Angola’s sovereignty. every dollar of it had to come from some person … it’s a commerce of imagined dreads, the Bethlehem housewives [read: soccer/security moms] somehow convinced that a distant, black Communist devil will cost them some quarter in their color-matched living rooms.”
Round and round we go on the fear merry-go-round.
It was the Godless, Communist Cubans who helped Angola resist US efforts to overthrow their government. US soldiers fought alongside South African mercenaries to deny yet another socialist seedling the chance to take root and pull an amazingly resource-rich country and people out of the abject poverty to which the robber barons of capitalism would consign them.
“Rachel informs me I’ve had my brains washed by a Communist plot. She’s exactly right. I’ve been won to the side of the schoolteachers and nurses, and lost all allegiance to plastic explosives. No homeland I can claim as mine would blow up a struggling, distant country’s hydroelectric dams and water pipes, inventing darkness and dysentary in the service of its ideals, and bury mines in every Angolan road that connected food with a hungry child.”
And so it goes, with the brainwashed and uninformed notifying the educated of their ignorance. The jingoist kettle calling the humanist pot black. A world in which it is so easy for an overrich and oversated populace to see military attacks as necessary and unique solutions to the barbarity of foreign peoples. The landmines continue to be used today — they are an effective way of preventing subjugated peoples from travelling and resisting occupation. The air attacks on civilian infrastructure are still the first wave of attack today — witness Iraq’s complete and utter destruction, to the point that now, two years after the official ending of hostilities, many places still have no water and electricity, as even a brutal dictator was able to provide. The people of the US chirp happily from their palaces that this is a necessary step in the instillation of freedom; they, in turn, expect to be paid back in lower fuel prices and increased security, as their televisions promised them.
When this does not transpire, it is simply time to open wide and swallow the next load of palliative lies delivered steaming hot and so comforting, to explain away their mild discomfort and allay any lingering qualms of guilt. In effect, it is a government that manages to subjugate several peoples at once, starting with its own. Americans are treated as the human energy cells in the Matrix — instead of providing energy, they provide compliance and tax dollars to feed the endless, ravening maw of the capitalist war machine. When there is nothing left, it will consume itself and expire, leaving a bewildered population to fend for itself in world filled with billions looking for revenge.