Far-right revisionism and denial notwithstanding, it remains an intractable part of Western common sense that the Nazi murder of millions of European Jews was such a profound and massive evil that the national communities of the perpetrators and their enablers needed to collectively confront and atone for their role in it—and to educate successive generations on that complicity in order to strengthen their safeguards against any sort of repeat.
What’s largely absent in Western common sense, though, is how the national communities of Europe and the USA (not only those on the Axis side of World War II) have engaged in hundreds of years of genocide against Africans and the indigenous peoples of the Americas—a brutal history that continues to inscribe itself on their present precisely because it’s been barely acknowledged as such, much less atoned for.
It has long been noted by engaged intellectuals from Aimé Césaire, W.E.B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, and Hannah Arendt to more contemporary writers such as W.G. Sebald, Sven Lindqvist, Pankaj Mishra, and Anthony Bogues that there’s an intimate connection between the atrocities perpetrated by the “enlightened” West on those they colonized and enslaved, and the horror later unleashed on Europe’s Jews by the continent’s most technologically advanced nation.
As Césaire wrote, Europeans had “tolerated Nazism before it was inflicted on them—because until then, it had only been applied to non-European peoples.” What is deemed fascism in Western parlance has been, in fact, the lived reality of black and brown people at the hands of the West for centuries. It is the reality of genocidal racism that has underlain the lofty pretensions of Europe’s liberal traditions, telling itself comforting stories as it claimed lives and land as “property” and violently subordinated whole continents to its greed.
In his new film, Exterminate All the Brutes, Raoul Peck, together with his close friend and late comrade Swedish historian Sven Lindqvist, channels those insights into a film that challenges its audience to confront the ugly reality of how we got here—and what it is that we have to do to confront, dismantle, and replace that reality with something better. We should have nothing to fear from taking such a journey: We cannot change the past, but we can change the future.
“You already know enough,” says Peck, quoting from Lindqvist’s 1992 book that shares his series’ title (after Joseph Conrad). “So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and draw conclusions.”
Whiteness is an ideology of power and privilege, often at the mortal expense of those deemed “other.” It’s an imagined system of difference that was constructed to sanctify the monstrous violence required to subordinate the world and its people to European greed—by rendering them less than human.
Back in my activist days in South Africa, when we were being prepared for the possibility of torture in the detention cells of Adolf Hitler’s South African heirs, we were warned that our captors might seek, under threat of violence, to force us to engage in grotesque behavior—say, eating or drinking one’s own bodily waste, or other forms of subhuman actions. The reason, we were told, is that the interrogator needs to convince himself that when he is meting out torture on a defenseless person, he is not being inhuman: to maintain his own sense of humanity, to go home and hug his kids after a long day of torturing a victim, it helps if he is able to convince himself that his victim is somehow less than human and worthy of being treated accordingly. The advice we were given was to resist this dehumanization as much as we could, doing whatever was possible to remind our interrogator of our humanity and corrode the psychological defenses he had created for his monstrous behavior. I feel extremely lucky that I never found myself in the situation of those who had learned these lessons through personal experience. But the underlying principle is clear: Monstrous behavior in service of an ugly system requires that its victims be dehumanized.
Whiteness was constructed as a supremacist moral-psychological device to sanctify genocidal violence by servants of the colonial order, because the logic of that order required dehumanizing the tens of millions of victims across whose broken bodies European, and later American, “progress” would roll. Genocidal violence is anything but personal; it’s the systemic pursuit of what the perpetrators understand as a historic necessity for the greater good.
The United States’ failure or refusal to confront this legacy of whiteness has left an indelible and extremely toxic imprint on the minds, the sense of self and other, and the identities of its residents. This imprint is clearly at play in the systemic police violence against black and brown people in the US today.
One of Peck’s most striking scripted interludes has a black priest encounter a black slaver brutally driving a column of white children in chains through an African jungle. The power of juxtaposing historical roles through these images is that they attack the viewer’s unconscious bias, i.e., the learned dehumanization of the other that has sustained white supremacy for centuries—and which is clearly at work in the pattern of police brutalization of people of color. Yes, 13-year-old Adam Toledo, shot dead in Chicago last week with his hands raised, was a child. Yes, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, killed by a cop in Cleveland in 2014, was a child. But did their killers actually see them as children like the children in their own homes or extended families?
Perhaps we’re seeing the consequences of our society’s failure to confront the depth of barbarism that the United States has visited upon generation after generation of enslaved Africans, and on the indigenous populations they forced from the land. Sure, many white Americans have been made aware of that legacy, but the state itself remains stubbornly resistant to unpacking the appalling historical truths that so thoroughly negate the presumption of virtue in the origin story that American society has told itself for decades.
The US won’t overcome its systemic racism without overcoming whiteness: the systematic dehumanization of the “other.” That’s why Peck provides such a profound public service in “Exterminate All the Brutes”—he offers us a powerful tool for understanding how we got here.