Thursday, December 28, 2006

Mad Max vs. the Mayans redux

"The Jews are coming! Run for your lives!"

I have to admit that I laughed when I saw the recent Saturday Night Live "recut" of the trailer for Mel Gibson's Apocalypto. But it was kind of a guilty laugh.

After all, bringing up the bizarre anti-Semitism that resurfaced in Gibson's arrest earlier this year for driving while intoxicated seems like a little bit of a cheap shot. The film, like any ostensible work of art, deserves to be judged on its own merits (or lack thereof, as is the case here), regardless of the auteur's personal foibles. This is why I only referenced it obliquely in my own review.

Then, however, longtime reader Beth pointed out in my comments an MTV interview with Gibson by Kurt Loder, which contained the following nuggets:
Loder: Do you think the Mayan culture was even more violent than you've depicted it in "Apocalypto"?

Gibson: Absolutely. Some of the stuff they did was unspeakable. You could not put it on film. I really did go light. There are accounts of when the conquistadors first arrived in the Aztec empire and saw something like 20,000 human sacrifices in four days. They must have had four or five temples going at the same time. All these hearts being ripped out -- it was a kind of culture of death. Human sacrifice wasn't as prevalent in the Mayan civilization as in the Aztec. But with conquest and the melding of cultures, it became more commonly practiced further south.

Ahem. You'll notice, of course, that Loder asked Gibson about Mayan culture, and Gibson responded with a disquisition -- laden with nonsense -- about the Aztecs. Yet the Mayans were quite distinct from the Aztecs (or Mexica), particuarly in that while they also practiced human sacrifice, it was neither of the scale nor of the same nature as their northern neighbors.

Note what the historical record actually says about the Aztecs:
No first-hand, eyewitness accounts by Europeans of actual human sacrifice are known, although there exist some first-hand eyewitness accounts of the remains of alleged human sacrifices.

It's also important to understand the context of these sacrifices, which occurred as part of the war engaged in by the Mesoamerican nations. There was relatively little actual bloodshed -- or at least death -- on their battlefields. That's because, as the Wikipedia entry above notes, the primary -- if not sole -- source of sacrificial victims was not poor schlubs rousted out of the jungle (there was no jungle of note near the Aztecs) but "had to be captive warriors who were from a Nahuatl culture":
Because the objective of Aztec warfare was to capture victims for human sacrifice, Aztec battle tactics were designed primarily to injure the enemy rather than kill him. The flower wars were designed to intimidate subject states, thus discouraging "real armed insurrection," and the capture of victims for human sacrifice was an exercise in prestige for the individual Aztec warrior.

The same was true, it must be noted, of Mayan warfare and its associated human sacrifices, which largely involved warriors from rival Mayan cities. Mayan bloodletting rituals also featured a significant component utterly lacking from Gibson's depiction: most of the time, the people whose blood was being shed were the kings and high priests themselves. (It was, in fact, a horrifying scene; the bloodletter would pierce various appendages -- tongues, hands, feet, penises -- and run ropes through the openings to assist the flow of blood down the temple steps.) Yet it also signified an aspect of their culture that belies the core of Gibson's thesis: sacrifice on the part of their leaders was understood as essential for the good of all.

It should also be noted that Mayan rituals did not, as far as we know, even remotely resemble Gibson's depiction. Most scholars of Mayan culture say that these rituals were extremely solemn affairs undertaken with great care, including ceremonial participation by the audience, not the bloodthirsty gibbering by an audience of savages to which Gibson treats us. It's difficult not to contemplate the difference and conclude that Gibson's intent is to depict Mayan culture in the worst, most inhuman, most bestial light possible.

But Gibson really reveals the eliminationist mindset of the film when he describes his view of the film's ending:
Loder: At the end of "Apocalypto," the first Spanish explorers arrive in the Mayan empire, and they're carrying a large cross. I know you're Catholic: What do you think was the effect of Christianity on these pagan cultures?

Gibson: Well, there were only a few hundred conquistadors, and their weaponry wasn't that far superior. The Mayans could pierce their armor -- these cleavers that they had could cut a side of beef in half. So how did the conquistadors take power? I think that the majority of the populace was really discontented with what was going on. They didn't dig it. Twenty-thousand people being bumped off? It was like, who's next? And they began to rebel. I think the conquistadors led more of a revolution with the help of the people.

Pardon the interruption, but this is pure, unadulterated bullshit.

The real collapse of the so-called Classic Mayan culture occurred in about the ninth and tenth centuries, well before contact with the Spanish. And that collapse, as far as anyone can tell, was only partially related to depredation from its continued warring (and concomitant human sacrifice). Far more likely causes involved environmental disasters and their effects (including famine) -- but then, portraying that, once again, might have conflicted with Gibson's thesis.

Even then, Mayan city-building cultures continued to flourish in the Yucatan and Guatemala in the ensuing centuries, and were still fully in business when the Spaniards began arriving in the early 16th century; modern Yucatan cities like Merida, Izamal, and Valladolid were in fact built on top of active Mayan cities, complete with temples (which were largely torn down by the Spanish).

More to the point, the Mayans did not collapse shortly after contact with the Spanish. In fact, they successfully repelled them for nearly 150 years; the last Mayan city, the Peten city of Tayasal, did not fall until 1697. There was no assistance in the conquest by a disgruntled Mayan citizenry; rather, the unquestionably decisive factor was the onslaught of disease -- consecutive and overlapping pandemics of smallpox, bubonic plague, swine flu, tuberculosis, which also had lethal side effects such as starvation -- that killed an estimated 70 to 80 percent of the existing Mayan population. Combine that with the murderousness of the conquistadors and the death sentence that was slavery in the Spanish mines, and the result was inevitable: 95 out of every 100 Mayans died over those 150 years.

It seems that, perhaps, Gibson is again confusing Mayans with Aztecs: the Mexicana indeed fell relatively quickly, and the Spaniards were in fact assisted by rival warring tribes (not disgruntled citizens; rather, these were rival tribes who also probably practiced human sacrifice). But once again, the decisive factor in the eventual fall of Tenochtitlan was not the internal corruption of the Aztecs but disease -- specifically, an epidemic of smallpox that ravaged the city and the Aztecan resistance.

The most significant aspect of these remarks is that they make clear Gibson's view that the arrival of the Catholic Spaniards was something that benefited the Mayan people, despite the reality that it actually wrought the deaths of most of them. You may recall my assertion, in both the review and the associated piece on eliminationism, that Gibson intended to portray the arrival of the Spanish as a net good for the Mayan people, because Mayan civilization itself had become irredeemably corrupt, and the Spaniards in effect were "rescuers." This assertion drew considerable debate in the ensuing thread, with Gibson's defenders denying he intended any such thing. I think it's clear from this quote that he did.

In any event, Gibson delivers the real coup de grace in the next several breaths:
But many of these conquistadors were pretty wild guys -- you weren't getting the cream of the crop from Spain, okay? They considered the people to be animals, without souls. And so indiscriminate killing was also part of what they did. And they actually recorded that it was the Franciscans baptizing these people that saved them from being killed -- the conquistadors wouldn't kill them because they figured they must have a soul. I think that Christianity gets a bum rap a lot of the time in the history books. But you've got to consider who's writing them.

Well, simply as a factual matter, it must be said that the actual record regarding the Conquistadores' willingness to refrain from inhuman behavior for those natives who converted to the faith was decidedly mixed; there certainly is no shortage of evidence that Spanish soldiers and colonial officials just as often sneered at the submission of the natives and killed them anyway. Moreover, they often manipulated the efforts of the conversos to their own murderous ends. An illustrative (and certainly not untypical) example comes from colonial Mexico, when Spanish governors were no less murderous than the Conquistadors, as in this case from the mid-19th century (described in The Native Americans):
To open up new land for ranching and to stop raids on existing rancheros, Mexicans waged a murderous undeclared war against the interior Indians of California. In 1837 an expedition led by Jose Maria Amador invited both "wild Indians and their Christian companions" to a feast. They then surrounded them, separating out the Christians. On the return march at "every half mile or mile we put six of them on their knees to say prayers, making them understand that they were about to die. Each one was shot with four arrows, two in front and two in back. Those who refused to die immediately were killed with spears." Having dispatched a hundred Christian Indians, they turned to the non-Christians. Amador and a companion each took a bottle of water and "baptized all the Indians and afterwards they were shot inthe back. At the first volley 70 fell dead. I doubled the charge for the 30 who remained and they all fell dead."

OK, so it's a Hollywood movie and expecting factual accuracy from its director is a lost cause.

But why, exactly, should we "consider who's writing them"?

It's an enigmatic remark, of course. Coming from anyone else, we might dismiss it as a generic swipe at historians as ivory-tower academics with a hostility to people of faith.

But this is the same guy who not only ranted to police about how Jews control everything, he's implied the same thing in interviews that also revealed a darkly conspiratorial side, with a decided dose of anti-Semitism. This is the man who has never repudiated his father's incontestable anti-Semitism -- and has in fact consistently defended him.

"Who's writing them"? Why, the Jews, of course.

This may help explain why Apocalypto has attracted such a fervent audience in the far-right extremist crowd. Conspiracy-monger Alex Jones, in typically understated fashion, found it "the most powerful film of all time." Meanwhile, over at the white-supremacist National Vanguard forum, [warning: links to hate site] you can find reviews of the film along these lines:
The 20 minute scene of the Mayan city, unparalleled in moviedom, is the end result of jewish culture in it's ultimate manifestation ie pure primitive beast and his savage bodily urges. And if that doesn't terrify you, I don't know what could. The solution is a global tapir hunt. You are Jaguar Paw, white man! That Mayan temple is your fate and those ecstatic brown hordes longing for your tumbling noggin will be your last experience as the kike reaches in to rip your heart out. This is the message of Apocalypto.

All in all, I'd have to say SNL actually had it just about right. So much for feeling guilty.

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