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Sci-Fi Insight on Current Events: The Slave’s Right to Punish His Persecutors

apesimage2America seems doomed never to be able to move beyond its struggles with racism. Despite having elected an African-American president, and other great strides since the days of slavery and the Civil Rights era, charges of racism continue to haunt the country in pop culture. From Al Sharpton connecting race with Michael Jackson’s death, to Jessie Jackson making charges of racism with every possible national news story, to President Obama making the arrest of Professor Henry Gates a national issue through insinuations of police racial profiling in a prime time press conference, racism remains a heavy burden for the country.

One might wonder why charges of racism continue. Certainly we must acknowledge that racism exists in some quarters since it is impossible to erase racism among all of a population’s people. But it must also be acknowledged that the country has made great strides in moving beyond its racist past, exemplified most vividly with the election of Barack Obama, touted as the first post-racial president. Even so, it seems as if there are segments of the population that refuse to let strong charges of national racism go, going so far as to form something of a cottage industry with personalities like Sharpton and Jackson, and now perhaps with Gates as well. Again, why do such charges of racism continue despite how far we have come from the days of slavery and the civil rights struggles of the 1960s?

I’d like to suggest that science fiction might provide us with an insight. In a recent post I mentioned my appreciation for the Planet of the Apes series of films, particularly Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, for its social commentary in its hard-hitting attempt at grappling with racism through the depiction of ape slavery at the hands of human beings. At the climax of the film the apes revolt under the leadership of an intelligent, talking ape, self-named Caesar (played by Roddy McDowall). After the apes have subdued their former captors Caesar has an exchange with MacDonald (played by Hari Rhodes), a human government official and African-American. MacDonald is concerned about the violence associated with the revolt, and the apparent desires of Caesar to mete out lethal justice in the wake of his past oppression.

MacDonald:

Caesar, this is not how it was supposed to be.

Caesar:

In your view, or mine?

MacDonald:

Violence prolongs hate, hate prolongs violence. By what right are you spilling blood?!

Caesar:

By the slave’s right to punish his persecutors.

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I think Caesar’s words in the final sentence from this dialogue excerpt are especially important, and possibly applicable to the situation we see in the United States in regards to race. No matter how far the nation has come, or will come, in its efforts to overcome racism we can never be a post-racial nation so long as those and the descendants of those who were wrongly persecuted in the past believe that it is their right to punish their former persecutors and their descendants. There seems to be some kind of racial ethic of retributive justice at work here in my view, much as Caesar argued for in Conquest.

Again I would draw the reader’s attention to the originally scripted ending of Conquest where Caesar calls for lethal justice to be leveled upon Breck, the government official who despised the apes and kept them in slavery, even attempting to kill Caesar so as to forestall a potential ape revolt. As I commented in my previous post on this film, this ending fits the developing storyline more naturally, and certainly the developing emotion of Caesar and the apes. But Twentieth Century Fox opted for a revised conclusion which necessitated bringing Roddy McDowall back into the studio for some voiceover work for a closing narration that calls for the apes to move beyond their violence and put away their weapons. The original violent conclusion was understandable in a film coming out in the early 1970s when America was still dealing with the throes of racism and civil rights issues. But the producers opted for something more peaceful in the film’s conclusion. It is debatable as to which ending is more appropriate to the storyline, but regardless of this cinematic and storytelling question, I hope we can learn from the change in ending. Might it be that the original ending was appropriate for the circumstances and mood of the 1970s, but the revised ending is one for our time in twenty-first century America? I hope so, and I’d like certain segments of our society to consider setting aside the slave’s right to continue punishing their (former) persecutors.

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There are 7 Comments to "Sci-Fi Insight on Current Events: The Slave’s Right to Punish His Persecutors"

  • DLR says:

    A few comments:

    1. It’s easy to slam the Sharptons and Jacksons for refusing to let go of the issue of racism. Unfortunately, they are largely correct. We can point to all the strides we’ve made but the fact remains that any glance at the US prison population tells the true story: blacks are represented at a rate that’s ridiculously disproportionate to the rate of black-committed crime. Meaning that white petty criminal gets probation, black petty criminal gets jail.

    2. On the other hand, it seems pretty obvious the more we learn that race was not the primary issue in the Gates case. So those who demagogue on the issue may be rightly criticized. However, this does not include the president, whose comments were moderate and correct. The policeman did act “stupidly”. I would add “criminally”…

    3. …Because (getting back to topic) Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is, beyond its racial subtexts, equally a message about fascism. The future of Conquest is clearly a police state… one where the apes are the most frequent victims but where humans are almost equally subject to arbitrary suspicion and arrest. The difference is that the apes are aware of the situation but the humans are blind to their own servitude. This is something worth considering in a time when ambulance drivers carrying patients are bullied for failure to properly kowtow, when inability to comply quickly enough can allow anyone to be subject to taser torture (this actually happens in Conquest!), when “jackbooted thugs” can storm anyone’s house at any time, shoot dogs and terrorize family members (if the family is white) and shoot innocent people dead (if black)with impunity (the stories will curl your hair). One is tempted to yell “Wake up sheeple!” at this point (and in fact Alex Jones website http://www.prisonplanet.com/ does a great job of covering police abuse issues, albeit mixed in with “global warming is a hoax” and other silliness). America is allegedly a “free country”. But how free is a country where any man (black or white) can be arrested simply for protesting his treatment by police (no matter how loudly)?

    4. Now on a different topic: FMC (the Fox Movie Channel) showed the original cut of Conquest not that long ago. The original cut is brutal and downbeat. I grew up in that era (and saw Conquest when I was ten – and again when I was eleven with an all-black audience [who really enjoyed it for some reason]) and remember the riots, so I see why that rage might have seemed an appropriate finish… but I prefer the more upbeat version. It implies that it is possible to turn away from hatred, from vengeance. For apes, at least.

  • Thank you for your comments.

    I would strongly disagree that the police acted “stupidly” in the Gates case, as the 911 tapes and other officer statements make clear. In addition, the President made comments on less than the facts at hand, and thus needlessly fueld a controversy started by Gates.

    Beyond this, unfortunately your comments completely miss the my point about the ethic of racial retributive justice at work in Conquest that I believe also plays itself out in the Gates case and in the perpetuation of racism by many contemporary civil rights personalities like Sharpton and Jackson.

    We can’t get beyond the American legacy of racism unless racism stops, and those who were its victims move beyond an ethic of retribution.

  • [...] for using it to engage in strong social and cultural commentary. This is especially the case with Conquest of the Planet of the Apes with its treatment of race as commentators like Eric Greene have discussed. I would be very [...]

  • Carl Rosenberg says:

    I find this website, and much of the commentary, very interesting and worthwhile. But I wonder about the statement in this posting that there is “some kind of racial ethic of retributive justice” at work in the U.S. (I’m looking at the situation from Canada, which has its own history of racism.) This seems a rather sweeping claim. Who among American victims of racism (African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans) has really tried to inflict, or even advocate, retribution (i.e., punishment) against white Americans? Are the Gates case, and even extreme statements by Sharpton and Jackson, really an example of this trend?

  • Carl, thank you for your kind comments, and the question. In my view the idea of retributive justice underlies much of the racial rhetoric of the Obama Administration and the civil rights leaders you mention who exacerbate racial tensions.

  • An excellent blog with interesting view points. Racism is ugly and it is sickening that it is still here in some form to this day.

    There is a fear of that which is different but there is also the way a person was raised by his parents. I come from Northern Ireland and although the Troubles are past there is still a lot of anger and hate on both sides of the Protestants and the Catholics. But it is not about fait, nor is it about politics as much now, its just hate bred into the young and unless people change their ways the generations will pass it on to the next.

    I embrace the positive future depicted in Star Trek, it shows us what we can accomplish when we put our disputes behind us and work together.

    In regards to Planet of the Apes I posted a essay I did in College several years ago onto my blog page, in which I discussed the political impact of all the movies. The ‘witch hunts’ of the McCarthy Era being addressed in the first one to the Race Riots being drawn upon for the aforementioned Conquest.

    http://strangemindstringer.blogspot.com/ I look forward to your comments.

  • Neill, thanks for stopping by and leaving your comments. You might do a search here for my other comments on Planet of the Apes, and take a look at my view of Rise of the Planet of the Apes at Cinefantastique Online. I’ll take a look at your blog with your college essay. Good to meet a fellow Apes and sci-fi fan.

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