The personal versus the political By William Bowles

3 May 2003

‘Blair, unhinged’ We are shaped by history and in turn, history shapes us, at least that’s the theory. This morning on the radio(BBC Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme) the pundits were commenting on Tony Blair’s ‘messianic’ belief that what he was doing in invading Iraq was right and that he’d ‘squared’ his conscience ‘with his maker’, so that when he faced those he’d murdered and those who had died carrying out his orders, in the afterlife (or wherever), he’d be able to look them in the eye, his conscience clear. One of the pundits commented that in one TV programme he’d watched, before the invasion, where Blair was confronting his critics, he had an ‘unhinged look in his eyes’.

Which reminds me of one the best political movies I’ve ever seen called ‘Quemada’ or ‘Burn’ in English, directed by Pontecorvo, the Italian director who also made the ‘Battle for Algiers,’ a brilliant film that captured in documentary style, the Algerian independence struggle in all its viciousness.

An agent of history? In ‘Quemada’, Marlon Brando plays an 18th century British Naval intelligence officer who is sent to an island in the Caribbean called Quemada by his masters to instigate a slave revolt, so that the English can steal the island and its sugar plantations from the Spanish.

Brando meets a young Black man (played by an unknown young Cuban Pontecorvo discovered in Havana) as he steps off the ship, who offers to carry his bags and Brando, sensing something ‘special’ about the young man, decides to ‘test’ him by attempting to kill him. The young man survives and he becomes Brando’s protégé and the leader of a slave revolt to oust the Spanish, which eventually succeeds – but too well.

The free slaves take over the island and occupy the former governor’s mansion. Brando races to the mansion to try and ‘head off’ the revolt before it’s goes too far. In a memorable scene which echoed the famous Black Panther photo of Huey P Newton and the other leaders of the Black Panther Party, posing in black leather jackets and holding pump shot guns, Brando confronts the leaders of the revolt, who are assembled, Black Panther-style even to the same high-backed wicker chair, except that they’re carrying muskets and sabres, and are wearing the clothes of their former masters, down to the epaulettes and tri-corn hats.

Brando succeeds in convincing them that the best solution is to allow the British to replace the Spanish, they’re ‘not yet ready to rule themselves’. The British will make good rulers and, in the ‘fullness of time’, independence will come. The leader of the revolt, his protégé reluctantly agree to Brando’s persuasive argument, and the island becomes a British colony and the slaves are back on the plantations. It’s ‘business as usual’ once more.

The personal Brando, his mission accomplished, leaves the island and returns to England where, stricken by his conscience and the betrayal of the man he’d come to like and admire, lives in drunken obscurity for several years until his former masters, confronted with yet another slave revolt led yet again by the man Brando had mentored, and the collapse of sugar prices on the stock exchange, remember Brando. They find him in a brothel and ask him to go back to the island one more time to advise the plantation owners on how to defeat the revolt.

The Political Brando, destitute and an alcoholic reluctantly agrees and (for a large sum of gold) returns to Quemada. In a memorable scene in a brothel and surrounded by ‘high yellow girls’, he debates the plantation owners, and challenges them; ‘What would you rather have, a wife who, if she outlives you, you’ll have to pay for her burial, or these?’ and he gestures to the whores who surround them. ‘When you need their services, you pay for them. What’s it to be gentlemen, slavery or wage labour?’

The plantation owners argue that first they must crush the revolt. ‘Oh that’s easy. Why do you think this island is called Quemada? Simply burn the plantations down and the rebels will have nowhere to hide.’

‘Burn our crops? You must be mad!’ cry the plantation owners.

‘You have savings. In a couple of years your plantations will grow back and you’ll be making money again.’

The owners reluctantly agree and Brando burns the island to the ground thus removing the cover that rebels use to hide in.

Quemada! The revolt is crushed and his protégé captured. The governor wants to hang the leader to ‘set an example’ but Brando argues that will make a martyr of him but to no avail, the execution will take place in spite of Brando’s protests.

Desperate to save the man he has helped capture, Brando confronts him and offers to free him. He unlocks his chains, ‘Run! You can live to fight another day,’ but the man refuses. He knows he’s more powerful dead than alive. In the background, on the distant horizon, smoke rises.

‘Do you know which island that is,?’ he says. ‘That’s Haiti. You know I have to die.’

The young man is executed and Brando, his mission accomplished, returns to England. Brando is walking toward the ship which will take him back when he hears a voice, ‘Carry your bags sir?’ and he turns and sees the face of the young man he’d ‘discovered’ all those years ago. As he faces him, the young man plunges a knife into Brando.

The Political As always, the mass media, the mouthpiece of capitalism, deliberately confuses the personal with the political. They would have us believe that Blair, acting out of conviction, is somehow ‘outside’ of history, driven only by his personal convictions. That his belief in the ‘rightness’ of his cause, is not connected to historically determined processes. That Blair’s political advisors in Whitehall, who, like Brando, are ‘agents of history’, supply an underlying motivation for his actions. And Blair, just like Brando, is driven by these forces. Hence the ‘pain’ he suffers as he grapples with his conscience, in reality, actually has nothing to do with reasons that underpin his actions.

Does this mean that Blair could ‘step outside’ his role? In theory yes, but would he be prime minister? No, or at least not for long. There are some things we can control and others that we can’t. Recognising the difference is crucial. Had Blair really been in control of his actions and aware of the real reasons that underpinned them, he would have resigned. But then if he was that kind of man, he would never have become prime minister in the first place.

‘Don’t bullshit a bullshitter’ The propaganda war that the USUK have waged through the pages and on the television screens all these long months hinges on understanding the difference between the personal and the political. That’s why the Times or the Wall Street Journal can be more honest about the real motivations behind the invasion because it knows it’s talking to an audience that also understands the difference. As the saying goes, ‘Don’t bullshit a bullshitter’. When Robert Cooper, foreign office strategist, advises Tony Blair, he had better tell him the truth, else not only wouldn’t he have his job for long, it’s unlikely he’d have gotten it in the first place.

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