Undercover: The Ultimate Crime (06/16/77)

The excerpt from the poem that follows—which was not written, but sung—was composed a few years ago by a 25-year-old Paraguayan Indian of the Aché tribe who was at that time living in a government reservation:

I, when I was still a man,
I shot great wild boars
with my arrow,
On the hunt I pierced wild boars.
I, when I was still a man—
Until the tapir was shot,
Until I died and with me all men,
Until a great trembling caught hold of me.

The poem describes his first encounter with whites—a band of Indian hunters—which took place when he was ten; though shot, he escaped. The rest of his poem, or song, deals with his eventual capture—apparently at least several years later—and sets forth the meaning of that event: “I, when I was dead/Roved far away.” The quality of his enslavement is presented in terms of an absolute identification with his captors (“My friends the whites”) and their deeds: their world has completely replaced his, which must now seem like a dream, and a dead man does not need, cannot use, and here cannot accept the sustenance of a sense of innocence.

In the airplane of the
whites I flew,
Into the splendid, great
shining white house of
the sun,
I killed our great Mother,
who lives at the sun.
I, all alone, with me only
the whites.

These lines come from a book called Genocide in Paraguay, edited by Richard Arens (Temple University Press, 171 pp., $10.95), which details, in a series of essays, the results of the encroachment of civilization, mainly in the form of large-scale corporate capitalism, on the traditional territories of certain tribes who until recently lived with little or no contact with white society. To be brief, this involves organized hunting parties and mass murder (numerous villages have been completely wiped out in recent years); the relocation of adult survivors into death camps, at least one administered by an American “Christian missionary”; and the sale of young women and children into prostitution or chattel slavery, not only in the backcountry, but in the cities as well (“The price of Indian slaves,” Mark Munzel writes, “has fluctuated between $5.00 and $1.25 over the last ten years”). Indians have long been considered animals in Paraguay; they are exterminated because they are in the way of commercial expansion, for sport, and because their murder and enslavement reinforces the whites’ sense of superiority.

Various arguments can be made as to why this atrocity (paralleled at present in Brazil and other parts of South America) deserves more than local attention: because the Achés have an interesting culture; because, like the animals on the Serengeti Plain in Kenya, the Achés represent a state of nature we owe it to ourselves to preserve; because their plight might be made into an issue that could weaken U.S. support for Alfredo Stroessner, the fascist dictator who has ruled Paraguay since 1954.

To their credit, the writers of this book have little time for such specious and disgustingly instrumental arguments (when ethics are reduced to instrumentalism, ethics cease to exist). The writers first make the Achés and their history real (the debt here is mainly to Münzel, an anthropologist who at some risk to himself had dealt firsthand not only with the Achés but with their exterminators, be they slave traders or bureaucrats) and then briefly explore Paraguayan politics and their connection to corporate wealth and to Nazism (here as regards both a genocidal ideology and the degree to which escaped war criminals helped create Stroessner’s state security system). Also examined are legal options and the sort of political pressure that might be brought on Paraguay and on the companies that are destroying its last Indian enclaves. The writers, most of them, seem to assume Hannah Arendt’s understanding of such situations, which I’ve referred to in previous columns: genocide is the ultimate crime because it is an attack on human diversity itself; each incident of genocide is an assault against all because it is an attack against “the human status.”

This book is not fully satisfying as a document; I wanted to know more about almost every subject (not that the Paraguayan government is eager to help interested parties gather facts on the matter; some who have tried to raise the issue in Paraguay have been arrested). In particular I wanted a stronger historical perspective, but that may have been partly because I could not help but read this book of atrocities as a sort of epitaph for a people of whom I had never heard. Whether that is what it will turn out to be, however, remains an open question. Genocide in Paraguay has been put together primarily as a political weapon. As such it ought to be used—especially given Jimmy Carter’s pronouncements on his commitment to human rights, at least when United States “security” is not at stake; disingenuous as he may be, it is hard to imagine even Jimmy Carter attempting to explain what timber rights in Paraguayan forests have to do with the hegemony of the United States. So I suggest that other writers read this book, and consider telling what part of its story they have the space for; those who do not have access to print should write their senators, and Carter: in point of fact, Congress recently made it illegal for our government to give economic aid to any country engaging in deprivals of human rights far less serious, and less systematic, than those now taking place in Paraguay. And as one who spent some time working in Congress, I can testify that, odd as it may seem, letters are read, and they do make a difference.

Rolling Stone, June 16, 1977

5 thoughts on “Undercover: The Ultimate Crime (06/16/77)

  1. Perusing the site as I so often do, this line: “as one who spent some time working in Congress” suddenly suggested some interesting background on GM I had missed. Has he referenced this anyplace else?

  2. Vic, I think it’s only the second mention I’ve seen of it, the first being in a more recent piece posted from 2008 re: Obama’s impending election:

    “My whole life, my upbringing, education, travel and talk, from working in Congress as an intern at the height of the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s to every election in which I’ve ever voted, makes it all but impossible for me to believe that, on Tuesday, a single state will turn its face toward the face of a black man and name him president of the United States.”


  3. (Though come to think of it, I might’ve also heard GM mention this in an interview somewhere. I remember he was referring to events around 1963/64 as if he was on the east coast, and it got me to wondering if he had spent time there.)

  4. From “The Man From Nowhere,” first published in Cultural Critique, 1999, later collected in Double Trouble:

    In the summer of 1964, after my freshman year at the University of California at Berkeley, I went to work as an intern in the office of Representative Philip Burton, Democrat from San Francisco. After a year of being constantly reminded that “Berkeley isn’t the real world”–and this was the year before the Free Speech Movement, with its months of student demonstrations, made Berkeley a watchword, or a warning, all over the world–of being told that Berkeley was smug, self-referential, an intellectually closed place that saw itself as, and for that matter was, a complete exception to the rest of the country, I learned something about Washington D.C.: it wasn’t the real world, either. It was even less so, despite its absolute conviction, its almost absolutely seductive conviction, that it was the world. Washington was far more insular than Berkeley, more petty, status-mad, and gossip-driven. Sucking up to professors, hinting at how “close” one was to this charismatic lecturer or that world-famous scientist, was one thing; sucking up to power was worse, and as opposed to Berkeley, in Washington no one was outside the game.

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