White saviors are here to stay

What does the actor Russell Crowe, the US senator Ted Cruz and the former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull have in common? Sounds like a bad joke. In a way it is. These men like seven million others have shared the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman’s article “The Real Lord of the Flies” online. The virality of this piece has caught Hollywood’s attention, leading to a bidding war on the movie rights. New Regency (the producer-financiers of The Revenant and 12 years a slave) has surfaced as the victor with a seven-figure offer to seal the deal.

In COVID-19 times where people are desperately looking for stories of hope and heroism, Bregman feeds that hunger with a new narrative for people to clutch onto. He offers an uplifting story of humankind, “a tale of friendship and loyalty; one that illustrates how much stronger we are if we can lean on each other.” The article makes the case that people are innately cooperative beings, defying William Golding’s proposition in his classic book ‘Lord of the Flies’ that paints a picture of human depravity and cruelty when boys are left to their own devices, without the social norms to contain their instincts. 

Bregman, a historian by training digs into the archives looking for reality to challenge this popular thinking. He is convinced of people’s inherent goodness, and as luck would have it, he hits the jackpot. He unearths an obscure story from 1966 of how six Tongan boys longing for an adventure and “bored” of the strict Catholic boarding school, “borrowed” a fishing boat to head to Fiji or even New Zealand. With little thought, they took off to sea on what looked like a clear day, but which quickly turned deadly. Having survived the sea, they got stranded on an island for more than a year but instead of spiraling down with the “darkness of man’s heart” as Golding would have us believe, they instead built a functional social system which sustained them for 15 months.

They get discovered and rescued by Captain Peter Warner, the son of a wealthy Australian industrialist who then brings these boys back to home. However, this wasn’t the end of the boys’ “little adventure,” Bregman remarks. He tells us of how these boys get arrested and thrown in jail because of their stealing of the boat. “Fortunately for the boys, Peter came up with a plan” Bregman explains, as he recounts the story of how Peter gets the boys out of jail in exchange for exclusive media rights on their survival story. Peter even succeeds in extracting a deal from the Majesty Taufa ‘ahau IV to set up his business to trap lobsters on Tonga (a deal he was earlier denied) and gives the boys the “opportunity to see the world beyond Tonga,” explains Bregman by hiring them to work for him. And with all good stories, this has a happy ending it seems with a lasting and loyal “friendship” between 83 year old Peter, still a wealthy man and one of the boys who was rescued, now the 73 year old Mano Totau, or as the media of the time frame as “a child of nature.”

The stories we tell

“Seldom is a story only a story” pleads Bregman. He is right. Stories shape our perceptions, our perspectives, our policies. The richer and more diverse the stories are of ourselves, the better we can be understood and be treated as human beings deserving of empathy. Bregman, a gifted storyteller has managed to draw the attention of the world to this event. Tragically, the story he tells us is of a colonial free context devoid of the racial politics of the time and where we learn of the cooperative feat of the Tongan boys through the eyes of the white savior, Peter Warner. Bregman interviewed both Mano Totau, the survivor who developed the cooperative system on the island with his friends and the Captain who happened to get lucky in his run in with the boys and became a default hero for doing the decent thing to bring them back home. Yet, Bregman centers the story around the Captain and insists his life is “worth a movie.”

At this point, it is easy to transpose the controversies around the Oscar winning movie GreenBook onto this plot. How Hollywood chose to tell the story through the lens of the Italian American driver and his redemption through his protection of the black classical pianist as they travel the 1960s segregated South on a concert tour. From Bregman’s enthusiasm of the Captain’s story, it looks likely that Hollywood will make another GreenBook after all.

This isn’t the worst part though. What is most disturbing is that Bregman is just plain wrong on his theory of humankind. He even obliviously provides us the evidence. The example of the boy’s survival system does not tell us much about some generic and innate human goodness. It could tell us perhaps more about the Tongan culture rooted in a traditional monarchical institution of tui’tonga that “had developed through the years into something similar to the Dalai Lama.” Perhaps it could tell us of the deep colonial violence inflicted and absorbed by the Tongan society, teaching these boys to stick together come what may as a means for survival. Perhaps it could tell of the strong bond that tends to get created when under “strict” missionary schooling. As the Tongan historian Sione Lātūkefu has extensively documented, the clergy of those days worked hard at civilizing these “barbarous tribes,” and was committed to converting “the heathen at all cost, even if it entailed martyrdom on the one hand and a complete destruction of the traditional culture on the other.” It is telling that the Captain and his crew upon seeing the boys on the island drew up their weapons until one of them spoke in “perfect English,” convincing the crew that they were friends not foes.

On the contrary, there are glaring examples of a lack of “goodness” between the police, the fisherman and the boys who get thrown in jail despite going through this grueling ordeal of survival. There is a distinct lack of compassion and outrage for criminalizing these boys as revealed by the matter of fact coverage in the media in those days. What is more inexcusable is Bregman’s attitude as he trivializes this situation as a “little adventure.” Moreover, Bregman’s framing of the blatant commodification of the boy’s survival stories by the already wealthy Captain as “fortunate” for the boys as he had a “plan” to get them out of jail reveals an astounding naivety. 

How not to do another Greenbook

History is written by the victors as the cliché goes, but what of the vast majority who yearn for their versions of the story, their ancestral resilience, heroism, creativity and accomplishment? Sometimes it could be as humble as a story to make them humane. What if we were to tell the story from Mano Totau or his parents’ perspective? How would that impact us as a society? How would that ignite our imagination to re-design our social institutions? Can this put the empathy back in the human loop for moving us forward? Can Hollywood get behind this as they work on scripting Bregman’s mythical tale of racial harmony into a movie for our times? 

The fact is that human nature spans the spectrum of infinite potential from the absolute spirit of generosity and sacrifice to that of pure evil and everything in between. Our hope as a society should not lie in a tale of “friendship and loyalty” as Bregman promises. It should lie in the critical accounting and appreciating of human resilience and forgiveness against a violent history that reproduces itself. The hope that we need today in these COVID times does not lie in the pseudo-psychological profiling of our latent human abilities. What is most needed is an honest reckoning with our colonial past that has led to this current state of astounding inequality and injustice, much driven by racial history. Bregman offers us the elixir of hope with the refilling of tired old narratives. It is time to change the stories we tell.