Theft and the 1%


I’m always inspired by the comments people leave at the blogs. A couple back, I got into a short discussion with poster Hoocott on colonial attitudes about theft in the first couple of Tarzan novels. This might sound like neo-left carping, but actually these attitudes are still around is some quarters, so I think it’s appropriate to have a deeper look.Thanks also for Jeffro Johnson for bringing up the subject.

Tarzan of the Apes and The Return of Tarzan were published just after the turn of the 20th century, so they’re pretty dated by now—like H.G. Wells or Jules Verne. However, they’re also a sort of charming look at life and attitudes in the late 19th early 20th centuries when people still traveled on steamships and Africa was The Dark Continent. For anyone who hasn’t read them, these first couple of novels were Romantic adventure (with a capital R). Romanticism was a trend during the Industrial Revolution when everyone yearned for simpler times. This led to the myth that we could somehow “return to nature” and glorified the “noble savage” who still lived life in the wild. I might come back to this sometime later, but right now I want to look at some of the attitudes, especially about theft.

In The Return of Tarzan, Tarzan is lost off a ship and ends up back in Africa where he takes up with an African tribe called the Waziri. He is captured by the degenerate beast men of the lost city of Opar, and during his escape, finds their lost treasury filled with gold ingots. Tarzan has been out into the world, so he recognizes this for what it is. He goes back with some of the Waziri warriors and steals about 20 ingots @40 pounds each=$15,155,200 (at today’s prices). Contrary to what Hoocott said in the comments, I can’t see anywhere that he meant to share this with the Waziri. He didn’t take it to the village, but instead hid it in the jungle.

Keep in mind that modern interpretations will often try to fix this—it’s clearly theft and he uses it to set himself and Jane up with an estate in London. I didn’t blink at this as a kid, and I think a lot of readers still won’t. However, if you consider, it’s right out of Cortez and Pizzaro’s colonial playbook—find naïve native tribe, steal gold, retire to a nice villa in Spain. So why do people still accept this? Why not ban the book because it glorifies theft?

Answer: Because it’s how the 1% still does business. You know who they are, the ultra-rich 1% that owns 99% of the wealth in the world? Since we’ve just elected one of them as President of the US, it’s nice to have a look at this attitude. The 1% doesn’t believe in working for wealth; instead, they believe that it should be “captured” through actions like business deals, tax loopholes and influencing government policy. If you’d like to follow up with further reading, look for The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (1899) by Thorstein Veblen.

The big way to for the 1% to capture wealth during the Bush administration looked to be through war profiteering. We’ll have to see how it develops during the next four years.

Review of The Legend of Tarzan

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The Legend of Tarzan is based on characters first created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in the novel Tarzan of the Apes, published in 1912. This film is directed by David Yates and the screenplay was written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer. It’s distributed by Warner Bros.

The story is set in the colonial period of the late 1800s. The Congo has been divided between the UK and Belgium, and the Belgian government has gone into heavy debt to build infrastructure. King Leopold II sends an envoy named Léon Rom to find the diamonds of Opar in order to finance further expansion, including an army to enforce Belgian rule. Rom’s crew is massacred, but Chief Mbonga (of Opar?) offers to trade the diamonds for Tarzan. In England, John Clayton, Lord Greystoke is invited by King Leopold to inspect the development in the Congo, but he declines. George Washington Williams, an American envoy, convinces Clayton to go on the mission, as he suspects the Belgians are dealing in slaves. Clayton’s wife Jane née Porter also insists on going along. In Africa they reconnect with a local tribe that knew Clayton as Tarzan. During the night, the village is attacked by Rom, who kills the chief and kidnaps Jane, but Williams manages to rescue Tarzan. The two of them uncover the diamond plot, as well as the slavery operation, while working to rescue Jane. They continue pursuit to the coast, where they have a final confrontation with Rom and the Belgian army.

As a long-time Burroughs fan, I’m hard to satisfy, but mostly I’ll give interpretations of Tarzan a chance. This one is pretty decent. They did a reasonable job of representing Tarzan, who wears only a thin veneer of civilization along with his expensive clothes. The theme of this film is anti-colonialism, of course, and it features a couple of the Congolese tribesmen in visible supporting roles. Williams is an African American and brings the American concerns about slavery to the picture. On the negative side, they didn’t give Jane a whole lot to do and they’ve played fast and loose with some of the details. They’ve rewritten the bit where Tarzan met Jane, and muddled their way through the Opar issue. Opar really is a fabled lost city, and in Burroughs’ stories it’s located in the Congo and inhabited by a tribe of degenerate beast men led by a high priestess—here they’ve made the men of Opar seem like just another group of local tribesmen and I don’t see the priestess anywhere. Also, Opar had nothing to do with the death of Tarzan’s ape mother Kala. Okay, I know, I know. You shouldn’t ever try to make the details of a book and a movie match up. I’m just feeling a little OCD about it.

Three and a half stars.

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