Sunday, November 12, 2006

Hagiography of Heroism: Part 4

The first archetype before us is that of the Hobbits: bearing a burden greater than their capacities, somehow the archetypes of the meek who shall inherit the earth, or in their particular case, Middle Earth. However, it is the specific heroics of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins that most reflect the inherent qualities and paradoxes of the archetype. Bilbo finds the ring under the earth and “wins” it primarily by deceit. He then guards it and preserves it till it can be “passed” on to his successor Frodo. Even though Tolkein wishes us to consider Frodo in a heroic light, we are still left with the clear knowledge that were it not for Gollum – the classic scapegoat of the epic – Frodo would not destroy the precious artefact that can in turn collapse the foundations of the empire. Yet the Baggins are not the humble poor of the Bible but the comfortable bourgeoisie of twentieth century Europe. The ring can bring them greater wealth and status, but its loss will not damage their socio-economic standing.

A parallel is not hard to find for the Baggins in the real world. But instead of looking at the likes of Bruce Rappaport, the infamous financier of the past few decades who would provide us with the easiest example, or even the middle-class, well-educated 9/11 hijackers, the paper considers other characters who exemplify Baggins-like qualities.

Tolkein describes the Hobbits as an “unobstrusive but very ancient people, more numerous formerly than they are today; for they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well ordered and well farmed countryside was their favourite haunt.” (Tolkein, 1954, from seven volume edition 2001, 1). However, the story that follows contradicts all the above claims. Instead, Hobbits are also adept at machinery and warfare, and are neither peace-loving nor particularly retiring from the affairs unfolding around them.

A more Hobbit like figure then is hard to encounter than Maurice Sarfati, an Israeli gun runner, drug money launderer, financial pirate, and “melon-farmer.” While Sarfati’s exploits are dealt with in greater detail elsewhere (Block and Weaver, 2004), the paper merely looks at his actions countering the apparent multinational consortium against drug and weapons trade. Sarfati retains his citizenship from Israel, a precarious state described by its founders in terms that re-affirm their link to the land, as well as its peacable nature, much like that of the Hobbits. And like Hobbits, its some of the country’s scions – who have achieved international fame in the field of financial piracy, drug and weapon trades - bely the nation’s avowed law-abiding nature.

Amongst these, Sarfati has been one of the prime movers for covertly supplying surplus Israeli Defence Force stocks – including assault rifles and ammunition – to Gonzalo Rodrigues Gacha, leader of one of the Medellin cartels in the early 1990s. Sarfati self-avowedly owned a “melon” farm in Antigua which was his cover for financial operations, including embezzlement of US bank loans and immense bribes for Antiguan authorities to carry out a range of financial frauds. Sarfati’s deal with Gacha not only included the sale of Israeli weaponry but also the provision of military and weapons training to Colombian cartel members. One of the trainees from these courses was arrested in 1989 for assassinating judges and court personnel. Other trainees of the Israeli courses went on to memberships of death-squads. One of whom was most notoriously responsible for the massacre of banana-plantation workers in the Uraba province.

Sarfati is a fascinating personality, having embezzled millions in US aid funding and other private investment funds. Like the Baggins, he holds his connections to land and agriculture closely. His rather unsuccessful melon farm – at least on the financial books – is closely matched by the flower business owned by his cohort Arik Afek and the racehorse stable owned by Passant Ben-Or. The drug and weapons running operations have reached the heart of the “stable” empire of the US as Israeli-trained gunmen battle the DEA, and sophisticated weapons are delivered to the very heart of “evil.” However, Sarfati is aided by no scapegoat Gollum to ensure the destruction of the weapons that can rock the foundations of the transnational state structures. Instead, when he – Frodo like – determined to keep the ring for himself, there has been little to prevent his delinquency. Driven Frodo-like to strive for riches and power beyond imagining and caught by yearning to retain any and all possible means of achieving the same, Sarfati is constrained by neither fortuitous chance, nor by other players. Instead, he follows Frodo’s choice of holding the ring to its natural conclusion – a never-ending quest for the ever greater amassment of material success which leaves death and destruction in its wake.

Sarfati’s fit of the archetype is uneasy, in part because of the disjunct between the national self-image and Frodo’s choice. National self-image for Sarfati’s home country places him in the “weak” category, his own choice of profession and activity place him as one held in thrall of an evil power – much like the ring-bearer. The end result is paradoxical where desire for power leads him in one direction while other, external, considerations insist on the need to “appear” righteously weak.

The second category of heroic delinquent is perhaps one of the most ubiquitous in contemporary reality – that of the hero-in-disguise or the king-in-exile. Contemporary media ranging from Batman and other superhero sagas all rely on our instinctive sympathy and interest for a hero who must live in the shadows, performing their heroic identity in face of ridicule, anonymity and opposition. Once again, the king-in-exile is fundamentally a violent delinquent apparently fighting for the restoration of a “just” realm, or just a change in the existing state apparatus which is perceived as unjust. The contemporary media doesn’t just present the hero in disguise in numerous comic-linked products but also places him/her as the just avenger or representative in most films of the action/war genres. Sylvester Stallone’s first outing as Rambo in First Blood relies on the same mechanism. The hero knows better than the oppressive brutal state! And at the right time, his truth and glory shall be revealed, while the state is undermined and humiliated in turn. Arnold Schwarznegger’s career has been built on a series of films starring him as the lone saviour fighting all odds to bring out peace and justice. Not surprisingly, given its popularity in media, this is one archetype that forms a popular motivation in real life heroic delinquency.

The Iranian president Ahmadinijad’s repeated reference to the Mahdi is linked to this archetype – of the return of a hidden king that shall restore power and glory to an apparently oppressed people. In the past decade of US imperial adventures, the archetype seems to have gain strength, finding expression amongst militants around the world. However one of the most interesting case in point has been that of the recent election of the Hamas in Palestine. The organisation has consistently moved from the fringes of Palestinian society and politics to the centre-stage in the past few years. Some comparisons with Tolkein’s elaboration of the king-in-exile would provide some pointers. One characteristic, as Tolkein explains, of the true king is his ability to heal. Not surprisingly, Aragorn’s healing skills are demonstrated early in the novel after the fight with Sauron’s emissaries on Weathertop. Not only are “black riders”, former kings themselves vanquished by the “true” king Aragorn, he also shows his knowledge and talent for life-saving. As Frodo is wounded by a “cursed” blade, it is Aragorn’s lot to find the special herb that can heal. Of course, keeping with the mythic proportions of the novel, the herb attains its magical healing powers only in the hand of a king.

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