A look at the 2010 movie “The Book of Eli” offers the opportunity for indicting media who did not fully perform their duty in the long-lasting Tai Ji Men case.
by Marco Respinti*
*Conclusions of the webinar “Mobilizing the Media for Tai Ji Men and Other FoRB Cases,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on May 8, 2023, after the World Press Freedom Day of May 4.
“The Book of Eli” is a 2010 American film, directed by Albert and Allen Hughes, professionally known as the Hughes Brothers. In a post-apocalyptic scenario, and with an artistic taste that some may define neo-Western (or perhaps “neo-Spaghetti Western” for its atmosphere and locations), a solitary man, Eli (played by talented American actor Denzel Washington,) undertakes a long and perilous journey among ruins, desperados, and what remains of a wretched humanity. His purpose is to bring the last existing copy of the King James Bible to a safe harbor in San Francisco, a surviving bastion of civilization.
Carnegie (played by likewise talented American actor Gary Oldman) is a warlord totally corrupted by his appetite for power in a “Mad Max”-like frenzy. He yearns for the Bible that Eli protects by his sword, and would do anything to steal it from his hands. In a most revealing passage of the movie, Carnegie explains why. “It’s not a f*** book! It’s a weapon,” he shouts. “A weapon aimed right at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate. It will give us control of them. If we want to rule more than one small, f*** town, we have to have it. People will come from all over, they’ll do exactly what I tell ’em if the words are from the book. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. All we need is that book.”
Carnegie speaks the truth. Not a cinematic truth only, functional to the movie plot, but a real truth for the real world we all live in. Of course, he speaks a truth interspersed with lies, as all ideologues and ideocrats always do, and bending it to his own will to power, but the meaning is clear. He wants the Bible because the Bible convinces people and moves them to act. Carnegie is a well-read man. He has consulted and studied plenty of books. Yet, he has failed to find the ultimate one.
When he first meets Eli, ardently desiring his Bible, Carnegie is reading a book about the Italian fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, famous for the mobilizing power of his speeches. Yet not even a demagogue who was able to drag an entire nation into daring adventures, a doomed and bloody war included, was enough for this petty tyrant who dreamed to rule the world. Carnegie doesn’t need a technique or mere erudition: Carnegie needs truth. He is a believer. Not a devout Christian as Eli is, but a believer in the unparalleled power that words of truth have over the human condition. The core theme of the film is in fact truth, not the Bible—and this is why it is a secular action movie, and a Christian movie that is unaware of being Christian.
Our important series of webinars on the Tai Ji Men case addressed the question of the media several times, and from a number of different and interesting angles. Through this seemingly digressing story on a Hollywood movie, I would like to introduce yet another angle: the media question revolves entirely around words.
As the movie teaches, words may have the power to convince and move if they are rich and meaningful, or the power to disappoint and let people down if they are poor and prosaic. Media use words to challenge power or to promote alternative powers, becoming either servants of the power, or watchdogs of the power, or another power themselves. All depend on the words that media choose to use: either the words of truth or the words of the yes-men and the servants of the powers that be.
In the Tai Ji Men case, it is all too evident that both the political power and the media are or may become either co-actors of a solution or accomplices in the persecution. Tai Ji Men is not guilty of anything, we all know it. Both media and politicians in Taiwan know it, for the simple reason that all levels of the Taiwanese justice system have declared it several times. The solution of the Tai Ji Men case must then come from the political power through a political decision, and also produce changes in the laws of the country. We all also know this. Media know it too. The proper role of the media in this and similar cases should then be to constantly remember a known truth to the political power and to the general public. Media should tell the truth, repeat it, insist, challenge, face and confront. And media should do it by using the right words and crafting the right sentences.
If media surrender to the position of those in power, and do not give power to truth through appropriate words, then the Tai Ji Men case is lost. If media chose the path of political correctness or compromise, then the Tai Ji Men case is lost. If media concede to the platitudes of the day, then the Tai Ji Men case is lost. If they indulge on the discredited word “cult,” if they buy the fake argument of tax evasion that corrupt bureaucrats continue to agitate, if they don’t look at the monsters of religious persecution in their eyes, then the Tai Ji Men case is lost. It is lost even if some media try to find a compromise and surrender a part of the truth in the hope of finding pragmatic solutions based on half-lies. These are never really found.
I dare suspect that the Tai Ji Men case has being going on for almost 27 years also because media didn’t fully perform their duty. If media are really the watchdog of power, especially in a democratic society as Taiwan is, the powers that be should feel their pressure.
In the movie I started with, Eli finally reveals that he is blind. For his whole life, he memorized his Bible written with the Braille system. When the physical book of the Bible ends up being destroyed, Eli dictates it from his memory to a scribe. No one else could read that Bible and this is the ultimate defeat of Carnegie, the villain of the movie. Truth is not limited to its material vessels.
Media have the power to mobilize for freedom of religion, belief, and creed of Tai Ji Men and all other persecuted groups because they are guardians of words, and words may contain truth. Media only need to start believing it, in Taiwan and all over the world.