All Too Real Taboo

The West has long cannibalized the rest of the world. So what's new?


There is a lot to hreflect on these days as the year draws to a close. The lessons are particularly useful and necessary for those of us who are getting used to this new home in the new world. And there is nothing like irony to offer the best hreflections.

It teaches, it amuses and it opens possibilities for new thoughts.

Consider for example, the three instances in our media/public life that are riddled with irony: the “discovery” of Saddam Hussain in a spider hole in Iraq; the “disclosure” of a hidden daughter of one of the most omnipresent senators in the United States, Strom Thurmond, and the “revelations” of a modern (or even postmodern) cannibal in Germany. Believe it or not, these are ironies we can learn a lot from, a useful exercise when the culture of consumption dulls us down as we absorb the season’s greetings.

As we watch the coverage of how Saddam Hussain was found in a spider hole near his hometown of Tikrit, we have to feel a sense of divine injustice as much as a sense of simple material justice. It is hard to find anyone shedding tears at the sight of Saddam Hussain with this beard, his lost and defeated look, his entirely unkempt appearance and his overall beaten self. It is nice to see dictators fall and it is even nicer to see one of them in such a pitiful condition.

The sense of victory in this spectacle may be overplayed though. He has become a staple of jokes in late night talk shows, in everyday conversations and on web sites, which are delirious with the possibilities of eternal spin. The Right is ecstatic, of course, that Saddam came up to relieve the pressure off the President, underscoring the bravery of American troops in Iraq and a closure to what was fast becoming one of the two embarrassing chapters in the war against terrorism (the other is Osama). The Left is happy too, except in one reserved sense, since they know his capture is not going to make things easy for them (in the next election) or for Americans currently occupying Iraq. There is a talk of the trial or even multiple trials so we can teach everyone a lesson and feed the media enough fodder to keep the ratings rolling.

Think about the possible alternative scenarios. His own people could have found Saddam, perhaps early in the armed struggle or in one of the many reported coups. If we had pictures of him being caught, tortured or killed by his own people, there would be some divine justice in it. There is poetry in the disgrace of a dictator being deposed and killed by his own people. A trial would be even better, but we cannot ask the oppressed to be learned patient scholars of law. Cruel as it is, it is the stuff revolutions are made of and very few of those are velvet revolutions. But somehow the Iraqis failed in this and this failure is, in some ways, much worse than their defeat on the battlefield.

There is something incomplete and unjust about the Saddam spectacle. He is going to play in the hands of those who have grand visions of the new American Empire. He is going to be a card in the next election. His face will be an essential ingredient of the election campaign. And, his captivity is a new testament to the power of the new imperialism, one that knows little mercy if we compared with the earlier ones.

And that is the unease in this spectacle. The people he oppressed, tortured suffocated will be helpless bystanders, as others carry out the lessons in their own vision of democracy there. If there are elections in Iraq and if the fundamentalists sweep into power, there will be little mercy for Saddam. But we will not go that route. We would rather feed him to the ratings-hungry 24-hour networks, which will spin his misery endlessly, writing a new chapter in meaningless nothingness that they have become such experts at. But that is the order of the day. We have to get used to the divine injustice here and get a beer and sit on the couch to see a pitiful dictator exploited by people who were once his friends and who ignored the people he oppressed for so long.

One morning last week, the Washington Post disclosed a story that the late Senator from South Carolina, Strom Thurmond had a daughter with his house-slave some 78 years ago. This from a stormy character in American politics; the irony was a lesson in defining the hypocrisy of this man as well as that of American life. Thurmond was a segregationist most of his life, opposing the Civil Rights movement and then returning to a softer, gentle side of his Republicanism until his death. For most of his last years in the senate – he was 101 when he died – he was a living fossil, reaching the mark of the record age and tenure in the senate. But above all, he was a hypocrite, a classy White Southerner who fathered a child with his African American slave while he preached virulent hatred against her kind.

This continues a chapter in American public life that has made morality of the personal kind a major issue (and to the extent we know, the only country that does it so brazenly). We have seen the hypocrites of the Right fall, but this is very different. This is not some simple morality tale. This is indicative of the two-faced character of politics, which gave the people of color no rights while it exploited them so well.

As Essie Mae Washington, Thurmond’s 78-year-old daughter came forward to disclose the story; the tale is not spun at all. There is mostly a simple matter of fact narration in the news. Most African American commentators are at the forefront of reviewing and hreflecting on the story. The mainstreamers, the Whites, or and even more precisely the Republicans, are silent. And the grace of the family of once slaves shone through all of this. The family was dignified and respectful even of the late senator and his family as this shameful secret was becoming public.

Over ten years ago, during the senate hearings of Anita Hill (vs. Clarence Thomas, the now Associate Justice of the Supreme Court), Thurmond began by observing that Anita Hill was a “pretty woman.” To an Indian immigrant, sensitive of all the trappings of sexism, especially right smack in proceedings about sexual harassment, this was an amazingly brazen and out-of-place remark. No one questioned him on this. He began with his monotone questions with little respect for the woman, except her “prettiness.” Now it seemed so in character. For him, a White southern senator, the sexuality of an African American woman was a given, easy to parade in public. He must have thought all along that Clarence Thomas was justified in making sexual comments at Anita Hill in workplace and there was nothing wrong in it.

The rationalities of the Western culture, we know, come to haunt it. Consider the trial in Germany of Armin Meiwes, who has admitted that he killed a fellow human being with his consent and ate him.

The trial is a big media circus in Europe, although it has only made small ripples on the major networks in this country. The publicity given to this trial, this new celebritydom in making, casts a new light on the days to come and the days bygone.

Armin Meiwes cannot be tried for cannibalism because there are no laws against it. So he is being tried for manslaughter, but that looks difficult, as he has videotaped the entire crime indicating the full consent of the “victim.”

There are sumptuous stories from the trial about the taste of the body parts, about sautéing this and that part of the body and ruminations about how other parts of the body might taste. There is talk that the cannibal will get some 15 years if he is found guilty. He has promised a thrilling memoir even from his prison and he is, no doubt, getting offers.

This trial may be a breakthrough in Western public life. There is now in the West, one of their own eating one of their own. Until now, this was a province of the uncultured savages of the non-West. If you go to the web site of BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), there are continuing stories from Africa about the police capturing this cannibal or another. Of course, if the media had a choice, they would prefer only those stories from Africa that had cannibalism. Now this has come home to roost.

The taste of the trial, one reads, is full of repugnance. But that should not be news. There is still the same taste when we watch the reality shows here. If you have watched Fear Factor, the celebratory eating of worms and other unaesthetic creatures on television, you will know that the ratings can keep coming only so long. There are only so many disgusting creatures we can devour.
Very few of the contestants stick around to tell us about the taste. So we know that is an avenue as yet, untested. If this aesthetic of repugnance continues, wouldn’t we see cannibalism next? It is already making for great television in Germany, this gruesome discussion of how body parts tasted and would taste. The book would only make things better. We don’t have to rely on Hannibal Lecter’s recipes with fava beans when he eats humans.

If anything is edible, and watching Fear Factor makes us believe that everything is, then why not human beings? If the animals are as disposable as plants and if eating animals makes for great festivals, imagine the possibilities of eating more sumptuous creatures such as ourselves. If there is a great appetite in capitalism to invent new tastes and new modes of eating, then does it not serve to reason that we need serve ourselves?

Above all, this case of cannibalism is an appeal to the Western hypocrisy. We know one demand we can make of Western philosophy and that is consistency. This is not practiced enough, but it is nevertheless, one of the essential ingredients of Western thought.

If we need to be respectful of all human life, whether at birth or at death, we need to preserve it consistently. Hence abortion and death penalty should go together. If we think of preserving human life at birth, then we should preserve it at death too.

This fundamental need for consistency will straighten out a number of contradictions in Western public life.

And it follows, that if all animals have rights, and they use these rights to eat each other, why do humans have to be so out of the game?
Think of it, cannibalism is not new to the West. It has existed figuratively in the West since its nebulous inception. The rest of the world has long been cannibalized by the West. The wealth and women of the rest of the world have provided tasteful menus to the appetites of the colonizers and the imperialists.

The verb, to cannibalize, is so commonplace in English language. It means to subsume parts of other objects for your own purpose, to put to use a once functioning object in a new project. The imagination is already there; small steps of practice have to follow. And it is not that difficult. This could be a new dimension in the Jerry Springer show, a great testing ground for tomorrow’s television.

The trial of the cannibal lays bare the final ironies of the Western public life; what was once a taboo too has to become practice. 

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