Ah, the spectre of cannibalism has washed up on Syria's shore. A glance back at the venerated boogey-man...

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Summary: Reports claim Syrian terrorists are eating the hearts of their victims. It sounds like a Catholic screed against the Jewish, though it might be true. Time to look back, a little, at how the West has often used androphagia as a stigmata against various brown people.

BLOT: (01 Oct 2013 - 12:30:22 AM)

Ah, the spectre of cannibalism has washed up on Syria's shore. A glance back at the venerated boogey-man...

If I ask you about The Donner Party or The Andes Flight Disaster, chances are that you will know them both as horrific cannibal stories. A bit unfairly. In both cases, people pressed to the edge of survival—Flight 571 was up in the mountains for over two months, the "Donner" Party resorted to cannibalism only after nearly a month of living off the hide and bones of long-eaten oxen. Sure, in the case of the Donner Party, and the earlier incident that happened to the Moby-Dick inspiring destruction of the Essex, they did in fact shoot people for food, but much of the flesh was from those that had already died from exposure or starvation. Our response to "good European diaspora becoming flesh eaters" is not simply a modern proclivity to disparage anything that reminds us of gore films, but has been around for a bit. When Charles Dickens attacked John Rae's accounts of The Franklin Expedition as taken from the Inuit witnesses, he did so by contrasting the "savage Eskimaux" to the noble Brit and, by claiming that one would surely not have eaten his fellow man, left a suggestion that the other might have been to blame.

In fact, a fair amount of the history of Western letters is claiming that other guy, usually a brown-tinged guy, is a cannibal. Not surprising to anyone who has seen semi-serious illustrations of big-lipped, bone-nosed natives eating an explorer in a witch's cauldron, books have been written about this depiction as an agitprop tool of colonialism. A propaganda tool somewhat justified by the fact that many tribes and customs do invoke cannibalistic tendency or symbolism in their rituals, though frankly this is not something merely believed by "people over there" [the symbolic flesh of Christ makes a fine example, seeing as transubstantiation is a big deal for certain groups of Christians]. Whether this justifies the sheer amount written on the topic, or the horror overhanging it, I don't know. Even if you hold that some tribe of people somewhere do eat bits of the liver of their enemy, that doesn't stop the spectre of cannibalism from being behind many of the worst pre-Holocaust attacks on the Jews. Or the fact that in many of the reported cases, such as the relatively recent cannibalism in Cambodia, that it overshadows the terrible starvation that lead up to it. It is not surprising to me that when you hear of the toll due to the Siege of Leningrad, that 260 people were convicted of cannibalism is sometimes given a higher importance than the millions who died.

And this is all in news-stories and official reports. Once you get to fiction, you throw the gates wide. How about Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold, where a non-white-folk-ruled earth turns to cannibalism to contrast the destructive, but more dignified, white society that was overthrown in a nuclear war? One of the most famous final scenes in SF movie history is Soylent Green which has a man overacting the lines "It's PEOPLE!" as though an overpopulated world feeding off the willing participants of suicide booths in between subjugating women is the real ill in society.

My favorite fictional depiction of cannibalism is, perhaps unsurprisingly, from Lovecraft: "The Picture In the House". What is great about it is the way it sums up so much of what is weird about the whole "blood libel" style business:

The book fell open, almost of its own accord and as if from frequent consultation at this place, to the repellent twelfth plate shewing a butcher's shop amongst the Anzique cannibals. My sense of restlessness returned, though I did not exhibit it. The especially bizarre thing was that the artist had made his Africans look like white men—the limbs and quarters hanging about the walls of the shop were ghastly, while the butcher with his axe was hideously incongruous. But my host seemed to relish the view as much as I disliked it.

The Anziques are described, earlier, as "negroes with white skins and Caucasian features," which is chalked up to the plates being "drawn wholly from imagination and careless descriptions". In both sections, Lovecraft's narrator is quick to point out that these only look like white people, but really are quite brown where it counts. As for the flesh-of-man eating weird old dude, he is weird and backwards and old, the perfect depraved disciple to savages.

Now that I've given some context, let's move on to the reason I started this post: Syria's foreign minister claims US in league with cannibals "who eat human flesh and dismember people while they are still alive". Specifically, one "cannibal" is the man of the hour: Abu Sakkar, who seems kind of weirded out by it. Despite the fact that this seems to be a single man's single instance of maybe taking a bite out of someone's bits for a camera, there are plenty of responses to this SHOCKING NEWS as though by doing anything to help anyone that might be associated with biting into a human part, we would destroy the fabric of Western culture itself. One of those articles lists Sakkar's "bite of lung" as the worst of heinous crimes. Another decries that act prior to damning the cutting off of living people's heads. Glenn Beck zooms in on the video as the page title asks, "IS THIS WHO WE ARE HELPING?!" Never mind Sakkar's own reasoning for being so angry he did what he did (from the BBC write-up linked above):

This guy had videos on his mobile. It showed him raping a mother and her two daughters. He stripped them while they begged him to stop in the name of God. Finally he slaughtered them with a knife... What would you have done?

Which is not really a defense of cannibalism, but it does show the sheer lunacy of taking a conflict that has death, torture, rape, mutilation, chemical warfare, starvation, and more and acting like biting a dead man's lung is the worst of it. Worse than killing the man to begin with. Worse than the man raping and murdering women just because they were of a different group, likely as some form of punishment or emasculation for the men of that group. In the larger picture, though, it is another agitprop piece meant to show the mark of true savagery, of being pushed truly to the limits, of true depravity [warning: do not scroll down that article if you have any Ligotti-spawned issues with puppets], the loss of humanity and descent back into lesser kind. It is also telling that we are meant to hate all of Sakkar's associates for it, as old patterns resurface. In that latter-most link, no one has claimed that all White Americans, or even all Floridians, are child eaters. There is no blood libel, there. No, categorical dismissal of people for the eating of human flesh is reserved for others in Western culture.

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this is not someone trying to denigrate entire societies by prioritizing an event done to dead flesh, cannibalism, over the events that made the flesh dead to begin with. Maybe this is simply humankind's propensity for ghost stories, made large. As I've said before: History may be told by the victor, but it is sold to the uninterested.

Musings on Life, History, and Society


Written by Doug Bolden

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