Straight talk about cannibalsFebruary 23, 2014
Cannibalism is taboo. It makes the neighbors nervous, and, if you carry it far enough, leads to extinction. Yet the Internet is buzzing with fantasies of a “zombie apocalypse.” When you read news stories about naked lowlifes high on “bath salts” and biting strangers’ faces, Jeffrey Dahmer, who dined on local kids and lovers, doesn’t seem so odd after all.
We’re built around appetites for life: for food, sex, companionship. We cherish the symbols of fertility in culture. From infancy we learn to manage appetite. Fairy tale ogres and giants warn you not to let outsized greed make you a predator. In “Little Red Riding Hood,” bedridden Granny lives alone, widowed, frail, and hungry enough to need Red’s gift basket of grub. Like food stamps, Red’s family gift is feeding someone needy. After all, only a few centuries ago famine still periodically spoiled dinnertime. This is one reason that witch hysteria accused needy old ladies of eating babies, blighting crops, and enjoying sterile sex with the Devil.
Red Riding Hood dramatizes a version of this fear. Her grandma turns into a wolf who gobbles up all the food—and the “good” Granny and Red too. In effect, the hungry Granny develops a “wolfish” cannibal appetite, consuming her civilized everyday personality in the process. The hunter restores order by cutting open the wolf and freeing Red and the “real” Granny. Whereupon Red fills the wolf’s gut with “deadweight” stones, so that waking up, the wolf dies. The stones stand for the “burden” of guilt and food that’s obsessive and not nourishing: and the the predator dies when he “wakes up” to what he’s done. This is an ancient moral: that cannibal greed destroys you. You’ll eat till you drop.
The wolf’s survival greed is indiscriminate. He’ll even gobble up the family. We chew the bodies of the beloved Little Red Hen, the moocow, and Porky Pig by the billions. We prefer to depersonalize them as “things” or “enemies.” The diet industry reminds us that we feel guilty about overeating, and the air is full of food tips that help to disguise that eating is compulsory: it’s not a choice. We eat or die. Likewise, industrial food “processing” or slaughter is highly secretive, like funeral “homes.” We’re conflicted about killing to eat, partly because it reminds us we have to eat to survive. We try not to notice that eating is ultimately warfare, with animals forced to eat each other. If their owner dies, after a few days hungry pet dogs and cats will have a bite. Chickens are raised in factory compounds that look like concentration camps—actually, death camps.
Since enemies threaten death, it’s logical that in combat, soldiers may run amok and eat parts of the soldiers they kill. The cannibalism converts the enemy into nourishment and power over death. Like appetite, the food value of the dead is psychosomatic—both physiological and symbolic. And appetite is ambivalent too: again, it’s a threat, eat or die. Aristocratic Romans liked to eat living things—a live animal roasting on a spit, say—because they thought eating “more life” was tastier. Jeffrey Dahmer dined on male lovers: the ultimate romantic fusion of souls. As the old song says, “You always hurt the one you love.” And then there’s the Auntie who croons to the new baby, that epitome of lovable new life, “Oh, you’re so cute I could just eat you right up!” The ambivalence shows up in the ancient practice of attributing life-giving properties such as courage or strength to particular body parts “harvested” from a fallen enemy. The prized delicacies allay fear and grow the cannibal hero’s self-esteem.
Food value is part of economic life. Food intake = income = prosperity = more life. Swift’s satirical “Modest Proposal” spotlights the cannibal threat underlying economic life. He recommends that the starving poor sell their kids as food for the rich. The proposal develops the old saying that “the big fish eat up the little fish”. It anticipates the dog-eat-dog mentality celebrated in US business today, where they call Social Darwinism “the free market.” When dog eats dog, only winners survive. Losers are lunch. Again, the underlying idea is warfare. In Swift’s terms, the rich are eating parts of fallen enemies—the losers’ kids.
If you listen closely to the rationales for killing food stamps and health insurance for the poor, it’s warfare and Swift in reverse. The free food is “our” children given by big government to bloodsucking losers who feed on “us.” As polls show, these days Americans are more suspicious of others  and, especially in the deep south, have significantly turned against a government safety net for the hungry, homeless, and black . And you can see why. Given decades of stagnant incomes for all but the rich, and the ongoing jobs crisis, Americans are hungry.
In the best of times the poor live shorter, less healthy lives than others. Cutting the safety net means cutting into life. The haves are consuming the have-nots. And no, this isn’t just a colorful figure of speech.
Think of it this way. Lives are a store of food energy. We consume each other’s energy all the time in the form of work. As long as it’s reciprocal, the consumption seems fair and benefits everyone. But you can see the sinister temptation. If you can take others’ energy without paying for it, that’s more life for you, as in slavery—and cannibalism. Feeding on others gives you power, so in turn you can take away food stamps and unemployment insurance, say, forcing the hungry to work cheap. If work doesn’t pay a “living wage,” then the working poor are dying. If they can never get out of debt, they’re peons—de facto slaves to the boss or the bank. Owners feed on “their” workers as a vampire or the wolf does. Walmart and McDonalds pay so little that their workers need food stamps to get by. You know all this on one level—that’s why you call alpha cannibals “fat cats.” It’s also very likely why we’re fascinated by the swarms of vampire and zombie fantasies in the air.
In Dixie, Ol Massa minimized guilt feelings and retaliation by dehumanizing slaves. Slaves were livestock. You breed them as you use them up, so they replace themselves when they croak. The larder’s always full. Having no legal identity, the slave is socially dead. Today if you’re socially dead, you’re expendable. You don’t need a “living” wage. In a corporate uniform and a mechanical role, low-paid workers today are interchangeable—and not real as persons. If they have no power to bargain over their work, they have no choices. They’re food energy for the boss who owns them and the customers who use them. If you use them up, an unemployed replacement steps in.
Economic cannibals also have another incentive. In feeding yourself, you’re eating up potential competitors. If you think other people are parasites or predators, then you want to swallow them before they eat you alive. It’s survival greed that follows from dog-eat-dog economics.
The problem’s not just snapping jaws and unsightly bite marks, but warped reality. Denial makes out the poor Ito be lazy, clever parasites, blaming the victim. It’s hard to hold the cannibal rich accountable, since they can have lobbyists cook for them and they can put you in the stew pot if you complain. On TV you can watch Donald Trump pick over job candidates the way you’d pick a meat dish from a menu. And if the cannibals have enough money and power, they’re free to swallow or spit out anyone they want. That’s what makes today’s America alarming. The nation resembles developing countries where people warn you not to stop for a dead or injured person lying beside the road, since it could be a trap to rob or blame you. Cannibals will take advantage of any kindness. The body in the ditch is roadkill, and you could be too, pal, so move on.
Even if you personally don’t get eaten, then, cannibalism eats away at trust, putting you in a society of epidemic insecurity and hair-trigger aggression, in which a paranoid gun fancier may answer the doorbell with bullets, as if it’s the wolf at the door not a stranded motorist, a lost neighbor with Alzheimer’s, or Red Riding Hood.
Why call attention to cannibalism? For one thing, we need to be reminded that we can be predators and live by killing and consuming other lives for every meal. We didn’t ask to be born this way, but if you forego food, you die. So the cannibal feast is always tempting. But then, so is civilization. What is civilization? It’s that primal sense of “what is right” you take in from your earliest childhood. Does it work? Well, we find out by packing a lunch basket for Grandma, looking out for little Red, and taming wolves (as dogs, they make great pets).
Resources Used in This Essay:
3. “Starting in 2007, the portion of Americans who said the government should guarantee every person enough to eat and a place to sleep started falling, from 69 percent to 59 percent last year . . . . It’s not unusual for people to react to economic downturns by becoming more self-interested. The recession of 1990-1991 was followed by a drop in the share of people who said the government has a responsibility to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. Opposing welfare programs just when they’re needed most seems perverse, but it may also be human nature. What’s different today is the duration of those shifts. Six years after the 1991 recession ended, public attitudes on the virtues of helping the needy had started to move back up. Today, six years after the onset of the last recession, those numbers are still moving down.”