Straight talk about cannibals

February 23, 2014
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

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.[1]

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 [2] and, especially in the deep south, have significantly turned against a government safety net for the hungry, homeless, and black [3]. 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.[4] 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.[5] 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:

1. << http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/01/cannibals-in-the-news-fi&#8230;

2. <

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.”


—Pew Research Center: <<http://www.people-press.org/values-questions/q40f/government-should-help-more-needy-people-even-if-it-means-deeper-debt/#total

4. http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/among-american-wor&#8230;

5. <<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvXXRf-9Zdw&list=PL9C819400A10709C3&index=5



  1. Hi Kirby, you are such a compelling writer. Well done. I’m a Canadian, but I see the same patterns happening here that are happening in the US. I just signed a petition against McDonald’s use of battery cages for the chickens they use in their chicken Mc’Nuggets. I never eat at McDonald’s, but I do eat chicken. I assuage my guilt somewhat by buying chicken from a local ‘organic’ producer. I’ve visited the place and the chickens run around inside and outside as they please. Of course in the end they come to the same earthly fate as the battery chickens. We DO wage war on other species and I suppose the solution is for all of us to become vegetarians. What we do about our own cannibalism, when we are willing to sacrifice the poor, the homeless, the marginalized, the disadvantaged as a barter for future prosperity I don’t know. Is there a solution, in your mind? Is there a problem to solve or is this just the way it is for our species? Becker himself was pretty ambivalent in the last couple of chapters of Escape From Evil on this issue. We obviously cannot deny our animal nature, but is there a way of ‘taming’ it and being more respectful to all forms of life?

  2. Reblogged this on Roger Albert – Always a Sociologist and commented:
    For those of you that have been following my Becker marathon, here’s a blog post by Kirby Farrell that is very well written and carries such an important message. It is ‘Beckerian’ in its inspiration but uses current events in an inspiring message about the US and cannibalism.
    Check it out.

  3. Great job, Kirby. And to Roger’s point about a possible solution, it seems to me that the power dynamics tend to make the situation Kirby described virtually intractable. As John Kenneth Galbraith so insightfully said: “People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage.” So it is possible that the Koch brothers will continue to pump millions into climate change denial until a climate catastrophe radically reduces the livability of planet earth, even for them.

    I think Becker had some insights into why “people of privilege” are driven to accumulate assets, even after they have more money than they could possibly spend. In Escape from Evil, Becker said, “The origin of human drivenness is religious because man experiences creatureliness; the amassing of a surplus, then, goes to the very heart of human motivation, the urge to stand out as a hero, to transcend the limitations of the human condition and achieve victory over impotence and finitude.”

    I think Becker is saying that the mind-numbing greed of the already super-rich is an immortality project for them, and there is no way to reason with them at such a deep level of human motivation. So the situation that Kirby so beautifully described may be intractable by any normal means, given that those with power and money can use that money to force their will on: 1) who is elected, 2) how the elected act after they win, 3) what we hear in the media, and 4) the outcome of pretty much every other public policy decision that the super-rich care about.

    People like Chris Hedges are calling for extraordinary (but non-violent) means to counter the situation Kirby describes. He is probably right, but too few people (at this point) are exercised enough about the problems to take such extraordinary measures. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see how it all unfolds!


  4. It will be interesting to see whether Republicans can actually kill “Obamacare” when they get the electoral sweep they need first. Given the yo-yo nature of American elections, the sweep itself seems pretty likely. But government programs have constituencies both in the bureaucracy and in the electorate. The doctrinaire wing among Republicans have always wanted to do away with Social Security, welfare, food stamps, public housing, & so on. But they’ve never been able to do so, having to settle for extra categorical restrictions on eligibility, or time limits, even when their party was riding on high-water marks. I don’t predict that food stamps will go away. I also doubt the U.S. operates on principles of social Darwinism–although it’s clear our policies favor the rich and are now generating heightened inequality. Americans hate social welfare, but they also see that it’s necessary. No politicians who would dump senile 90-year-olds into the street just so they can close Medicaid would survive the backlash afterward.

  5. I had a girlfriend once that would say those exact words, “I could eat you right up.” Needless to say, I decided it was time to back out of that relationship before I ended up some morning missing an arm or a leg or something worse.

    Having visited New Zealand a couple of times I was impressed with the efficiency of the Maori people. After capturing their enemies they would use them as slaves and when the poor slave could no longer work they would then eat them. Sort of a two for one deal. Makes perfect sense.

    Food is so central to life we have numerous rituals and events that surround it. Consuming the body of Christ is symbolic of union with Him. So does this diminish his energy? Or, is the message that this archetype is boundless in its supply. In another vein the psychic vampire (I’m sure we have all met one at some time or another) that steals energy from his or her victims to survive – one grows weak as the other grows stronger.

    Even within ourselves their is a process of consumption as we go about the business of transformation. The drying of the old to provide fertilizer for newer, more encompassing awareness.

    Anyway, it seems to be a natural process that involves the range of all life on the entire planet. And, like any process it can run amuck until there is a correction to reset the balance. Hopefully, there will be a teaching learned. Hopefully.

    Kirby Benson (The other Kirby)

  6. Thanks for the insights, all.

    Leave it to cannibals to draw out sharp comments. If there’s any answer to the haunting question (“What’s the solution?”), I suppose it would be “creating a wiser culture.” After all, racial lynching has simmered down to relatively few polite “stand your ground” murders with handguns. Slavery’s diminished too, and with kinder, gentler disguises. If we gave up biting the beast, it would ease California’s drought crisis, since veggies require less water than fodder & dead steak processing.

    Cannibalism (the real thing) seems to have been on the menu in a number tribal cultures, including Huron and Iroquois among native Americans. There’s a superb French flick about a sailor captured by
    Caribs in the early days of conquest called “How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman.” It doesn’t moralize the same way we would. It’s the most convincing representation of the mentalities involved I know of. Not sure if it’s on the web somewhere, but it’s not to be missed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: