Sobran Column -- Advancing toward Savagery
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Advancing toward Savagery

January 25, 2000

During the early nineteenth century, a slave trader named Theophilus Conneau kept a journal of his experiences in Africa. On one occasion he witnessed a cannibal orgy, in which one tribe performed acts of torture and mutilation, including castration and decapitation, on another tribe which they had subdued.

[Breaker quote: The road 
to cannibalism]Conneau was particularly struck by the ferocity of the women of the conquering tribe, who, their naked bodies decorated with chalk and red paint, gleefully led the gruesome festivities. The chief matron “bore an infant babe torn from its mother’s womb ... which she tossed high in the air, receiving it on the point of her knife” before eating it. During the ritual this same woman was “adorned with a string of men’s genital parts” while “collecting into a gourd the brains of the decapitated bodies.”

Such practices may not justify European colonialism, but they do help explain why the Europeans thought they were bringing civilization to savage places. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, regretting the white man’s arrogance need not mean idealizing the conquered natives. Chesterton also observed that cannibalism wasn’t a primitive practice but a highly decadent one.

The cannibals weren’t satisfying physical appetites, like carnivorous animals, but indulging a specifically human — or diabolical — malice. The historian Francis Parkman describes Iroquois Indians, having captured a party of Algonquins, roasting and devouring their infants “before the eyes of the agonized mothers, whose shrieks, supplications, and frantic efforts to break the cords that bound them were met with mockery and laughter.”

Mocking the suffering of the victims was part of the fun; the very essence of it, in fact. The lion doesn’t gloat over his prey, with a circle of his fellow felines whooping at the agony of a slowly dismembered antelope.

Inflicting and observing torture for amusement is a distinctively human delight. In the case of the African cannibals, it would be a feeble excuse to say that the unborn child was a mere “fetus,” and therefore somehow not “fully human,” as we say now; the woman who killed it obviously regarded it as human, which was more or less the point of the orgy.

Eating a fetus might strike even the National Abortion Rights Action League as a little unseemly; our enlightened society still retains a few irrational inhibitions, which may, however, eventually go the way of so many other taboos. Western man (including Western woman) has learned to justify abortion, if not yet to enjoy it. We still observe a certain nervous and clinical decorum about the subject.

But we are making progress. It is already possible to purchase aborted children and their body parts from abortionists. New uses are constantly being found for them; in time we may learn to relax and see the potential for fun, humor, and even nourishment they can afford us.

In the anti-Nazi hysteria among the victors after World War II, it was reported that the Germans had made soap and lampshades from the body fat and skin of murdered Jews; such stories have now been exploded as myths. But we are becoming inured to similar practices, provided that the materials are taken before birth. It is worth noting that the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, after his escape to South America, made his living as what would now be called an “abortion provider.” For some years Dr. Mengele, though unobserved and unappreciated, provided a living link between the Nazi era and the liberal era.

We are proving once again that people can get used to anything, including practices that would have sickened their ancestors, as long as those practices are introduced gradually and under suitable euphemisms. Perhaps the first cannibals were somewhat shamefaced about their tastes and had to refer to their repast with a certain delicacy — “alternative cuisine,” or something of the sort — until their contemporaries became more open-minded and receptive to new ideas. Then, at length, the practice may have become so acceptable that it could be enjoyed without apology, and in fact with guilt-free exultation, by the whole tribe.

Is that how it happens? I don’t know; I’m only guessing. But we may be about to find out.

Joseph Sobran

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