A Minnesota dentist has paid tens of thousands of dollars to “hunt” a rhino, an elk, a leopard, and lately Cecil the 13 year old celebrity lion in an African park.
Public opinion is outraged. The “hunt” has the stink of injustice about it. Dentist Walter Palmer hired a guide to bait Cecil out of a protected reserve. The dentist wounded him with his fancy bow, then trailed the dying “king of beasts” for 40 hours till he could finish him off with a bullet. Realizing their mistake, the mighty hunters naturally tried to hide Cecil’s GPS collar and left his severed head behind.
Wildlife authorities in Zimbabwe are making noises abut prosecuting Palmer. His next hunt may be for a shark with a briefcase.
The symbolic logic at work is worth some thought because it’s so prominent in the air these days. To kill a lion, the “king of beasts,” is to kill a mythic predator. The fantasy is that in bagging a “wild” animal, the mild dentist from Minnesota is overpowering “wild” death. The hunter takes nutrition out of the dead prey, but also the animal’s spirit strength. Aztec warriors dressed up in jaguar skins to give themselves a little extra wildcat pick-me-up while killing enemies on the job.
Dentist vs Lion pits two top-dog males in a fight to the death to prove potency and death-defying juju. Conservatives often justify dog-eat-dog survival economics as Social Darwinism, “nature red in [ahem] tooth and claw.”
The public is outraged because the fantasy is such a lie. The rich suburbanite with his store-bought weapons hires a “guide” to whack an elderly tourist lion who’d lost his fear of humans and wore an Oxford University GPS collar. Like drones and sniper wetdreams, it’s shooting fish in a barrel without risk or even a sweat.
In this reading the tame hunter is a sort of murderer, and since he lured the lion out of the park, an assassin. Instead of being an alpha animal, the dentist has used lies and trophy heads the way lynch mobs cut off parts of tortured blacks as souvenirs of their glorious triumph over a “bestial” scapegoat.
Think of the familiar symbolic analogues to the hunt. It’s the child’s triumph over a father, the rebellious subject’s overthrow of the evil king. It’s the fired employee coming back in fatigues and shooting the boss. It’s the alienated schoolkid with a military assault weapon slaughtering schoolmates. For that matter, think of the ISIS hot heads or the Saudigovernment beheading “trophy” POWs (ISIS) and criminals (Saudis) to dramatize superiority.
The “big game” hunt brings trophy glory the way rampage killing spurs global fame. The sleazy dishonesty of Walter Palmer’s ambush tells us how urgent his fantasy had become. But then, think of how the American corporate military played big game hunter in Iraq, slaughtering thousands in a safari that has thrown the entire region into chaos. Propaganda tried to keep the spotlight on the “big predator” Saddam Hussein, who had nothing to do with 9/11, but reality chased that script into the dumpster.
In panic, a sleazy war pulls on a religious helmet. Note the fantasies in “The Marine Rifle Creed”: “My rifle is human . . . We will become part of each other . . . Before God, I swear this creed. My rifle and myself are the defenders of my country. We are the masters of our enemy. WE ARE THE SAVIORS OF MY LIFE. So be it, until victory is America’s and there is no enemy, but peace.”
Forget the bad writing (they’re creating “no enemy but peace”). The creed makes the warrior-hero a quasi-religious figure. It turns the hunt into a sacred crusade so the killers won’t feel so guilty violating the deep prohibitions against killing others. As we see in thePTSD suffering and suicides of vets, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes you just can’t hide the GPS collar and the severed head.
But there’s another fantasy in play too. This summer Americans have been also appalled at the spectacle of cops killing trophy “bad” blacks. As Dylann Roof justified shooting up a Charleston prayer group, black folks are rapists who’d exterminate whites—just as lions are predators. Trapped in his child brain, trying to be a big (ahem) shot, he reasons that it’s kill or be killed.
The point is not that police and a bigshot dentist are conscious racists, but that a constellation of fantasies contribute to their viciousness. The cop who threatened to “light up” Sandra Bland in Texas saw her as a wild animal he had to subdue at all costs. Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown reported that he saw Brown as the mythic, wild “Hulk” and felt by contrast like a helpless child.
Such fantasies are exaggerated by the cruel stress in American life that keeps audiences pumped up for nitwit rant broadcasting, Trump and dump meanness, and TV “nature” programming that obsesses over sharks, lions, alligators, and other voracious jaws. I
For a dentist, such jaws can be especially potent, since destists have an unusually highsuicide rate and deal every day with the spectacle of inner human decay. The mouth, after all, focuses the terrifying contradictions of being human. It’s the source of civilized speech, kissing, and taste, but also hides bacteria and rot, not to mention the teeth we use to kill and chew up the bodies of other creatures.
We have to kill and eat or we’d die—again, we’re at once victims and warrior heroes brandishing fine china, knives and forks. We display French cookware on the wall and venerate “cuisine.” But the sneaky reality is that we digest our “prey” into shameful excrement, and then project our angry guilt onto “assholes” and “shitheads.” Dentists charge us a lot of money to look into this frightening paradox every day. Whether they know it or not. Killing “big game” is taking out your fear and rage on a scapegoat, the more shameful when the scapegoat is in effect everybody’s national pet.
A child dresses up as Bwana the great white hunter. If he hasn’t been able to understand the courage it takes to make something healthy out of the fearful human paradox, Bwana the dentist is pitifully trapped in the maw out of which he makes his living.
Now available in paperback from Leveller’s Press and Amazon:
When behavior becomes a cultural style, berserk abandon is terrifying yet also alluring. It promises access to extraordinary resources by overthrowing inhibitions. Berserk style has shaped many areas of contemporary American culture, from warfare to politics and intimate life. Focusing on post-Vietnam America and using perspectives from psychology, anthropology, and physiology, Farrell demonstrates the need to unpack the confusions in language and cultural fantasy that drive the nation’s fascination with berserk style.
<<This book amazes me with its audacity, its clarity, and its scope. We usually think of ‘berserk’ behaviors—from apocalyptic rampage killings to ecstatic revels like Burning Man—as extremes of experience, outside ordinary lives. in fascinating detail, Farrell shows how contemporary culture has reframed many varieties of abandon into self-conscious strategies of sense-making and control.
Abandon has become a common lens for organizing modern experience and an often troubling resource for mobilizing and rationalizing cultural and political action.This landmark analysis both enlightens and empowers us.>>
—Les Gasser, Professor of Information and Computer Science, U. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaigne.