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Columbus and Other Cannibals by Jack D.…
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Columbus and Other Cannibals

by Jack D. Forbes

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[review originally written for Razorcake magazine]

An early text that inspired the start of the anti-civilization movement, this short book first published in 1978 lays out Jack Forbes' philosophy of what he calls the wétiko, or cannibal, psychosis. Wétiko is a Cree term referring to a cannibal, or "an evil person or spirit who terrorizes other creatures by means of terrible evil acts, including cannibalism." Forbes, a professor emeritus and former chair of Native American Studies at University of California-Davis, proposes that many human beings have suffered for several thousand years from this psychosis and its subsequent effects have directly caused countless imperialistic acts, wars, and other violent episodes. Writing from a Native American perspective, Forbes maintains a steady, even-handed and humble tone throughout the text, systematically describing an entire history of atrocities against chiefly innocent people, most of whom were indigenous to their geographical location. Within this historical review, perhaps most insightful are his explorations of terrorism and organized crime (including state-approved, state-tolerated, and state-prohibited varieties).

Having read other writers who have covered similar territory, including Derrick Jensen (who wrote the foreword for this edition) and Howard Zinn, I was familiar with much of Forbes' subject matter. It's the kind of history one doesn't need to read twice to grasp its meaning. Forbes uses the majority of the book, thirteen out of fifteen chapters, to provide examples of wétiko behavior in different contexts at various points in history. I can see how in 1978 the history that Forbes presents could've sparked the beginning of a movement. Frankly, however, revisiting such negative material as I read, with no accompanying answers in sight, left me feeling drained and experiencing difficulty finishing the book. There is only so much much one can read before the brain starts pleading for answers on how to stop this murderous madness. Finally, in the last two chapters, Forbes relents and draws eloquent parallels between Buddhism and Native American philosophy to present a viable alternative to the wétiko lifestyle.

I think it's crucial that people read books like this. I have no idea what percentage of Americans, for example, have never thought about either the genocide that cleared the way for the founding of their country or the continuing violence around the world that sustains our society as it stands today. When I look around me and see the way people live, though, I suspect the percentage is rather high. I like to think that if they were aware, people would make attempts to alter their lifestyles accordingly. As Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti once stated, "It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." Similarly, Jack Forbes tells us that "to adjust to a wétiko society is to become insane." The more people who refuse to adjust then, the better chance there is of reversing the damage being done to both the Earth and its inhabitants.
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  S.D. | Apr 5, 2014 |
I love the thesis of this book, that modern civilization represents a sick psychosis that infects all of its victims with a greed for power and domination. It's an important point and I agree with it wholeheartedly. An especially poignant aspect of this "illness" is that it infects even the people that it destroys (the poor or otherwise downtrodden), making them into wetiko-wannabes who jump at the first chance to oppress their weaker neighbor, rather than uniting with a common spirit of the exploited to create a better life for everyone.

Unfortunately, that's about all the substance Forbes provides here, and the rest is just examples and slightly different angles of examining the same phenomenon. It comes across as fluff and lost my interest after a while. All of the chapters blend together and I wasn't even sure how Forbes was able to distinguish one from the other in writing it -- the subject seemed exactly the same throughout. A brief survey of the chapter titles corroborates this feeling. Out of 14 chapters, nine of them have the following titles:

Consuming Another's Life: The Wetiko Cannibal Psychosis
Columbus: Cannibal and Hero of Genocide
Deception Brutality, and Greed: The Spread of the Disease
The Structure of the Cannibal's Insanity: Arrogance, Lust, and Materialism
Becoming a Predator: The Process of Corruption
The Matchi Syndrome: Fascination with Evil
Colonialism, Europeanization, and the Destruction of Native Cultures
Savages, Free People, and the Loss of Freedom
Terrorism: A Frequent Aspect of Wetiko Behavior

All of these talk about the same thing, with slightly different emphasis. As a result, the book started out promising but lost me about halfway through. He does make a good point in the last chapter on the interconnectedness of us all. I particularly like the creativity of the statement that we can live without our bodies, but we can't live without the earth/environment (i.e. air, water and heat). Good stuff, just wish there had been more of it.
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  blake.rosser | Jul 28, 2013 |
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