Jack Forbes’ Columbus and Other Cannibals was one of the early books to come out of the anti-civilization movement. That milieu–dedicated to the destruction of civilization and all that comes with it–offers an often difficult, yet lucid critique of what is wrong with the world. Arguing that problems are more than governments, economic systems, or individual systems of oppression, the movement argues that problems arise specifically from the very notion of civilization and that problems in society are ingrained in the fabric of society. First published in 1978 and reprinted this year by Seven Stories Press (containing additional chapters), Columbus and other Cannibals introduces readers to this challenging theory.
Forbes–a longtime Native American activist and professor–roots his critique of civilization in the perspective of the indigenous peoples who were subjected to genocide, ecocide, and terrorism at the behest of European conquerors. To explain this, Forbes introduces readers to the Native American concept of the “Wetiko” psychosis–the disease of cannibalism:
“Wetiko is a Cree term which refers to a cannibal or, more specifically, an evil person or spirit who terrorizes other creatures by means of terrible evil acts, including cannibalism.”
Forbes argues that Columbus–the first conqueror–carried this “terribly contagious psychological disease” and introduced it to the Americas. He argues that western civilization is built on imperialism and exploitation, which are essentially forms of cannibalism. Forbes defines cannibalism as “the consuming of another’s life for one’s own private purpose or profit.”
Throughout the book, Forbes explores different aspects of the Wetiko psychosis including the aforementioned genocide of the Native Americans, the rise of patriarchy, authoritarianism, state terrorism, and the state itself. Forbes weaves historical examples into his writing, discussing the Israel-Palestine situation, 9/11, US intervention in Central and South America, and the Roman Empire. He analyzes different aspects of the Wetiko psychosis including lying, sadism, and arrogance–all of which are necessary traits. He also argues that the primary beneficiaries of Wetiko societies are the wealthy and those who rule, but that it is also organized, systemic behavior that depends on the support of those living within Wetiko society. Forbes argues that the system often uses the promise of material prosperity to stifle dissent and gain supporters, some of whom do the dirty work of the ruling class. As examples, Forbes explores colonialism and class conflict.
However, while Forbes is a strong critic of much of what the western world has done, Columbus and other Cannibals is not without hope. At the end of the book, Forbes talks about the possibilities for curing western culture of the Wetiko disease. He stresses the importance of a spiritual movement to confront the insanity of the Wetiko psychosis, as it is a “sickness of the spirit.” He rejects Christianity, explaining that it has all to often allowed or aided Wetiko destruction. Instead, Forbes speaks positively of Native spirituality and a dramatically different way of living in relation to the Earth and other living things. He argues that people need to realize that they are part of the Earth and advocates for a form of animism or “life-ism” that has respect for life, respect for the living, and a respect for all forms of life. Such a worldview would fundamentally change how western culture sees the world:
“But this earth of ours is not ugly. Nor this sky, nor this sun, nor this moon. Nor are the animals and the plants ugly. We live in a mysterious, marvelous universe and it offers us a chance to be cured by its loving embrace.”
Columbus and other Cannibals offers an important critique of the insanity of western civilization, while also offering a possible path for renewal. It is the kind of book that has the potential to greatly expand people’s consciousness and foster a great understanding of the world and what needs to be changed. At the same time, it challenges the basic assumptions of western culture and forces the reader to explore the very foundations of society. Readers who stick through the book will be greatly rewarded.
Jack D. Forbes, Columbus and Other Cannibals, (Seven Stories Press, 2008).