Why cannibalism always brings out the bad jokes

ROGER SIMON

January 17, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

You think it's a dog-eat-dog world?

You wish.

It turns out it's more like a people-eat-people world.

Confidential documents have just come to light indicating that in China in the late '60s and early '70s Red Guards and Communist officials ate people.

At some Chinese high schools, students killed their principals and ate their bodies as a triumph over "counter-revolutionaries."

According to the New York Times, "Government-run cafeterias are said to have displayed bodies dangling on meat hooks and to have served human flesh to employees."

The government documents indicate that at least 137 people and perhaps many more were eaten. Which is not to say such behavior was condoned.

Some of those involved were later punished when the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976: 91 people were expelled from the Communist Party "for having eaten human flesh" and another 39 nonparty members were demoted or had their wages cut.

So it wasn't like a slap on the wrist.

While cannibalism is, in the public imagination, relegated to "primitive" cultures (which the Chinese certainly are not), in fact almost all modern societies, including our own, have long histories of cannibalism.

Just last week, for instance, the movie "Alive" was released.

It is about the survivors of a 1972 plane crash in the Andes in which members of a Uruguayan rugby team ate each other to stay alive for 72 days.

The history of the picture is interesting: The eventual director of the picture, Frank Marshall, had just been sent the script and was driving on the freeway when a red pickup truck swerved in front of his BMW and Marshall saw the bumper sticker: "Rugby Players Eat Their Dead."

Marshall immediately called the chairman of Disney Studios and said: "We've just seen a vision. We're going to commit to this movie."

"We were all laughing," Marshall said later, "but the way it happened was really too weird."

People working on the picture recall all the "stupid jokes and hysterical laughter" that took place when talking about how they would promote the movie.

One stood up and said: "Well, I've got to digest all this and get back to you."

In an attempt to broaden the appeal of a movie, which, being about the consumption of human flesh, might be expected to have a limited audience, Kathleen Kennedy, the movie's co-producer, recently told an interviewer: "Most people think cannibalism is something they will never have to encounter, but everybody flies."

Not everybody flies over the Andes, however. And I am not sure that on your next flight to Chicago, you will have to worry about cannibalism should you go down, say, over Columbus, Ohio. (They have Dunkin' Donuts in Columbus, for starters.)

But what interests me about cannibalism (aside from what interests everybody: How does it really taste?) is that the universal human reaction to cannibalism is humor.

When Jeffrey Dahmer of Milwaukee was found in 1991 to have eaten some of his 16 victims, Dahmer jokes swept the nation:

"Did you hear that Dahmer made bail? Cost him an arm and a leg."

America's most famous cannibal, however, was Alferd Packer of Colorado who killed and ate five fellow prospectors in 1874 while stranded in a blizzard in the Rockies.

Today, there are Packer T-shirts that say "Gimme Five" and Packer coffee mugs that say "Dedicated to Serving His Fellow Man." There are cafeterias named for Packer both at the University of Colorado in Boulder and at the Department of Agriculture in Washington.

In 1982, then-Colorado Gov. Richard D. Lamm unveiled a bust of Packer in the state capital and said: "I have little appetite to appear before you today." The year before, Lamm had refused to grant a pardon to Packer but admitted that Packer had received a "raw deal."

Humor, however sick, is obviously our way of distancing ourselves from the horror of consuming one of our own species. Where this horror comes from, whether it is stamped in our genetic coding or is a product of our environment, is not known for certain.

I only know that in the future I wish people would approach this subject the way it should be approached:

Tastefully.

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