I recently reread one of the more important books I’ve read in my life. I pored over my old annotations and added new ones. I refreshed old insights and conjured new ones. I poured the new insights into a forthcoming book of my own.
My discovery of this book has an interesting provenance. One morning, a year ago or so, on a wind-whipped walk down the beach, my friend Glen had recommended Columbus and other Cannibals by Jack D. Forbes. I’d never heard of it, but I always pay attention to Glen. His book recommendations have changed my life. A week later the book arrived and I devoured it in one setting.
In Columbus and other Cannibals, Forbes introduced the Cree word wetiko and defines it as, “a disease of aggression against other living things, and more precisely, the disease of the consuming of other creatures’ lives and possessions…for one’s own private purpose or profit.”
In other words, Forbes’ words, “cannibalism.” He called it the “greatest epidemic sickness known to man.” He called it “insanity.” It began with the genocide of indigenous peoples, expanded to the destruction of nature, and kept going on from there to slavery, imperialism, colonialism, endless wars of greed, religion, racism and conquest, and, unique in American society, mass incarceration.
Interestingly enough, Forbes barely writes of incarceration because when the book was originally published in 1977 we didn’t have mass incarceration in the US. We now have almost four times the rate of incarceration in the country. It’s a new strain of the cannibalism that has proven incredibly profitable.
It made perfect sense the first time I read it. It slapped me in the face the second time. Forbes presented wetiko and cannibalism as a thesis. It is no thesis. I saw it proved beyond a reasonable doubt in the criminal justice system the past three years. I witnessed insanity. I will never forget what I saw nor do I want to. I hope it will inform the rest of my writing life and perhaps one day I can raise awareness.
There is more to Columbus and other Cannibals, much more. And I urge everyone to read it.