The Six Sins of the Wikipedia

It is a question of time before the Wikipedia self-destructs and implodes. It poses such low barriers to entry (anyone can edit any number of its articles) that it is already attracting masses of teenagers as “contributors” and “editors”, not to mention the less savory flotsam and jetsam of cyber-life. People who are regularly excluded or at least moderated in every other Internet community are welcomed, no questions asked, by this wannabe self-styled “encyclopedia”

Six cardinal (and, in the long-term, deadly) sins plague this online venture. What unites and underlies all its deficiencies is simple: Wikipedia dissembles about what it is and how it operates. It is a self-righteous confabulation and its success in deceiving the many attests not only to the gullibility of the vast majority of Netizens but to the PR savvy of its sleek and slick operators.

1. The Wikipedia is opaque and encourages recklessness

The overwhelming majority of contributors to and editors of the Wikipedia remain anonymous or pseudonymous throughout the process. Anyone can register and members’ screen-names (handles) mean nothing and lead nowhere. Thus, no one is forced to take responsibility for what he or she adds to the “encyclopedia” or subtracts from it.

This amounts to an impenetrable smokescreen: identities can rarely be established and evading the legal consequences of one’s actions or omissions is easy. As the exposure of the confabulated professional biography of Wikipedia Arbitrator Essjay in March 2007 demonstrates, some prominent editors and senior administrators probably claim fake credentials as well.

A software tool developed and posted online in mid-2007, the Wikiscanner, unearthed tens of thousands of self-interested edits by “contributors” as diverse as the CIA, the Canadian government, and Disney. This followed in the wake of a spate of scandals involving biased and tainted edits by political staffers and pranksters.

Everything in the Wikipedia can be and frequently is edited, re-written and erased and this includes the talk pages and even, to my utter amazement, in some cases, the history pages! In other words, one cannot gain an impartial view of the editorial process by sifting through the talk and history pages of articles (most of which are typically monopolized by fiercely territorial “editors”). History, not unlike in certain authoritarian regimes, is being constantly re-jigged on the Wikipedia!

2. The Wikipedia is anarchic, not democratic

The Wikipedia is not an experiment in online democracy, but a form of pernicious anarchy. It espouses two misconceptions: (a) That chaos can and does lead to the generation of artifacts with lasting value and (b) That knowledge is an emergent, mass phenomenon. But The Wikipedia is not conducive to the unfettered exchange of information and opinion that is a prerequisite to both (a) and (b). It is a war zone where many fear to tread. the Wikipedia is a negative filter (see the next point).

3. The Might is Right Editorial Principle

Lacking quality control by design, the Wikipedia rewards quantity. The more one posts and interacts with others, the higher one’s status, both informal and official. In the Wikipedia planet, authority is a function of the number of edits, no matter how frivolous. The more aggressive (even violent) a member is; the more prone to flame, bully, and harass; the more inclined to form coalitions with like-minded trolls; the less of a life he or she has outside the Wikipedia, the more they are likely to end up being administrators.

The result is erratic editing. Many entries are completely re-written (not to say vandalized) with the arrival of new kids on the Wikipedia block. Contrary to advertently-fostered impressions, the Wikipedia is not a cumulative process. Its text goes through dizzyingly rapid and oft-repeated cycles of destruction and the initial contributions are at times far deeper and more comprehensive than later, “edited”, editions of same.

Wikipedia is misrepresented as an open source endeavor. Nothing can be further from the truth. Open source efforts, such as Linux, involve a group of last-instance decision-makers that coordinate, vet, and cull the flow of suggestions, improvements, criticism, and offers from the public. Open source communities are hierarchical, not stochastic.

Moreover, it is far easier to evaluate the quality of a given snippet of software code than it is to judge the truth-content of an edit to an article, especially if it deals with “soft” and “fuzzy” topics, which involve the weighing of opinions and the well-informed exercise of value judgments.

4. Wikipedia is against real knowledge

The Wikipedia’s ethos is malignantly anti-elitist. Experts are scorned and rebuffed, attacked, and abused with official sanction and blessing. Since everyone is assumed to be equally qualified to edit and contribute, no one is entitled to a privileged position by virtue of scholarship, academic credentials, or even life experience.

The Wikipedia is the epitome and the reification of an ominous trend: Internet surfing came to replace research, online eclecticism supplanted scholarship, and trivia passes for erudition. Everyone’s an instant scholar. If you know how to use a search engine, you are an authority.

Wikipdians boast that the articles in their “encyclopedia” are replete with citations and references. But citations from which sources and references to which works and authors? Absent the relevant credentials and education, how can an editor tell the difference between information and disinformation, quacks and authorities, fact and hearsay, truth and confabulation?

Knowledge is not comprised of lists of facts, “facts”, factoids, and rumors, the bread and butter of the Wikipedia. Real facts have to be verified, classified, and arranged within a historical and cultural context. Wikipedia articles read like laundry lists of information gleaned from secondary sources and invariably lack context and deep, true understanding of their subject matter.

Can Teenagers write an Encyclopedia?

The vast majority of Wikipedia contributors and editors are under the age of 25. Many of the administrators (senior editors) are in their teens. This has been established by a survey conducted in 2003 and in various recent interviews with Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of the enterprise.

The truth is that teenagers cannot do the referencing and research that are the prerequisite to serious scholarship – unless you stretch these words to an absurd limit. Research is not about hoarding facts. It is about identifying and applying context and about possessing a synoptic view of ostensibly unrelated data.

Moreover, teenagers can’t tell hype from fact and fad from fixture. They lack the perspectives that life and learning -structured, frontal, hierarchical learning – bring with them.

Knowledge is not another democratic institution. It is hierarchical for good reason and the hierarchy is built on merit and the merit is founded on learning.

It is not surprising that the Wikipedia emerged in the USA whose “culture” consists of truncated attention spans, snippets and soundbites, shortcuts and cliff notes. The Wikipedia is a pernicious counter-cultural phenomenon. It does not elevate or celebrate knowledge. The Wikipedia degrades knowledge by commoditizing it and by removing the filters, the gatekeepers, and the barriers to entry that have proven so essential hitherto.

Recently, on a discussion list dedicated to books with a largely academic membership, I pointed out an error in one of the Wikipedia’s articles. The responses I received were chilling. One member told me that he uses the Wikipedia to get a rough idea about topics that are not worth the time needed to visit the library. Whether the rough ideas he was provided with courtesy the Wikipedia were correct or counterfactual seemed not to matter to him. Others expressed a mystical belief in the veracity of “knowledge” assembled by the masses of anonymous contributors to the Wikipedia. Everyone professed to prefer the content proffered by the Wikipedia to the information afforded by the Britannica Encyclopedia or by established experts!

Two members attempted to disproved my assertion (regarding the error in the Wikipedia) by pointing to a haphazard selection of links to a variety of Internet sources. Not one of them referred to a reputable authority on the subject, yet, based largely on the Wikipedia and a sporadic trip in cyberspace, they felt sufficiently confident to challenge my observation (which is supported by virtually all the leading luminaries in the field).

These gut reactions mirror the Wikipedia’s “editorial” process. To the best of my knowledge, none of my respondents was qualified to comment. None of them holds a relevant academic degree. Neither do I. But I strove to stand on the shoulders of giants when I spotted the error while my respondents explicitly and proudly refused to do so as a matter of principle!

This may reflect the difference in academic traditions between the United States and the rest of the world. Members of individualistic, self-reliant and narcissistic societies inevitably rebel against authority and tend to believe in their own omnipotence and omniscience. Conversely, the denizens of more collectivist and consensus-seeking cultures, are less sanguine and grandiose and more willing to accept teachings ex-cathedra. So said Theodore Millon, a great scholar and an undisputed authority on personality disorders.

5. Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia

Truth in advertising is not the Wikipedia’s strong suit. It presents itself, egregiously, as an encyclopedia. Yet, at best it is a community of users who exchange eclectic “information” on a regular and semi-structured basis. This deliberate misrepresentation snags most occasional visitors who are not acquainted with the arcane ways of the Wikipedia and trust it implicitly and explicitly to deliver facts and well-founded opinions.

There is a lot the Wikipedia can do to dispel such dangerous misconceptions (for instance, it could post disclaimers on all its articles and not only on a few selected pages). That it chooses to propagate the deception is telling and renders it the equivalent of an intellectual scam, a colossal act of con-artistry.

The Wikipedia thus retards genuine learning by serving as the path of least resistance and as a substitute to the real thing: edited, peer-reviewed works of reference. High school and university students now make the Wikipedia not only their first but their exclusive “research” destination.

Moreover, the Wikipedia’s content is often reproduced on thousands of other Website WITHOUT any of its disclaimers and without attribution or identification of the source. The other day I visited www.allexpert.com and clicked on its “free encyclopedia”. It is a mirror of the Wikipedia, but without anything to indicate that it is not a true, authoritative, peer-reviewed encyclopedia. The origin of the articles – Wikipedia – was not indicated anywhere.

It could have been different.

Consider, for instance the online and free Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Each entry is written by an expert but is frequently revised based on input from members of the public. It combines the best elements of the Wikipedia (feedback-driven evolution) with none of its deficiencies.

6. The Wikipedia is rife with libel and violations of copyrights

As recent events clearly demonstrate, the Wikipedia is a hotbed of slander and libel. It is regularly manipulated by interns, political staffers, public relations consultants, marketing personnel, special interest groups, political parties, business firms, brand managers, and others with an axe to grind. It serves as a platform for settling personal accounts, defaming, distorting the truth, and re-writing history.

Less known is the fact that the Wikipedia is potentially and arguably the greatest single repository of copyright infringements. A study conducted in 2006 put the number of completely plagiarized articles at 1% of the total – a whopping 15,000 in all. Books – from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, through David Irving’s controversial work, down to my own, far humbler, tomes – are regularly ripped off and sizable chunks are posted in various articles, with and without attribution. The Wikipedia resembles P2P (peer-to-peer) networks such as the first incarnation of Napster: it allows users to illegally share pirated content using an application (Wiki) and a central Website (the Wikipedia).

The Wikipedia does not provide any effective mechanism to redress wrongs, address problems, and remedy libel and copyright infringements. Editing the offending articles is useless as these are often “reverted” (restored) by the offenders themselves.

My personal experience is that correspondence with and complaints to Wikimedia and to Jimmy Wales go unanswered or stonewalled by a variety of minions. Even when (rarely) the offending content is removed from the body of an article it remains available in its history pages.

The Wikipedia has been legally shielded from litigation because, hitherto, it enjoyed the same status that Bulletin Boards Services (BBS) and other, free for all, communities have. In short: where no editorial oversight is exerted, no legal liability arises to the host even in cases of proven libel and breaches of copyright.

But the Wikipedia has been treading a thin line here as well. Anyone who ever tried to contribute to this “encyclopedia” discovered soon enough that it is micromanaged by a cabal of c. 1000 administrators (not to mention the Wikimedia’s full-time staff, fuelled by 2 million US dollars in public donations). These senior editors regularly interfere in the contents of articles. They do so often without any rhyme or reason and on a whim (hence the anarchy) – but edit they do.

This fact and recent statements by Wales to the effect that the Wikipedia is actually regularly edited may provoke victims of the Wikipedia into considering class action lawsuits against the Wikimedia, Jimmy Wales personally, and their Web hosting company.

The Wikipedia is an edited publication. The New-York Times is responsible for anything it publishes in its op-ed section. Radio stations pay fines for airing obscenities in call-in shows. Why treat the Wikipedia any differently? Perhaps, hit in the wallet, it will develop the minimal norms of responsibility and truthfulness that are routinely expected of less presumptuous and more inconspicuous undertakings on the Internet.

Google-Wikipedia-MySpace – How Teenagers Hijacked the Internet

A recent (late 2006) study by Heather Hopkins from Hitwise demonstrates the existence of a pernicious feedback loop between Google, Wikipedia, MySpace, and Blogspot. Wikipedia gets 54% of its traffic from Google search results. The majority of Wikipedia visitors then proceed to MySpace or Blogspot, both of which use Google as their search service and serve Google-generated advertisements.

Google has changed its search algorithm in late 2005-early 2006. I have been monitoring 154 keywords on Google since 1999. Of these, the number one (#1) search result in 128 keywords is now a Wikipedia article. More than a quarter (38 out of 128) of these “articles” are what the Wikipedia calls “stubs” (one or two sentences to be expanded by Wikipedians in the future). Between 7 and 10 of the articles that made it to the much-coveted number one spot are … empty pages, placeholders, yet to be written!

This is Google’s policy now: Wikipedia articles regardless of their length or quality or even mere existence are placed by Google’s algorithm high up in the search results. Google even makes a Wikipedia search engine available to Webmasters for their Websites. The relationship between Google and Wikipedia is clearly intimate and mutually-reinforcing.

Google’s new algorithm, codenamed Big Daddy, still calculates the popularity of Websites by counting incoming links. An incoming link is a link to a given Website placed on an unrelated page somewhere on the Web. The more numerous such links – the higher the placement in Google’s search results pages. To avoid spamming and link farms, Google now rates the quality of “good and bad Internet neighborhoods”. Not all incoming links are treated equally. Some Internet properties are shunned. Links from such “bad” Websites actually contribute negatively to the overall score.

The top results in all 154 keywords I have been diligently monitoring since 1999 have changed dramatically since April 2006. The only common thread in all these upheavals is one: the more incoming links from MySpace a Website has – the higher it is placed in the search results.

In other words: if Website A has 700 incoming links from 700 different Websites and website B has 700 incoming links, all of them from various pages on MySpace, Website B is ranked (much) higher in the search results. This holds true even when both Websites A and B sport the same PageRank. This holds true even if the bulk of Website A’s incoming links come from “good properties” in “good Internet neighborhoods”. Incoming links from MySpace trump every other category of incoming links.

An unsettling pattern emerges:

Wikipedia, the “encyclopedia” whose “editors” are mostly unqualified teenagers and young adults is touted by Google as an authoritative source of information. In search results, it is placed well ahead of sources of veritable information such as universities, government institutions, the home pages of recognized experts, the online full-text content of peer-reviewed professional and scholarly publications, real encyclopedias (such as the Encarta), and so on.

MySpace whose 110 million users are predominantly prepubescent and adolescents now dictates what Websites will occupy the first search results in Google’s search results pages. It is very easy to spam MySpace. It is considered by some experts to be a vast storehouse of link farms masquerading as “social networks”.

Google has vested, though unofficial and unannounced and, therefore, undisclosed interests in both Wikipedia and MySpace. Wikipedia visitors end up on various properties whose search and ad placement technologies are Google’s and Wikipedia would have shriveled into insignificance had it not been to Google’s relentless promotion of its content.

The Wikipedians Fight Back

This is the fifth essay I have written about the Wikipedia. Evidently, Wikipedians, Wikipedia, and Wikimedia are vehemently opposed to free speech when it is directed against them.

Judge for yourselves:

A group of Wikipedians apparently decided to take revenge and/or to warn me off. They have authored a defamatory and slanderous article about “Sam Vaknin” in their “encyclopedia”. To leave no room for doubt, at the bottom of this new entry about me, they listed all my articles against the Wikipedia. After repeated complaints and legal threats, the article was removed, though any “editor” can still write an equally-slanderous new one at any time.

Additionally, I received an e-mail message from Brad Patrick, the Wikimedia’s General Counsel (attorney), asking me to copy him on all future correspondence with Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, or anyone else associated with the Wikimedia Foundation and its projects. I declined his “request”. He then proceeded to ask to communicate with my lawyer since “I raised the issue of suing his client.” Couldn’t be subtler.

I was also banned from posting to the Wikipedia – my punishment for what the Wikipedia calls “sockpuppetry” (essentially, editing articles without first logging in to one’s account). It is ironic, since the vast majority of Wikipedians – including the administrator who banned me – edit articles anonymously or hide behind utterly meaningless handles and screen names. There is not a shred of proof, of course, that I have edited any article, with or without logging in.

Finally, my name as well as references to my work were removed from a few articles (for instance, from the entries about the Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Narcissism (Psychology)). At least one of the “editors” who were responsible for what appears to be a vindictive act (“Danny”) claims to be somehow associated with the Wikimedia’s grants commission. Another editor – Zeraeph – has been stalking me and members of my support groups for almost ten years now.

Interview with Tom Panelas – Encyclopedia Britannica (September 2006)

Tom Panelas is the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Director of Corporate Communications

Q. Is the Wikipedia an encyclopedia in any sense of the word?

A. I don’t think it’s crucial that everyone agree on whether Wikipedia is or is not an encyclopedia. What’s important is that people who might use it understand what it is and how it differs from the reference works they’re used to. Wikipedia allows anyone to write and edit articles, regardless of their knowledge of the subjects on which they’re writing, their ability to write, or their commitment to truth. This policy has allowed Wikipedia to grow large very fast, but it’s come at a price.

The price is that many of its articles are inaccurate, poorly written, long and bloated, or laden with bias and spin. Despite what some people would like to believe about Wikipedia, that its system is self-correcting, many inaccuracies remain for long periods of time, new ones are added, and, judging from quite a few media reports, sound information posted by people knowledgeable on a subject is often undone by others who know nothing about it. This is a natural result of the way Wikipedia is put together, its willingness to let anyone write and edit and unwillingness to give precedence to people who know what they’re talking about. People who use Wikipedia should be aware of these liabilities.

Q. The Britannica used to be freely accessible until it was converted, a few years back, into a subscriber-only resource. Do you regret this decision? Perhaps if the Britannica were to provide a free authoritative alternative to the Wikipedia, it would still be the first stop of seekers of information online?

A. We don’t regret the decision to charge a subscription fee for the premium portions of Britannica Online. Today our site has thousands of free articles, and those who subscribe to our premium service pay a fraction of what it cost for access to a high-quality, reliable encyclopedia only a few years ago. About a hundred million people worldwide have access to the Encyclopaedia Britannica online, through schools, libraries, and universities, and they don’t pay for it at all.

Britannica has indeed become an alternative – not just to Wikipedia but to all of the unreliable information that courses through the public sphere these days, much of it on the Internet. The Web has been great for enabling publishers like us to reach many more people than we ever could before, but it’s also made it possible for errors, propaganda, and urban myths to appear in the guise of factual truth. As more people realize that the contents of the Internet are often not what they seem to be, they’ve turned to sources like Britannica, which apply the same rigorous standards to our online products that we have always used in
all of our products.

Q. “Nature” compared the Wikipedia to the Britannica and resolved that both suffer, more or less, from the same rate of errors. You hotly disputed these findings. Can you elaborate?

A. The Nature article was bogus. Responsible people who paid attention to the facts understand that it’s been discredited and don’t even cite it. We spent twenty single-spaced pages rebutting it, so there’s little need for elaboration beyond that. You can read what we said here

http://corporate.britannica.com/britannica_nature_response.pdf

You can also read what USA Today

http://www.usatoday.com/tech/columnist/andrewkantor/2006-03-30-nature-britannica_x.htm

and Nicholas Carr

http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2006/03/britannicas_ind.php

had to say about it.

Q. Peer-reviewed, professionally-edited reference works do have their shortcomings (elitism, conservatism, lack of pluralism, limitations of information available to the scholars involved). “Egalitarian” communal efforts like the Wikipedia do unearth, at times, data not available in “old-fashioned” encyclopedias. Moreover, the Wikipedia offers a far wider range of coverage and real-time updates. Can’t it complement the Britannica? Can’t the two even collaborate in some ways?

A. It’s a myth that professionally edited reference works are limited or elitist. On the contrary, using a rigorous editorial method that draws on people who have spent their lives mastering their subjects produces an excellent balance in perspective. We always direct our contributors to include all major controversies in their surveys of a subject, whether those points of view are fashionable or not. This approach produces good articles for lay readers, who are the people who use encyclopedias. When the work is done by volunteers who aren’t adept at this kind of work, the results often settle into a comfortable consensus that favors the viewpoint in vogue among the group of people doing the work. Usually, it’s the people who are trained and experienced in going beyond their own points of view that manage to do it well.


Also Read:

The Incredible Web

Thoughts on the Internet’s Founding Myths

Is Education a Public Good?

The Idea of Reference

The Future of the Book

The Kidnapping of Content

The Internet and the Library

The Future of Online Reference

Will Content Ever be Profitable?

The Disintermediation of Content

The Future of Electronic Publishing

Free Online Scholarship – Interview with Peter Suber


Copyright Notice

This material is copyrighted. Free, unrestricted use is allowed on a non commercial basis.
The author’s name and a link to this Website must be incorporated in any reproduction of the material for any use and by any means.


The Internet Cycle

The Internet – A Medium or a Message?

The Solow Paradox

The Internet in Countries in Transition

The Revolt of the Poor – Intellectual Property Rights

How to Write a Business Plan

Decision Support Systems

The Demise of the Dinosaur PTTs

The Professions of the Future

Knowledge and Power

(Articles are added periodically)

Nothing is Happening at Home

Mother tells me not to say anything at school about what is happening at home. Nothing is happening at home. Come morning, I wake up from my restless sleep and either I wetted my bed or I didn’t. If I did, mother silently packs off my soaked pajamas and the damp sheets, casting a harsh glance at the black stain that seeps into the bed’s upholstery. The house already reeks and she opens the shutters and lays the linen on the window panes, half out and the dry half in.

I get dressed and brush my teeth. I stare at my feet that are the shape of irons and conceal them, standing on one naked foot and then another, enthralled by their curvaceous obesity. The white paste and my saliva swirl in my mouth and drip on my undershirt in odoriferous stripes. I have bad breath but I don’t know it yet. Nir will tell me and then I will. I frown and pull the polluted garment away, as though I could undress horizontally instead of vertically, hands stretched upwards. It turns dark for a moment and scary so I scream. And this is how I earn today’s first slap. Mother dumps the soiled underthings in the gaping laundry pale. Her eyes are desperate. I am not a successful kid. I am ugly and immature and I have an eggplant nose (“berengena” in Ladino). I rub my hurting cheek and put on the sky blue school uniform shirt and trousers. I don’t know how to tie my shoelaces. Instead of slender butterflies I get knotted caterpillars, bound larva, repulsive insects with two plastic tipped antennas. My mother is taking care of my small sister. I wait patiently. She sighs and places the baby on the bed. She steps towards me and I recoil because I don’t know how mad I made her. I am not sure what it’s going to be this time. Sometimes she just groans and ties the laces with one incisive motion but at other times she pinches me real hard and we are both mum and my blood streams down to her nip until the place acquires shades of black, and blue and deep purple. She doesn’t have to tell me to roll down my sleeves. I do it. The dirty laundry of this family stays at home. Our secrets are ours and no one else’s. Sometimes I imagine us like a fortress and the enemy would kill to learn all kinds of things about us but we are not going to let it, no way. We will protect each other and we will hold them back.

On the days that mother washes the house, I withdraw to a corner and I imagine a mighty army, shooting arrows from all kinds of cracks and casements and I see a hero and he is fighting empty-handed in a variety of martial arts and he wins. Cooped up in an angle, the dirty water churning around me, rivulets of our effluence, revolting strands of hair and nail clippings. Then she spreads a tattered blanket in the tiny balcony and turns on the radio and we listen to the Program for the Mother and Child, Listen now you lovely kids, our program is complete and she brings me a big bowl of fruits and I eat them and feed my sister, too.

When the shoelaces business is over, I turn my back to her and await the heft of my schoolbag and I exit without saying goodbye or so long or anything. She yells after me to be careful how I cross the street, there are cars, and to be wary of children, don’t let them beat you. Once, a stranger lifted me on his shoulders and asked me to read aloud the names on the mailboxes. We went through many buildings, him and me. He told me that he was looking for some family. When I returned home, they shouted at me something awful and warned me not to associate with strangers because they are dangerous, this is a fortress and we are in it. Even our extended family don’t visit. Mother and father don’t like it when they do. They set a table with all kinds of alcoholic drinks and non-alcoholic beverages that we, the children are allowed to consume but mother’s eyes follow everyone to see if they have touched anything and she doesn’t like at all the mess they make, these guests.

I don’t pee at school because the urinals are not clean or something. I don’t remember why, I just know not to pee. Mother tells me not to hold back, it isn’t healthy but I abstain on purpose. I want to pee at home. When I come back, mother doesn’t let me visit the restroom to get sorted out. That’s how we call it, “sorted out”. It’s a word the teacher Mina taught us, she said that it is not nice to pee, better to get sorted out. Mother adores this word and it became compulsory, because we are not allowed to use foul language. So I ask permission to get sorted out and mother takes a broom to me and beats me forcefully on the back and all the neighbors stand at  the entrance door and watch and I pee on myself and on the floor is this large yellow puddle in which I stand. Mummy’s broom gets all wet and the neighbors laugh and mother sends me away to change my clothes, perhaps now I will learn not to hold back at school. She takes down my trousers and I am exposed to the jeering crowd, drenched and naked. It isn’t a good day, this one. I read all evening and I read at night and I read during the morning. I read a lot throughout this not so good day.

Mother could have been a famous author or an important actress but instead she had us and did not become one. She became a housewife. There is a lot of sadness and a lot of anger when she tells us that and also how once she appeared in a play as Pook the naughty dwarf and everyone complimented her and urged her to join a professional troupe. She couldn’t do it because she was working in a shoe store on Mount Carmel to support her father and her mother who didn’t love her at all because she was boyish. She wore her hair like a boy and dressed like a boy and was as daring as a boy and she gulped huge quantities of salty soup and three loaves of bread when she came back from work at the shop owned by the Yekkes (German-Jews) whom she admired. When I was born, the radio broadcast the proceedings of the Eichmann trial and she called me “My Little Eichmann” but that was only in jest. These Yekkes with their order and efficiency and table manners and how she studied German and they all admired her in return. And now this: a wailing baby and the dripping bed sheets of her first born (you are not a child anymore!) already six years old and must grow up and her fingernails gouging my veins on the inside of my arm and all my blood rushing towards her and staining and she stares down at her hand, a glimmer in her eyes wide open and I slowly extract my arm from her grasp and she does not resist it. She just sighs and brings some stinging violet iodine and smears it on the lacerations. After some time they scar and all that remain are pale and elongated mother traces.

So now I am reading and am in all my imaginary kingdoms and writing horror poems that mother finds and stashes on a towering cupboard to make me stop it because it’s sick and she doesn’t want to see it again. She tears the books I borrow from the public library and flings them out of the concrete bars that frame our laundry room where we also dine on a tiny wooden table. Through these bars she tears my realms apart and down to the shriveling grass and I leave everything and gallop downstairs because I am afraid that by the time I get to my shredded books someone will abscond with them or the wind will scatter them or the rain. I find them prostrate and wounded and I salve them with my spit to heal them like mother’s purple iodine. I think that maybe my saliva will glue them back thick as it is but they remain the same, only now their torn pages are also damp. Back at home father and I sellotape the ruptured leaves and when I go to the library, I say all kinds of lies or put on an innocent face so that the librarian Shula will not flip through it and see our shoddy handicraft, my father’s and my own, even tough he has golden hands and fixes everything at home. But I keep reading, sometimes five whole books a day. I am completely uninterested in their content. I don’t read even one of them to its end, skip numerous paragraphs, don’t even finish thrillers or mysteries. Just scan the pages, dimly aware of the words and father says to mother when she curses me under her breath, what do you want from him, you don’t understand him at all and who can, he doesn’t belong to us, he is from another planet. I weep when I hear these words, my silent tears, not the cries I give out when I am beaten and not the self-indulgent whimpering and see how ugly you are when you are like that. No, this is a true release between me and my pillow and I feel then how poor they are and how much I should pity them and not the other way around, because I am not from this world and I don’t belong and they have to raise me all the same. Even though they are proud of me because I am a star pupil and give the keynote addresses in all the school and municipal events and declare open and closed all the ceremonies and from a tender age I had the voice of s radio announcer and am a prodigy with a bright future. Mother herself tells me that when we sit around the table and she looks my age she is so young and with a boyish haircut and pink, taut skin on her high cheekbones. She says that she is proud of me but not to let it go to my head, but there is a change in her attitude towards me, like a new fear, like I am out of the fortress now, unpredictable, from another world and don’t belong.

She used to tell us about Gamliel the Sage and his adventures that always had an object lesson with his scrawny and miserable goat and his stupid neighbors that he always tricked and we would beg, mother mother, more and she graciously consented and those were afternoons of magic and I felt no need to read, only to listen to the stories of the Sage and his donkey and his son and his goat and to sip from that sweetened peach-flavored drink she made us.

But then she would say enough and ask who touched the refrigerator and we would say not we but she knew. She always pointed at us and said that we had touched the refrigerator and we know we mustn’t and how her life is being ruined by the need to clean after us and then the beatings, the beatings. All our body.

In the middle of the apartment we have a floor-to-ceiling metal divider. Father welded it together from metal leaves and metal vines and stuck a small aquarium full of teeny fish and water and a plastic diver that gives off bubbles and all kinds of shells and fine ground sand. Every morning, father gets up and spreads smelly aquarium food with callused fingers over the bubble-troubled water, rusty flakes that sink like feathers straight into the gaping jaws of the frenetic fishes. Every week one of them would remain stuck at the bottom or float and the others would snap at it and we know it is dead and it is bloated too. At night, I sleep across from this divider, on the side that mother forbids to enter during the day and the flickering light emitted by the electric all souls candle illuminates the diver and the inky water and his loneliness and the bubbles and everything and I watch it all until I fall asleep. Come morning, the room beyond the divider is off-limits, only mother is scrubbing and carefully dusting the nightly build-up off the expensive Formica furniture. I am the only one who sleeps there at night, facing the television set. Even guests are asked to watch this black-and-white wonder from the outside. Until my bedtime, I sit overlooking them all but don’t take my socks off not to show my feet like irons and I hope not to wet the sheets in front of everyone, anything but that. Mother passes cookies to old Monsieur Yossef from Turkey who talks incessantly. And so I doze off amidst the sounds of the TV and of Monsieur Yossef. I have bad dreams and listen to mother and father arguing I will pack my suitcases and leave you all tomorrow, feel free, mother says, feel free to go. Tomorrow he doesn’t. He gets up at the middle of the night to go to work and before he departs he straightens our blankets and I think that maybe he kisses my cheek or forehead somehow, otherwise how did his stubble scrape me it must have been a kiss.

The next day father brings me books from the library of the Union of Construction Workers in Haifa that I never visit. I do go with him to attend lectures at the Union and I ask the lecturers smart questions and everyone is amazed and so is dad. He inflates the way he always does when he is proud of me. Now in the book he brought me there is a story about a king and clothes and a kid who has the guts to cry even though it is the monarch and everything: “The King is Naked”. I read it a couple of times like I don’t believe that some kid will shout such a thing about the king and what happened to him afterwards, surely he was scratched and pinched at least to death. I contemplate his iron-like feet, petite and rosy when he ascends to the gallows and how his head rolls sprinkling gore all over the crowd but everything is frozen and no one cheers like in the movies about the French revolution. Everyone gapes at this kid’s lips through which he said that the King is Naked. There is something empowering and hopeful in this, as though a goodhearted old fellow with long hair bends over me because he notices that I am small and that I am bleeding profusely from my arms and he gives me this magic spell, this faith.

I open my eyes and I see that mother has a kerchief on her head, like she always wears when she is dusting. She notices my stare but she sings boisterously and I know that I am unnerving her by watching her do her chores. I know that soon she will mete out what a child like me deserves.

 

Sam Vaknin

 

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Poetry of Healing and Abuse

Journal of a Narcissist

Malignant Self Love Narcissism Revisited

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A World in Conflict and Transition

 

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Wall Street, October 1929

Claud Cockburn, writing for the “Times of London” from New-York, described the irrational exuberance that gripped the nation just prior to the Great Depression. As Europe wallowed in post-war malaise, America seemed to have discovered a new economy, the secret of uninterrupted growth and prosperity, the fount of transforming technology:

“The atmosphere of the great boom was savagely exciting, but there were times when a person with my European background felt alarmingly lonely. He would have liked to believe, as these people believed, in the eternal upswing of the big bull market or else to meet just one person with whom he might discuss some general doubts without being regarded as an imbecile or a person of deliberately evil intent – some kind of anarchist, perhaps.”The greatest analysts with the most impeccable credentials and track records failed to predict the forthcoming crash and the unprecedented economic depression that followed it. Irving Fisher, a preeminent economist, who, according to his biographer-son, Irving Norton Fisher, lost the equivalent of $140 million in today’s money in the crash, made a series of soothing predictions. On October 22 he uttered these avuncular statements: “Quotations have not caught up with real values as yet … (There is) no cause for a slump … The market has not been inflated but merely readjusted…”Even as the market convulsed on Black Thursday, October 24, 1929 and on Black Tuesday, October 29 – the New York Times wrote: “Rally at close cheers brokers, bankers optimistic”.

In an editorial on October 26, it blasted rabid speculators and compliant analysts: “We shall hear considerably less in the future of those newly invented conceptions of finance which revised the principles of political economy with a view solely to fitting the stock market’s vagaries.” But it ended thus: “(The Federal Reserve has) insured the soundness of the business situation when the speculative markets went on the rocks.”

Compare this to Alan Greenspan Congressional testimony this summer: “While bubbles that burst are scarcely benign, the consequences need not be catastrophic for the economy … (The Depression was brought on by) ensuing failures of policy.”

Investors, their equity leveraged with bank and broker loans, crowded into stocks of exciting “new technologies”, such as the radio and mass electrification. The bull market – especially in issues of public utilities – was fueled by “mergers, new groupings, combinations and good earnings” and by corporate purchasing for “employee stock funds”.

Cautionary voices – such as Paul Warburg, the influential banker, Roger Babson, the “Prophet of Loss” and Alexander Noyes, the eternal Cassandra from the New York Times – were derided. The number of brokerage accounts doubled between March 1927 and March 1929.

When the market corrected by 8 percent between March 18-27 – following a Fed induced credit crunch and a series of mysterious closed-door sessions of the Fed’s board – bankers rushed in. The New York Times reported: “Responsible bankers agree that stocks should now be supported, having reached a level that makes them attractive.” By August, the market was up 35 percent on its March lows. But it reached a peak on September 3 and it was downhill since then.

On October 19, five days before “Black Thursday”, Business Week published this sanguine prognosis:

“Now, of course, the crucial weaknesses of such periods – price inflation, heavy inventories, over-extension of commercial credit – are totally absent. The security market seems to be suffering only an attack of stock indigestion… There is additional reassurance in the fact that, should business show any further signs of fatigue, the banking system is in a good position now to administer any needed credit tonic from its excellent Reserve supply.”

The crash unfolded gradually. Black Thursday actually ended with an inspiring rally. Friday and Saturday – trading ceased only on Sundays – witnessed an upswing followed by mild profit taking. The market dropped 12.8 percent on Monday, with Winston Churchill watching from the visitors’ gallery – incurring a loss of $10-14 billion.

The Wall Street Journal warned naive investors:

“Many are looking for technical corrective reactions from time to time, but do not expect these to disturb the upward trend for any prolonged period.”

The market plummeted another 11.7 percent the next day – though trading ended with an impressive rally from the lows. October 31 was a good day with a “vigorous, buoyant rally from bell to bell”. Even Rockefeller joined the myriad buyers. Shares soared. It seemed that the worst was over.

The New York Times was optimistic:

“It is thought that stocks will become stabilized at their actual worth levels, some higher and some lower than the present ones, and that the selling prices will be guided in the immediate future by the worth of each particular security, based on its dividend record, earnings ability and prospects. Little is heard in Wall Street these days about ‘putting stocks up.”

But it was not long before irate customers began blaming their stupendous losses on advice they received from their brokers. Alec Wilder, a songwriter in New York in 1929, interviewed by Stud Terkel in “Hard Times” four decades later, described this typical exchange with his money manager:

“I knew something was terribly wrong because I heard bellboys, everybody, talking about the stock market. About six weeks before the Wall Street Crash, I persuaded my mother in Rochester to let me talk to our family adviser. I wanted to sell stock which had been left me by my father. He got very sentimental: ‘Oh your father wouldn’t have liked you to do that.’ He was so persuasive, I said O.K. I could have sold it for $160,000. Four years later, I sold it for $4,000.”

Exhausted and numb from days of hectic trading and back office operations, the brokerage houses pressured the stock exchange to declare a two day trading holiday. Exchanges around North America followed suit.

At first, the Fed refused to reduce the discount rate. “(There) was no change in financial conditions which the board thought called for its action.” – though it did inject liquidity into the money market by purchasing government bonds. Then, it partially succumbed and reduced the New York discount rate, which, curiously, was 1 percent above the other Fed districts – by 1 percent. This was too little and too late. The market never recovered after November 1. Despite further reductions in the discount rate to 4 percent, it shed a whopping 89 percent in nominal terms when it hit bottom three years later.

Everyone was duped. The rich were impoverished overnight. Small time margin traders – the forerunners of today’s day traders – lost their shirts and much else besides. The New York Times:

“Yesterday’s market crash was one which largely affected rich men, institutions, investment trusts and others who participate in the market on a broad and intelligent scale. It was not the margin traders who were caught in the rush to sell, but the rich men of the country who are able to swing blocks of 5,000, 10,000, up to 100,000 shares of high-priced stocks. They went overboard with no more consideration than the little trader who was swept out on the first day of the market’s upheaval, whose prices, even at their lowest of last Thursday, now look high by comparison … To most of those who have been in the market it is all the more awe-inspiring because their financial history is limited to bull markets.”

Overseas – mainly European – selling was an important factor. Some conspiracy theorists, such as Webster Tarpley in his “British Financial Warfare”, supported by contemporary reporting by the likes of “The Economist”, went as far as writing:

“When this Wall Street Bubble had reached gargantuan proportions in the autumn of 1929, (Lord) Montagu Norman (governor of the Bank of England 1920-1944) sharply (upped) the British bank rate, repatriating British hot money, and pulling the rug out from under the Wall Street speculators, thus deliberately and consciously imploding the US markets. This caused a violent depression in the United States and some other countries, with the collapse of financial markets and the contraction of production and employment. In 1929, Norman engineered a collapse by puncturing the bubble.”

The crash was, in large part, a reaction to a sharp reversal, starting in 1928, of the reflationary, “cheap money”, policies of the Fed intended, as Adolph Miller of the Fed’s Board of Governors told a Senate committee, “to bring down money rates, the call rate among them, because of the international importance the call rate had come to acquire. The purpose was to start an outflow of gold – to reverse the previous inflow of gold into this country (back to Britain).” But the Fed had already lost control of the speculative rush.

The crash of 1929 was not without its Enrons and World.com’s. Clarence Hatry and his associates admitted to forging the accounts of their investment group to show a fake net worth of $24 million British pounds – rather than the true picture of 19 billion in liabilities. This led to forced liquidation of Wall Street positions by harried British financiers.

The collapse of Middle West Utilities, run by the energy tycoon, Samuel Insull, exposed a web of offshore holding companies whose only purpose was to hide losses and disguise leverage. The former president of NYSE, Richard Whitney was arrested for larceny.

Analysts and commentators thought of the stock exchange as decoupled from the real economy. Only one tenth of the population was invested – compared to 40 percent today. “The World” wrote, with more than a bit of Schadenfreude: “The country has not suffered a catastrophe … The American people … has been gambling largely with the surplus of its astonishing prosperity.”

“The Daily News” concurred: “The sagging of the stocks has not destroyed a single factory, wiped out a single farm or city lot or real estate development, decreased the productive powers of a single workman or machine in the United States.” In Louisville, the “Herald Post” commented sagely: “While Wall Street was getting rid of its weak holder to their own most drastic punishment, grain was stronger. That will go to the credit side of the national prosperity and help replace that buying power which some fear has been gravely impaired.”

During the Coolidge presidency, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “stock dividends rose by 108 percent, corporate profits by 76 percent, and wages by 33 percent. In 1929, 4,455,100 passenger cars were sold by American factories, one for every 27 members of the population, a record that was not broken until 1950. Productivity was the key to America’s economic growth. Because of improvements in technology, overall labour costs declined by nearly 10 percent, even though the wages of individual workers rose.”

Jude Waninski adds in his tome “The Way the World Works” that “between 1921 and 1929, GNP grew to $103.1 billion from $69.6 billion. And because prices were falling, real output increased even faster.” Tax rates were sharply reduced.

John Kenneth Galbraith noted these data in his seminal “The Great Crash”:

“Between 1925 and 1929, the number of manufacturing establishments increased from 183,900 to 206,700; the value of their output rose from $60.8 billions to $68 billions. The Federal Reserve index of industrial production which had averaged only 67 in 1921 … had risen to 110 by July 1928, and it reached 126 in June 1929 … (but the American people) were also displaying an inordinate desire to get rich quickly with a minimum of physical effort.”

Personal borrowing for consumption peaked in 1928 – though the administration, unlike today, maintained twin fiscal and current account surpluses and the USA was a large net creditor. Charles Kettering, head of the research division of General Motors described consumeritis thus, just days before the crash: “The key to economic prosperity is the organized creation of dissatisfaction.”

Inequality skyrocketed. While output per man-hour shot up by 32 percent between 1923 and 1929, wages crept up only 8 percent. In 1929, the top 0.1 percent of the population earned as much as the bottom 42 percent. Business-friendly administrations reduced by 70 percent the exorbitant taxes paid by those with an income of more than $1 million. But in the summer of 1929, businesses reported sharp increases in inventories. It was the beginning of the end.

Were stocks overvalued prior to the crash? Did all stocks collapse indiscriminately? Not so. Even at the height of the panic, investors remained conscious of real values. On November 3, 1929 the shares of American Can, General Electric, Westinghouse and Anaconda Copper were still substantially higher than on March 3, 1928.

John Campbell and Robert Shiller, author of “Irrational Exuberance”, calculated, in a joint paper titled “Valuation Ratios and the Lon-Run Market Outlook: An Update” posted on Yale University’ s Web Site, that share prices divided by a moving average of 10 years worth of earnings reached 28 just prior to the crash. Contrast this with 45 on March 2000.

In an NBER working paper published December 2001 and tellingly titled “The Stock Market Crash of 1929 – Irving Fisher was Right”, Ellen McGrattan and Edward Prescott boldly claim: “We find that the stock market in 1929 did not crash because the market was overvalued. In fact, the evidence strongly suggests that stocks were undervalued, even at their 1929 peak.”

According to their detailed paper, stocks were trading at 19 times after-tax corporate earning at the peak in 1929, a fraction of today’s valuations even after the recent correction. A March 1999 “Economic Letter” published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San-Francisco wholeheartedly concurs. It notes that at the peak, prices stood at 30.5 times the dividend yield, only slightly above the long term average.

Contrast this with an article published in June 1990 issue of the “Journal of Economic History” by Robert Barsky and Bradford De Long and titled “Bull and Bear Markets in the Twentieth Century”:

“Major bull and bear markets were driven by shifts in assessments of fundamentals: investors had little knowledge of crucial factors, in particular the long run dividend growth rate, and their changing expectations of average dividend growth plausibly lie behind the major swings of this century.”

Jude Waninski attributes the crash to the disintegration of the pro-free-trade coalition in the Senate which later led to the notorious Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. He traces all the important moves in the market between March 1929 and June 1930 to the intricate protectionist danse macabre in Congress.

This argument may never be decided. Is a similar crash on the cards? This cannot be ruled out. The 1990’s resembled the 1920’s in more than one way. Are we ready for a recurrence of 1929? About as we were prepared in 1928. Human nature – the prime mover behind market meltdowns – seemed not to have changed that much in these intervening seven decades.

Will a stock market crash, should it happen, be followed by another “Great Depression”? It depends which kind of crash. The short term puncturing of a temporary bubble – e.g., in 1962 and 1987 – is usually divorced from other economic fundamentals. But a major correction to a lasting bull market invariably leads to recession or worse.

As the economist Hernan Cortes Douglas reminds us in “The Collapse of Wall Street and the Lessons of History” published by the Friedberg Mercantile Group, this was the sequence in London in 1720 (the infamous “South Sea Bubble”), and in the USA in 1835-40 and 1929-32.


Also Read

The Greatest Savings Crisis in History

The Typology of Financial Scandals

The Shadowy World of International Finance

Hawala, or the Bank that Never Was

Money Laundering in a Changed World

The Varieties of Corruption

Corruption and Transparency

Straf – Corruption in CEE

The Criminality of Transition

The Kleptocracies of the East

The Enrons of the East

Bully at Work – Interview with Tim Field

The Economics of Conspiracy Theories

The Industrious Spies

The Business of Torture

Fimaco Wouldn’t Die – Russia’s Missing Billions

Treasure Island Revisited – Maritime Piracy

Organ Trafficking in Eastern Europe

Begging Your Trust in Africa

Slush Funds

Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice

“I believe that when man evolves a civilization higher than the mechanized but still primitive one he has now, the eating of human flesh will be sanctioned. For then man will have thrown off all of his superstitions and irrational taboos.”

(Diego Rivera)

“One calls ‘barbarism’ whatever he is not accustomed to.”

(Montaigne, On Cannibalism)

“Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.”

(New Testament, John 6:53-55)

Cannibalism (more precisely, anthropophagy) is an age-old tradition that, judging by a constant stream of flabbergasted news reports, is far from extinct. Much-debated indications exist that our Neanderthal, Proto-Neolithic, and Neolithic (Stone Age) predecessors were cannibals. Similarly contested claims were made with regards to the 12th century advanced Anasazi culture in the southwestern United States and the Minoans in Crete (today’s Greece).

The Britannica Encyclopedia (2005 edition) recounts how the “Binderwurs of central India ate their sick and aged in the belief that the act was pleasing to their goddess, Kali.” Cannibalism may also have been common among followers of the Shaktism cults in India.

Other sources attribute cannibalism to the 16th century Imbangala in today’s Angola and Congo, the Fang in Cameroon, the Mangbetu in Central Africa, the Ache in Paraguay, the Tonkawa in today’s Texas, the Calusa in current day Florida, the Caddo and Iroquois confederacies of Indians in North America, the Cree in Canada, the Witoto, natives of Colombia and Peru, the Carib in the Lesser Antilles (whose distorted name – Canib – gave rise to the word “cannibalism”), to Maori tribes in today’s New Zealand, and to various peoples in Sumatra (like the Batak).

The Wikipedia numbers among the practitioners of cannibalism the ancient Chinese, the Korowai tribe of southeastern Papua, the Fore tribe in New Guinea (and many other tribes in Melanesia), the Aztecs, the people of Yucatan, the Purchas from Popayan, Colombia, the denizens of the Marquesas Islands of Polynesia, and the natives of the captaincy of Sergipe in Brazil.

From Congo and Central Africa to Germany and from Mexico to New Zealand, cannibalism is enjoying a morbid revival of interest, if not of practice. A veritable torrent of sensational tomes and movies adds to our ambivalent fascination with man-eaters.

Cannibalism is not a monolithic affair. It can be divided thus:

I. Non-consensual consumption of human flesh post-mortem

For example, when the corpses of prisoners of war are devoured by their captors. This used to be a common exercise among island tribes (e.g., in Fiji, the Andaman and Cook islands) and is still the case in godforsaken battle zones such as Congo (formerly Zaire), or among the defeated Japanese soldiers in World War II.

Similarly, human organs and fetuses as well as mummies are still being gobbled up – mainly in Africa and Asia – for remedial and medicinal purposes and in order to enhance one’s libido and vigor.

On numerous occasions the organs of dead companions, colleagues, family, or neighbors were reluctantly ingested by isolated survivors of horrid accidents (the Uruguay rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes, the boat people fleeing Asia), denizens of besieged cities (e.g., during the siege of Leningrad), members of exploratory expeditions gone astray (the Donner Party in Sierra Nevada, California and John Franklin’s Polar expedition), famine-stricken populations (Ukraine in the 1930s, China in the 1960s), and the like.

Finally, in various pre-nation-state and tribal societies, members of the family were encouraged to eat specific parts of their dead relatives as a sign of respect or in order to partake of the deceased’s wisdom, courage, or other positive traits (endocannibalism).

II. Non-consensual consumption of human flesh from a live source

For example, when prisoners of war are butchered for the express purpose of being eaten by their victorious enemies.

A notorious and rare representative of this category of cannibalism is the punitive ritual of being eaten alive. The kings of the tribes of the Cook Islands were thought to embody the gods. They punished dissent by dissecting their screaming and conscious adversaries and consuming their flesh piecemeal, eyeballs first.

The Sawney Bean family in Scotland, during the reign of King James I, survived for decades on the remains (and personal belongings) of victims of their murderous sprees.

Real-life serial killers, like Jeffrey Dahmer, Albert Fish, Sascha Spesiwtsew, Fritz Haarmann, Issei Sagawa, and Ed Gein, lured, abducted, and massacred countless people and then consumed their flesh and preserved the inedible parts as trophies. These lurid deeds inspired a slew of books and films, most notably The Silence of the Lambs with Hannibal (Lecter) the Cannibal as its protagonist.

III. Consensual consumption of human flesh from live and dead human bodies

Armin Meiwes, the “Master Butcher (Der Metzgermeister)”, arranged over the Internet to meet Bernd Jurgen Brandes on March 2001. Meiwes amputated the penis of his guest and they both ate it. He then proceeded to kill Brandes (with the latter’s consent recorded on video), and snack on what remained of him. Sexual cannibalism is a paraphilia and an extreme – and thankfully, rare – form of fetishism.

The Aztecs willingly volunteered to serve as human sacrifices (and to be tucked into afterwards). They firmly believed that they were offerings, chosen by the gods themselves, thus being rendered immortal.

Dutiful sons and daughters in China made their amputated organs and sliced tissues (mainly the liver) available to their sick parents (practices known as Ko Ku and Ko Kan). Such donation were considered remedial. Princess Miao Chuang who surrendered her severed hands to her ailing father was henceforth deified.

Non-consensual cannibalism is murder, pure and simple. The attendant act of cannibalism, though aesthetically and ethically reprehensible, cannot aggravate this supreme assault on all that we hold sacred.

But consensual cannibalism is a lot trickier. Modern medicine, for instance, has blurred the already thin line between right and wrong.

What is the ethical difference between consensual, post-mortem, organ harvesting and consensual, post-mortem cannibalism?

Why is stem cell harvesting (from aborted fetuses) morally superior to consensual post-mortem cannibalism?

When members of a plane-wrecked rugby team, stranded on an inaccessible, snow-piled, mountain range resort to eating each other in order to survive, we turn a blind eye to their repeated acts of cannibalism – but we condemn the very same deed in the harshest terms if it takes place between two consenting, and even eager adults in Germany. Surely, we don’t treat murder, pedophilia, and incest the same way!

As the Auxiliary Bishop of Montevideo said after the crash:

“… Eating someone who has died in order to survive is incorporating their substance, and it is quite possible to compare this with a graft. Flesh survives when assimilated by someone in extreme need, just as it does when an eye or heart of a dead man is grafted onto a living man…”

(Read, P.P. 1974. Alive. Avon, New York)

Complex ethical issues are involved in the apparently straightforward practice of consensual cannibalism.

Consensual, in vivo, cannibalism (a-la Messrs. Meiwes and Brandes) resembles suicide. The cannibal is merely the instrument of voluntary self-destruction. Why would we treat it different to the way we treat any other form of suicide pact?

Consensual cannibalism is not the equivalent of drug abuse because it has no social costs. Unlike junkies, the cannibal and his meal are unlikely to harm others. What gives society the right to intervene, therefore?

If we own our bodies and, thus, have the right to smoke, drink, have an abortion, commit suicide, and will our organs to science after we die – why don’t we possess the inalienable right to will our delectable tissues to a discerning cannibal post-mortem (or to victims of famine in Africa)?

When does our right to dispose of our organs in any way we see fit crystallize? Is it when we die? Or after we are dead? If so, what is the meaning and legal validity of a living will? And why can’t we make a living will and bequeath our cadaverous selves to the nearest cannibal?

Do dead people have rights and can they claim and invoke them while they are still alive? Is the live person the same as his dead body, does he “own” it, does the state have any rights in it? Does the corpse still retain its previous occupant’s “personhood”? Are cadavers still human, in any sense of the word?

We find all three culinary variants abhorrent. Yet, this instinctive repulsion is a curious matter. The onerous demands of survival should have encouraged cannibalism rather than make it a taboo. Human flesh is protein-rich. Most societies, past and present (with the exception of the industrialized West), need to make efficient use of rare protein-intensive resources.

If cannibalism enhances the chances of survival – why is it universally prohibited? For many a reason.

I. The Sanctity of Life

Historically, cannibalism preceded, followed, or precipitated an act of murder or extreme deprivation (such as torture). It habitually clashed with the principle of the sanctity of life. Once allowed, even under the strictest guidelines, cannibalism tended to debase and devalue human life and foster homicide, propelling its practitioners down a slippery ethical slope towards bloodlust and orgiastic massacres.

II. The Afterlife

Moreover, in life, the human body and form are considered by most religions (and philosophers) to be the abode of the soul, the divine spark that animates us all. The post-mortem integrity of this shrine is widely thought to guarantee a faster, unhindered access to the afterlife, to immortality, and eventual reincarnation (or karmic cycle in eastern religions).

For this reason, to this very day, orthodox Jews refuse to subject their relatives to a post-mortem autopsy and organ harvesting. Fijians and Cook Islanders used to consume their enemies’ carcasses in order to prevent their souls from joining hostile ancestors in heaven.

III. Chastening Reminders

Cannibalism is a chilling reminder of our humble origins in the animal kingdom. To the cannibal, we are no better and no more than cattle or sheep. Cannibalism confronts us with the irreversibility of our death and its finality. Surely, we cannot survive our demise with our cadaver mutilated and gutted and our skeletal bones scattered, gnawed, and chewed on?

IV. Medical Reasons

Infrequently, cannibalism results in prion diseases of the nervous system, such as kuru. The same paternalism that gave rise to the banning of drug abuse, the outlawing of suicide, and the Prohibition of alcoholic drinks in the 1920s – seeks to shelter us from the pernicious medical outcomes of cannibalism and to protect others who might become our victims.

V. The Fear of Being Objectified

Being treated as an object (being objectified) is the most torturous form of abuse. People go to great lengths to seek empathy and to be perceived by others as three dimensional entities with emotions, needs, priorities, wishes, and preferences.

The cannibal reduces others by treating them as so much meat. Many cannibal serial killers transformed the organs of their victims into trophies. The Cook Islanders sought to humiliate their enemies by eating, digesting, and then defecating them – having absorbed their mana (prowess, life force) in the process.

VI. The Argument from Nature

Cannibalism is often castigated as “unnatural”. Animals, goes the myth, don’t prey on their own kind.

Alas, like so many other romantic lores, this is untrue. Most species – including our closest relatives, the chimpanzees – do cannibalize. Cannibalism in nature is widespread and serves diverse purposes such as population control (chickens, salamanders, toads), food and protein security in conditions of scarcity (hippopotamuses, scorpions, certain types of dinosaurs), threat avoidance (rabbits, mice, rats, and hamsters), and the propagation of genetic material through exclusive mating (Red-back spider and many mantids).

Moreover, humans are a part of nature. Our deeds and misdeeds are natural by definition. Seeking to tame nature is a natural act. Seeking to establish hierarchies and subdue or relinquish our enemies are natural propensities. By avoiding cannibalism we seek to transcend nature. Refraining from cannibalism is the unnatural act.

VIII. The Argument from Progress

It is a circular syllogism involving a tautology and goes like this:

Cannibalism is barbaric. Cannibals are, therefore, barbarians. Progress entails the abolition of this practice.

The premises – both explicit and implicit – are axiomatic and, therefore, shaky. What makes cannibalism barbarian? And why is progress a desirable outcome? There is a prescriptive fallacy involved, as well:

Because we do not eat the bodies of dead people – we ought not to eat them.

VIII. Arguments from Religious Ethics

The major monotheistic religions are curiously mute when it comes to cannibalism. Human sacrifice is denounced numerous times in the Old Testament – but man-eating goes virtually unmentioned. The Eucharist in Christianity – when the believers consume the actual body and blood of Jesus – is an act of undisguised cannibalism:

“That the consequence of Transubstantiation, as a conversion of the total substance, is the transition of the entire substance of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, is the express doctrine of the Church ….”

(Catholic Encyclopedia)

“CANON lI.-If any one saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood-the species Only of the bread and wine remaining-which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation; let him be anathema.

CANON VIII.-lf any one saith, that Christ, given in the Eucharist, is eaten spiritually only, and not also sacramentally and really; let him be anathema.”

(The Council of Trent, The Thirteenth Session – The canons and decrees of the sacred and oecumenical Council of Trent, Ed. and trans. J. Waterworth (London: Dolman, 1848), 75-91.)

Still, most systems of morality and ethics impute to Man a privileged position in the scheme of things (having been created in the “image of God”). Men and women are supposed to transcend their animal roots and inhibit their baser instincts (an idea incorporated into Freud’s tripartite model of the human psyche). The anthropocentric chauvinistic view is that it is permissible to kill all other animals in order to consume their flesh. Man, in this respect, is sui generis.

Yet, it is impossible to rigorously derive a prohibition to eat human flesh from any known moral system. As Richard Routley-Silvan observes in his essay “In Defence of Cannibalism”, that something is innately repugnant does not make it morally prohibited. Moreover, that we find cannibalism nauseating is probably the outcome of upbringing and conditioning rather than anything innate.

According to Greek mythology, Man was created from the ashes of the Titans, the children of Uranus and Gaea, whom Zeus struck with thunderbolts for murdering his son, Zagreus, and then devouring his body. Mankind, therefore, is directly descendant from the Titans, who may well have been the first cannibals.


Also Read:

On Being Human

The Rights of Animals

The Murder of Oneself

The Myth of the Right to Life

And Then There Were Too Many

Serial Killers as a Cultural Construct

Death, Life and the Question of Identity

Ethical Relativism and Absolute Taboos

Eugenics and the Future of the Human Species

What is Abuse?

Violence in the family often follows other forms of more subtle and long-term abuse: verbal, emotional, psychological sexual, or financial.

It is closely correlated with alcoholism, drug consumption, intimate-partner homicide, teen pregnancy, infant and child mortality, spontaneous abortion, reckless behaviours, suicide, and the onset of mental health disorders.

Most abusers and batterers are males but a significant minority are women. This being a “Women’s Issue”, the problem was swept under the carpet for generations and only recently has it come to public awareness. Yet, even today, society for instance, through the court and the mental health systems largely ignores domestic violence and abuse in the family. This induces feelings of shame and guilt in the victims and “legitimizes” the role of the abuser.

Violence in the family is mostly spousal one spouse beating, raping, or otherwise physically harming and torturing the other. But children are also and often victims either directly, or indirectly. Other vulnerable familial groups include the elderly and the disabled.

Abuse and violence cross geographical and cultural boundaries and social and economic strata. It is common among the rich and the poor, the well-educated and the less so, the young and the middle-aged, city dwellers and rural folk. It is a universal phenomenon.

Abusers exploit, lie, insult, demean, ignore (the “silent treatment”), manipulate, and control.

There are many ways to abuse. To love too much is to abuse. It is tantamount to treating someone as an extension, an object, or an instrument of gratification. To be over-protective, not to respect privacy, to be brutally honest, with a sadistic sense of humour, or consistently tactless is to abuse.

To expect too much, to denigrate, to ignore are all modes of abuse. There is physical abuse, verbal abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse. The list is long. Most abusers abuse surreptitiously. They are “stealth abusers”. You have to actually live with one in order to witness the abuse.

There are three important categories of abuse:

Overt Abuse

The open and explicit abuse of another person. Threatening, coercing, beating, lying, berating, demeaning, chastising, insulting, humiliating, exploiting, ignoring (“silent treatment”), devaluing, unceremoniously discarding, verbal abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse are all forms of overt abuse.

Covert or Controlling Abuse

Abuse is almost entirely about control. It is often a primitive and immature reaction to life circumstances in which the abuser (usually in his childhood) was rendered helpless. It is about re-exerting one’s identity, re-establishing predictability, mastering the environment human and physical.

The bulk of abusive behaviours can be traced to this panicky reaction to the remote potential for loss of control. Many abusers are hypochondriacs (and difficult patients) because they are afraid to lose control over their body, its looks and its proper functioning. They are obsessive-compulsive in an effort to subdue their physical habitat and render it foreseeable. They stalk people and harass them as a means of “being in touch” another form of control.

To the abuser, nothing exists outside himself. Meaningful others are extensions, internal, assimilated, objects not external ones. Thus, losing control over a significant other is equivalent to losing control of a limb, or of one’s brain. It is terrifying.

Independent or disobedient people evoke in the abuser the realization that something is wrong with his worldview, that he is not the centre of the world or its cause and that he cannot control what, to him, are internal representations.

To the abuser, losing control means going insane. Because other people are mere elements in the abuser’s mind being unable to manipulate them literally means losing it (his mind). Imagine, if you suddenly were to find out that you cannot manipulate your memories or control your thoughts… Nightmarish!

In his frantic efforts to maintain control or re-assert it, the abuser resorts to a myriad of fiendishly inventive stratagems and mechanisms. Here is a partial list:

Unpredictability and Uncertainty

The abuser acts unpredictably, capriciously, inconsistently and irrationally. This serves to render others dependent upon the next twist and turn of the abuser, his next inexplicable whim, upon his next outburst, denial, or smile.

The abuser makes sure that HE is the only reliable element in the lives of his nearest and dearest  by shattering the rest of their world through his seemingly insane behaviour. He perpetuates his stable presence in their lives by destabilizing their own.

TIP

Refuse to accept such behaviour. Demand reasonably predictable and rational actions and reactions. Insist on respect for your boundaries, predilections, preferences, and priorities.

Disproportional Reactions

One of the favourite tools of manipulation in the abuser’s arsenal is the disproportionality of his reactions. He reacts with supreme rage to the slightest slight. Or, he would punish severely for what he perceives to be an offence against him, no matter how minor. Or, he would throw a temper tantrum over any discord or disagreement, however gently and considerately expressed. Or, he would act inordinately attentive, charming and tempting (even over-sexed, if need be).

This ever-shifting code of conduct and the unusually harsh and arbitrarily applied penalties are premeditated. The victims are kept in the dark. Neediness and dependence on the source of “justice” meted and judgment passed on the abuser are thus guaranteed.

TIP

Demand a just and proportional treatment. Reject or ignore unjust and capricious behaviour.

If you are up to the inevitable confrontation, react in kind. Let him taste some of his own medicine.

Dehumanization and Objectification (Abuse)

People have a need to believe in the empathic skills and basic good-heartedness of others. By dehumanizing and objectifying people the abuser attacks the very foundations of human interaction. This is the “alien” aspect of abusers they may be excellent imitations of fully formed adults but they are emotionally absent and immature.

Abuse is so horrid, so repulsive, so phantasmagoric that people recoil in terror. It is then, with their defences absolutely down, that they are the most susceptible and vulnerable to the abuser’s control. Physical, psychological, verbal and sexual abuse are all forms of dehumanization and objectification.

TIP

Never show your abuser that you are afraid of him. Do not negotiate with bullies. They are insatiable. Do not succumb to blackmail.

If things get rough disengage, involve law enforcement officers, friends and colleagues, or threaten him (legally).

Do not keep your abuse a secret. Secrecy is the abuser’s weapon.

Never give him a second chance. React with your full arsenal to the first transgression.

Abuse of Information

From the first moments of an encounter with another person, the abuser is on the prowl. He collects information. The more he knows about his potential victim the better able he is to coerce, manipulate, charm, extort or convert it “to the cause”. The abuser does not hesitate to misuse the information he gleaned, regardless of its intimate nature or the circumstances in which he obtained it. This is a powerful tool in his armory.

TIP

Be guarded. Don’t be too forthcoming in a first or casual meeting. Gather intelligence.

Be yourself. Don’t misrepresent your wishes, boundaries, preferences, priorities, and red lines.

Do not behave inconsistently. Do not go back on your word. Be firm and resolute.

Impossible Situations

The abuser engineers impossible, dangerous, unpredictable, unprecedented, or highly specific situations in which he is sorely needed. The abuser makes sure that his knowledge, his skills, his connections, or his traits are the only ones applicable and the most useful in the situations that he, himself, wrought. The abuser generates his own indispensability.

TIP

Stay away from such quagmires. Scrutinize every offer and suggestion, no matter how innocuous.

Prepare backup plans. Keep others informed of your whereabouts and appraised of your situation.

Be vigilant and doubting. Do not be gullible and suggestible. Better safe than sorry.

Control and Abuse by Proxy

If all else fails, the abuser recruits friends, colleagues, mates, family members, the authorities, institutions, neighbours, the media, teachers  in short, third parties to do his bidding. He uses them to cajole, coerce, threaten, stalk, offer, retreat, tempt, convince, harass, communicate and otherwise manipulate his target. He controls these unaware instruments exactly as he plans to control his ultimate prey. He employs the same mechanisms and devices. And he dumps his props unceremoniously when the job is done.

Another form of control by proxy is to engineer situations in which abuse is inflicted upon another person. Such carefully crafted scenarios of embarrassment and humiliation provoke social sanctions (condemnation, opprobrium, or even physical punishment) against the victim. Society, or a social group become the instruments of the abuser.

TIP

Often the abuser’s proxies are unaware of their role. Expose him. Inform them. Demonstrate to them how they are being abused, misused, and plain used by the abuser.

Trap your abuser. Treat him as he treats you. Involve others. Bring it into the open. Nothing like sunshine to disinfest abuse.

Ambient Abuse

The fostering, propagation and enhancement of an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, instability, unpredictability and irritation. There are no acts of traceable explicit abuse, nor any manipulative settings of control. Yet, the irksome feeling remains, a disagreeable foreboding, a premonition, a bad omen. This is sometimes called “gaslighting”.

In the long term, such an environment erodes the victim’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Self-confidence is shaken badly. Often, the victim adopts a paranoid or schizoid stance and thus renders himself or herself exposed even more to criticism and judgment. The roles are thus reversed: the victim is considered mentally deranged and the abuser the suffering soul.

TIP

Run! Get away! Ambient abuse often develops to overt and violent abuse.

You don’t owe anyone an explanation – but you owe yourself a life. Bail out.

How I “Became” a Narcissist

I remember the day I died. Almost did. We were in a tour of Jerusalem. Our guide was the Deputy Chief Warden. We wore our Sunday best suits – stained dark blue, abrasive jeans shirts tucked in tattered trousers. I could think of nothing but Nomi. She left me two months after my incarceration. She said that my brain did not excite her as it used to. We were sitting on what passed as a grassy knoll in prison and she was marble cold and firm. This is why, during the trip to Jerusalem, I planned to grab the Warden’s gun and kill myself.

Death has an asphyxiating, all-pervasive presence and I could hardly breathe. It passed and I knew that I had to find out real quick what was wrong with me – or else.

How I obtained access to psychology books and to Internet from the inside of one of Israel’s more notorious jails, is a story unto itself. In this film noire, this search of my dark self, I had very little to go on, no clues and no Della Street by my side. I had to let go – yet I never did and did not know how.

I forced myself to remember, threatened by the immanent presence of the Grim Reaper. I fluctuated between shattering flashbacks and despair. I wrote cathartic short fiction. I published it. I remember holding myself, white knuckles clasping an aluminum sink, about to throw up as I am flooded with images of violence between my parents, images that I repressed to oblivion. I cried a lot, uncontrollably, convulsively, gazing through tearful veils at the monochrome screen.

The exact moment I found a description of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder is etched in my mind. I felt engulfed in word-amber, encapsulated and frozen. It was suddenly very quiet and very still. I met myself. I saw the enemy and it was I.

The article was long winded and full of references to scholars I never heard of before: Kernberg, Kohut, Klein. It was a foreign language that resounded, like a forgotten childhood memory. It was I to the last repellent details, described in uncanny accuracy: grandiose fantasies of brilliance and perfection, sense of entitlement without commensurate achievements, rage, exploitation of others, lack of empathy.

I had to learn more. I knew I had the answer. All I had to do was find the right questions.

That day was miraculous. Many strange and wonderful things happened. I saw people – I SAW them. And I had a glimmer of understanding regarding my self – this disturbed, sad, neglected, insecure and ludicrous things that passed for me.

It was the first important realization – there were two of us. I was not alone inside my body.

One was an extrovert, facile, gregarious, attention-consuming, adulation-dependent, charming, ruthless and manic-depressive being. The other was schizoid, shy, dependent, phobic, suspicious, pessimistic, dysphoric and helpless creature – a kid, really.

I began to observe these two alternating. The first (whom I called Ninko Leumas – an anagram of the Hebrew spelling of my name) would invariably appear to interact with people. It didn’t feel like putting a mask on or like I had another personality. It was just like I am MORE me. It was a caricature of the TRUE me, of Shmuel.

Shmuel hated people. He felt inferior, physically repulsive and socially incompetent. Ninko also hated people. He held them in contempt. THEY were inferior to his superior qualities and skills. He needed their admiration but he resented this fact and he accepted their offerings condescendingly.

As I pieced my fragmented and immature self together I began to see that Shmuel and Ninko were flip sides of the SAME coin. Ninko seemed to be trying to compensate Shmuel, to protect him, to isolate him from hurt and to exact revenge whenever he failed. At this stage I was not sure who was manipulating who and I did not have the most rudimentary acquaintance with this vastly rich continent I discovered inside me.

But that was only the beginning.