How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Beast Inside

How is it possible for a wide swath of the (white) American public to literally ignore its country’s founding original sin – the extermination of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of African Americans while celebrating brutal leaders such as Donald Trump? Slavoj Žižek helps us to answer questions such as this by recalling the story about the explorer who encounters an aboriginal tribe for the first time. ‘Are there cannibals among you?’ he asks. ‘No,’ they reply, ‘We ate the last one yesterday.’ Žižek observes that ‘[t]o constitute a civilised community by eating the last cannibal, the final act must be called something else. It is a kind of original sin that must be erased from memory.’ I wish to apply Žižek’s joke to the current political situation in the United States and Brazil. In such cases, we ‘eat the last cannibal’ by transitioning to a new sociopolitical order embodied in leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump. We create ‘legends’ which then become ‘unverifiable facts’ based on what are essentially ‘social artefacts.’ Žižek explains:

[T]he transition to a modern legal order in the American ‘Wild West’ was accomplished through brutal crimes and the creation of myths to cover them up. As a character in the John Ford western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance put it, ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ But the ‘facts’ that are born of legends are not verifiable truths. Rather, they are social artifacts: shared ideas that form the basis of the actually existing sociopolitical order. If enough people were to reject them, the entire order would disintegrate. These social artifacts allow a society’s original sins to remain in the background, where they continue operating silently because modern civilisation still relies on barbarism. Recall how the legal apparatus of power was used to sanction the extralegal practice of torture by calling it ‘enhanced interrogation.’

In today’s social universe, we have moved beyond using legends such as the heroic ‘winning of the West’ by European immigrants (at the expense, I might add, of people of colour, of black slaves and Native Americans) in the creation of modern America to cover up our crimes and to strip those legends bare by embracing the brutality of that which those legends were intended to hide. Žižek calls this the transition to a new political dispensation, referring to Alenka Zupančič’s new book, Let Them Rot:

Yet now, a new type of political dispensation is emerging. As the philosopher Alenka Zupančič observes in her new book, Let Them Rot (on which I rely here extensively), we increasingly have leaders who take pride in their crimes ‘as if it amounted to some kind of fundamental moral difference or difference of character, namely, ‘having the courage,’ ‘the guts,’ to do it openly.’ But, Zupančič hastens to add, ‘what may appear to be their courageous transgression of state laws by avoiding the ‘hypocrisy’ that those laws sometimes demand is nothing more than a direct identification with the obscene other side of state power itself. It does not amount to anything else or different. They are ‘transgressing’ their own laws. This is why, even when they are in power, these leaders continue to act as if they are in opposition to the existing power, rebelling against it – call it the ‘deep state’ or something else.’

Modern authoritarian leaders have successfully made this transition and have convinced their base of supporters to go along. I’m thinking of countries such as Italy, Hungary, India and the US under Donald Trump. While their base supporters might not have the words to express what is happening in Marxist terminology, they nevertheless feel something is very wrong at the very core of their existential being. Had they taken a class in critical pedagogy, they might have been able to put it this way: ‘Yes, we are doubly free – free ‘to’ and free ‘of.’ We are free both to sell our labour power as a commodity on the labour market while at the same time, we are free of the means of production, which is the equivalent of being forced to sell our labour power to those who own the means of production, the employer class, in an economic environment (i.e., the crisis of capitalism) that increasingly adds to our feelings of alienation and hopelessness. That is our fate! Well, society’s new transition away from civilisation has given them exciting new opportunities to vent their anger and their rage. They may be nostalgic for the old town square type of politics whose sensibilities resonate in the song, Bye-bye Miss American Pie, but they feel it in their bones that now, as a country, we have perilously transitioned into the age of Helter Skelter. This became increasingly clear for Americans on January 6, 2021, and for Brazilians on January 8, 2023. Come on, we might as well sing the lyrics, it’s time to indulge our nostalgia:

So, bye-bye, Miss American Pie.
Drove my Chevy to the levee.
But the levee was dry.
Them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye,
Singing, ‘This’ll be the day that I die,
This will be the day that I die.’

Žižek mentions the case of Trump and Putin, who have redefined courage as ’a willingness to break the state’s laws if the state’s own interests – or their own – demand it. The implication is that civilisation endures only if there are brave patriots who will do the dirty work. This is a decidedly right-wing form of ‘heroism.’ It is easy to act nobly on behalf of one’s country – short of sacrificing one’s life for it – but only the strong of heart can bring themselves to commit crimes for it.’

In a fit of election denialism, Trump has argued for jettisoning the Constitution so that he can overturn the 2020 election and reinstate himself to power. His followers, I am sure, would be keen to follow his advice and stuff some extra ammo into the pockets of their flak vests before marching again to the Capitol Building, led by Margorie Taylor Green in her black cocktail dress.

In making his argument, Žižek’s ‘coup de grace’ (following this same logic) is his chilling reference to Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the Holocaust, who, in 1943,

spoke of ‘a chapter of glory in our history which has never been written, and which never shall be written.’ The question was what to do with Jewish women and children. ‘I decided here to find a completely clear solution,’ Himmler told a gathering of SS officers. ‘I did not regard myself as justified in exterminating the men … and to allow the avengers in the shape of the children to grow up for our sons and grandchildren. The difficult decision had to be taken to have this people disappear from the earth.’

Žižek points out that the idea of atrocities that ‘never shall be written’ has now been jettisoned in today’s Russia, and he illustrates this with a description of a shocking new law. The Russian Duma adopted a bill ‘stating that any atrocities committed in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson before those Ukrainian regions’ annexation ‘will not be considered a crime punishable by law’ if they are deemed to have been ‘in the interest of the Russian Federation.’

Assuming this law will also be extended to future crimes, this sounds to me very much like a similar logic that drives the film The Purge, where the ‘New Founding Fathers’ offer citizens the opportunity to ‘feed their beasts’ in order to eradicate America’s crime rate by purging themselves of their evil thoughts and desires for a 12-hour period each year. During this time, all crime is legal, and, if by some nefarious means, you are able to create the right opportunity, you can participate in orgiastic acts of torturing and slaughtering men, women and children, and it will not be considered punishable because it is in the interest of the state – and in the case of Putin’s new law, there appears to be no time limit attached. In the Donbas, every day can be Purge Day. Torture and murder there can now be ‘rewritten’ as patriotic civic participation.

Putin is aptly condemned by Žižek as a cannibal who has eaten himself by using state power as a way of numbing the moral sensitivities of the Russian public. Žižek’s cannibal joke comes full circle in the case of Brazilian dictator Jair Bolsonaro, in a comment he made in 2016 regarding Brazil’s indigenous community. This is a community whose traditional lands he has refused to recognise and whose territories he has made more ‘vulnerable to encroachment’ by miners, loggers, land-grabbers and poachers. During his presidency, Bolsonaro refused to designate ‘one more centimetre’ of Indigenous territory and massively increased deforestation inside existing Indigenous territories by 138%.

In 2016, Bolsonaro added a new skein to Žižek’s cannibal joke by actually admitting that it would not be a problem for him to consume the flesh of members of Brazil’s Indigenous population. ‘I’d eat an Indian, no problem at all,’ he boasted to a foreign journalist while returning from a trip to the Yanomami indigenous community where he had purportedly been offered the chance to relish human flesh.

Indigenous leaders responded to Bolsonaro’s remark, adamantly rejecting Bolsonaro’s boast as a blatant lie. Bolsonaro’s full comments included the following:

‘There was this time I was in Surucuru … and an Indian had died, and they were cooking him. They cook Indians. It’s their culture…. They cook it for two or three days and then eat it with banana. I wanted to see an Indian being cooked, but the guy said, if you go, you have to eat it. ‘I’ll eat it,’ I said. But no one else in my group wanted to go … so I didn’t go. But I’d eat an Indian, no problem at all. It’s their culture.’ Yanomami activist Júnior Yanomami responded: ‘My people aren’t cannibals…. This doesn’t exist, nor has it ever existed, not even among our ancestors,’ the activist told the Folha de São Paulo newspaper. ‘Bolsonaro is a compulsive liar,’ tweeted Sônia Guajajara, an Indigenous leader who had been recently elected to congress.

Here Bolsonaro seems to be playing Hannibal Lecter to Trump’s Jeffery Dahmer. While Trump has never bragged about his willingness to devour human flesh, his valorising of President Andrew Jackson as his favourite president (whom the Cherokee call ‘Indian Killer’ and whose genocidal acts against the Indigenous population are remembered in the annals of infamy), is telling, to say the least. Old Hickory’s’ hunting down of escaped slaves is less well known. Comments by Dylan Matthews are worth quoting at length:

Jackson was a disaster of a human being on every possible level and should not be commemorated positively by any branch of American government. And, as a slave owner, putting him on the other side of Tubman’s bill is particularly disgraceful.

After generations of pro-Jackson historians left out Jackson’s role in American Indian removal – the forced, bloody transfer of tens of thousands of Native Americans from the South – a recent re-evaluation has rightfully put that crime at the core of his legacy.

But Jackson is even worse than his horrifyingly brutal record with regard to Native Americans indicates. Indian removal was not just a crime against humanity; it was a crime against humanity intended to abet another crime against humanity: By clearing the Cherokee from the American South, Jackson hoped to open up more land for cultivation by slave plantations. He owned hundreds of slaves and, in 1835, worked with his postmaster general to censor anti-slavery mailings from northern abolitionists. The historian Daniel Walker Howe writes that Jackson ‘expressed his loathing for the abolitionists vehemently, both in public and in private.’

Jackson’s small-government fetishism and crank monetary policy views stunted the attempts of better leaders like John Quincy Adams to invest in American infrastructure and led to the Panic of 1837, a financial crisis that touched off a recession lasting seven years. If that weren’t enough, he was a war criminal who suspended habeas corpus and executed prisoners for minor infractions during his time as a general in the War of 1812.

Bolsonaro, known as ‘Trump of the Tropics,’ has an extensive back catalogue of egregious racist, sexist and homophobic comments that should disqualify anyone from holding public office. But this no longer applies in the era of eating a cannibal, that is, in an era where politicians can delight in ripping away the social artifacts that shield the legends that, in turn, disguise the horror of the founding acts of state power, and embracing the truth behind the lies that previously held together the moral fabric of civil society.

For instance, one recent Lula advertisement shows Bolsonaro shoving a female politician and calling her a ‘bitch.’ Bolsonaro once mocked Covid victims by pretending to be gasping for air. Bolsonaro’s comments do not seem to bother his base, which constitutes almost half of Brazil’s voting population. Here are just a few of his comments over the years.

‘I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it.’ (2014)

From an exchange with congresswoman Maria do Rosario in Brazil’s lower house. Rosario later argued his comments had encouraged sexual assault. In a subsequent newspaper interview, Bolsonaro said Rosario was ‘not worth raping; she is very ugly.’

‘I’ve got five kids, but, on the fifth, I had a moment of weakness, and it came out a woman.’ (2017)

‘I am in favour of torture, you know that. And the people are in favour as well.’ (1999)

‘Brazilian prisons are wonderful places.… They are places for people to pay for their sins, not live the life of Reilly in a spa. Those who rape, kidnap and kill are going there to suffer – not attend a holiday camp.’ (2014)

‘I visited a quilombo, and the least heavy afro-descendant weighed seven arrobas (approximately 230 pounds). They do nothing! They are not even good for procreation.’ (2017)

A quilombo refers to a settlement founded and organised by the descendants of runaway slaves.

‘I would be incapable of loving a homosexual son.’ (2011)

Bolsonaro went on to add he would rather his son ‘died in an accident than showed up with some bloke with a moustache.’

‘The scum of the earth is showing up in Brazil, as if we didn’t have enough problems of our own to sort out.’ (2015)

‘Elections won’t change anything in this country. It will only change on the day that we break out in civil war here and do the job that the military regime didn’t do: killing 30,000. If some innocent people die, that’s fine. In every war, innocent people die.’

Sound similar to another president we know? Somebody who brags about ‘grabbing pussies,’ perhaps? When Trump and Bolsonaro held their respective presidencies, they were able to act as if they were rebelling against state power, with no end to their showboating. In so doing, they revealed a horror far greater than that which civilisation has been attempting to hide for hundreds of years. Its horror lies in the fact that civilisation is a liberal myth that needs to be shredded. Civilisation no longer needs to be protected because it is just as fake as mainstream news.

Their message, in a more popular idiom, appears to go something like this. We no longer try to provide a degree of civility to protect our citizens from the truth of the horrors of the liberals and the deep state because we feel that liberal democracy is no longer worth saving. A moral nation would never have elected people like us in the first place. We want to show you that WE ARE ANOTHER VERSION OF THE SAME HORROR that you liberals are trying to cover up, and, to save the nation, we must not only embrace this horror but exceed all the horrors of the past and not be hypocrites about it. You are commies and tyrants, and we are no longer going to use niceties to describe you. We are bringing back the slogan, ‘America: love it or leave it’!!! We are reshaping the superego so that it normalises the id. We are your worst nightmare! We had to lie once to save this once-fragile nation from turning on itself. Now we will direct our anger against those trying to uncover the lie – including the Big Lie – the liberals, the gay and transgender communities across the country, Black Lives Matter organisations and schoolteachers who dare make white students feel uncomfortable by talking about racism and slavery. We are going to rip apart all the ‘woke’ protective social artefacts and embrace our barbarism. And that’s what is going to get us elected. You can run, but you can’t hide. It might not look pretty, but somebody’s got to have the huevos to make it happen. We are coming to get you! Cut to Jim Jordan’s Hallowe’en grade rictus. To Marjorie Taylor Green’s scowling screeds. Get used to them, for they are the new normal.

Part of this rage against the liberals has to do with what Michael Harriot calls ‘the made-up menace’ of wokeness. Anti-wokeness in many of America’s legislatures is the modern-day equivalent of what Harriot describes as the ‘racial terrorism of Reconstruction, the pro-lynching Red Summer of 1919 and the pro-segregation states’ rights movement’ – in short, it is ‘a modern-day mixture of McCarthyism and white grievance.’ When Ron DeSantis announced in his midterm election victory speech that ‘We fight the woke in the legislature. We fight the woke in the schools. We fight the woke in the corporations. We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die,’ I had a chilling flashback of the historical ‘The Stand in the Schoolhouse Door’ episode at Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963, when George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama, stood at the door of the auditorium in an attempt to block the entry of two African American students, echoing his infamous promise of ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.’ It seems that the US government was being too ‘woke’ for Wallace and his lickspittles in its efforts to integrate America’s schools. Admittedly, some attempts to engage in civil rights and social justice initiatives might be considered controversial and deserving of debate, and some may be hamstrung with questions of ‘moral purity,’ but a far greater danger to the country occurs when anti-wokeness becomes an attempt by the right ‘to rebrand bigotry as a resistance movement.’ Diane Roberts writes: ‘Ron DeSantis likes to say Florida is where ‘woke’ goes to die. If by ‘woke’ he means tolerance, science, inquiry, free expression and knowledge, yes, Florida is where ‘woke’ goes to die.’

In the battle against wokeness, ‘Black history, diversity, equity, inclusion, trans rights, homosexuality and women choosing what to do with their own bodies’ is targeted as anti-American, fuelled by ‘the demise of everything good and white about America.’ DeSantis is fanatical about preventing public schools and universities from teaching ‘anything that would cause anyone to ‘feel guilt, anguish or any form of psychological distress’ due to their race, colour, sex or national origin.’ This is nothing short of anti-wokeness in the service of racial backlash. It is the contemporary iteration of The Purge. DeSantis has appointed six new ultra-conservative trustees to the board of the New College of Florida in Sarasota, trustees who constitute an ‘ideological demolition gang’ and who want to ‘trash its tradition of intellectual freedom and transform it into an institution DeSantis’ base would love, a Bob Jones-style religious school funded with taxpayer money.’ Roberts laments that ‘[o]ne of the nation’s top-ranked liberal arts colleges will become a place where you don’t talk about gender and race, you don’t confront the painful aspects of American history, and you sure as hell don’t say gay.

Harriot notes that the first documented use of the phrase ‘stay woke’ occurred in 1938, when the singer Leadbelly (who is known to have played at Myles Horton’s famous Highlander School, where black and white civil rights activists, including Rosa Parks, worked together to train for social justice initiatives) ended a song about nine Black men, encouraging Black people travelling through Alabama to ‘stay woke … Keep your eyes open.’

In the spirit of Leadbelly’s advice, if you are travelling anywhere in America today, watch out for those anti-woke advocates who believe it is a good idea to ‘purge’ social justice initiatives and punish those ‘liberals’ who advocate for them. Anti-wokeness has become ‘a cloak for racism, homophobia, transphobia and all manner of inequality. At its core is the desire to form a less perfect union, establish injustice and dismantle domestic tranquillity. It is unpatriotic. To be anti-woke is to be anti-American.’ So, my advice is to ‘stay woke.’

Before you don your cap’n’bells, your billycocks, propeller beanies, papier mache carnival masks and join the rest of the wingnuts, Trump’s tin foil titans of tempestuousness, the feckless foragers of falsehood, cosseted in their social media bubbles, whose lives have already been lived over and over in the pre-made templates of video games or Bible quotations devoid of historical context, take a deep breath and think about what you are doing to America. Emerge from the fever swamps of QAnon, Jewish space lasers and gazpacho police, and get real. Wake up. Get woke!

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2023). How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Beast Inside. PESA Agora.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.

Article Feature Image Acknowledgement: (Washington, DC - EUA 19/03/2019) Presidente da República Jair Bolsonaro responde perguntas da imprensa durante o encontro..Foto: Isac Nóbrega/PR