It's all delicious fantasy for us. But in some places, they’re actually living the apocalpyse.
Why we love that alien hordes stuff
It's all delicious fantasy for us. But in some places, they’re actually living the apocalpyse.
Almost everyone who’s been exposed to Western pop culture over the last half-century is familiar with the great iconic image that closes Planet of the Apes: a loinclothed Charlton Heston falling to his knees as he comes face to face with a shattered Statue of Liberty poking out of the sand and realizes that the “planet of the apes” is, in fact, his own—or it was. On the Culture Monkey website the other day, Gerry Canavan used it as a convenient illustration for some musings on the appeal of “apocalyptic fantasy,” and immediately found himself struck by how often the image recurs, as the easiest shorthand for civilizational ruin. Mr. Canavan rounded up some of the more familiar examples—Independence Day (Lady Liberty zapped by aliens), The Day After Tomorrow (Lady Liberty flash-frozen in ice after sudden catastrophic climate change apparently brought on by a speech from Dick Cheney)—and then delved into some of the more obscure ones: the first issue of a 1972 comic book by Jack Kirby (ofX-Men/ Fantastic Four/Incredible Hulk fame). “Beasts who act like men! Men who act like beasts! See the world of... Kamandi, The Last Boy On Earth!” And there, looking like a teenage Mighty Thor, is the blond-tressed eponymous Kamandi bobbing purposefully on a dinghy through a devastated New York past a Statue of Liberty waist-deep in water.
Things are worse on the first issue of AllNew Doomsday +1. In this umpteenth tale of a devastated world, the water’s up to the statue’s chin. If you’re peddling an All-New Doomsday, you can’t go wrong with the most reliably all-old image of societal collapse. It’s been that way at least since the 1940s, when
pulp mags like Astounding Science Fiction ran covers of raft-borne primitives approaching an abandoned Liberty on an undergrowthchoked island. The earliest example of Liberty-bashing found by Mr. Canavan’s readers dates all the way back to an 1887 edition of Life, and a story called “The Next Morning,” illustrated by a pen-and-ink drawing of a headless Statue of Liberty with the smouldering rubble of the city behind her.
The pop-cultural detonation of national landmarks is a mostly American phenomenon. In other places, it happens for real. Godzilla thomping his way down Fifth Avenue and hurling Buicks through the Empire State Building offers the frisson of a roller-coaster ride: when it’s over, the ground under your feet will be as solid as it ever was. Whereas watching alien hordes take over Paris or Brussels or Berlin would be déjà vu all over again. At the same time as Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction were running those covers of the Statue of Liberty battered and brutalized in one dystopian scenario after another, Buckingham Palace took nine direct hits during the Blitz. Reducing the iconic British landscape to rubble wasn’t Fiction and it wasn’t that Astounding, and it didn’t even require much Science: on one occasion, an enterprising lone German bomber flew low up the Mall and dropped its load directly above the king and queen’s living quarters. When American audiences whooped and hollered at the vaporizing of the White House in Independence Day, it’s because such thrills are purely the stuff of fantasy—or at least they were until a Tuesday morning one September when a guy in a cave remade the Manhattan skyline. Osama bin Laden evidently gave some thought to the iconography of the
moment, though one wonders if he might not have got a bigger bang for the buck by taking out, say, the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. Still, it’s over six years ago now, and you can’t help feeling that the Independence Day vaporization would generate the same cheers today. It’s the difference between hanging upside down in one of Saddam’s torture chambers or hanging upside down in a New York S&M club for half an hour after work on Fridays. We can enjoy blowing up the Statue of Liberty every couple of months in some movie or comic book because we assume it and what it represents are indestructible.
It doesn’t seem that obvious in the rest of the world. This week, my eye fell on a striking headline in Britain’s Daily Telegraph: “General Butt Naked Confesses To Nude Killings.” General Butt Naked is a Liberian warlord so called because of his preference for charging into battle wearing only his boots at the head of a similarly deshabille contingent known as the Butt Naked Battalion. As I said, the story happened to catch my eye, and when anything from Liberia catches your eye you’re best to grab it back before someone eats it. And so it was with this tale. As the Telegraph’s West Africa editor, Mike Pflanz, wrote:
“The nude gunmen became known for terrorizing villagers and sacrificing children whose hearts they would eat before going into battle during Liberia’s 14-year on-off civil war which ended in 2003.”
Did they do a lot of this? Child-sacrifice and heart-eating and so forth? Well, General Butt Naked confesses to killing some 20,000 people before finding himself standing nude in battle on a bridge outside Monrovia and hearing the voice of God tell him he was Satan’s slave and should repent immediately. Since when he’s been an evangelical preacher in Ghana.
And we shrug and move on. Hey, it’s Liberia. Back in 2000, the country’s Ministry of Information had hailed President Charles Taylor for the ease of access he offered to his people “so that everyone will at least have the opportunity to have the ears of the Chief Executive, instead of a select few.” By contrast, only a select few got the opportunity to have the ears of the previous Chief Executive, Samuel Doe. He’d fallen into the hands of Prince Johnson, one of Charles Taylor’s allies in the battle to unseat him. “That man won’t talk!” barked Johnson. “Bring me his ear!” So the boys sliced off his left ear, and then the right, and made the president eat them.
But the lads kept the best bits for themselves. They removed His Excellency’s genitals and chowed down in the belief that the “powers” and “manhood” of the person whose parts you’re eating are transferred to the eater. A New York returned to a Hobbesian state of nature is a delicious fantasy because it’s so remote, but in Liberia who needs the movies? They’re living it—right down to the whole Quentin Tarantino “Stuck In The Middle With You” menu options. And when it turns up on page 37 of the newspaper we give it nary a thought because who expects anything of West Africa anyway?
Liberia’s not a “victim” of European colonization. Founded by freed American slaves, its first republic lasted from 1847 until Samuel Doe’s coup in 198O. In the seventies, before nude warlords came a-rampaging, Monrovian bigwigs didn’t merely pull their pants on before swaggering forth, they favoured morning dress of an anachronistic gentility reminiscent of the antebellum South.
In other words, Liberia went backwards. Do you remember when Mel Lastman engaged in a bit of Canadian multiculti outreach and wondered aloud why he’d ever want to visit Mombasa? “I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me.” He wound up having to apologize, of course. Oddly enough, when Mel was a kid
and it was taken for granted Africans were a bunch of cannibals, there was virtually no empirical basis for such a persistent stereotype. “The rest of the world had always believed that there was cannibalism in Africa,” wrote Charles Onyango-Obbo in The East African a few years ago, “but there wasn’t much hard evidence for it.” Today, when the PC enforcers clobber you for evoking the old cooking-pot gag, cannibalism is flourishing. Mr. OnyangoObbo was reporting that the Congolese Liberation Movement was slaughtering huge numbers of people and feeding the body parts to their relatives. As he sees it, it’s a function of Africa’s re-primitivization. “Cannibalism,” he wrote, “happens commonly where there is little science, and people don’t see themselves as creatures of a much higher order than other animals around them. When you have gone to the moon, you consider yourself and other humans to be very different from the chimp at the zoo.”
Well, maybe. Before the carnage of recent years Liberians didn’t go to the moon but they had a broadly functioning society. So did the Yugoslavs, until folks decided it would be more fun to reduce the joint to rubble. They didn’t eat their enemies’ private parts, but they certainly sliced off plenty of breasts and genitals. True, they never had a nice clearcut embodiment of civilization like the Statue of Liberty, but you would have thought, given the society General Butt Naked was born into, that there would be some restraint against ripping the hearts out of children and eating them. Or (to cite the penultimate Benazir Bhutto assassination attempt) wiring up your baby as a bomb and inviting the politician to come and kiss the cute little moppet. The state of nature has made huge advances in recent years—which is why some of us worry what will happen when such forces go nuclear. I like those shattered Statueof-Liberty covers as much as the next comicbook nerd, but they’re the product of confident 19th-century assumptions about a distant
republic living in splendid isolation from the world’s cares. Dystopian fantasies become obsolescent for two reasons: if you’re lucky, progress renders them absurd (see Metropolis)-, if you’re not, they cross over from fiction to the news pages. M
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