Blind Man with a Pistol


Back Bacon

Pandemics exert a particular hold on the social imagination. From as far back as Oedipus Rex, the plague reveals the fragility of the social bond, our fear and suspicion of the necessary connection that binds us. More recently, George Romero’s  Night of the Living Dead (1968) exploits this fear—expressed in racism, sexual gaze and state coercion—to deliver a powerful social commentary in the midst of the American civil rights movement. When what we call soceity admits strange and foreign company, we question the link that shackles us together. Zombies scare us not because they are different, but because they are so like us. As both Oedipus and Duane Jones discovered to their peril, when the enemy you seek to expel is indivisible from yourself, there is no way out. Aristotle called this katharsis; Romero called it terrifying.

And so the world finds itself gripped by another pandemic scare: swine flu joins avian flu, SARS and e coli as the latest member of a list that trails back beyond the Black Plague of London. At time of writing, the CBC website boasts no less than fourteen links to swine-flu-related stories. I have no knowledge or understanding of pandemic as a medical reality, and I would never minimize the over 150 confirmed deaths suffered in Mexican communities as a result of the disease. Moreover, I do not question Dr. David Butler-Jones’s assertion that Swine flu is likely to worsen in Canada. However, I do question the focus of the stories issuing from this media frenzy.

Despite the vast number of articles swirling about the pandemic scare, very few of them seem to be actually about the Mexican victims, or reflecting the grief shared by the affected communities. This is in stark distinction to the commiserating stories that followed the nearly 300 dead in the L’Aquila earthquake earlier this month, or the Australian bushfires that claimed more than 200 lives. Instead, we are assaulted with stories that tell us if our state borders are safe: Infected Scottish couple ‘doing OK’, With [US] Swine Flu Cases Rising, Borders are Tightening, and Canadian Health Officials Warn against travel to Mexico. Why are two slightly ill people from Falkirk earning more column inches than the devastated community that forms the epicentre of this global crisis?

A few people are trying to answer these questions. David Kirby at HuffPo draws links between Mexico’s factory farms and the illness:

As Philpott pointed out in his post, Mexican newspapers have been reporting for weeks that residents living near Granjas Carroll’s massive hog facility at La Gloria are falling ill with severe upper respiratory diseases. One five-year-old girl in the village just tested positive for swine flu – the bodies of two more children who died recently are being exhumed.

According to an April 5 article in La Jornada newspaper, “Clouds of flies emanate from the lagoons where Granjas Carroll discharges the fecal waste from its hog barns – as well as air pollution that has already caused an epidemic of respiratory infections in the town.”

More than 400 people had already been treated for respiratory infections, and more than 60 percent of the town’s 3,000 residents had reported getting sick, the paper said. State officials disputed that claim, and said the illnesses were caused by cold weather and dust in the air.

The Guardian forwards a similar possibility, targeting the world’s largest pig-meat producer, Smithfield:

Smithfield, which is led by pork baron Joseph W Luter III, has previously been fined for environmental damage in the US. In October 2000 the supreme court upheld a $12.6m (£8.6m) fine levied by the US environmental protection agency which found that the company had violated its pollution permits in the Pagan River in Virginia which runs towards Chesapeake Bay. The company faced accusations that faecal and other bodily waste from slaughtered pigs had been dumped directly into the river since the 1970s .

The outbreak of respiratory illness in the area of the Granjas Carroll plant was first detected at the beginning of this month by Veratect, a company based in Washington state which monitors the spread of disease and pandemics around the world for corporate clients.

On 6 April it reported local officials had declared a health alert. According to its dispatch: “Sources characterised the event as a ‘strange’ outbreak of acute respiratory infection, which led to pneumonia in some paediatric cases. Health officials recorded 400 cases that sought medical treatment in the last week in La Gloria, which has a population of 3,000; officials indicated that 60% of the town’s population, approximately 1,800 cases, has been affected.”

It’s a connection that appears, to the non-medical eye at least, as blindingly obvious. Kettle together shit, swine, flies and workers close enough for long enough, and the result will be nasty. So now that an American corporation, driven by Western appetite for cheap pork loin has created what the chairman of the state legislature’s Committee on the Environment, Marco Antonio Núñez López, called ‘focos rojos‘ (translated by Kirby as ‘breeding grounds’ or ‘hot spots’) for a disease spreading to Canada, the United States and abroad, our response is to circle the wagons, tighten our borders, ostracize and  incriminate Mexico. A familiar narrative to say the least.

In a final bit of irony, Canada has tightened screening procedure for Mexican seasonal workers coming up during the summer to fill Canada’s casual labour void. There are no plans yet to bar workers, 15 000 of whom work on fruit, vegetable and dairy farms throughout the summer every year. So now that our sociopathic food industry and insatiable consumerism has created a diseased cesspool which our liberal sensibilities forbid us from implementing on our doorstep, relegated  instead to the conveniently inconspicuous and less ‘civilized’ Latin America, we forbid the casual labourers we desperately need from working in our ‘enlightened’ agriculture industry; thereby, in all likelihood, encouraging them to take up work in the more unsafe and unhygienic environment of Mexico. Like Oedipus, we keep trying to find the culprit behind the crime but all the evidence repeatedly, and quite awkwardly, points back at us. And, like Duane Jones in Romero’s Living Dead, we might survive the onslaught of pandemic only to be thwarted by our own incompetent, shortsighted and paranoid state.

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Modern Tragedy

Josef Fritzl. Nothing can possibly be said. An unspeakable tragedy. A ghastly act of sustained horror the likes of which cannot be recalled in history or in imagination.

Yet something must be said, because he is to stand trial. The debate over whether he is mentally fit, whether sentences in Europe are long enough (and if, at 73, he would survive an appropriate one anyway), and whether or not his case merits capital punishment. A lifetime (maybe two) of rape, four childhoods stolen, inconceivable abuse and imprisonment must now be translated into prison time.

How absurd. What would a punitive sentence accomplish? As a deterrent to future Josef Fritzls? As a stern lesson in the hopes of rehabilitation? A crucible for his soul? The barbarity of his crime has eliminated the possibility of justice.

Usually society is spared such futile calisthenics. When Nickel Mines killed five Amish school children in October 2006, he thankfully turned the gun on himself. The villain behind Austria’s other recent rape and imprisonment narrative, Wolfgang Priklopil, threw himself in front of a street car hours after his prisoner, Natascha Kampusch, escaped. Suicide provides closure to tragedies that would otherwise offer too many questions, that mock, rather than demonstrate our system of justice.

The day after Kimveer Gill opened fire on his Dawson College classmates on 13 September 2006, killing Anastasia Rebecca De Sousa, the Toronto Star ran the headline “Killer loved guns, hated people,” as if it were that simple. As if Kimveer Gill was an anomaly, a one-off who by some hellish mischance developed both a love for guns and a hatred for people. The blame, such a headline suggests, is wholly his: what could possibly be done about such a nutcase?

The logic of such headlines characterize our editorial pages in the aftermath of Josef Fritzl. “How could his wife not have known?”, they question. They could as easily ask how any of us could also not have known: we neighbours, we fellow Austrians, or we fellow human beings who were equally duped. This question, this displacement of blame, reveals that we did know—we do know. Likewise, ridiculous questions concerning the severity of Fritzl’s sentence distract us from the difficult social introspection of which his suicide would have wholly absolved us. We place the onus on Fritzl’s wife, on Gill’s love of guns, on anything that will do because we know, in our heart of hearts, that we are to blame.

The truth is that society failed these individuals catastrophically. When Oedipus Rex tears out his own eyes on stage in one of the most violent scenes in art, it is the price he pays for revealing the hypocrisies and impossible contradictions of the social contract. And the audience watches on, unsettled by the violence but satisfied that he has paid for his crime, that justice has been served. Yet what is truly tragic about Sophocles’s play is that we are complicit in Oedipus’s plight. Our laws and our social mores, the matrix in which we participate and which we reproduce daily, necessitate and determine Oedipus’s fate even as we punish him for it. And Oedipus, blood running from dull sockets, shows us his eyes as if to urge us to revelation.

This is the hard lesson of Josef Fritzl. What kind of society can create such a monster? How do we, as its citizens, contribute to such atrocity? How can a civilization that fantasizes about capturing and torturing women, that imprisons children in illegal concentration camps for a third of their life, that endorses endemic rape and violence in Africa, possibly be surprised when someone shows us our eyes?