Monday, 7 April 2008

"A-wimoweh, a-wimoweh, a-wimoweh, a-wimoweh..."

Louis Theroux’s documentaries never fail to provoke thought and last night’s episode on African game hunting parks was no exception (it’s available on iPlayer for about six days). There was initial disgust at anyone getting such joy from the killing of an innocent plains animal and the disturbing fact that some of the animals were being breed for the sole purpose of eventually being killed by some tourist from Ohio who only wants to gain a tacky trophy to put above their fireplace and bragging rights to impress all their suburban neighbours with their own facile and primitive desires to go out and ‘be the super-predator’. These animals were breed to die. However the programme eventually presented the paradox that by killing a select few of the animals, whole species were being kept alive: a standard morally utilitarian equation or, as Spock would put it, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

It was also difficult to attribute blame in the situation presented. Whose fault was it that these horrendous ‘murder package-holidays’ existed? The suburban American consumer? The owners of the parks? The African government? In a heartfelt speech towards the end, one of the game park owners lamented their own circumstances stating that his breeding of animals was necessary because “[Africa] is fucked.” Without the commodities of the information age and the inability to take a serious stand in the global economy Africa has had to consume all its own resources, slowly destroying their own continent in order to survive. Were it not for enterprising capitalists who accept the patronage of wealthy Americans, animals like the sable would be extinct. He also rather comically expressed his raw hatred of elephants.

My own humble conclusion is that the owners of the parks were right; the animals have to survive and they provide a service. But they were right for the wrong reasons and perhaps that makes them just as wrong. They seemed to understand that the service they provided for the American consumer (the Americans with the strange bloodlust that Louis couldn’t comprehend and neither could I) was distasteful; maybe they even felt it was entirely wrong to kill these animals – one man in particular showed a real admiration for the grace of his giraffes. But the plaintive cry heard across the plains of South Africa wasn’t the roar of the lion or the bellow of the rhino; it was the sad lament of the capitalist – “I’m just trying to run a business.”

The documentary kept coming back to the theme of money and it really hit home that, in our society, money trumps morality. The catch-all excuse for someone capitalising on something distasteful has become “I’m just trying to run a business”. There’s money to be made from game hunting parks and money represents survival. Circumstances force humans to acquire money in order to survive and so as soon as someone utters the phrase “I’m just trying to run a business”, we can’t begrudge them their shady practices and questionable consumer-satisfying morality. That phrase instantly makes the provider of the goods into the victim – an unfortunate person who only sets aside their moral qualms in order to survive in a capitalist world.

Watching Louis’ documentary, it’s hard to deny that the park owners have saved species’ from the brink of extinction. But they’re right for the wrong reasons and by sacrificing their morality for money, by selling the basic human intelligence that separates them from the animals, they are just as wrong. It’s easy for me to write this – living in Britain with a cosy economic prospect – and I just want to make clear that I’m not indicting the owners in particular but the wrongness of the circumstance they’ve found themselves in: the disgraceful emphasis on money which human civilisation has lead us to and the lamentable capitalist trap that we neatly built around our own heads. The sad world we’ve created where money is no longer a means to an end but an end unto itself.

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