Although theory and practice are indeed mutually distinct domains, their distinctness should never be taken for exclusiveness. Theory is as distinct from practice as is the spider from its web or the bird from its nest. Moreover, just as the web arises from the spider and the nest from the bird, so too is theory born from reflection on practice. This can be seen for the truth that it is whether we are attending to contemporary political works spun from more commonplace imaginations or the philosophical masterpieces of the Western tradition.
Some of these latter, like Plato’s Republic and Hobbes’ Leviathan, labor hard to conceal their indebtedness to the contingencies of place and time. They at least appear to have more or less emancipated themselves from the circumstantial concerns that provoked them. Others, like Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, are much less reserved about revealing the impulse driving their pursuits.
It is within this later vein that Ilana Mercer’s Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa is squarely located.
The neglect with which this book has been treated is as sore as it is tragic.
South Africa is the place that Mercer called home for a good part of her life (she has also lived in Israel). She came of age under the rule of the white Afrikaner minority—“apartheid”—and witnessed up close and quite personally its passage into the annals of history. While there is no love loss between Mercer and apartheid—at no time does she hesitate to convict it of injustice—it isn’t apartheid that drove her to leave many of her relatives and friends behind so that she could emigrate to America.
No, Mercer’s flight from her old homeland is part and parcel of a virtual exodus of South Africans. And for this abrupt turn of events the African National Congress deserves all of the thanks.
The question of identity is the question: what makes any given thing the same thing at one time as it is at another time? In his Politics, Aristotle seeks to secure the criterion by which the identity of a political association can be established. Upon considering some proposals—territorial limits, “the stock” of the residents, etc.—he concludes that a political association is the same association at one juncture as at another if and only if its constitution remains the same. The constitution of a political association refers to the kind of government that defines it.
By Aristotle’s standard, then, post-apartheid South Africa is most definitely not the same political association as its apartheid-era predecessor. However, whether we accept Aristotle’s definition or not, as Mercer makes abundantly—painfully—clear, whatever continuity may be said to have existed at one time between the Old South Africa and the New is no longer legible.
Cannibal is a provocative account of the depths to which South Africa has degenerated under the rule of the African National Congress. Like the gifted writer that she is, Mercer enlists every syllable in the service of catapulting the reader into the world of the New South Africa, a country within which, courtesy of the corruption that pervades the ANC, unimaginably barbaric criminality has become an intractable feature of everyday life. The issue of crime has a particularly personal dimension for Mercer, for several members of her own family have been brutalized.
South Africa’s criminals act with a ruthlessness and an abandonment that would make even the most hardened residents of high crime areas in America blush. Whether it is the gang raping of young girls, the torturing of home owners who had the misfortune of awaking in the middle of the night to discover intruders on their property, or the forcible confiscation of the farm lands that South Africa’s most industrious and productive residents have spent their lives cultivating, crime in post-apartheid South Africa knows no bounds in either the frequency with which it occurs or the blood that it leaves in its wake.
Mercer spends an entire chapter identifying—and dismantling—the litany of conventional excuses that have been devised to explain away post-apartheid misery: “racism,” “post-colonialism,” “exploitation,” and the like. With the greatest of ease she obliterates them. It is here that her pen becomes the machete with which she slashes away at the nonsense that passes for deep thought among the Western intelligentsia.
Neither, however, does Mercer countenance any reductionist biological accounts of black-white differences. Such an approach is problematic for more than one reason, but especially because it would, ultimately, amount to but one more “root-cause.” Mercer doesn’t say this. For that matter, I haven’t heard any one else say it either. But a biologically-centered theory of human conduct, like those emphatically non-biological approaches that Mercer effortlessly puts out to pasture, is a species of precisely that hegemonic power with which Mercer struggles throughout her captivating work.
This “power” is what others have called “rationalism,” by far and away the dominant intellectual disposition of the modern West.
Rationalism comes in many degrees, but, at the very least, what all forms of modern rationalism seem to share in common is a penchant for the abstract and universal over the concrete and particular. To put it differently, the concepts of tradition, culture, and custom figure minimally, if at all, in the thought of the rationalist. Such concepts bespeak a provinciality that is anathema to the rationalist mind, a mind that prefers to dwell among ideas—rational nature, human nature, natural rights, natural law, laws of history, human rights, Democracy, state of nature, principles, ideals—of another type altogether.
Doctrines of innate inferiority no less than doctrines of “racism” and other fashionable “root causes” accounts of black rule in South Africa are alike functions of rationalism, for while they differ in degree, they are of one kind in relegating cultural considerations to the periphery (if there!).
Mercer knows this. That which we now know as modern conservatism actually originated as a response to the rationalistic excesses of the Enlightenment. David Hume and, particularly, Edmund Burke, were among its most distinguished of representatives. In reading Cannibal it is hard not to see in its author the shades of her illustrious predecessors. Like these theorists from times past, Mercer compels her readers to recognize that the dislodging of moral ideals from the complex of historically and culturally-specific traditions that give them color promises calamitous consequences for all involved.
At the same time, however, Mercer—a self-identified “paleo-libertarian”—refuses to abandon rationalist talk of “natural rights.”
That there is conflict between, on the one hand, Mercer’s affirmation of natural rights, and, on the other, the primacy that she ascribes to culture or tradition, is obvious. It is even possible that this tension in her text between the universal and the particular may be insuperable. But, ultimately, whatever criticism falls on Mercer for this must be qualified by the consideration that if there are tensions in Cannibal between these themes—and there undoubtedly are—it is only because, from the inception of Western philosophy some 2600 years ago, the same tensions have constituted the Western Mind itself.
Permanence and flux, nature and convention, the universal and the particular—it was from a longing to discern the connection between the members of each of these dualisms that Western philosophy was born. To this day, the inquiry continues.
Mercer’s commitment to natural rights reflects what the reader must recognize as a laudable attempt to preserve some sense of permanence undergirding the identity-extinguishing change that has engulfed her beloved South Africa since the abolition of apartheid. Her insistence upon the culturally-centered (culturally constituted?) nature of morality reconciles her—and us—to the fact that it is in vain, to say nothing of great agony, that we suppress or ignore the staggering variety of human customs in favor of a monolithic moral plan within the jurisdiction of which all human beings can be made to fall.
Mercer’s thought is distended between universal natural rights and particular cultural traditions, it is true. Yet as is the case with so many works of genius, this tension is as much one of Cannibal’s strengths as it is a weakness, for from it there springs an energy that is notable for its sense of urgency.
Like Burke before her, Mercer, it is clear, is on a mission. Burke was consumed with the conflagration of the French Revolution that he believed threatened to tear European civilization asunder. Far from obscuring his ethical vision, I believe that much of the passion that informed it stemmed from a conflict in Burke’s consciousness between a recognition of both the universal demands of morality and the partiality that we owe to “the little platoons”—our local attachments—from which we derive our individual identities. This, though, is precisely the same war that rages within Mercer, and as it aided Burke in his contest with the evil of the French radicals, so too does it aid Mercer in her contest with the wickedness of the African National Congress and its supporters.
Cannibal is a woefully underappreciated book. A not inconsiderable number of otherwise astute reviewers seemed to have missed its main significance. This work is not primarily about “diversity,” “democracy,” “egalitarianism,” or “collectivism.” And it is certainly not about any conflicts within the Jewish community (Mercer is herself a Jew who remarks upon the role that South African Jews, including her father, played as critics of apartheid, as well as the role that Israel assumed as a stalwart ally of the Old South Africa). Cannibal isn’t even a book about inter-racial conflict.
Ultimately, as I read it, Cannibal is a brilliantly executed reenactment of the great Western drama, an epic contest between the universal and the particular, permanence and flux, nature, history, and convention. To the roster of the most colorful cast of characters that have, at various times, assumed center stage in this grand pageant we can now add the name of Ilana Mercer.
Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa should be on the shelves of every thoughtful American. But conservatives especially need to attend to this book, for it is as intelligently, eloquently, and forcefully articulated a case against shaping political policy prescriptions according to universal abstractions as any that our generation has yet to produce.