” Not All Americans Are like this Jackhole”
One important marker of membership in a privileged group is the luxury of being perceived and judged as an individual. There is no guilt by association. The lone gunman narrative invokes a history of mental illness that is carefully scrutinized by the media. Criminal behavior is often traced back to a specific family history or to a socially dysfunctional situation. The culture at large, however, is rarely interrogated for producing or glorifying violent behavior.
Jimmy Kimmel’s video about Walter Palmer, the American dentist who murdered a lion in Africa, seems to signal a very slight shift. Something different appears to be happening. In the opening shot, for instance, the comedian humanizes the victim of American violence in way that members of demonized minorities rarely enjoy. Cecil the lion is rightly portrayed as a beautiful animal. He may live in the wild but he possess the attributes of a family pet. This is not some random lion. We are told that he is a local favorite and that he is part of an Oxford research project that has been tracking him for years with a GPS. He was a tourist attraction and people loved to see him on Safaris.
In other words, this thirteen year old lion is given a name, a history and an international following. A lot of people are emotionally invested in this majestic animal. By calling attention to Cecil’s beauty and popularity the comedian underscores the value of what has been lost. We are invited to empathize with the victim of this violent act. To senselessly murder such a majestic and familiar animal, then, casts the American trophy hunter in the role of a villain who is tainting the country’s image abroad.
Kimmel initially read a news report that indicated the culprit was a Spaniard. He was relieved to learn that the murder was not an American. ”Thank God it wasn’t one of us for once”, he tells the audience. In some respects he is reacting to this act in the way that American Muslims sometimes do in the aftermath of a terrorist attack or mass shooting. There is usually a collective sigh of relief upon learning that the lone gunman has a history of mental illness. These are code words for a white dude did it. Thank God it’s not one of us. We are off the hook, at least until the next tragic incident.
Kimmel promptly learns that the culprit is in fact an American dentist with enough disposable income to travel to Africa and pay 50,000 dollars to lure a majestic lion out of the park and hunt him down with a bow and arrow. A dead animal was attached to a vehicle so the lion could be” legally” murdered outside the park. The lion survives for forty hours, the American hunter and his local collaborators return, shoot the lion dead, skin and behead him. Trophy hunting in its bravest moment./finest hour.
This is undoubtedly a tale of cultural entitlement supported by structural inequalities. How else could the dentist hunter have pulled off such an elaborate operation? He assumed that he could circumvent the law by luring the lion to a place where it was ”legal” to kill him and then claimed he thought the whole operation was done in accordance with the law. Palmer has an unsavory history of circumventing the law. In 2006, for instance, he was given a year’s probation and fined for killing a black bear outside an authorized zone in Wisconsin. Palmer still has his defenders. In an article in the Guardian Dan Tichenor, a board member of California Houndsmen for Conservation and a retired nuclear-scientist, said the following:
“He looks more a victim than a conspirator. I can see how it would be possible to think you’re on a legitimate hunt and then get into this mess.” The likelihood of being caught for killing Cecil, who wore a GPS collar, suggested blunder, not intent”
It is possible to attribute this ”blunder” to unmitigated cultural arrogance and impunity? What emerges is the image of an ugly American going abroad to commit an atrocious act with wanton ignorance and obscene resources. To his credit Jimmy Kimmel links this behavior to a masculinist culture that associates the domination of nature with sexual pleasure. He jokingly asks whether the dentist can only get an erection by killing animals stronger than himself. The comedian’s probing question gives rise to other probing questions in the viewer’s mind. Does it really require so much violent destruction for the bros to have a good time? Is violence and the predatory pursuit of more vulnerable creatures essential to masculinist notions of fun? To what extent is the global tourist industry an enabler of masculinist fun? In the same article we learn that Tim Eustace, A New Jersey lawmaker, proposed legislation to stop the transport of game trophies of endangered species through some New York and New Jersey airports. These airports, we are told, have ”heavily travelled routes between the US and Africa”.
Kimmel’s humorous jabs, then,have a larger cultural resonance and disturbing political implications. After all, Jimmy Kimmel, host of the former The Man Show, evokes the image of a lion’s severed head being enjoyed with other douche bags in a ”Man Cave” as he puts it.
. The lion’s head, then, is represented not so much as a trophy of a hunter’s consummate skill but as an emblem of a conquerer’s perverse sexual pleasure as he travels in pursuit of a wild animal trying to survive in a world haunted by the specter of massive species extinction. This is a serious critique of a masculinist American tradition. As spectators we are left with a vivid image of douche bags basking in the glory of killing a lion with whom we have forged an emotional connection.
If Palmer’s act unwittingly revealed some unsavory aspects of American culture and behavior abroad, then, the comedian’s final call to action implicitly concedes that as a group Americans need to distance themselves from this masculinist ethos. The comedian recognizes that we have an image problem as a trigger happy gun toting country notorious for its propensity to commit violent acts. Thank God it’s not one of us. He urges Americans to take action by donating money to the Wild Life Conservation Unit that tracked Cecil in order to demonstrate to the world that not all American are like Walter Palmer.
Perhaps another marker of privilege is being blithely unaware of the destructive impact you have on the planet and its inhabitants. This growing self-awareness is a tiny step in the right direction but it hardly goes far enough. What if more of us are complicit in the destruction of life everywhere with our addiction to fossil fuel and consumer culture? What if our pursuit of the haunted and hunted is out of control? What if we are complicit in destroying other living beings, unknown and unfamiliar to us, who possess the beauty and majesty of Cecil, a lion we have come to love? What if the barbaric is not wholly other?
It is the job of discerning audiences to push the boundaries and ask even more probing questions.