Ilana Mercer's Into the Cannibal's Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa

A while back, I reviewed Ilana Mercer's Into the Cannibal's Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa.  Shortly afterwards, she and I began to correspond with one another.  On the eve of the release of the book's paperback edition, its author graciously invited me to write its afterword.  I was honored to do so. 

The classics of political philosophy are no different from those of any other genre inasmuch as they reflect, even if subtly, the relativities of time and place from which they sprang.  Highly theoretical works like Plato's Republic, Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, and John Locke's Second Treatise of Government are no exceptions.

Still, while such works emerged from their progenitors' preoccupations with the concrete political realities of their time, it would be a mistake of the first order to equate them with these concerns.  In other words, there isn't a single contributor to the political-philosophical imagination of the Western mind who didn't labor mightily to connect the particularities that initially arrested his attention to the universal. 

It is in this light that we must approach Ilana's work.  That many of Cannibal's reviewers appear to have come at it from a decidedly different vantage point makes it all the more imperative that we guard against making their error our own.

With an intimacy only a native is capable of supplying, Ilana escorts her reader through the history of her native homeland to the present day.  A place of which many of us have only heard, a place on a map, soon comes into crystal-clear focus as reading about South Africa gives way to seeing it -- or perhaps, more accurately, feeling it.  That both its past fortunes and present sufferings should be recapitulated with an equally intense passion is, after all, what we should expect from a woman who characterizes her work as "a labor of love" to her homeland.

Lest Cannibal's author's intentions be misread, it should be stated unequivocally at the outset that Ilana was no friend of apartheid.  Her commitment to the classical liberal tradition, a line of thought distinguished on account of its resounding affirmation of individuality, resolutely precludes sympathy with any set of institutional arrangements centered on race.  Still, facts are facts -- however painful to reckon with they may be -- and Ilana is nothing if not eminently capable of and just as willing to confront fact.

And the ugly fact is that whatever can be said of apartheid, by virtually every measure -- especially rates of crime -- the new South Africa is exponentially worst than the old.

Doubtless, stripped of all of the hideous details regarding the quality of life that serve to distinguish post-apartheid South Africa from its counterpart of yesteryear -- astronomical rates of crime, corrupt and incompetent government, etc. -- Cannibal loses its identity as the work that it is.  However, no less indispensable to its integrity, and probably even more so, are the larger theoretical, philosophical questions with which the book wrestles.

Because life under the rule of the African National Congress has become unbearable for the residents of South Africa, Ilana left her home.  She left her family.  She left her friends.  The complex of institutions within which she was nurtured, that made her who she is, Ilana was compelled to leave behind.

Change and permanence are the two themes with which the earliest Western philosophers were initially mesmerized.  They have influenced the course of Western philosophy ever since.  The same can be said for the themes of the universal and the particular, nature and culture.

Such sets of themes constitute the framework within which Cannibal unfolds.

Ilana's book is, in a sense, an obituary.  It is an obituary for her home, her country.  For centuries, conservative theorists have been noted for nothing if not their resistance to radical change.  Change, they knew, is inevitable.  Yet, as the twentieth-century philosopher Michael Oakeshott memorably remarked, it is also emblematic of death.

Each and every change is a step toward non-being.  For this reason, change is to be approached cautiously, prudently -- changes that are slight are preferable to those that are vast, changes that are necessary to those that are not, and changes that are gradual to those that are radical.  Changes that are "fundamentally transformative" siphon the life out of a society by severing its present from its past.

That is to say, every proposal for radical or fundamental change is a proposal for the destruction of one social order and the creation, ex nihilo, as it were, of a new one.  

Unlike most of us, Ilana knows this all too well, for the radical alterations that, like all radical changes, were hastily -- and recklessly -- imposed upon her homeland essentially destroyed it.  It is nothing less than her experience of the death of a loved one that Ilana relays to readers in Cannibal.

However, while Cannibal is nothing less than this, it is indeed also something more than this.

Ilana, you see, doesn't just mourn the loss of South Africa; she dares to love once more.

Her new beloved is the United States, her new home.

But, as is the case with all lovers who have had to endure unimaginable suffering, Ilana is at great pains to insure that her new love is spared the same murderous folly that befell her old.  Thus far, though, things are not looking that promising for America on this score, for it is the pursuit of universal abstractions at the cost of neglecting concrete contingencies -- an enterprise that consumes the entire Western world generally and the USA specifically -- that imperiled South Africa in the '90s and America today.

Universal ideals like "democracy," say, sound wonderful, but when attempts are made to implement them without any regard for the cultural complexities of those to whom they are applied -- when timeless abstractions are spoken of as if they were written in human or rational nature rather than the hard-won fruits of a civilization that has been centuries and millennia in the making -- all manner of chaos is going to ensue.

This Ilana has seen in South Africa, and this is what she sees transpiring for America as it embarks upon a foreign policy that has as its objective "the fundamental transformation" of the Middle East (and beyond) into an oasis of democracy.

Despite both my affection for this work and my admiration for the perceptiveness and courage of its author, this review would be remiss if I didn't point out one major objection to which Cannibal is vulnerable.

Given her painful awareness of both the conflict that exists between the universal and abstract on the one hand, and the particular and concrete on the other, and her admonishment to avoid the pursuit of the former at the expense of the latter, it is more than a bit ironic that Ilana subscribes to the doctrine of "natural rights."  It is also more than a bit problematic that she does so.

The foreign policy that Ilana abhors is rooted in the abstraction of "democracy," as she contends, but it is rooted no less in the equally abstract concept of natural or human rights.  Of course, a belief in natural rights doesn't require that its holder support this kind of a foreign policy.  Yet this is one of such a belief's shortcomings: it is in principle compatible with all manner of policies -- even those that strike us as being radically incompatible with one another. 

And this is but another way of saying that, like the worst of abstractions, it can mean all things to all people.

To Ilana's credit, she readily concedes that this tension between the universal and the particular pervades Cannibal throughout.  In fairness, it is a healthy tension, for it provokes us to continue a discussion over the relationship between the two that even the best and brightest minds of the Western tradition have found impossible to avoid.  All great works of political and ethical thought, from Plato onward, have wrestled with this issue. 

To this long and illustrious collection we can now add Ilana Mercer's Into the Cannibal's Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. blogs at At the Intersection of Faith and Culture.  Contact him at, friend him on Facebook, and follow him at Twitter.

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