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In Praise of the Safari

Ashurbanipal was king of the New Assyrian Empire from 668 BC to 626 BC, placing him about 600 years after the events depicted in Homer’s Iliad and about 300 years before the conquests of Alexander. The interested reader could look into the king at profit, though for our purposes we will focus on a particular art history aspect of the great leader: the lion hunt reliefs excavated at Nineveh, currently preserved at the British Museum. The reliefs are an absolute masterwork, depicting in a surprisingly lively way, Ashurbanipal on a lion hunt. Assyrian kings, aided by courtiers, ritually hunted the beasts following their release from cages. The slaughter of the dangerous creatures showed the king’s prowess in a perilous situation and allowed him to act out his role as protector of the people, lions being a real threat to herders in southwest Asia at the time, and thus a fitting symbol of danger for the king to slay.

The king facing down an attacking lion

image description A lioness dispatched by arrows shot by the king and his men

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The king slaying a lion from horseback

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The seventh century BC was, of course, a long time ago. The days when it was understood that elite men would hunt exotic game are long over. Our 19th-century forebears might have still understood why powerful men would and should hunt, but contemporary people, raised in a generally safe, feminized pseudo-culture, mostly find hunting repulsive, especially when the game is exotic.

We were reminded of this fact when President Trump, on November 16th, 2017, announced the repeal of an Obama-era ban on imported elephant trophies from Zimbabwe. A chorus of denunciation erupted from both left and right, and the administration quickly announced a hold on the decision, before supplies of smelling salts would be exhausted. As expected, the outrage was particularly ferocious on the left, after all, what good leftist can resist the chance to mind someone else’s business, or to emotionally meltdown over a triviality? Interestingly, meltdowns extended into the putative right; Matt Drudge was busy posting saccharine headlines and pictures of a wild, middle-aged lion that some called “Cecile," famously killed by a Minnesota dentist in 2015. Michael Savage, longtime inhabitant of the far right edge of the Overton Window in the pre-Trump order, was perhaps the most outspoken against Trump’s move within the mainstream (liberal) right.

Savage’s ridiculous, near-caricature persona, is entertaining in small doses. The man also has a fair bit of influence, and while his talking points are basic, he is one of the few who push some semblance of sanity into the public discourse, reminding John Q. Flyover that he's not insane for questioning open-door immigration or shameful sexual perversion. Savage’s stance against big game hunting and his freak-out at Trump’s move to allow elephant trophies into the US are easily refuted, and in the grand scheme, not important. But they do give a useful foil for examining the matter of hunting both in far-off Africa and closer to home.

Hunting, Status, And Manhood

Hunting in North America is loosely correlated with the social hierarchy. The Proles hunt hogs and deer, the middle class hunts deer, and maybe some regional species, while the upper-middle-class hunt elk (usually involving a west- and/or north-bound airline flight), ducks and upland birds. The oligarch class hunts exotic game, as well as some things the upper-middle-class hunts. US presidents have typically hunted like the upper middle class, with notable exceptions.

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It is meet and right that leaders should hunt, for hunting is the primordial task of men, and a leader who refuses to take game is in a deep way refusing to fulfill his duty as such. From the ancient Assyrians mentioned above to the Soviets (the breakup of the USSR was negotiated over a hunting trip) the mighty have always used their status to secure hunting rights for themselves. Given endless supplies of luxuries and women, these men still chose to hunt, we should ask ourselves why, before like Savage, we descend into hysterics over a matter we don't fully understand.

Many have noted the connection between manhood and the preparation and provision of meat. One of the last vestigial masculine roles in our age of decline revolves around meat. Few men hunt, yet it is almost always the man who tends the grill and the man who carves the Thanksgiving turkey and the Christmas ham. It would just feel wrong to everyone if the women did these tasks.

While not as grandiose as Ashurbanipal’s exploits, photos of the Trump boys with their African trophies show us that at least some small part of the ruling class is still willing to get its hands dirty. For as much as one can disparage the billionaire on safari, guided by expert hunters and presumably staying in upscale accommodations, the fact remains that the Trump brothers had the balls to leave their familiar environs, venture out into the unknown (albeit a reasonably tamed unknown) and pull the trigger. Doing this cemented their status as class traitors and brought them closer to the old ideal of the aristocrat. Hunting, as inconvenient and (at times) boring as it may be, is a way to temporarily thrust oneself back into a previous age.

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Take a vacation and relax

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As much as the elites have loved hunting, they have denied it to the common man. The story of Robin Hood, retconned into a Marxist class struggle in the 20th century, was originally about an Anglo-Saxon seeking to reassert his ancient right to hunt, against the will of the alien Norman tyranny. By the high Middle Ages, hunting had been legally reserved for royalty and their lieutenants in most of Europe, with pitiless enforcement. The Malthusian conditions of the time, and associated pressure on woodlands and food supplies led elites to reserve hunting to themselves, not unreasonably.

Things changed when North America opened up to European settlement. By the time the French began to explore, European diseases had already taken the great bulk of the Red Indians, resulting in a massive increase in the density of game. For the first time in thousands of years, the average man could reliably eat meat, all he had to do was get himself to North America. And they came; don’t underestimate how motivating the prospect of meat was to early French and English settlers, particularly among the lower classes. German and Polish craftsmen, starving in the Jamestown settlement, readily went over to the Indian side, tempted by meat. Over the next hundred years, thousands of newly arrived indentured servants would flee west from the English colonies, into the woods to join man-power starved Indian tribes, for a chance to live fulltime as a hunter (hat tip to James LaFond.)

Say what you will about the tenets of Trumpism, at least it ritually slaughtered the Republican Party

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Hunting Shamers And Their Discontents

Michael Savage and his ilk (presumably) object to the returning of trophies from Africa, not because of some data-driven argument about wildlife conservation, but because of causally indeterminate negative emotions. Like unexpectedly small portions in a restaurant, or increased tolls on the Queensboro Bridge, rich white men shooting charismatic mega fauna is intolerable. For Savage, who openly looks down on his flyover audience and their limited understanding, hunting is a bizarre practice, the habit of brutes. The only possible motivations for hunting, being that it requires entry into the scary realm beyond the confines of Metropolitan Statistical Areas, are sadism and perhaps a need to vent sexual frustration. This is of course nonsense.

The emotional crises that hunting triggers in contemporary people betokens their dysfunctional relationship with violence. These people are content to watch gratuitous brutality on TV screens, but if anyone should venture out into the woods and kill something, well, it’s too awful to contemplate. They are at once fascinated by violence, fictionalized serial killers and war movies, yet at the same time unable to countenance one of their fellows getting his hands dirty in what was, until recently, a normal, healthy, purposeful example of violence.

The motivations of hunters, particularly those serious enough to shell out many tens of thousands of dollars on African safaris, are not primarily, or even significantly, sadism. Human males are built to hunt. The last two million years of hominid development have been largely about improvements in hunting ability: massive improvements in the visual cortex, giving us among the best sight of any species, a neocortex capable of pattern recognition and complex group strategy our God-given biology is sculpted by our need to hunt. From stones, to spears, to atlatls to bows, early technology was hunting-focused and a man’s most prized possessions were hunting and warfare related.

Ancient art, from the cave paintings of Stone Age man in Spain, to the gold and garnet jewelry of the Iron Age Anglo Saxons, was animal-obsessed. Given all this, is it so hard to believe some of us would have retained this primal fascination with hunting? If this is true, as seems likely, is it so bad? What is more human than hunting? And by extension, what is more aristocratic than a wealthy man using his resources to hunt the biggest, most impressive game? We shouldn’t ask “why would someone need to shoot an elephant?”, but rather “what has gone wrong in my development that I don’t also wish to shoot an elephant?”. The point is that it is healthy to want to hunt, our Eurasian ancestors were simply so good at it that they killed off most of the biggest, baddest species outside Africa.

The Logos Of Conservation

The forbidding of bringing home trophies from Africa is arbitrary and emotional. Africans either will, or won’t preserve their dwindling game reserves, and a few hundred hunting trips by rich white men is a drop in the bucket next to domestic poaching. Logic tells us that making African game available for wealthy western hunters will add to the body of people interested in preserving the game, but put that aside for now. Let’s give the naysayers the benefit of the doubt and pretend that all hunters are motivated by pure sadism. Pretend western elephant hunters, all 12 of them, drop an animal with only malice in their hearts. Big deal. If we were to ban every activity that’s primarily motivated by malice, we’d soon slip into a Freudian morass, questioning all motivations, and ending with the banning of prize fighting, multiplayer strategy games and (so I’m told) homosexual orgies.

The hunting shamers are in denial about the fundamental brutality of our world. Insulated from animal husbandry and slaughter, they are happy to eat meat but unhappy to think of where it comes from. Hunting, ideally, serves as a reminder for postmodern people of the brutality that lies below the surface of our tamed world, and of the origin of food. Animals are killed and then taken apart with knives, it is what it is. There’s fundamentally no reason why this can’t be done in Africa, with the most magnificent and compelling animals. Elephants and lions and leopards are beautiful and dangerous, all the more reason to hunt then in a sustainable manner. Those who grew up in urbanized, medium-density economic zones might be surprised to learn that males are expendable. Yes, you can kill half the male elephants in a given population and it won’t make a lick of difference to the numbers in the following generations. With polygamous predators like lions, you can kill nearly all the males and it won’t matter. Sperm is cheap, eggs are dear, as they say. Indeed, killing males through hunting is an important way that wildlife populations are managed.

In closing, put aside the sound arguments for hunting in North America as means of getting meat, no one shoots an elephant or lion because he wants wild, pure meat. The African safari is pure adventure, high adventure even, Conan style. You go because it’s a thrill, traveling around the world to a barbarous land. Meeting and hiring locals, learning about the species and the geography, the rudiments of hunting the game and then getting out there. How is this any less legitimate a vacation choice than, say, going to Machu Picchu for selfies to share on Facebook? Urbanite scum are quick to bring out their pop Freudian analysis of the hunter, but it’s not the hunter who is sick, it is the bugman who judges him, based on little more than his emotional response, the emotional response that only a sick, unworthy culture could inculcate in its men. It’s enough to make one head for the woods.
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