Of Snakes, Genocide and Women by Guillermo C. Garcia


On February 23rd 2018, President Trump addressed CPAC (The Conservative Political Action Conference). He put aside his written remarks again and spoke extemporaneously for seventy-five minutes on other issues, including immigration. During that part of his talk, he once more told the story that has become his recurring parable on immigration, one he used on the campaign trail in 2016.[1]

Essentially, it tells the tale of a woman who has pity on a snake she finds in distress. She nurses it back to health, shows compassion and even embraces it. During the embrace, it bites her and as she is dying, she asks “Why?” As Trump told it, the snake answers: “Oh, shut up, silly woman,” said the reptile with a grin. “You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.” He continued, “And that’s what we’re doing with our country, folks. We’re letting people in. And it is going to be a lot of trouble. It is only getting worse. But we’re giving you protection like never before.”

What is that protection? A wall, to keep “them” out and “us” in? (In this, The Handmaid’s Tale is prophetic.) Deportation of those who were born before their parents brought them to the U.S.? A media that follows the Trump’s lead in stereotyping immigrants and refugees from the Latin America and other places as illegal aliens, drug dealers, rapists, gang members and terrorists?[2]

Dr. Gregory Stanton, a sociologist and president of Genocide Watch, has researched the topic of genocide for a number of years. He detected ten stages in society’s moving towards genocide.[3]Of course not all groups, nations or societies where violence occurs go through all of the stages and end in genocide. Intervention by bystanders, within and outside of the culture, during crucial stages can prevent this. Furthermore, the stages are much like the stages of grief Dr. Kubler-Ross detected during her research on dying: They are not linear, but intermittent. People, groups and nations can pass and re-pass through them again and again, even during the stages of persecution and extermination.

What is of interest here is Stanton’s fourth stage, “dehumanization.” It involves the use of language to remove the humanity of the victims and encourage those who would attack them to destroy them because they are vile, dirty and “sneaky.”  Dr. Stanton says, “One group denies the humanity of the other group. Members of it are equated with animals, vermin, insects or diseases. Dehumanization overcomes the normal human revulsion against murder.”[4]  The Nazis categorized the Jews as vermin and rats during the Shoah and used the media of the time very effectively to do this. It convinced people that it was their duty to ostracize the Jews, and even to kill them. Prior to and during the Rwandan Genocide which killed between 800,000 and 1,000,000 Tutsi, the (Hutu) government supported Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM) in its continual broadcast of demeaning, derogatory and dehumanizing language called the Tutsi “cockroaches” (inyenzi) and “snakes” (inkoza). As Dr. Stanton puts it, “Inyenzi was only one of the names used to equate Tutsi with animals deserving of death. There was also inzoka (snakes) which again evoked the notion of vile, sneaky and dangerous.[5]

My blood chills at the notion, but I think we have sufficient reason, with the resurgence of the neo-Nazi groups and the rise of a demagogic media, to ask ourselves if the United States is not headed down the road to becoming a genocidal culture, society and nation?  We might think our institutions and values will keep us safe, but will they? Not if the “President” continues to weaken them each day and multiple times a day in 20 words or less using Twitter.

There comes a moment in the list of Stanton’s stages, when the leader of the genocidal nation puts aside civil rights and even asks for a change in the constitution of the nation to prolong what he sees is his work for “the good” of the citizens. Trump just suggested that as part of his agenda during a fundraiser where he mentioned the efforts in China to remove term limits for his great friend, President Xi Jiping.[6] He actually said, “Maybe we’ll give it a shot someday!” to the approval of the crowd. Dr. Stanton’s research, as well as the work of the respected holocaust survivor and psychologist, Dr. Erwin Staub have outlined what we can expect next (Evil: Genocide, Violent Conflict and Terrorism, Oxford University Press; July 15, 2013).

There is one last thing that I find terribly disturbing in Trump’s parable. While the film industry, educational institutions, major corporations and even the legislative branches of the federal and state governments have been forced to review their views and policies on their image and treatment of women, the reference in the CPAC speech shows that the latest advances in changing the mind of our patriarchal society have not yet affected the executive branch of the United States. If we look closely at the parable Trump used, it is clear that he has forgotten (or never knew) that the term “snake” is one that connotes vile and sneaky and the word “serpent,” conveys a completely different world of meaning: feminine power, wisdom, knowledge, and even the divine.[7]

Alexander the Great (whose sexuality patriarchy often forgets was very fluid) was strongly attached to and influenced by Olympias his mother. She was one of the most powerful women in the ancient world who “knew” in a carnal way the God Apollo in the form of a serpent and was convinced that her child was a demi-God. She had such power that she was the only woman to attend Phillip II of Macedonia’s council meetings. A woman who had her say and was listened to in Ancient Greece had to be powerful. The serpent, when associated with a woman, denotes strength and wisdom.

To call a woman “silly” when she shows compassion and love to a serpent and is so courageous as to handle it forgets centuries of wisdom, and instead attempts to demean the power of both woman and serpent. I am amazed that the women who were in the audience at CPAC applauded and cheered the parable and its application. I am appalled that they overlooked the context and vocabulary of the parable. It renders the woman “silly” and “stupid,” not compassionate and powerful.  She “stupidly” let the snake (here the image of penis) bite (penetrate) her. She was “put in her place” which, in the mind of the teller, is that of a submissive plaything for man, ready to do whatever she is told and follow him into whichever chaos he wants to lead her. How can we continue to ignore the obvious? We are being led down the road to genocide.

 

Fr. Guillermo C. Garcia, PhD is an Associate Professor in the Religious Studies Department at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles. His specific interests in research are the psychology and sociology of violence, war and genocide and their effects on women and children; the rights and safety of  LGBT+ citizens in the U.S. and in other nations; the various means of healing from trauma and moral injury.  Fr. Garcia is an alumnus of the Catholic University of Louvain (K.U.L.) He commuted between the U.S. and Belgium for twenty-three years and frequently visited the Democratic Republic of Congo between 1974 and 2001.

 

[1]https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/2/23/17044760/transcript-trump-cpac-speech-snake-mccainHe may have gotten it from “Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie (Gonzo Papers vol. 4) by Hunter S. Thompson or another source.
[2] Healy and Haberman, “95,000 Words”; Joe Klein, “Trump – The Incoherent Demagogue,” Time, January 10, 2016, http://time.com/4174328/donald-trump-thoughts-politician/
[3] Stanton, Dr. Gregory, The Ten Stages of Genocide, Genocide Watch, http://www.genocidewatch.org/genocide/8stagesofgenocide.html
[4] Ibid.
[5]Ndahiro, Kennedy, Dehumanisation: How Tutsis were reduced to cockroaches, snakes to be killed, March 13, 2014, re-published in The New Times, Rwanda, February 27, 2017. http://www.newtimes.co.rw/section/read/73836
[6]http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/376604-trump-on-chinese-president-abolishing-term-limits-maybe-well-give
[7]Witcombe, C. “Eve and the Identity of Women”  http://witcombe.sbc.edu/eve-women/serpents.html

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Categories: Abuse of Power, General, Justice, Violence

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13 replies

  1. very sad and I agree that it is so … yet co-incidentally there is a renewed recognition of the icon of Medusa as one of divine wisdom, amongst a groundswell of women and some men in these times: I found it to be so when recently co-editing an anthology on Her. Those who think they are leading and have power may yet crumble … there are young ones who will not take it.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Pretty disturbing, but the snake analogy is certainly ever with us, Eve, St Patrick banning the snakes, kundalini want to rise but without the control of it by oppressive society. I am glad I have a serpent on my ankle, it’s primal . Unfortunately the primitive rage that people feel is not the same as primal energy, and it’s not directed toward love. ns

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  3. Today is March 17th, the feast of St Patrick’s, the 5th century Christian missionary who is credited with “driving snakes out of Ireland,” Since, apparently, there were no reptiles in Ireland, people have speculated that snakes may mean druids, priests of the indigenous religion. Brigid, a goddess whose legends and qualities were inherited by by a saint of the same name, was reputedly friendlier to snakes. Here is a rhyme from Carmina Gadelica, hymns and incantations from the oral tradition collected in the Scottish Highlands by Alexander Carmichael in the 19th century.

    Early on Bride’s morn
    The serpent shall come from the hole,
    I will not molest the serpent,
    Nor will the serpent molest me.

    Thank you for this timely post.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Our fear of snakes is a good thing. I read that it is thought humans evolved a defense mechanism with an inbuilt fear of snakes, as a form of self protection.

    A famous poem by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), often considered “America’s greatest and most original poets of all time,” writes the following:

    A narrow Fellow in the Grass
    Occasionally rides –
    You may have met him? Did you not
    His notice instant is –

    The Grass divides as with a Comb,
    A spotted Shaft is seen,
    And then it closes at your Feet
    And opens further on –

    He likes a Boggy Acre –
    A Floor too cool for Corn –
    But when a Boy and Barefoot
    I more than once at Noon

    Have passed I thought a Whip Lash
    Unbraiding in the Sun
    When stooping to secure it
    It wrinkled And was gone –

    Several of Nature’s People
    I know, and they know me
    I feel for them a transport
    Of Cordiality

    But never met this Fellow
    Attended or alone
    Without a tighter Breathing
    And Zero at the Bone.
    ___

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    • I love this poem, but don’t think she is condoning a fear of snakes. “A narrow fellow in the grass” really contrasts with the fear described later – the offset between the two is no doubt intended. In Dickinson’s period, many naturalists, including Dickinson’s literary contemporaries, were actually taking up the case on behalf of snakes. Why? Because in New England there was so much fear of snakes (and fairly religious anti-snake rhetoric) that people were known to kill them on sight, resulting in severe under population and a rise of vermin. Similar to the re-forestation taking place during the period, protecting these populations became part of a larger rhetoric. Dickinson was a prolific reader, including the magazines championing these causes. Her poem seems more a reflection on a human failing to me than a comment on the ‘essential nature’ of snakes.

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      • I read this poem a few times and it seems to me she is describing both the snake and her fear, not condoning the fear, simply describing it. Nor does she feel any need to kill the object of her fear.

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  5. Bravo. You have expressed some of the fears I have about the Troll-in-Chief and his toads. (See? I’m using the same kind of language to denigrate him that he uses to attack us.) Thanks for writing this post.

    Like

  6. Reading the beginning I first thought of the American People, some of whom embraced a poisonous snake and elected him President! Not out of compassion, but out of fear and …?
    Snakes are so interesting both in reality and in symbol. The Genesis story in the Bible has considered the snake as the tempter who brings punishment and “sin”. But can also be interpreted as a wisdom being who brings knowledge. I myself appreciate and bless the snakes who are so beautiful and beneficial. And even rattlers are courteous enough to give a warning when they are annoyed.
    Even though I am not a US citizen, I fear the Trump agenda as one that is leading the world into chaos. Will people wake up in time, and act?

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  7. Re snakes and St. Patrick, here’s an excellent article debunking the story, and also clarifying some of the current Neopagan misreadings of it. Very educational, in terms of how these things go…
    http://wildhunt.org/2018/03/saint-patrick-druids-snakes-and-popular-myths-2018.html

    Like

  8. You are absolutely correct that snakes are often identified with women. In India at least snake shrines are often cared for by women priestesses. I share your disbelief at women who support Trump. As a friend told me, women supporting Trump is like children supporting Jerry Sandusky, the pedophile football coach at Penn State.

    Like

  9. I watched a video yesterday about two women and their children in Tucson, Arizona as they “visited” a Mosaic in order to vandalize it. Their hate speech was echoed by their young children (under 10 years of age). The kids used the dehumanizing language of rodents and bugs to describe people they had never met or encountered. The adults were regurgitating the hateful words of #45 and his racist slogan of MAGA. For the life of me I cannot understand the direction our country has taken, but at the same time, I see signs of clarity and hope in our youth, i.e. Parkland, Florida.

    We must not only inform ourselves but remain connected to activist groups (Indivisible, Moveon.org) that refuse to settle for this ethos generated by #45 and those politicians with deep pockets tied to special interest groups. It’s inconvenient to physically demonstrate against this administration, but we have learned how important it is to organize, for example, The Women’s March On Washington.

    I’m grateful for the reminder between the serpent and the Goddess. Maybe a new T-shirt could be created that reflects this symbol of female power.

    Thank you, Guillermo, I do so miss your affirming smile and conversation!

    Like

  10. I would say that the moral of this story is not penetration by the penis, but the even older story of the demonization of snakes that were sacred in prepatriarchal religion. And no there is no need to be afraid of snakes in general, in fact up to the present day our European ancestors (and others of course too) put out bowls of milk to attract snakes to live in or under homes because they eat mice and rats.

    I had not heard this version of the story until you shared it. Pardon me while I vomit.

    Liked by 2 people

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