Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Shrunken Heads

By far, my children's favorite attraction on our recent trip to New York City was the Ripley's Believe It Or Not Odditorim in Times Square.

Robert Ripley, in case you didn't know, was an aficionado of shrunken heads. He'd amassed a huge collection of them during the course of his life - an interesting subset of which were here on display in Times Square. In fact, inside the glass case in front of me hung the tiny shrunken heads of three children - two toddlers and an infant.

While my own kids were off enjoying the 6 legged cow and grooving on the Titanic artifacts, I studied the informational placards next to the heads. And that's how I learned that collecting shrunken heads began as a religious activity on the part some Tribes in the Amazon basin. By taking the head of an enemy and shrinking it in a special process with magical herbs, one could, in essence, possess their soul.

Amazonian warriors began to realize that the more heads they collected, the more powerful and cooler they could be around the Amazonian Basin.

And then the rest of the world found out.

In came the collectors - like Ripley - who couldn't get enough of the oddities (especially in the era before Youtube and reality shows.)

Now there was even more reason for the Amazon Tribes to harvest their neighbor's noggins. Wealth. Good old supply and demand.

And so, as things have a way of doing when power and money and coolness are involved, matters got out of hand. So many heads began to roll, in fact, that a sort of arms race began. Eventually, even children's heads had a price on them. The rationale? A preemptive strike.

It was an industry.

And it was all completely, culturally acceptable...

...Until the modern world, horrified by this self-perpetuating gruesome war without end, eventually enacted severe laws outlawing the trade.

And so there I was, in the bowels of the Odditorium, reading up on shrunken heads, when it occurred to me that this peculiar phenomenon of the past wasn't entirely unlike the casino craze sweeping our country today.

A phenomenon of "Sin City" outposts, in search of population centers and highway access, cropping up amidst our homes and businesses, our schools and places of worship under the guise of harmless entertainment and vital revenue streams.

And it's all become so... acceptable, even desirable, to some. It's become cool. It's the Rat Pack. It's the televised World Poker Championship. It's the Wonder of It All, it's Wonderland, it's wonderful.

In other words, it's marketing.

And the gambling industry's enormous wealth buys power.

Which is why a lot of people believe it's only a matter of time before the onward march of predatory gambling will make the entire world part of it's empire.

But it won't. Because gambling, like the practice of collecting shrunken heads, has a shelf life. Eventually the pendulum swings the other way. It's starting to swing now.

Gambling, has always been around and always will be. Over the course of history it's more predatory forms have been pushed into the shadows, or the fringe or the desert. Invariably it makes the effort to go mainstream. And just as invariably, there is a backlash.

Like countless generations throughout history, people all over this country are realizing the costs, both human and monetary. Evidence is mounting. Tax rates aren't going down while families are getting hurt. And investors, not voters, appear to hold the cards. And no one likes that.

It's just not worth it.

I peered into a glass display case where a shrunken head, it's eyes and mouth sewn shut, was mounted on a small pole. He was a real person once.

All these heads belonged to real people, real human beings, caught up in a tragic fad, their lives reduced to an acceptable economic commodity - now merely leftover cultural "oddities" from a unrecognizable generation gathering dust in an overpriced tourist trap.

Collateral damage from a bygone era and another quest for wealth and power and coolness.

No one today would put the heads of recently dead people in display cases for the world to gawk at. So, what makes some human tragedy so... acceptable. And is anything acceptable as long as we brand it appropriately? Do our homes and our way of life matter less if the world percieves our corner of the world only as a 'destination'?

I've heard it said more than once, and I really believe it's true, that the more people understand about predatory gambling, the more they become opposed to it. And in the continuing battle to expand gambling in our country, I do believe that eventually wiser heads, and not shrunken ones will prevail.

But only if we Americans remember to keep our eyes and mouths open - well before someone tries to sew them shut.


Anonymous said...

Even as a kid, I found those displays repulsive and couldn't imagine the justification of doing that to another being. Since you drew the analogy between that cruel practice and casino gambling, it does seem to fit with what we are willing to tolerate or at least, not condemn.
Great insight, as usual!

Anonymous said...

Your blogs have become more & more precise and now you have gone even further with your wisdom, you have made one of the most accurate analogies I have ever heard of. This blog is a genuine prediction. I hope people will take notice, pay attention to what's happening, and get involved, and your last comment will come true, "wiser heads and not shrunken ones will prevail"
LET'S ALL HOPE! (and pray)

Carl said...

Here is another comparison, cannibalism. Virtually eliminated by an introduction to a moral and civilized societies for the same reasons as head shrinking. Gambling is societal cannibalism. The power goes to the peddlers who become powerful and rich off the backs of the weak, poor and the powerless. Bystanders watch and are unconcerned until the cannibals comes for them. Society doesn't benefit, but its value is diminished.

Gladys Kravitz said...


"societal cannibalism" - great, amazing, incredibly accurate analogy. Thanks for that!