In the spring of 2011 my ex-roommate Gavin Gardiner bought a piece of taxidermy featuring a stuffed mongoose engaged in mortal combat with a stuffed cobra. He originally intended it as a wedding present for a friend of his, but fortunately the engagement disintegrated.
Towards the end of 2011 Gavin accepted a job is Saskatchewan and left both the territory and the taxidermy behind; so, to this day, the two animals are still locked in their primal tableau on a ledge overlooking our living room.
If nothing else, it’s a conversation starter. Visitors want to know where he found it (in the classifieds) and how much he paid for it (a steal of a deal at $100). But more than anything else, people want to talk about who they think would win.
The cobra, arched menacingly above its combatant, has the “tale of the tape” advantage. It is longer, heavier and more powerful than the mongoose; and yet I am reluctant to give up on the mammal. Standing on his haunches, barring its teeth at the serpent, I can’t help but root for the little guy.
Of course it’s absurd to pick sides in a fight where the two rivals are locked in taxidermied stasis for eternity, but still, my inclination to side with the weasel over the snake is cause for at least some reflection.
What I want to believe is that my allegiance to the mongoose is borne out of a natural tendency to ante up for the underdog. And it’s true, all else being equal I prefer upsets to landslides. Furthermore, I hate the New York Yankees and I’ll cheer for Cleveland Browns against the New England Patriots any day of the week (probably Sunday).
But that’s not the end of the story. Besides perceiving the cobra as the favourite in the fight, I can’t help but assume, against all my accumulated education, that it also has sinister intentions.
In 2012 all but the most mouth-foaming fundamentalists have given up on the idea that snakes are evil, and yet the wake left behind by the Judeo-Christian tradition, which presents the snake as a paradigm of deception, continues to rock my boat and inform my judgments.
None of us can escape our upbringings. We are all products of our own combination of family lore, cultural mythology and lived experiences. We have frighteningly little control over what we actually believe. Despite having a workable understanding of modern biology, I still can’t shake an ancient prejudice about snakes.
To acknowledge that one’s deeply held values are largely the result of random chance is not an easy enterprise to undertake, but the humility one gains in doing so provides a certain personal freedom.
How much do the average Palestinian militant and Israeli soldier have in common? As JFK would have pointed out, they both breathe the same air and cherish their children’s futures.
I would add that they are both utterly — and tragically — enslaved by their own inborn convictions.
Peter Jickling is a Whitehorse playwright and the assistant editor of What’s Up Yukon