Obama10: How White and Black Become Red 12.02.13
I have argued that Obama’s social democracy is at war with the economic conservatives. Secondly after the experience and efforts in his first term, there is no longer room for compromise with the economic conservatives. His efforts are now directed at the cultural conservatives through establishing a common ground in virtue ethics. Though some economic conservatives happen to be cultural conservatives, I have argued that the two groups have little in common. Economic conservatives may pay lip service to virtue ethics, but they are fundamentally consequentialists, and largely dogmatic consequentialists at that.
Obama is not using Republican community conservative values in an opportunistic way. Obama himself is a virtue conservative. There are small clues in his personal habits – his decluttered clean desk, his sense of family pride and the discipline with which he raises his children (Sasha and Malia, are not allowed to watch TV or use a cell phone during the week), his frugality and honesty in paying his taxes. But it is the novels he reads and that he most loves that I will use to establish his world view, the meta-narrative of the way he sees the world and the virtue ethics to which he is wedded which I will discuss in tomorrow’s blog.
Of course Obama reads non-fiction. I will discuss some of those books when I discuss his foreign policy in a future blog: Gordon Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster: George Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam; Lewis Sorley’s A Better Way; Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World; Robert Kagan’s The World America Made; and a book by an old acquaintance of mine, Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars:The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bib Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. As we will see, it is particularly interesting when he reads fiction that is really about foreign policy, such as the novel on the Sudanese lost boys, Dave Eggers, What is the What? Since I worked in Sudan and met the lost boys, I have something myself to say about the subject, but I will also save that for a later blog.
Obama also reads books covering domestic policy, such as on economics (Larry Bartel’s Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Guilded Age), immigration (Joseph O’Neill Netherland), the environment (Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded), and domestic politics, particularly books on previous presidents (David McCullough’s John Adams, Edmund Morris The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Jonathan Alter’s Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, Jean Edward Smith’s FDR and possibly his two favourites, Fred Kaplan’s Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer and Doris Kearn Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, but I will not be discussing those. (Cf. Samuel P. Jacobs “The Barack Book Club,” 13 August 2010 and Jimmy So, “The Obama vs Romney Reading List: Book Bag Presidential Election Edition, 6 November 2012) My argument will be that Obama’ rootedness in virtue ethics comes out clearest in his choices of four of his most favoured novels.
Ralph Ellison’s 1952 National Book Award-winning Invisible Man, the searing novel of a nightmare journey across an America ridden with bigotry and racism that was so important for providing a foundation for the civil rights movement, had a powerful effect on Obama since he read and reread it until the pages with the turned up corners were beginning to fall out. (Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963 evidently had a profound effect as well, but I have not yet read it.) Invisible Man also had a powerful effect on me when I read it in high school sixty years ago, but there is absolutely no comparison to the effect on Obama.
The second novel is Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, properly printed as hyphenated for Ahab is the Dick unassailably linked to his Moby, the transformation from Mocha from which Melville borrowed the core story of “Mocha Dick: or The White Whale of the Pacific” from Jeremiah’s story in the Knickerbocker Magazine. I read Moby-Dick first in 1955 in my first year of university and never forgot it – except for all those chapters on the technology of whaling; Moby-Dick is second in order on Obama’s favourite novels list on his Facebook page.
Moby-Dick is linked with Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon which is first on Obama’s Facebook page as his most favourite. Moby-Dick begins with the famous line, “Call me Ishmael” just as The Invisible Man begins with the famous opening, “I am an invisible man.” Further, Ellison’s protagonist did not just mean that he was hibernating under the streets beneath a manhole in Harlem; he was withdrawing into himself to figure out where he had travelled what made him who he was. Ishmael, unlike Ellison’s hero, is an Adam, a scientist, an observer, a voyeur. His obsession with the external meant that he could never put the pieces into a coherent whole. Ellison’s hero, in contrast, has overcome the obsession with social and economic and political and small town whites being the source of his problems, and wants to understand the humiliation he experienced that Tony Judt refused to stare in the face.
Ishmael, the son of Hagar, is the only survivor from the crew that went to hunt the great white whale, Moby-Dick. In Song of Solomon, Hagar is the niece of the main protagonist, Milkman (a black Whiteman); Hagar is obsessively infatuated with Milkman and just as obsessively determined to kill him. Though Morrison’s novel was published in 1977, I never read it until twenty-five years later when I was headed to Princeton University to be a Visiting Fellow at Princeton’s Institute for International and Regional Studies in 2003. I read three of her novels in case I ran into her at Princeton. I barely remembered the novel when I returned to it and I do not think I got much out of it at the time I first read it since I delved into it for the worst of reasons – not wanting to be embarrassed. I never did run into Toni Morrison. Tomorrow’s blog provided an occasion to revisit this allegorical tale.
The last book I want to discuss is Julian Barnes’ very recent Booker Prize winning The Sense of an Ending, like The Invisible Man, Moby-Dick and The Song of Solomon, a novel either filled with or mainly about obsession and revenge, murder and mayhem, but unlike the other three, a novel about memory, one of the themes in this series of blogs. Obama has read many other novels. I have read none on them on his list – Richard Price’s novel of the tougher side of New York City, Lush Life: A Novel; George Pelecanos crime novel The Way Home: A Novel; Kent Haruf’s novel of small town middle America, Plainsong; and one that I meant to read and should have but did not, Matilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead, which is also about middle America and the life of Congregationalist ministers in the town of Gilead, Iowa.
In June of 1952, Saul Bellow in an article “Man Underground” in an issue of Commentary which I still have stored in my garage (but which I retrieved from the internet – my garage is now impossible to navigate), reviewed Ellison’s novel The Invisible Man that so audaciously crossed the black and white somatic divide as the protagonist comes to recognize that he has never been visible before not only Whites but Negroes as well as he assumes and cultivates the supreme personal virtues of intellectual honesty and moral responsibility. He tries strenuously to strike a balance between instinct (what Haidt called moral intuition) and civilization. As Bellow wrote, “In our society Man Himself is idolized and publicly worshipped, but the single individual must hide himself underground and try to save his desires, his thoughts, his soul, in invisibility. He must return to himself, learning self-acceptance and rejecting all that threatens to deprive him of his manhood.” Overcoming prejudice was insufficient for Ellison. One had to get both underneath and overcome the Black/White divide. It was a message about virtue that ran contrary to the Black radicalism of the sixties.
Given the prejudices, stereotyping and projections onto the other, self-awareness and the development of self-consciousness can only proceed in the dark black depths of the soul where one can honestly and directly confront Louis Armstrong’s question with which The Invisible Man begins and ends, “”What did I do/ To be so black/ And blue?” What did I do?
It matters not one whit whether it is a white trustee, Norton, who gets you expelled unjustly from the college that Ellison modelled after the black Tuskegee Institute founded by Booker T. Washington that he attended, or a black (Lucius Brockway, the inventor of . Optic White, the most famous product of the Liberty Paint Company), or a white communist (Brother Jack), who betrays you, as Ellison thought the Communist Party had, whether the only sense of unity you feel with your fellow worker is the common horrific nightmare and dark hell of the ironically named Liberty Paint Company or the bright fiery hell of a race riot, the terror is the same and invisibility is the only way to preserve your soul. You must suspect convention and rely on that virtue that Ralph Waldo Emerson, after whom Ellison was named and who is a principle character in Chapter 9, is called intuition or instinct and what the members of the Scottish enlightenment called sentiment, for it is that which allows you to empathize with an other. Though Ellison most admired T.S. Eliot, his intuition did not help him in this case for he seems to have been unaware of or oblivious to Eliot’s deep-rooted anti-Semitism and racism and even his antipathy to empathy. In Emerson’s essays in Nature and in The American Scholar, Emerson advocated self-reliance and dependence on one’s own intuitions or instincts, virtues that stood in such opposition to his mentor, Richard Wright’s Communist Party convictions.
The core tenet of a cultural conservative virtue creed that has been forced to turn itself inward and eschew a heroic stance has never been stated better. Though I loved The Invisible Man as a novel, I did not, as Obama did in his youth, make it my bible for reading and re-reading until the pages were curled. But then I never grew up as a Black wanting to be president since I was 9 years old. But I did get the message. Most Americans, not just Black Americans, were invisible. And the conditions in America forced that stance upon them. Obama made it his task to forge a virtue ethics that would allow both Blacks and Whites to come in out of the darkness and renew their pledge of patriotism to the American dream. Invisible Man provided a vicarious experience, since he never personally suffered those slings and arrows of such misfortune, and a template for Obama’s public emotional development. But if you are paranoid, if you remain invisible and hidden, you are bound to ask the question whether Obama is a Black Man playing at being White, even as a heuristic device necessarily adopted to save America from itself.
Contrast a long term strategy of allowing the invisible, all the invisible, both Black and White, to leave their invisibility and live openly without resentment, brooding hatred and antipathy to a world in which the main protagonist, Ahab, is suffused with hatred against the big white beast, the albino sperm whale, Moby-Dick, which he is determined to hunt down and kill. Captain Ahab, in contrast to the whale, is dressed entirely in black. As was the case historically, blackness is identified with evil; it is that association and identification that Ralph Waldo Ellison saw at the root of racial animosity. But that blackness is projected onto the white albino whale. And the whites reciprocated. Whites not only hated Blacks. They hated blackness. Ahab is the epitome of evil who projects onto the albino whale the evil and blackness that is in his own heart.
His first mate, Starbuck, the voice of reason, and other captains Ahab meets on the way, including Captain Samuel Enderby whose own arm was taken, as was Ahab’s leg, by the great white whale, caution Ahab and tell him without equivocation that the whale has no evil in its heart. The experiences of the captains of the three ships Ahab encounters, the plea of Captain Gardiner on The Rachel to get help from Ahab in locating his lost son who was washed overboard, the warnings of the captain of The Delight, are for naught in undermining Ahab’s obsession. The biblical Ahab was a King of Israel (I Kings 16-22) who also met a series of prophets who warned him about the dangers of the course of action he was following. Fedallah, the pagan harpooneer attached to Ahab, like Micaiah in Kings, warns Ahab that his determination will end with his death. In fighting against his capture, the whale wrecks havoc, not only killing Ahab but the whole crew on Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, with the exception of Ishmael. Moby-Dick, at the very least is a cautionary tale about the dangers of violent action impelled by vengeance.
I re-watched the long film Ghandi on TV last night. It is a magnificent film. Ghandi understood evil and the importance of expelling evil from your own heart, how violence begets violence and division begets suspicion and paranoia, how monomaniacs move from sociopathy to psychopathy, and how monomaniacs are just the extremists who act out the ethos of the dominant values and sentiments in a society as the British Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer did when he massacred up to a thousand men, women and children as they gathered for speeches at the public garden of Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar in the north of India. That is why when I read the otherwise very insightful critic, M.H. Abrams (The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition), who equates Ahab with the great heroes of Greek drama, a hero who has a deep tragic flaw and who moves us to pity as he moves ineluctably towards his own, I want to puke.
Ahab is an extreme version of Lance Armstrong able to use all his charm and determination, his monomaniacal will and lack of any limiting principles, to achieve his goal. For Melville, the damage to Ahab’s leg by the whale was insufficient to infect his soul for the other captain who suffered the loss of a limb bore only understanding for the whale. Ahab is a metaphysical force of evil determined on destruction. The great white whale, on the other hand, is a force of nature, but one that has been deified by Ahab and made into an all-powerful but unknowable and inscrutable god. Like God, he remains hard to find and, even when he appears, most of the time we only see the small part that is above the surface of the sea unless he breeches and makes a great leap towards the heavens and frees himself from his watery home. Moby-Dick is the mirror through which Melville viewed the inverted image of God’s lamp.
Ahab did not fall down and worship it [the devil statue of the Ophites] like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically unassailable in Moby-Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it. (Ch. 41)
That is why Ishmael, with all his detachment and learning, with all his effort, studies and writing, is unable to grasp who Moby-Dick is. In fact, Ishmael never really understands Ahab even against the backdrop of his three sober officers, the religious Quaker, Starbuck, who is the first mate and who keeps advising Ahab to give up his mad quest, the happy-go-lucky Stubb who, however reluctant, goes along for the voyage, and Flask who is proud of his professionalism, his loyalty and his sheer joy in doing what he loves best even when he isn’t convinced that this hunt is the best one to be on. All three, the first mate who tries to use reason to stop Ahab in his mad quest, but never recognizes that you can’t talk reason to madness, the easy going second mate who reluctantly but too easily acquiesces, and the third mate whose pride and lack of critical self-reflection takes him towards his doom, all three die for their assistance to madness however innocent their motives were. Bystanders share the guilt and earn their just deserts for not preventing the tragedy as much as the mad perpetrator who takes on the mantle of a divine being destined to mete out justice as he sees it and selling his sailors a story that they too are destined to share in a mighty mission that will exalt their puny lives. (Cf. Howard Adelman (2003) “Bystanders to Genocide in Rwanda: a review article,” The International History Review xxv:2, June, 357-374) Christopher Sten (Sounding the Whale: Moby-Dick as an Epic Novel) is correct in understanding the novel as a meta-narrative for America at the time.
Why then is the detached scientific Adam of the story, Ishmael, left as the only survivor? After all, he is merely the rational foil for Ahab, equally dedicated to his identification with god but as a seer and observer rather than a doer. His virtue is detachment; the story of evil projecting evil onto the other and bringing about his own destruction needs to be told. Ishmael tells the tale in great detail and with all its variations but never comes to any comprehension himself. Miraculously he is saved by his pagan friend’s coffin that serves as his life buoy to allow the life of the story to be told so that Obama could read it. What on appearance is viewed as a symbol of thanatos, gloom and doom turns out to be just the reverse, a vehicle of salvation to carry Ishmael back to solid ground.
If Ellison understood the story of racism as the heart and soul of the problem of evil in America, in Moby-Dick, Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, is a memory of the more fundamental racism on a micro scale upon which America was constructed, a world of relative egalitarianism and equality of opportunity on the surface, but one built upon structural racism, mass murder and genocide. The Pequod is named after one of the first of many genocides in the seventeenth century that the Americans perpetrated against aboriginal peoples, in this case exterminating the Massachusetts aboriginal Pequot population and selling any residue into slavery in the West Indies. (Cf. Dinah L. Shelton, Howard Adelman, Frank Chalk, Alexander Kiss, and William Schabas (eds.) (2004) Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity) I have never been able to figure out whether and how each of the thirty crew members on The Pequod represents the character of each of the thirty states existing ten years before the evil of civil war broke out but I am convinced this is the case.
The Pequod carries on its hull the leftover bones of American destructiveness which Ahab has incorporated into his prosthetic leg. Ahab has his mysterious seer, the Parsee (Pharsi) Fedallah who prophesies his own and Ahab’s death. Each of the white mates has his own doppelganger in the pagan harpooner assigned to them. The blacks do the dirty work in conquering the land as they do in Ahab’s attempt to symbolically conquer the sea. The black youth, Pip, recognizes that he is a slave of less value than a whale. He has more insight than anyone else, including Ishmael, and his insight drives him crazy.
Ishmael does recognize something even before he boards the ship, for he is the only one tuned into his moral sentiments even if he is deluded by his faith in observation and reason. Blackness is in our own hearts. The Christian creed is not the root source of the problem. It goes even deeper. Whiteness is the foreign. Whiteness is the alien presence. Whiteness is the mysterious other. Whiteness for Melville is that which lacks colour and which allows one to project onto it whatever is in one’s own heart just as on this past Sunday nights Grammys when Carrie Underwood’s white dress was used for the same purpose, but to display monarch butterflies and flowers rather than symbols of evil. Just as the British had to be expelled from ruling as masters over India’s fate, so whiteness must be expelled from its position of mastery over America’s fate. But blackness cannot engage the fight with violence or with hatred otherwise Blacks will simply destroy themselves and become irredeemable. Instead they have to work to transform America as one united Black-White nation and, as I will try to suggest, one that reveals itself surprisingly to be red.
Watch the video of the giant squid that I will now comment upon on http://www.pbs.org/programs/inside-natures-giants// You will be amazed to see, among other things, that when blackness and whiteness are merged, we see the redness of the giant quid. Also look at the blog of the famous biologist, Richard Dawkins, as he contrasts giant squid with giant sperm whales.
As Julia Kristeva wrote on the opening page of Strangers to Ourselves:
“The foreigner lives within us: he is the hidden face of our identity, the space that wrecks our abode, the time in which understanding and affinity founder. By recognizing him within ourselves, we are spared detesting him in himself . . . The foreigner comes in when the conscious of my difference arises, and he disappears when all acknowledge ourselves as foreigners.”
Yesterday, I listened on CBC radio and heard the story of the documentary by the Discovery Channel in partnership Japan’s NHK television company, “Monster Squid: The Giant is Real,” which evidently aired on 27 January but which I did not see or even hear about. The video offers the first video footage of the giant squid in its natural habitat, in this case, about 500 miles south of Tokyo. The American, Edie Widder, one of the three oceanographers on the search vessel, described in her interview the three competing techniques the three partner scientists used in their cooperative but competitive search effort. With her PhD in neurobiology specializing in bioluminescence, Widder used a glass orb with flashing LEDs imitating the display of the deep-sea jellyfish, the atolla, as bait to capture the giant squid on film. The flashes are used by the jellyfish when being attacked by a larger fish. The flashes attract the squid to eat the predator threatening the jellyfish. Her bioiluminescent burglar alarm and camera system was named Medusa after the monster Gorgon of Greek myth who was a hideous looking woman with snakes instead of hair serving as tentacles growing out of her head. The ruse worked and Widder and her team got amazing pictures of the giant squid, a few of which can be seen on YouTube – even though at one point the squid tried to swallow the camera and it became shrouded in a massive cloud of black ink.
The story seemed to me not just a lesson about the enormous value scientists bring in expanding our knowledge, but the tale of the dark giant squid can be read as a counterweight to the pursuit and determination to kill the white albino monster whale, a metaphor about the value of a peaceful as opposed to a warrior mode of dealing with nature, of the advantages of attracting the other using the knowledge of the other rather than attacking the other for the characteristics of evil projected on that other, of the value of preparation and patience versus a headlong and determined manic effort, and, mostly of the importance of exploring the blackness that is 95% unknown of the oceans on this earth as a higher priority than sending at very high cost an exploratory vehicle to the heavens, a priority that seem to be more influenced by our inherited myths and religious beliefs than by what our priorities that should listen to science but attend as well to our own inner needs. Knowing and understanding and luring the proximate other towards one’s position can be of much higher value than attacking purported enemy aliens with overwhelming force.
I think Barack Obama to some degree understands this lesson and is no Captain Ahab. He has read his Moby Dick carefully. More important, he understands the destructiveness of an Ahab mentality and the necessity of pulling Ahab back from the brink using his own ropes and harpoons.
From Ellison and Melville, Obama entered the oval office with a solid and profound metaphysical and moral framework from which to interpret the life of the nation. What did he add to this by reading Toni Morrison and Julian Barnes?
Tomorrow: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America
[Tags Obama, Moby Dick, Invisible Man, sociopath, genocide, Blackness]