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The Two Faces of Empire

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Posted on Jan 27, 2014

cimere (CC BY-ND 2.0)

By Greg Grandin, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

A captain ready to drive himself and all around him to ruin in the hunt for a white whale. It’s a well-known story, and over the years,  mad Ahab in Herman Melville’s most famous novel, Moby-Dick, has been used as an exemplar of unhinged American power, most recently of George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq.

But what’s really frightening isn’t our Ahabs, the hawks who periodically want to bomb some poor country, be it Vietnam or Afghanistan, back to the Stone Age.  The respectable types are the true “terror of our age,” as Noam Chomsky called them collectively nearly 50 years ago.  The really scary characters are our soberest politicians, scholars, journalists, professionals, and managers, men and women (though mostly men) who imagine themselves as morally serious,  and then enable the wars, devastate the planet, and rationalize the atrocities.  They are a type that has been with us for a long time.   More than a century and a half ago, Melville, who had a captain for every face of empire, found their perfect expression—for his moment and ours.

For the last six years, I’ve been researching the life of an American seal killer, a ship captain named Amasa Delano who, in the 1790s, was among the earliest New Englanders to sail into the South Pacific.  Money was flush, seals were many, and Delano and his fellow ship captains established the first unofficial U.S. colonies on islands off the coast of Chile.  They operated under an informal council of captains, divvied up territory, enforced debt contracts, celebrated the Fourth of July, and set up ad hoc courts of law.  When no bible was available, the collected works of William Shakespeare, found in the libraries of most ships, were used to swear oaths.

From his first expedition, Delano took hundreds of thousands of sealskins to China, where he traded them for spices, ceramics, and tea to bring back to Boston.  During a second, failed voyage, however, an event took place that would make Amasa notorious—at least among the readers of the fiction of Herman Melville.

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Here’s what happened: One day in February 1805 in the South Pacific, Amasa Delano spent nearly a full day on board a battered Spanish slave ship, conversing with its captain, helping with repairs, and distributing food and water to its thirsty and starving voyagers, a handful of Spaniards and about 70 West African men and women he thought were slaves. They weren’t.

Those West Africans had rebelled weeks earlier, killing most of the Spanish crew, along with the slaver taking them to Peru to be sold, and demanded to be returned to Senegal.  When they spotted Delano’s ship, they came up with a plan: let him board and act as if they were still slaves, buying time to seize the sealer’s vessel and supplies.  Remarkably, for nine hours, Delano, an experienced mariner and distant relative of future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was convinced that he was on a distressed but otherwise normally functioning slave ship.

Having barely survived the encounter, he wrote about the experience in his memoir, which Melville read and turned into what many consider his “other” masterpiece.  Published in 1855, on the eve of the Civil War, Benito Cereno is one of the darkest stories in American literature.  It’s told from the perspective of Amasa Delano as he wanders lost through a shadow world of his own racial prejudices.

One of the things that attracted Melville to the historical Amasa was undoubtedly the juxtaposition between his cheerful self-regard—he considers himself a modern man, a liberal opposed to slavery—and his complete obliviousness to the social world around him.  The real Amasa was well meaning, judicious, temperate, and modest.

In other words, he was no Ahab, whose vengeful pursuit of a metaphysical whale has been used as an allegory for every American excess, every catastrophic war, every disastrous environmental policy, from Vietnam and Iraq to the explosion of the BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Ahab, whose peg-legged pacing of the quarterdeck of his doomed ship enters the dreams of his men sleeping below like the “crunching teeth of sharks.”  Ahab, whose monomania is an extension of the individualism born out of American expansion and whose rage is that of an ego that refuses to be limited by nature’s frontier.  “Our Ahab,” as a soldier in Oliver Stone’s movie Platoon calls a ruthless sergeant who senselessly murders innocent Vietnamese.

Ahab is certainly one face of American power. In the course of writing a book on the history that inspired Benito Cereno, I’ve come to think of it as not the most frightening—or even the most destructive of American faces.  Consider Amasa.

Killing Seals

Since the end of the Cold War, extractive capitalism has spread over our post-industrialized world with a predatory force that would shock even Karl Marx.  From the mineral-rich Congo to the open-pit gold mines of Guatemala, from Chile’s until recently pristine Patagonia to the fracking fields of Pennsylvania and the melting Arctic north, there is no crevice where some useful rock, liquid, or gas can hide, no jungle forbidden enough to keep out the oil rigs and elephant killers, no citadel-like glacier, no hard-baked shale that can’t be cracked open, no ocean that can’t be poisoned.


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