[Marxism] Obama, Melville and the Tea Party

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jan 19 10:04:53 MST 2014

NY Times Op-Ed Jan. 19, 2014
Obama, Melville and the Tea Party

IN 2009, shortly after Barack Obama’s successful campaign for the White 
House, the McNally Jackson bookstore in Manhattan organized a display of 
about 50 books that Mr. Obama had read as a young man. The titles were 
eclectic, with a good number by African-American authors, including 
Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison.

As a candidate, Mr. Obama demonstrated a remarkable rhetorical ability 
to present himself as both inhabiting and escaping from the worlds 
created by these writers. He even modeled his much praised memoir, 
“Dreams From My Father,” on Ellison’s 1952 novel, “Invisible Man.” Yet 
where Ellison’s young, idealistic black protagonist remains anonymous — 
the book ends with him alone in his underground apartment — Mr. Obama 
won the White House, inaugurating what many at the time hoped was a new, 
“postracial” America.

That optimism turned out to be premature. Today, anti-Obama signs with 
racist language accompany Tea Party rallies; a Confederate flag is 
unfurled in front of the White House to protest the government shutdown.

Looking back, there was one book in the McNally Jackson display, 
overlooked at the time, that could have helped us anticipate all this. 
That book was “Benito Cereno,” a largely forgotten masterpiece by Herman 
Melville. In today’s charged political environment, the message of 
Melville’s story bears rehearing.

“Benito Cereno” tells the story of Amasa Delano, a New England sea 
captain who, in the South Pacific, spends all day on a distressed 
Spanish ship carrying scores of West Africans who he thinks are slaves. 
They aren’t. Unbeknown to Delano, they had earlier risen up, slaughtered 
most of the crew and demanded that the captain, Benito Cereno, return 
them home to Senegal. After Delano boards the ship (to offer his 
assistance), the West Africans keep their rebellion a secret by acting 
as if they are still slaves. Their leader, a man named Babo, pretends to 
be Cereno’s loyal servant, while actually keeping a close eye on him.

Melville narrates the events from the perspective of the clueless 
Delano, who for most of the novella thinks Cereno is in charge. As the 
day progresses, Delano grows increasingly obsessed with Babo and the 
seeming affection with which the West African cares for the Spanish 
captain. The New Englander, liberal in his sentiments and opposed to 
slavery as a matter of course, fantasizes about being waited on by such 
a devoted and cheerful body servant.

Delano believes himself a free man, and he defines his freedom in 
opposition to the smiling, open-faced Babo, who he presumes has no 
interior life, no ideas or interests of his own. Delano sees what he 
wants to see. But when Delano ultimately discovers the truth — that 
Babo, in fact, is the one exercising masterly discipline over his inner 
thoughts, and that it is Delano who is enslaved to his illusions — he 
responds with savage violence.

Barack Obama may have avoided the fate of the protagonist of “Invisible 
Man,” but he hasn’t been able to escape the shadow of Babo. He is Babo, 
or at least he is to a significant part of the American population — 
including many of the white rank and file of the Republican Party and 
the Tea Party politicians they help elect.

“Benito Cereno” is based on a true historical incident, which I started 
researching around the time Mr. Obama announced his first bid for the 
presidency. Since then, I’ve been struck by the persistence of fears, 
which began even before his election, that Mr. Obama isn’t what he 
seems: that instead of being a faithful public servant he is carrying 
out a leftist plot hatched decades ago to destroy America; or if not 
that, then he is a secret Muslim intent on supplanting the Constitution 
with Islamic law; or a Kenyan-born anti-colonialist out to avenge his 
native Africa.

No other American president has had to face, before even taking office, 
an opposition convinced of not just his political but his existential 
illegitimacy. In order to succeed as a politician, Mr. Obama had to 
cultivate what many have described as an almost preternatural dominion 
over his inner self. He had to become a “blank screen,” as Mr. Obama 
himself has put it, on which others could project their ideals — just as 
Babo is for Delano. Yet this intense self-control seems to be what 
drives the president’s more feverish detractors into a frenzy; they fill 
that screen with hatreds drawn deep from America’s historical subconscious.

Published in late 1855, as the United States moved toward the Civil War, 
“Benito Cereno” is one of the most despairing stories in American 
literature. Amasa Delano represents a new kind of racism, based not on 
theological or philosophical doctrine but rather on the emotional need 
to measure one’s absolute freedom in inverse relation to another’s 
absolute slavishness. This was a racism that was born in chattel slavery 
but didn’t die with chattel slavery, instead evolving into today’s cult 
of individual supremacy, which, try as it might, can’t seem to shake off 
its white supremacist roots.

THIS helps explain those Confederate flags that appear at conservative 
rallies, as well as why Tea Party-backed politicians like Sarah Palin 
and Rand Paul insist on equating federal policies they don’t like with 
chattel bondage. Believing in the “right to health care,” Mr. Paul once 
said, is “basically saying you believe in slavery.”

As for Mr. Obama, he continues to invoke fantasies that seem drawn 
straight from Melville’s imagination. One Republican councilman, in 
Michigan, attended a protest carrying an image of Mr. Obama’s 
decapitated head on a pike, which happens to be the very fate that 
befalls Babo once his ruse unravels. Another Republican ran for Congress 
in Florida with a commercial featuring Mr. Obama as the captain of a 
slave ship.

Over 60 years ago, Ralph Ellison began “Invisible Man” with an epigraph 
drawn from “Benito Cereno.” It’s a pleading question that Delano asks 
Cereno after the revolt is put down and Babo is executed: “You are 
saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?” Though Ellison 
purposefully omitted it from his epigraph, in today’s America it is 
still worth recalling Cereno’s answer: “The Negro.”

Greg Grandin is a professor of history at New York University and the 
author of “The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in 
the New World.”

More information about the Marxism mailing list