Tim Noah of The New Republic recently invoked Ishmael’s meditation on whiteness in Moby Dick as he mused upon at least one strain of conservative thinking that has emerged on the Right following Barack Obama’s victory. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News has been talking about whites as an ethnicity under siege, and Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standing is imagining future whites as an embattled minority that will need to apply the leverage tactics that (as he sees the situation) are currently employed by blacks and Latinos.
Noah is rightfully skeptical. As he notes, the very notion of whiteness is more complex than these conservatives are making it out to be. For instance, many of the young whites that voted for Obama don’t think of themselves as particularly white because they don’t define themselves against people of color. Older white voters are more likely to do so, but they are clearly not a promising future for a party.
Noah’s article sent me back to Moby Dick and the chapter “On the Whiteness of the Whale.” Ishmael notes that, while we may have many positive associations with the color white (among many other examples, he mentions the white man’s “ideal mastership over every dusky tribe”), he goes on to discuss how whiteness becomes particularly abhorrent when it is linked to something evil. In Moby Dick, of course, the evil is the malevolence of the white whale. In our own society, whiteness becomes an abomination when it is bound up with race hatred.
I don’t think that the Ahab-Moby Dick conflict works as an allegory of race relations, but allow me to digress for a moment and mention another Melville story that does. In Benito Cereno, there is defensive whiteness and aggressive blackness. A pale and sickly slave ship captain only appears to be in control of the ship because the slaves have actually taken over the vessel and are using him as a front. All is “put right” at the end—the rebellion is discovered and violently suppressed—but in the process we see the stuff of which white nightmares are made. The inmates are threatening to take over the asylum.
In this past election we saw glimpses of a related white paranoia, especially in Romney’s notion that Obama was giving gifts—as Romney saw it, giving away the store—to his hoards of voters (blacks, Latinos, young people). There was an ad, a projection rather than truth, that Obama was planning to roll back work requirements for welfare. Unlike the slaves in Benito Cereno, however, their descendents won election 2012.
Incidentally, I am not the only one who finds it ironic that a man named O’Reilly would be ranting about the white establishment becoming a minority. Jon Stewart also notes that, at an earlier time in American history, the Irish were looked down upon by the white establishment almost as much as blacks were.
Anyway, here’s how our current situation can be dramatized in terms of Moby Dick. Think of “white” Americans like Barnes and O’Reilly as Ahabs in danger of being consumed by the evil side of whiteness. Their quest has cut them off from the vibrant multicultural humanity that exists on board their ship, as embodied by the three harpooners: the Polynesian Queequeg, the Native American Tashtego, and the African Daggoo. The whale of white hate has crippled our Ahabs so that they can only see the world through the lens of their own hatred. As a result, they have forgotten why they are on board the ship, which is to contribute to social prosperity. They ignore the ship owners back in Nantucket, instead allowing themselves to be guided by their own madness. As a result, they destroy the entire ship.
To find another parallel with our situation, the Quaker businessmen think that, by hiring a fierce captain, they will make a fortune. They are under the illusion that they are in control of their ship. What occurs instead, however, is that they have allied themselves with an ideological maniac who is less interested in their profit than in his own obsession. It is not only Ahab’s crew that loses out when he takes the ship down.
I’ve wondered why those Wall Street financiers and those billionaires who bankrolled the Tea Party thought that they would benefit from supporting people who threatened credit default that would blast our credit rating and running off a fiscal cliff that could send us back into recession. Did they actually think that they, and Mitt Romney, could control the crazies they supported? Luckily, somehow we managed to kick Ahab overboard and elected Daggoo the African as our captain.
At least for the moment, Ahab has gotten all entangled in the white whale and they’ve gone down together, the whale spouting black blood. Unlike what occurs in Melville’s novel (thank goodness!) the ship of state is still afloat.