Last weekend the New York Times ran an interesting piece on race, politics, the Tea Party and President Obama.
That’s something you could say most weekends, really. But last weekend, the piece also used a lesser-known Herman Melville novel Benito Cereno as the basis for some of the most clarifying insights the paper has yet published in its multiple attempts to define our odd moment of supposedly post-racial politics.
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.
The article is a fascinating exploration of the racial tension and fear we tend to encounter today: Innocently ignorant; exploited by those who know how to tap into its fervor while staying verbally sanitary and maintaining plausible deniability; a racism that most people will insist does not exist.
If you’ve ever struggled to explain why the Tea Party or blanket Republican opposition to everything Obama is rooted in racism — or at least empowered by it — “Obama, Melville and the Tea Party” offers at least part of the answer. It skips over the obvious, lingering stereotypes, like assuming that Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman is nothing but a dumb thug* when the dude has a degree from Stanford University. Instead, it lays bare the forces that enable someone as lacking in content of character as Sarah Palin to “honor” Martin Luther King, Jr. by upbraiding the nation’s first African American President for “playing the race card.”
Despite the indignity sparked by the words of worthless commentators like Palin, the article, and Melville’s novel, should be read as sympathetic. Rather than exposing villainy, the piece reveals a common reflex of the human condition, and the blindspot it tends to occupy. Something that is difficult to erase or overcome, no matter how many times Upworthy makes you feel bad about it. Just because someone is engaged in the great white wail, it doesn’t mean they’re automatically a dick.
* Tensions run high here, so let me just be clear that no one is saying he’s not an asshole. Aside from our editor Brian, who is San Francisco through and through, this blog takes no position on that matter except to say that being an asshole is something that has always transcended categories of division.
– Michael Moats