Obama, Melville and the Tea Party

Greg Grandin in the NYTimes:

Grandin“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.

Read the rest here.