Moby-Dick and American democracy

Way back in high school, I had English teachers who were as obsessed with Moby-Dick as was Captain Ahab with the great white whale.

Rereading it now, I see a lot of things I missed before, like Herman Melville’s rhetorical mastery and variety, his sense of humor, and how well he represents the ethos and ideals of the middle of the 19th century.

1851, the year of Moby-Dick‘s publication, was only 75 years after our Declaration of Independence; the 166 years since 1851 have not laid to rest the deep-rooted issues of our history. But one can forgive Melville’s and his era’s youthful optimism when he writes (chapter 26):

“… [M]an, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes…. [T]his august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God….”

And in an almost Homeric passage: “If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities,… then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou Just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God!…”

Those were the days, when a novelist could ascribe greatness, to the point of a divine connection, to all men, without regard to race or class! (Yes, Moby-Dick is a story of men; whaling was not a profession open to women.)

Through his persona Ishmael, Melville expresses a true admiration for the accomplishments of men of all origins, brought together in the hardships of the sea, symbol of deep concentration of the mind and uplifting of the spirit. He pays particular tribute to the three harponers (chapter 27).

After Queequeg, a South Pacific islander, who is Ishmael’s friend to the point of sharing a room and bed (which was not uncommon in the inns of the time) and the enjoyment of a pipe fashioned from a tomahawk, we meet Tashtego, “an unmixed Indian from Gay Head, the most westerly promontory of Martha’s Vineyard,… an inheritor of the unvitiated blood of those proud warrior hunters.”

And then there is Daggoo, an African, a noble giant of a man: “There was a corporeal humility in looking up at him; and a white man standing before him seemed a white flag come to beg truce of a fortress.”

Melville notes that “at the present day not one in two of the many thousand men before the mast employed in the American whale fishery, are Americans born.” Native American (in today’s terminology), African, South Pacific native, crew members picked up in the Azores–all, to him, blend their efforts in a common enterprise.

I don’t mean to be nostalgic (and I hate to think of whales being killed for lamp oil or, today, pet food), but I am choosing this great American novel to contrast the spirit of a young democracy to whatever it is we have today, perhaps well symbolized by the malignant force that underlies the destructive white whale, an age of fear and loathing by all appearances… unless that Just Spirit of Equality and that great democratic God care to exercise their favorable influence among us, and quickly!

By I. W. Taber [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Moby Dick: Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1902.

PS A subsequent article by Paul Street in truthdig, 10/18/17, depicts the whaling industry as akin to slavery for the sailors, rife with racism, and exploitative of both man and nature. Whatever the historical merits of the case may be, Melville’s message seems to me to be the fundamental brotherhood of men striving together to overcome a malign destiny and the underlying brutality of their own nature. as brilliantly shown in The aged black cook’s sermon (chapter 64) to his (and all of our) “fellow-critters,” the sharks.

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H. G. Wells and the long view of history

This week I found, put out for the taking with a bunch of old crockery, a copy of H. G. Wells’ “The Outline of History,” started in the last year of World War I and updated off and on till the posthumous 1955 edition that I’ve started reading.

For many years the famed British writer, founder of science fiction (as in “The War of the Worlds,” whose 1938 radio dramatization by Orson Welles sowed panic in the United States), had been taking notes and writing memoranda toward a personal synthesis of world history, and the end product is fascinating, a real tour de force of human knowledge and vision.

Of his “Outline” he writes in the preface:

“Its background is unfathomable mystery, the riddle of the stars, the measurelessness of space and time. There appears life struggling towards consciousness, gathering power, accumulating will, through millions of years and through countless billions of individual lives, until it reaches the tragic confusions and perplexities of the world of to-day, so full of fear and yet so full of promise and opportunity.” (p. 5)

As the French say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Sometimes we just have to apply a sense of humility and remember that all of us alive today, whatever our condition, our aspirations and distresses, are just bit players in the the story of human evolution. As Wells puts it in his pages on Alexander the Great (to which I turned because I just finished reading Mary Renault’s novel about him):

“We are beginning to understand something of what the world might be, something of what our race might become, were it not for our still raw humanity. It is barely a matter of seventy generations between ourselves and Alexander; and between ourselves and the savage hunters our ancestors, who charred their food in the embers or ate it raw, intervene some four or five hundred generations. There is not much scope for the modification of a species of four or five hundred generations. Make men and women only sufficiently jealous or fearful or drunken or angry, and the red hot eyes of the cavemen will glare out at us today. We have writing and teaching, science and power; we have tamed the beasts and schooled the lightning; but we are still only shambling toward the light. We have tamed and bred the beasts, but we have still to tame and breed ourselves.” (p. 354)

Wells, who fought against militarism and class stratification, also foresaw long in advance the release of enormous destructive power from radioactive decay and the rise of autocratic governments in Europe.

As a prophet with many successes, he should still be listened to today, in his cautions about the irrational underpinning of the human personality, particularly the expressions of fear and anger that threaten our own public life and discourse today.

H. G. Wells, public domain, from Wikimedia Commons

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Nixon, Haig, Trump, and the 25th Amendment

There comes a point when you need to stop making excuses for the unfortunate behavior of a relative who is starting to lose it. And then you take measures to minimize the damage and keep the family safe and assure its future. Is the country reaching that point with its current president?

Perhaps it is time for people who work and live with him to start taking his spur-of-the-moment declarations, his inability to keep a stable staff, his confusion between the functions of family and public employees, and much more as signs of a failing mind. That does happen to people in their 70’s (and younger).

Our presidents, fortunately, aren’t absolute dictators. The whole constitutional structure compartmentalizes power, just as family members eventually need to invoke the right to discuss alternate arrangements among themselves when a grandparent, used to calling the shots, stops making sense.

Some of the safeguards we have, as a nation, are the US Senate and House, the court system, the professional staff of the executive agencies, the press, and the military. We aren’t used to thinking about the military as a safeguard of democracy, but you can find historical examples of it, as until recently in Turkey.

One of the reassuring moments in American history came when General Alexander Haig, Nixon’s last Chief of Staff, advised, or is rumored to have advised, the U.S. military to disregard any unusual military orders from a president under severe pressure to resign (History Commons, under August 26, 1974).

That could be the situation envisaged by the Australian academic who asked the commander of the United States Pacific Fleet whether he would conduct a nuclear attack on China if the President so ordered (New York Times, 7/27/17. Adm. Scott H. Swift said “Yes” and:

“Every member of the U.S. military has sworn an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic and to obey the officers and the president of the United States as the commander in chief appointed over us.”

Of course, but things aren’t always that clear, especially if the officers and president happen to see things differently.

Although it’s not really constitutional, it doesn’t seem a bad idea for a White House Chief of Staff, in 1974 probably with the Secretary of Defense (James Schlesinger), to forestall a “beleaguered” (to use a current term in the news) or unstable president’s possibly ill-advised and disastrous military orders. They, or whoever did transmit such an order, were certainly acting in the spirit of the 25th Amendment, the crux of which is:

“Section 4. Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President….”

Thus the 25th Amendment, adopted in 1967, essentially allows a president who isn’t up to the job to be temporarily or permanently sidelined for rehabilitation.

Might Gen. John F. Kelly, sworn in yesterday as White House Chief of Staff and the first retired general in that position since Alexander Haig, play a prominent role in planning such a transition?

Congress has not named any “other body” for the job, so currently the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet have the power to declare the President “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” At that moment, Vice President Pence would become Acting President.

Such an eventuality would not really surprise those of us who remember the Watergate crisis, whose denouement gave power to Gerald Ford, the only President who was never elected either President or Vice President.

Gerald R. Ford on August 27, 1974, 18 days after being sworn in as the 38th President, by David Hume Kennerly. Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library

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No surprise: Civility and trust down nationally since November

The chart below is from “Americans Say Civility Has Worsened Under Trump; Trust In Institutions Down” by Jessica Taylor,, July 3, 2017.

It would be interesting to have figures for Chester County. It would be a good bet, though, that residents here overall are fairly satisfied with their county and municipal governments, with law enforcement and the courts system.

In this swing county, which had the good taste to give Trump under 43% of its vote (national average: 46%), people remain engaged, as we’ve seen from the profusion of rallies and the number of candidates running for office this year and already lining up for 2018. We go to public meetings (witness the outpouring regarding the proposed pipeline cutting through the County), talk with our elected representatives, and speak at Borough Council and supervisor meetings (the PA Sunshine Act is taken seriously here).

Voter turnout was relatively good in the May primary, and one can hope for a larger than usual vote this coming November. A lot of Americans, last November, found out what happens when they don’t vote!

Civility remains the norm, even in public rallies, and it is heartening to see a targeted elected official emerge on occasion for a (civil) chat with demonstrators.

About the fairness of elections, Chester County is also fortunate, thanks to a lot of local effort several years ago, to have optical scan voting machines whose results can be verified on paper (and that is a very good thing, with 2 recent margins of under 30 votes in the 156th PA House district).

Some current mistrust probably has to do with gerrymandering; if the PA constitutional amendment being promoted by FairDistrictsPA is eventually adopted, that will no doubt increase confidence in the voting system, since majority incumbents will no longer be able to carve up counties to suit themselves and often deprive voters of meaningful choices.

As far as the print media, we are pretty favored: we can readily buy the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Daily Local News and its regional variants, and we can consult local online media like The Times of Chester County and Chester County Press and their variants.

Anyone who consumes news knows that any media article or post must be read with care and evaluated; but we are fortunate not to be exposed here (unless we go farther afield on the internet) to the kinds of willful false news that probably contribute to Americans’ mistrust of their own institutions.

Nationally, not so good, and it’s surprising to find media rated even below Congress and Trump:

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Jefferson, Dickens, Tolstoy, and the USA

Yesterday I saw “The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord” at the Lantern Theater Company in Philadelphia.

Playwright Scott Carter, a veteran of over twenty years of working with Bill Maher, has a lot to say about ideas and religion, and he ingeniously brings together, in a sort of Sartrean afterlife, three characters who wrote their own versions of the gospels.

Of course the three literary greats feel impelled to try create a common version of the gospels among the three of them. Needless to say, they fail. They stir up a lot of discord about everything from social analysis to spiritual life.

At times they seem to be moving toward agreement on some higher values, like self-abnegation or love of humanity, but ultimately all they have in common is that they all write… and write….

They don’t spare each other and all take their licks for not living up to their own principles, especially about family life. Despite his many real qualities and vital role in political history, Jefferson comes off the worst, perhaps because the others know a lot about him and he never heard of them, given the discrepancy in dates.

It struck me that the Jefferson portrayed here embodies the contradictions in the United States, both as he helped the country to come into existence and as it continues today.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal,” he wrote—but of course he didn’t mean people of African descent, or women, or a lot of others.

As all three at last confess some of their misdeeds, Jefferson explains that he took his young slave Sally Hemings as his mistress because he had promised his late wife never to marry again. And besides, he adds, Sally was Martha’s half-sister.

For a man who believed in liberty, he owned a lot of slaves, as Dickens and Tolstoy don’t fail to point out. And he refused to free them even in his will because, he says in the play, he didn’t want to financially disadvantage his heirs. (During his lifetime he did, formally or informally, free Sally Hemings and their children.)

Jefferson can also be cited at the origin of many of the contradictions that still affect us today. Do “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” include the right to health and medical care? What protections do citizens have against financial institutions, which Jefferson heartily feared? Is there an optimal balance between the powerful and the dispossessed? Is it proper (as the 1787 Constitution did) to limit citizens’ right to vote? Would the Founders, and do we, support FDR’s famed Four Freedoms of 1941 (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear)?

Hypocrisy was the founding vice of this country, whose principal apostles of Freedom all were served by slaves except John Adams (who as a lawyer did, however, serve slaveholders in cases against slaves).

If only we could overcome our country’s innate self-contradictions today, we might progress once again as a nation. But when truth has sunk to such a low ebb in our national capital, it’s hard to be optimistic. For states that in 1776 declared themselves “united,” our history continues to generate a lot of discord.

Although Jefferson, Dickens and Tolstoy do a lot of shouting at each other on the stage, at least they openly discuss some important underlying human values. That might be a good place for us to start, or start over, in 2017.

Jefferson, from Lantern Theater

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It’s not just about the pesticides

Since 2015, with many others, I have been part of the West Chester PA activist group Don’t Spray Me, whose immediate purpose is to cut down on both mosquitoes and the pesticides sprayed to kill them.

The Don’t Spray Me effort is not “just” about mosquitoes and even not “just” about pesticides.

The short version is that if we, as individuals, organizations, and municipalities, can prevent mosquitoes from breeding in standing water, then we won’t be threatened with toxic air-borne spraying that has less lasting negative impact on mosquito populations than on many other vulnerable species, including but not limited to hypersensitive humans, beneficial insects like bees, and some other species.

Many things we believe in are under assault today. Americans have become very skeptical of trusting the status quo, and we rightly worry what could happen next if we aren’t vigilant.

When I have the mosquito conversation with anyone who grew up in the 1950s and 60s, they usually recall being exposed to DDT in their neighborhoods, when that chemical was being sprayed liberally in a futile attempt to save elm trees from Dutch Elm Disease. Many of us recall basking in the cooling DDT mist as it drifted down from the treetops.

What the long-term health effects have been, no one can pin down; but our history is full of horrendous examples like the damage done in the same years by the defoliant Agent Orange not only on its Vietnamese targets but on our own armed forces and their subsequent children.

Like much of what Americans instinctively support, the Don’t Spray Me effort, when we reflect about it, is grounded in some very basic principles of our society:

1) Citizens have the right and the duty to stand up against unwarranted outside intervention in their lives, including threats against their health and environment;

2) Science speaks truth about the environment and a lot more; people need to listen to science and be educated to trust it.

The big issues of our time are there: education, science, environment, individual and community rights, human health, and ultimately democracy.

In West Chester we are fortunate to be able to rely on our Community’ Environmental Bill of Rights, which in 2015 added environmental protections to our Home Rule Charter, but other communities can push ahead too in drawing the clear conclusions of the above principles.

See, for example, the local resistance movement against the proposed gas pipeline to run just north and east of West Chester.

In the past few months, it has become clearer than ever that if citizens acting together don’t stand up for their rights, no one else will.

How do we know that we have environmental rights? It’s not just West Chester that says so, it’s also the Pennsylvania state constitution:

Natural Resources and the Public Estate
Section 27

“The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”

It’s pretty clear that if someone is spraying pesticides into our neighborhoods, and if chemicals from any source are washing into our watersheds, we (and all the other species) aren’t enjoying clean air and pure water.

And does government really need to listen to the people in our state? Again, the Pennsylvania constitution decrees so:

Political Powers
Section 2

All power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their peace, safety and happiness. For the advancement of these ends they have at all times an inalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may think proper.”

Mosquito larvae, like mosquito eggs and pupae, are unaffected by airborne pesticides, which kill only something like 80% of all adult mosquitoes within range (along with a lot of beneficial insects).

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Presidential angst is not a good basis for national policy

The May 11 Daily Local News provides some strong commentary about the firing of FBI director James Comey.

The headline of the AP article “Before the ax, Comey was pushing Trump-Russia probe harder” says a lot. It’s pretty obvious that Comey was not fired for his 2016 comments about the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Someone is lying again in the White House. What a surprise!

As the editorial “Comey firing seen as sabotage of Russia probe” from the Denver Post brings out, it is surely not a coincidence that Comey was hot on the Moscow Connection trail. The Denver Post’s own headline “The Comey firing stinks; a special prosecutor is a must” draws the necessary conclusion supported by both PA Senator Bob Casey and PA-06 congressman Ryan Costello.

That editorial refers to “the president’s angst with Comey.” The German word” angst,” defined as “a feeling of dread, anxiety, or anguish,” describes well the national political mood in the potentially brief era of Trump.

Another Denver Post article (from the Washington Post) says a lot in its headline “How Trump’s anger, impatience prompted him to fire the FBI director” and goes on to give a lot of significant background.

Angst, anger, impatience… that’s Trump all over. We knew last year that a lot of voters liked candidate Trump’s volatile behavior, unguarded language, and middle-of-the-night tweets. Such traits may be less attractive in a president. Obama’s cool and no-drama exterior may be looking a lot better now.

The columnist Ruth Marcus, in “Right or wrong, why did president fire Comey now?” (Washington Post title: “Comey’s firing should make all of us ‘mildly nauseous’”) has a nice touch in “the sitting president of the United States announcing that he is not a crook,” invoking one of the most famous lines in US political history: Richard Nixon’s declaration “I am not a crook” (he was). But here’s what surprised me, at the end of Marcus’s column:

“Trump’s priority is, first and always, Trump. Which raises the question: Knowing, as he must have, that firing Comey would set off a firestorm, why did he calculate that this move was in his self-interest?”

Normal politicians calculate, evaluate varied advice, look at scenarios, project consequences into the future. But all that is much too logical for Trump: since as Marcus says, it’s all about him, he works from emotion. Angst, anger, impatience in the White House—not a good deal for rational decision-making.

But who ever expected rational decision-making from a developer, show personality, and candidate whose trademarks were intimidation, insults, and invented news?

Sorry to quote myself, but I fear my little satire from ten years ago “Age of Reason over, President proclaims” was all too true.

As alluded to there, former Vice President Al Gore did his best in his book The Assault on Reason; and from 2009-17 we had a president who strove to follow the lead of reason in determining national priorities. Today, with whole disciplines like history, sociology, oceanography, geology, and journalism under assault, it’s sad that Americans need once again to fight for carefully reasoned, fact-based policies.

As the slogan says, “Respect science”: that would be a very good place to start.

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