Sunday, July 14, 2013

Our Pequod cruise – to what end?

Not that long ago, we attended a public meeting held at a marina on West Point Lake. The area was in severe drought and we looked out that day from the deck of the marina at boats sitting in mud. The meeting focused on water level management in the Chattahoochee River, “controlled by policy decisions of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding releases from dams along the river.” The speaker, representing an association of lakeside property and business owners concerned about “recreation opportunities,” used blunter language: “The problem is not rainfall. The problem is the Corps! And now Florida has played the endangered species card, those mussels it says are in trouble. I say we are the top of the food chain, and it’s our needs that need to be considered first of all.” A woman in the group spoke up then: “Nuke ‘em! Just nuke the goddam mussels!”     

Well . . .

When I started this blog I did not think I would be talking much about sailing. But here I go off to sea again. This time it’s 1851 and the ship is the fictional but too terribly true to life – and death – American whaler the Pequod, out of Herman Melville’s great American novel, Moby Dick.

What put me on this tack was coming upon an essay by prophet-for-our-times Chris Hedges titled “We Are All Aboard the Pequod.” It’s on TruthDig:
As a recovering former college English (and American lit) teacher I recognized the reference in the title to Melville’s novel, and I even recalled the fact Hedges points out about the ship’s name being that of a native American people “exterminated by the Puritans and their native American allies in 1638.”

Those Puritans would be John Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony I wrote about in my Fourth of July post, carrying on the business of founding their “city upon a hill” society in a new and perilous land. Just eight years after getting their instructions from Winthrop on becoming “A Model of Christian Charity,” they joined with other New England Puritan colonies and the native American Mohegan and Narragansett peoples in what was called “The Pequot War.”  

Accounts of the Pequot War by the victors portrayed it as a “just war” carried out in self-defense and justified by their entitlement to avenge wrongs done to them by the Pequots. What it seems really to have been about was control of the fur trade with Europe.

I remarked in my first, Fourth of July post that the Puritans did not own slaves. I think that’s generally true. Note, however, that these Puritan Owners and Masters shipped hundreds of captured Pequots off to Bermuda to be sold as slaves.

So. The theme of this history, all sermonizing aside, is exploitation of the “natural resources” of the New World (and not just animal furs but when convenient the native human beings too) for profit.

Fastforward 200 or so years to Herman Melville’s era and we see in Moby Dick
an account of such exploitation carried to industrial and global scale. It’s difficult to imagine now, but in Melville’s time the American whaler was a cutting-edge technological marvel of a machine (read all about that in the novel). And whaling was something like the mid-nineteenth century equivalent of the twentieth century petroleum industry in terms of its importance for wealth creation and contributing to industrial development. The significant difference being that whale oil was not used as a motor fuel. Back then, coal powered the machines. The internal combustion engine that would need liquid fuel had not been invented. But it was whale oil that lubricated the early industrial machines, as well as providing the finest lamplight and candles. Innumerable whale by-products (think whalebone corsets for the ladies) made the industry even more profitable.  Globally, 19th century whaling was already pushing some whale species toward extinction; so petroleum advocates are fond of declaring that the oil industry “saved the whales.”

Hedges quotes a passage showing Melville’s awareness of all this. Looking around New Bedford, home port for about 400 of the 700 American whaling ships hunting whales across the globe, the novel’s narrator muses:  “Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”

English majors (or American lit majors) are familiar with the view that Moby Dick is a critique of the American capitalist enterprise, with the skipper of the Pequod, Captain Ahab, a caricature of the 19th century “captain of industry.” I don’t think, however, I have ever seen a judgment as extreme as Hedges’ –
The most prescient portrait of the American character and our ultimate fate as a species is found in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Melville makes our murderous obsessions, our hubris, violent impulses, moral weakness and inevitable self-destruction visible in his chronicle of a whaling voyage. . . . Our country is given shape in the form of the ship, the Pequod. . . . The ship’s 30-man crew—there were 30 states in the Union when Melville wrote the novel—is a mixture of races and creeds. The object of the hunt is a massive white whale, Moby Dick, which, in a previous encounter, maimed the ship’s captain, Ahab, by biting off one of his legs. The self-destructive fury of the quest, much like that of the one we are on, assures the Pequod’s destruction. And those on the ship, on some level, know they are doomed—just as many of us know that a consumer culture based on corporate profit, limitless exploitation and the continued extraction of fossil fuels is doomed.”
“Limitless exploitation and the continued extraction of fossil fuels . . . “ Including limitless assertion of global economic and military control . . . .

Hedges notes that after the attacks of 9/11, Edward Said saw the parallel with Moby Dick and wrote in the London newspaper The Observer:

Osama bin Laden’s name and face have become so numbingly familiar to Americans as in effect to obliterate any history he and his shadowy followers might have had before they became stock symbols of everything loathsome and hateful to the collective imagination. Inevitably, then, collective passions are being funneled into a drive for war that uncannily resembles Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby Dick, rather than what is going on, an imperial power injured for the first time, pursuing its interests systematically in what has become a suddenly reconfigured geography of conflict.

Captain Ahab declares the whale, innocent victim of Ahab’s previous attempt to kill him, to be a demonic malevolent creature out to kill Ahab. Just so anyone’s attempt to resist or strike back at the American Empire is seen as an unprovoked and utterly evil act. I’m reminded here of the “unprovoked” and “surprise” attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Does the actual history not matter at all? That the two empires, Japan and the U.S., were engaged in a struggle for control over Western Pacific “natural resources” – especially oil and rubber in Southeast Asia. And that the U.S. had imposed a virtual embargo on these resources going to Japan. So that in late 1941 the Imperial Japanese Navy was basically “running on empty.” So Japan’s forced choice was between giving up being an empire and striking back against the opponent. No, doesn’t matter.

I read recently a remark by Richard Heinberg to the effect that “too many of us can more readily imagine the end of the world than we can imagine the end of air conditioning.”

In our air-conditioned and homeland-securitized American way of life, we cannot hear the birds’ songs. To keep our “air-conditioning” going, we will risk the end of the world as humans have known it, birds and mussels and all.

Nuke ‘em!

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