Posts Tagged ‘Arnold Rampersad’

Famed American Virtue

August 19, 2011

Graham Greene

Famed American Virtue

Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.

Graham Greene, The Quiet American (29)

The Muslims just need to be shown that it is possible to set themselves free.

President George W. Bush Max Boot

Recently there has been a discussion on Andrew Sullivan’s blog about how Americans should go about thanking our combat veterans. Such spasms of guilt from a populace who mindlessly sent so many off to kill and die for no good reason are not surprising. But I think it would be a lot healthier for everyone involved to say this to our combat veterans: I’m sorry. I’m sorry that we made you experience horrific things for no good reason. I’m sorry that I only went to two anti-war rallies. I sorry that, lacking the courage of Henry David Thoreau, I continued to pay taxes in support of the bloodthirsty madness which consumed our nation after 9-11. I’m sorry that almost our entire leadership class chose to plunge its head up its collective keyster instead of exploring reasonable alternatives to war. I’m sorry that George W. Bush had Daddy Issues. I’m sorry that Thomas Friedman wanted to feel fellated.

But Americans, particularly our pundit class, aren’t about to start apologizing for our unjustified invasion of Iraq. Really, how hard would it be to say, “Oops. We accidentally conducted a war in Iraq which led to the death of over a hundred thousand people and the displacement of a few million more. Our bad. Can we get a mulligan on that?”

Our leaders, our institutions, our media, all of us—we failed miserably. And the people of Iraq were forced to pay for it. Yet we rarely even speak these days of the true ramifications of this monumental dereliction of duty. We prefer to exalt and fetishize our troops instead of facing up to ourselves and what we’ve done. If we just keep telling ourselves that the men and women who signed on to defend America did so with courage and purity in their hearts, and if we keep focusing on their sacrifice, we can magically shield ourselves from a horrible truth and regain that “famed American virtue“—our innocence.

This is certainly nothing new. Our Beloved Founders lectured the world on the Rights of Man while enslaving one group of humans and nearly exterminating another.

Lofty words about freedom and democracy notwithstanding, enabling repressive regimes in the Gulf Region has been the unofficial American policy for decades. That’s why we have propped up repressive regimes from Iran to Algeria. That’s why President Obama was so timid and vacillating in response to the recent popular uprising in Egypt.

Brent Scowcroft, a prudent paleoconservative from the Henry Kissinger School of International Realism and a trusted adviser to George H.W. Bush, bragged that American support for tyrannical dictatorships in the Middle East helped ensure “fifty years of peace” in the region and kept the precious oil flowing at reasonable prices. Notable examples this policy include the 1953 CIA–sponsored overthrow of the democratically elected Mossadegh government in Iran and our longstanding support of the Saudi Royal Family.

In light of this history, it was almost surrealistic to hear George W. Bush declare in 2002 with neo-Wilsonian zeal that it was now America’s duty to usher in a new age of Democracy across the Middle East by unleashing our cluster bombs upon Iraqi conscripts. There wasn’t “much regard for truth in our papers” in the wake of 9-11, as mass amnesia about the true history of America’s relationship with the region miraculously took root among our pundit class (88).

Graham Greene refers to the remarkable American ability to maintain our sense of innocence no matter what we do as “a kind of insanity” in The Quiet American, his 1955 novel about early American involvement in Indochina (155). This brilliant and prophetic book is the story of a world-weary English reporter named Thomas Fowler who is befriended by an idealistic young CIA operative with “pronounced and aggravating views on what the United states was doing for the world” named Alden Pyle (4).

Pyle is a dreamy youth “absorbed already in the dilemmas of Democracy and the responsibilities of the West” (10). Tumescent with high-minded ideas about bettering the lot of the world’s downtrodden, Pyle is haughty with book-learning. He brushes off Fowler’s hard-won wisdom with the brash certainty of true ignorance. If Pyle had been capable of listening, he might have heeded Fowler’s simple truth: “They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want” (86). The United States might have spared itself the loss over sixty thousand lives and billions of dollars in Southeast Asia if our leaders had been willing to listen to such talk.

Instead, Pyle dismisses Fowler’s wisdom as the voice of a wicked and defeated continent: “You talk like a European, Thomas. These people aren’t complicated” (168). If only Pyle had paid more attention when Fowler wryly noted that the Vietnamese “know enough to turn your exhaust pipe into a mortar” (79).

Deaf to Fowler’s multiple warnings, Pyle is determined to heed Kipling’s call and Pick up the White Man’s Burden in Vietnam. Searching for a pro-American “third force” to shake things up in the region, Pyle ultimately mistakes renegade General Thé, “a bandit with a few thousand men,” for “a national democracy” (149). When Thé uses explosives provided by Pyle to murder several civilians, Folwer confronts Pyle and asks him how he can possibly “justify a child’s or a trishaw driver’s death”(155).

Undaunted, Pyle replies, “In a way you could say they died for democracy” (171).

It was easy for Alden Pyle to drift into support of Thé’s terrorism because Pyle “was determined…to do good, not to any individual person, but to a country, a continent, a world” (10).

America’s perpetual longing for a world that never was, that City on a Hill of our most perfervid imaginings, often has drastic consequences in the real world. When will we ever learn that it is impossible to absolve our own sins with the blood of others?

by Richard W. Bray

My Top Ten Booklist (In no particular order)

March 23, 2010

Franz De Waal

My Top Ten Booklist (In no particular order)

#1 Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America by Theodora Kroeber

…so far as any record shows or any story relates, no member of the United States Army ever shot a single Yana Indian, whose multiple murder remained a home and civilian and strictly extralegal operation. (62) There’s a line in the song Sun City by Steven Van Zandt reminding us that Apartheid “ain’t that far away.” Episodes in Extermination, the fourth chapter of Ishi, written in a beautifully plain and sober tone, makes our own proximity to the horrors of genocide painfully clear.

#2 Primates and Philosophers by Franz De Waal

Chimpanzees think by feeling, just like we do:

In my own experience, chimpanzees pursue power as relentlessly as some in Washington and keep track of given and received services in a marketplace of exchange. Their feelings may range from gratitude for political support to outrage if one of them violates a social rule. All of this goes far beyond mere fear, pain, and anger: the emotional life of these animals is much closer to ours than once held possible. (76)

#3 War is a Force that Gives us Meaning by Chris Hedges

This indispensable book, which came out when our society was still very sick with war fever, tells us that war

Is peddled by mythmakers–historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists and the state–all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has grotesque and dark beauty. It dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language, and infects everything around it, even humor, which becomes preoccupied with the grim perversities of smut and death. Fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our place on the planet are laid bare when we watch those around us sink to the lowest depths. War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface within all of us. And this is why for many war is so hard to discuss once it’s over (3)


#4 United States: Essays 1952-1992 by Gore Vidal

This collection of essays proves that in addition to being a damn fine novelist, Vidal is simply our finest living essayist. From his essay Theodore Roosevelt: An American Sissy:

Give a sissy a gun and he will shoot everything in sight….There is something strangely infantile in this obsession with dice-loaded physical courage when the only courage that matters in political or even “real” life is moral. Although TR was often reckless and always domineering in politics, he never showed much real courage, and despite some trust-busting, he never took on the great ring of corruption that ruled and rules in this republic. But then, he was born part of it. (733)

#5 Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

A much underappreciated masterpiece. An earlier post demonstrated that Erdrich is a master of the simile. Some more examples:

Then the vest plunged down against her, so slick and plush that it was like being rubbed by an enormous tongue. (5)

My mother held out a heavy tin one (spoon) from the drawer and screwed her lips up like a coin purse to kiss me. (12)

On the much traveled, evil Sister Leopolda: Perhaps she was just sent around to test her Sisters’ faith, like a spot checker in a factory.(45)

She thought of everything so hard that her mind felt warped and sodden as a door that swells up in spring. (107)

Dot was a diligent producer of milk, however. Her breasts, like overfilled inner tubes, strained at her nylon blouses. (210)

#6 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

The greatest and most important American novel published during the second half of the twentieth century. So it goes.

#7 The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Here’s Greene on innocence, which, as Arnold Rampersad wryly noted, is a famed American virtue:

Innocence always calls mutely for protection when it would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.(29)

#8 The Collected Poems of W. H Auden

The only artists who have made a comparable impression on my consciousness are Vonnegut, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. And I shall continue to revere Auden until the day when I surrender my smidge of nitrogen to the World Fund. (690) (btw, the collected poems are not the complete poems because Auden left out many with which he later became unsatisfied. A notable omission is September 1, 1939 which was excised because Auden eventually decided that the line We must love one another or die constitutes a false alternative.)

#9 The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

Perhaps foolishly, in the spirit of Ernest Hemingway’s notoriously silly aspiration to knock Mr. Shakespeare on his ass, I would argue that Dickinson is the first, and quite possibly the only, American poet capable of going toe-to-toe with the Bard.

#10 The Complete Poems of Dorothy Parker

I recoil somewhat at the realization that there exists a profound kindred empathy in the deepest recesses of my psyche for this sad, sad, angry, witty woman.


by Richard W. Bray

Innocence: A Famed American Virtue Demolished in a Wicked Novella by Herman Melville

October 2, 2009

Innocence: A Famed American Virtue Demolished in a Wicked Novella by Herman Melville

Today we are nearly unanimous in the belief that all forms of slavery constitute an unpardonable crime against humanity because murder, rape, torture and the forced separation of families are its inevitable consequences. It is therefore difficult for contemporary readers to imagine a time when apologists for slaveholders were not limited to the Southern states and widespread assumptions regarding the innate inferiority of blacks made slavery morally and theologically justifiable to many Americans. Because black slaves were usually depicted by white southerners as helpless, childlike creatures who would prove utterly incapable of subsistence on their own, it followed logically that slavery was the most beneficial arrangement for both the simpleminded slave and his paternalistic master.

Viewed in its historical context , Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno, published less than a decade before the outbreak of the Civil War, is a bold and ironic exploration of the role race has played (and continues to play) in our national psyche. It is unsurprising that this tale about a successful slave rebellion was not celebrated by supporters of slavery in the years between the Nat Turner Rebellion and the Civil War.

Like many contemporary reviewers, Arnold Rampersad is excited by the deliberate militance of Babo’s rebellion. For Rampersad, Babo is not only the central protagonist of Benito Cereno, but a literary creation worthy of the accolade, “the most heroic character in Melville’s fiction” (164). This is a legitimate reading of the story which Rampersad cogently asserts by delineating Babo’s place in the pantheon of black protagonists, from Uncle Tom to Bigger Thomas. However, at the risk of disagreeing with one of our most distinguished critics, I would assert that there is an alternative reading of Benito Cereno. The perspective of Melville’s narrative suggests that Babo—although an outstanding a specimen of black manhood— is not the central focus of the story. According to this reading, Benito Cereno is not essentially about black people; it is about how white people choose to view black people.

American myths and fantasies regarding the true nature of black folks are brilliantly depicted by Melville in the person of the story’s narrator, Amasa Delano. Rampersad quotes C.L.R. James’s observation that Delano “itemized every single belief cherished by advanced civilization…about a backward people” (165). Indeed, Delano “cherishes” the notion that black people are inherently childlike creatures designed by his Creator to serve whites because it is a reassuring conviction: “There is something in the negro which, in a peculiar way, fits him for avocations about one’s person” (Melville 1356). For a Massachusetts seaman who had previously profited from slavery without having to confront it directly, a great deal of potential psychic pain is avoided by the way Delano would deny Africans their basic humanity. For Delano, slavery is simply another form of animal husbandry: “In fact, like most men of good, blithe heart, Captain Delano took to negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to a Newfoundland dog” Melville 1357).

Delano, like many antebellum Northerners, refused to accept black people as fully human because doing so would have required him to confront the horrors of slavery. His “undistrustful good nature” represents the naïve willingness of prewar Notherners to accept Southern propaganda which defined slavery as a benign institution (Melville 1327). Rampersad neatly sums up Delano as “the embodiment of fantastic white liberal values (notably the famed American virtue called innocence)” (171). Delano’s innocence vis-à-vis slaves in Benito Cereno is so extreme that it beseeches readers to ask why Melville chose to tell this particular story from such a peculiar vantage point.

By presenting diabolical and treacherous black revolutionaries through the parallax view of a man incapable of detecting their humanity, Melville creates irony which approaches satire. The possibility that the slaves have indeed taken over the ship is so inimical to his world view that Delano invents fantastic explanations for the bizarre sequence of events he encounters on the San Dominick. Ironically, Delano’s initial response to the rebellion is to question the Benito Cereno’s breeding: “The man was an imposter. Some low-born adventurer, masquerading as an oceanic grandee.” Delano continues his internal debate concerning Benito Cereno’s authenticity right up until the inevitable slave uprising, virtually ignoring a plethora of evidence that it was the slaves who were running the ship. Despite several not-so-subtle clues, Delano is constitutionally incapable of entertaining the possibility that the slaves had taken over the San Dominick. Even when Benito Cereno and three white sailors leapt into the ocean, Delano still could not fathom that black men might ever be anything more than servants of white men. The final irony of Delano’s brief tenure on the San Dominick is his ridiculous assessment of the mutiny, where attempted murder is seen as evidence of the black man’s inborn domestication: “a servant, a dagger in his hand, was seen on the rail overhead, poised, in the act of leaping, as if with a desperate fidelity to befriend his master to the last” (Melville 1368).

Captain Delano’s outlandish naiveté when confronted by rebellious slaves in Benito Cereno is a metaphor for the manner in which many antebellum Northerners preferred to view African Americans. When Delano is unable to fathom the distress Benito Cereno feels with Babo holding a razor to his throat, Melville is suggesting that it is easier to accept the doctrine of white supremacy at a distance. Northerners who rarely had dealings with blacks were probably more susceptible to the comforting myths of innate black inferiority than the Southerners who interacted with slaves on a daily basis. By making the true nature of the rebellious slaves invisible to Delano, Melville demonstrates how persistent denial can be in the face of evil.

by Richard W. Bray