Balkinization  

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Starbuck as Ahab's Enabler

Sandy Levinson

Yesterday's New York Times included a column by Nicholas Kristof that concludes as follows:

Yet the single best guide to Mr. Bush’s presidency may be “Moby-Dick.” Melville’s book is, of course, about much more than Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale — a “nameless, inscrutable, unearthly” symbol of all that is dark and unknown in the world.

Rather, it is an allegory about the cost of obsession. Ahab has a reasonable goal, capturing a whale, yet he allows this quest to overwhelm him and erode his sense of perspective and balance. Ignoring warnings, refusing to admit error, Ahab abandons all rules and limits in his quest.

Ahab finally throws his pipe overboard; he will enjoy no pleasures until he gets that whale. The fanaticism becomes self-destructive, eventually destroying Ahab and his ship.

To me at least, Melville captures the trajectory of the Bush years. It begins with a president who started out after 9/11 with immense support at home and abroad and a genuine mandate to fight terrorism. But then Mr. Bush became obsessed by his responsibility to prevent another terror attack.

This was an eminently worthy goal, but Mr. Bush abandoned traditional rules and boundaries — like bans on torture and indefinite detentions — and eventually blundered into Iraq. And in a way that Melville could have foretold, the compulsive search for security ended up creating insecurity.



I think, as do several letters-to-the-editor in today's Times, that we should take very seriously the comparison to Ahab--especially as we recall that Mr. Bush still has 727 days remaining in office--but we should recall that Moby Dick is not in fact a one-character (or two, if one counts the whale) novel. A key figure is Starbuck, the first mate. A fine, decent fellow, the characterological opposite of Ahab, he is, nonetheless, fatally flawed (quite literally, as it turns out) by his unwillingness to engage in efficacious action upon his realization that Ahab presented what we might call a "clear and present danger" to the survival of the good ship Pequod. His loyalty to his captain--dare we call him the "Commander-in-Chief"?--takes precedence over everything else, and we know what will happen as a result. But worse, in a way, is that Starbuck himself knew in advance what the consequence of blind loyalty to Ahab would be, and it didn't stop him. The fine and thoughtful New Englander turned out to be the equivalent of a "good German," who surely didn't share the crazed ideology of his captain but, nonetheless, believed, in effect, that "orders must be obeyed."

Perhaps things are not so dire in the US as they were on the Pequod, but, of course, one never knows, especially since Bush continues to hint at a military attack on Iran. So the real question raised by Kristof's fine column is what we (and, more to the point, the various Starucks in Congress and elsewhere) will do in response to the American Ahab. In any event, the point is that if Starbuck had acted in time, even Ahab (in collaboration, of course, with the goaded Moby Dick) could not have destroyed the ship.

Comments:

Kristof's in the ballpark, but the nautical figure that the President reminds me of is Captain MacAllister (a/k/a "The Sea Captain") from The Simpsons:

"Arrrr... I don't even know what I'm doin'."

"Arrrr... I hate the sea and everything in it."
 

Chris Lydon and Co. tackled the subject recently.
 

If it wasn't such a serious matter, perhaps McHale's Navy or Mr. Roberts might be considered.
 

Surely Bush's obsession isn't his responsibility to prevent another terrorist attack (that would hardly explain invading Iraq), but his need to defeat Saddam Hussein. He was talking about attacking Iraq long before 9/11.
 

I think the comparison with Moby Dick, Ahab and Starbuck is weak and, beyond that, misrepresentative. It imparts a bravery and nobility to a cause, even though the cause is foolish. A willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice, perhaps along the lines of the Light Brigade. But there is no sacrifice or danger for the people involved in the reality that is America today, at least for the "decider" politicians that are part of the Moby Dick metaphor you're using.

Bush isn't risking his life, though he seems to have little reluctance to risk the lives of a great many others. He's got a safe pension to look forward to, perpetually guarded by the world's most elite guards. He even had his "Starbucks" pass a law absolving him of his sins. An "evangelical" moment if there ever was one. The worst that he faces, at least as it appears right now, is a bad "legacy." But this is the man that said "Who cares what you think!" when a citizen dared to present him with a contrary opinion. As for the "Starbucks" of today, the worst that can happen is that they'll not get re-elected. But what does that mean? A quicker turn around to the lobbyist hat than anticipated?

The metaphor is almost the reverse of "A Modest Proposal." It gives courage where there is none and greatly blurs the massive amount of real destruction and death involved. And it also ignores the continuing fact that every dollar spent and stolen in Iraq is a dollar that can never be used for any other purpose.
 

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