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Practicing Cruelty in the Quest for Power

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Soundings

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I recently reread Omoo, a semi-autobiographical account by the American writer Herman Melville of his travel to Tahiti and the Polynesian Islands aboard a Boston-based whaling ship.[1] As I began this reading of the book, I was struck by Melville’s characterization of the behavior of the ship’s captain who, reaching Dominica while in route around Cape Horn to the South Seas, took a landing craft near to shore. When he was unable to communicate to his liking with the inhabitants gathered there to greet him, the captain shot at them, maiming one. Melville described the event this way:

One of them [islanders] stepped forward and made answer, seemingly again urging the strangers not to be so diffident, but beach their boat. The captain declined, tossing his arms about in another pantomime. In the end he said something which made them shake their spears; whereupon he fired a pistol among them … [with] one poor little fellow, dropping his spear and clapping his hand behind him, limped away in a manner which almost made me itch to get a shot at his assailant.[2]

        Melville observed that this sort of heedless savagery was typical among Western sailing ship officers:

Wanton acts of cruelty like this are not unusual on the part of sea captains landing on islands comparatively unknown. Even at the Pomotu group, but a day’s sail from Tahiti, the islanders coming down to the shore have several times been fired at by trading schooners … as a mere amusement on the part of the ruffians.[3]

        This example of the behavior of those who contemptuously and self-righteously saw themselves as the “civilized amongst the heathens,” is a reminder of the paradox of the callousness of the racism and “othering” characteristic of white colonial imperialism. In their zeal to acquire riches and to gain and exercise power over new “found” idyllic islands, those “discovering” them from Australia, England, France and the United States, took pleasure in demeaning their inhabitants in the most heinous of ways.

        Shortly after I encountered this 19th-century account of human cruelty and “othering,” I read in Slate that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was exhibiting precisely the same behavior, albeit without the shooting, as he sought to avoid accountability for the surge in COVID-19 cases in his state, arising in no small measure from his concerted attack on efforts to curtail the spread of the virus:

As COVID-19 ravages Florida, its Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis seems to have honed in on a strategy: blame President Biden. A day after Biden publicly expressed frustration with Republican governors who are preventing businesses and schools from implementing mask and vaccine mandates. … DeSantis insisted he is ready to object to any COVID-19 restrictions that would prevent business from operating normally. And he pointed the finger at Biden, saying he is the one who is ‘helping facilitate’ the spread of COVID-19 by not securing the country’s Southern border with Mexico. ‘You have hundreds of thousands of people pouring across every month,’ DeSantis said. ‘Not only are they letting them through, they’re farming them out all across the country, putting them on planes, putting them on buses. Do you think they’re worrying about COVID for that? Of course not.’ As might be expected, DeSantis didn’t provide any evidence to support his allegations that ‘whatever variants there are around the world, they’re coming across that Southern border.’[4]

        What struck me when I read DeSantis’ broad claims is how senseless and cruel they were, a perception borne out by careful analysis by journalists at the Washington Post and others.[5] The governor has consistently sought to prohibit Florida schools and citizens from helping protect themselves from the onslaught of the virus, and when its variant predictably spread quickly and broadly in his state resulting in widespread illness and deaths, partly in consequence, he sought to blame President Joseph Biden and, more particularly, unnamed immigrants for the consequences of his actions. In doing so, the governor was behaving as Melville’s sea captain behaved: with complete impunity and amidst an apparent certitude in his imagined racial superiority over those immigrants. In many ways, this episode reveals that little has changed in human behavior when individuals believe that malicious discrimination and dehumanization may yield power or wealth or both. The deeper question of this DeSantis incident, which has been replicated daily in recent years among GOP leaders and allied media, is why the racist beliefs to which he appealed persist and why they continue to mobilize the support of a share of Americans.

         The reasons for that phenomenon are doubtless complex, but as Paul Krugman remarked recently, fewer and fewer analysts lay much of that backing to “economic anxiety” any longer: “You don’t hear much these days about ‘economic anxiety.’ Most observers acknowledge that the rise of the Trumpist right was driven by racial and social antagonism, not economic populism.”[6] For his part, DeSantis made no attempt to provide any empirical justification for his racialized assertion. Instead, he simply assumed members of the GOP would accept his stance that Brown “others” would both carry the virus and spread it among Whites. DeSantis’s contention appears to have been that such racial contempt was a priori justifiable for no other reason than that Brown (or Black) folks must be responsible for whatever challenges may arise and even if they were not, they could be held accountable for those turns, without repercussions.

        It is this malignant assumption that has not changed for many in the United States since Melville’s day, despite a civil war, decades of mass mobilization efforts to educate public beliefs and perceptions, far-reaching human and civil rights laws, a significant measure of genuine social progress amidst ongoing demographic pluralism and, of course, the horrors of the Holocaust. If the Shoah could not convince Republicans of the perils of racist demagoguery amidst the ever-present allure of cruelty as a trade for power or money, and it is clear it has not dissuaded the Party in its current ugly course, it is unclear what might. Indeed, even as DeSantis was making his claims, GOP favorite and Fox media commentator Tucker Carlson continued to argue that the Democratic Party was somehow in league with immigrants to “replace” white voters—and received great support from his audience.[7]

        I do not claim to be able to solve the puzzle of why so many Americans are happy to support what Krugman labeled racial and social antagonism. They are doing so at the cost not only of the rights of those assailed, but also of their own freedom, as their actions systematically undermine the principle of human dignity and the rule of law. What I can offer are three observations arising from the ongoing behavior of GOP leaders at all levels of governance. Each, in its way, was neatly symbolized by DeSantis’s morally despicable choices.

        First, human beings have ever had difficulties confronting and addressing difference in peaceable ways. Europeans concocted fantastical stories of racial superiority based on perceived distinctions from those they brutalized to justify their treatment of peoples from whom they stole freedom, economic livelihood and, often, lives. America’s European immigrants did the same to the indigenous populations they encountered. Indeed, our governmental and popular savagery and brutality against this nation’s original inhabitants rivaled the worst the Europeans practiced in their colonizing efforts. More, it was predicated on the same vapid racist cruelty to which DeSantis appealed in blaming immigrants for the death and illness his policies had exacerbated. Another way to put this point is to highlight the fact that humankind has ever fallen prey to the siren call of hate on the basis of perceived differences. Tyrants and those seeking power have drawn on that deep reservoir of potential cruelty to terrorize some individuals to whet the “antagonism” of others to secure power or riches across history.

        Second, the Republican Party, as party, and its allies are now “all in,” apparently willing to adopt any measure to maintain political power, even while representing a minority of the country’s population. The willingness of GOP leaders and aligned media to go so far as to sacrifice lives, including those of their own supporters, in their quest for power and position is now very clear. So, too, is their complicity in efforts to undercut the dignity and civil rights of this nation’s minority populations at every turn for the purpose of mobilizing others based on lies. In fact, the party is now attacking anyone that its officials perceive as threatening their power, in a clear example of the GOP’s turn to fascism.

        Finally, one must be struck by the impunity with which the Party is pursuing its agenda to weaken the rule of law to ensure its continued power. No tactic is now out of bounds, no scapegoating, no lie, no claim too outlandish or brutish as the party’s leaders work assiduously to undermine the humanity of any who might oppose their ongoing assault on democratic institutions. In this, those leaders and their supporters resemble no one so much as Melville’s cruel and ignorant sea captain.

        None of this is to relinquish hope that the GOP can be stopped in its anti-democratic designs. I take a measure of solace these days in the famed neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s construct of tragic optimism in which one imagines—based, in fact, on human experience—that however terrible one’s circumstances, individuals and societies may “turn that personal tragedy into triumph … even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by doing so change himself.”[8]  I hold out hope that the United States and its citizens remain capable of realizing just such a possibility.  

Notes

[1] Melville, Herman, Omoo. New York: The Heritage Press, 1967.

[2] Melville, Omoo, p. 22.

[3] Melville, Omoo, p.22.

[4] Politi, Daniel. “DeSantis blames COVID Surge on Immigrants as Florida Pediatric Cases Soar, Hospitals Fill Up,” Slate, August 5, 2021, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2021/08/desantis-blames-covid-immigrants-florida-hospitals-fill-up.html

[5] Kessler, Glenn. “DeSantis’s Effort to Blame Biden for the COVID Surge in Florida,” Washington Post, August 6, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/08/06/desantiss-effort-blame-biden-covid-surge-florida/, Accessed September 4, 2021.  

[6] Krugman, Paul. “The Snake Oil Theory of the Modern Right,” The New York Times, August 30, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/30/opinion/covid-misinformation-supplements.html, August 30, 2021. 

[7] Blow, Charles. “Tucker Carlson and White Replacement,” The New York Times, April 11, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/11/opinion/tucker-carlson-white-replacement.html, Accessed September 4, 2021. 

[8] Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press, 2014, p. 137

Publication Date

September 9, 2021

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