They Call Me Ishmael: They Call Him Mr. President


I was kidding when I said that I would demonstrate how Moby Dick and his maniacal hunter, Captain Ahab, were a metaphor for President Obama and the Democratic Party. I mean, c’mon. Nobody knows what Moby Dick is about, so how would I even start to draw a comparison. But then, naturally, I started to think about it. And the someone dared me to try.

Ahab, as we all know, is the obsessed whaling captain who risks the life of an entire crew to have his revenge against the giant white whale that took his leg and, presumably, his pride, in an earlier excursion. It helps the metaphor that our whale is in fact white. White privilege? White America? Obesity? Too easy.

The whale that our Captain Ahab/Obama seeks is no less than the elusive promise of the non-violent political revolution that took not only his metaphorical leg, but the entire foundation on which his political paradigm stands. This whale was first spotted by Frederick Douglass around the time that Moby dick was penned, and in the century-and-a-half that’s followed it has swallowed up Douglass, DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, MLK Jr. and hundreds upon hundreds who bravely sought to subdue the beast. The whale is equality. The whale is justice. The whale is freedom from a history of being loathed.

Alright, maybe that’s too obvious. So let’s extend the metaphor. The American Democratic Party is a group of naive seekers, brought together by the idealistic pursuit of a future in which our collective humanity brings us to the promised land of safety and security for all. Much like the crew of the doomed Pequod, the crew of the Democratic ship is a diverse group whose only commonality is the refuge they find in their travels together. Even Ishmael, a burned out teacher, signs on for the trip with almost no real understand of what he’s getting himself into. What he finds on the boat is a strangely diverse lot of characters who seem pretty self-sufficient and easily contented with their work and their general non-conformity. I mean, where else in America but a liberal political metaphor would we find a guy like Queequeg, a hard-working immigrant who’s valued by his mates for his contribution to society while simultaneously mistrusted because of his exotic differences?

And then he shows up.

Ahab/Obama. He’s passionate. He’s charismatic. He’s completely in control. He thinks he knows what it’s all about. Everything in his life – hell, everything before his life – has been leading to this chase, this hunt, this quest for the consummation of the dream deferred. It’s his destiny to finally catch that damned whale. And nothing is going to stop him. Nothing. Not even if it means laying waste to the whole crew, the whole party, even the burned out teacher who’s been telling this whole tale. Because the alternative is another generation of people like him being hobbled or swallowed by the mythical creature called American bigotry.

Now, Moby Dick is a tragedy. Ahab is dragged to his death by the prize he seeks, destroyed by his own blind ambition. I truly hope that my comparison is as half-assed as it seems. I want our modern Ahab to win, it’s no secret. I’m pretty sick of that whale myself. But I can’t help but wonder what happens to all of us earnest progressive bleeding hearts if the man we follow comes up short, if he’s somehow destroyed by his own obsessive pursuits. If the dream gets deferred for another century.

Ismael, the burned-out teacher, lived to tell the story, floating to safety on the empty coffin of his now-dead best friend.

It gives one pause. But not for long. Somebody has to catch that fucking whale.

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