Melville and Obama and American Racism

“Benito Cereno” [by Herman Melville]  is based on a true historical incident, which I [Greg Grandin]  started researching around the time Mr. Obama announced his first bid for the presidency. Since then, I’ve been struck by the persistence of fears, which began even before his election, that Mr. Obama isn’t what he seems: that instead of being a faithful public servant he is carrying out a leftist plot hatched decades ago to destroy America; or if not that, then he is a secret Muslim intent on supplanting the Constitution with Islamic law; or a Kenyan-born anti-colonialist out to avenge his native Africa.

 No other American president has had to face, before even taking office, an opposition convinced of not just his political but his existential illegitimacy.
… Amasa Delano [In Benito Cereno] represents a new kind of racism, based not on theological or philosophical doctrine but rather on the emotional need to measure one’s absolute freedom in inverse relation to another’s absolute slavishness. This was a racism that was born in chattel slavery but didn’t die with chattel slavery, instead evolving into today’s cult of individual supremacy, which, try as it might, can’t seem to shake off its white supremacist roots.

THIS helps explain those Confederate flags that appear at conservative rallies, as well as why Tea Party-backed politicians like Sarah Palin and Rand Paul insist on equating federal policies they don’t like with chattel bondage. Believing in the “right to health care,” Mr. Paul once said, is “basically saying you believe in slavery.”

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