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Tomgram: Greg Grandin, The Terror of Our Age

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(Article changed on January 27, 2014 at 13:26)

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[Note for TomDispatch Readers: It's time for TD's first book offer of 2014, The Empire of Necessity, a remarkable new history by Greg Grandin, author of the acclaimed Fordlandia .  It's the story of how the transnational slave trade reorganized our planet, of a dramatic slave revolt on board a ship, of Muslim Africans trekking across South America in chains, of ecological devastation, and of Herman Melville's terrifying vision of our future. The New York Times Book Review just hailed it as a "powerful new book... [and] a significant contribution to the largely impossible yet imperative effort to retrieve some trace of the countless lives that slavery consumed."  Of it, Toni Morrison says: "Scholarship at its best. Greg Grandin's deft penetration into the marrow of the slave industry is compelling, brilliant, and necessary." I found it riveting, and you'll get a sense of the power of Grandin's writing from his post today.  In return for a contribution to this site of $100 (or more), Grandin will sign a personalized copy of his new book for you.  The offer will only last a week, so check it out at our donation page as soon as possible. Tom]

Okay, Big Oil's latest quarterly profits weren't the highest in history.  That would be the combined $51.5 billion the top six companies hauled in during a single quarter in 2008.  In the third quarter of 2013, thanks to somewhat lower oil prices, the Big Five made a mere $23 billion in profits or $175,000 a minute -- slightly lower, in fact, than the same quarter in 2012.  In a similar spirit, the average temperature for 2013 set no records either.  It was in the range of 58.12 to 58.3 degrees Fahrenheit (depending on how you do the figuring), indicating that the year will fall somewhere between fourth and seventh hottest since global records began being kept in 1880.

In other words, it was just another humdrum year for the oil executives powering the most profitable corporations in history, as they continue to lend a hand to the warming of the only inhabited planet we know of.  In the meantime, a recent draft report from the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that we have just 15 years left to rein in fossil fuel carbon emissions -- which could be considered the effluent of energy industry profits -- before a global crisis looms that will be "virtually impossible to solve with current technologies."

So on the one hand, profit; on the other, destruction at an almost unimaginable level, involving the very habitability of this planet.  The pitilessly profit-driven logic of those energy execs, TomDispatch regular Greg Grandin points out, is hardly a new phenomenon.  In fact, he's just written a stunning new history, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, that lays out how, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a similar logic drove other kinds of extractive destruction in what was then known as "the age of freedom," the period in which millions of Indians and Africans were chewed up in the transnational slave trade.  Think of Grandin's tale as an old one with a distinctly modern twist, or as the O. Henry story from hell. Tom 

The Two Faces of Empire
<Melville Knew Them, We Still Live With Them
By Greg Grandin

A captain ready to drive himself and all around him to ruin in the hunt for a white whale. It's a well-known story, and over the years, mad Ahab in Herman Melville's most famous novel, Moby-Dick, has been used as an exemplar of unhinged American power, most recently of George W. Bush's disastrous invasion of Iraq.

But what's really frightening isn't our Ahabs, the hawks who periodically want to bomb some poor country, be it Vietnam or Afghanistan, back to the Stone Age.  The respectable types are the true "terror of our age," as Noam Chomsky called them collectively nearly 50 years ago.  The really scary characters are our soberest politicians, scholars, journalists, professionals, and managers, men and women (though mostly men) who imagine themselves as morally serious, and then enable the wars, devastate the planet, and rationalize the atrocities.  They are a type that has been with us for a long time.  More than a century and a half ago, Melville, who had a captain for every face of empire, found their perfect expression -- for his moment and ours.

For the last six years, I've been researching the life of an American seal killer, a ship captain named Amasa Delano who, in the 1790s, was among the earliest New Englanders to sail into the South Pacific.  Money was flush, seals were many, and Delano and his fellow ship captains established the first unofficial U.S. colonies on islands off the coast of Chile.  They operated under an informal council of captains, divvied up territory, enforced debt contracts, celebrated the Fourth of July, and set up ad hoc courts of law.  When no bible was available, the collected works of William Shakespeare, found in the libraries of most ships, were used to swear oaths.

From his first expedition, Delano took hundreds of thousands of sealskins to China, where he traded them for spices, ceramics, and tea to bring back to Boston.  During a second, failed voyage, however, an event took place that would make Amasa notorious -- at least among the readers of the fiction of Herman Melville.

Here's what happened: One day in February 1805 in the South Pacific, Amasa Delano spent nearly a full day on board a battered Spanish slave ship, conversing with its captain, helping with repairs, and distributing food and water to its thirsty and starving voyagers, a handful of Spaniards and about 70 West African men and women he thought were slaves. They weren't.

Those West Africans had rebelled weeks earlier, killing most of the Spanish crew, along with the slaver taking them to Peru to be sold, and demanded to be returned to Senegal.  When they spotted Delano's ship, they came up with a plan: let him board and act as if they were still slaves, buying time to seize the sealer's vessel and supplies.  Remarkably, for nine hours, Delano, an experienced mariner and distant relative of future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was convinced that he was on a distressed but otherwise normally functioning slave ship.

Having barely survived the encounter, he wrote about the experience in his memoir, which Melville read and turned into what many consider his "other" masterpiece.  Published in 1855, on the eve of the Civil War, Benito Cereno is one of the darkest stories in American literature.  It's told from the perspective of Amasa Delano as he wanders lost through a shadow world of his own racial prejudices.

One of the things that attracted Melville to the historical Amasa was undoubtedly the juxtaposition between his cheerful self-regard -- he considers himself a modern man, a liberal opposed to slavery -- and his complete obliviousness to the social world around him.  The real Amasa was well meaning, judicious, temperate, and modest.

In other words, he was no Ahab, whose vengeful pursuit of a metaphysical whale has been used as an allegory for every American excess, every catastrophic war, every disastrous environmental policy, from Vietnam and Iraq to the explosion of the BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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