Captain Vere & Citizen Smash

It’s that season and I’m grading final essays where my students try to struggle with Melville’s Vere and the choices he made. Melville’s ambivalence leads close readers to doubt he approves of Vere’s choice, but his “The Housetop” (about the race riots of 1863) shows the chaos when the rule of law breaks down. Vere is no straw man. An intelligent reader can make his case, too.

And so, taking a break, I turn to Citizen Smash. There I find a description of the consolation he feels that his friend’s death has met not with revenge but with justice: indeed, the rule of law, the rule of Iraqi law. And we look at his muted and sad pleasure and are struck by the hope that order may arise from the Mesopotamian chaos.

The factor of Juan Cole, on the other hand, leads us to the chaos in minds closer to home – minds that apologize, apparently, for not only murders of those who “look Jewish” but find in the persecuted Baha’i faithful the evils of fundamentalism. (Thanks to Belmont Club, in a rather strange post that mixes identity fraud with its complaints about Cole.)

But let’s concentrate for the time on the glass that is certainly half empty with the loss of Smash’s friend, but is half full with those steps toward civil society. And we can be thankful that, even with all the hoopla about the Peterson trial, we live in a society that is, by and large, governed by laws.