“Soft Humanity” Muscles Up: Ukraine and NATO, the January 6 Committee
In Herman Melville’s brilliant novel Moby-Dick, the mad Captain Ahab knows he will prevail in his “monomaniac” pursuit of the Great White Whale at that precise moment when he sees — when he knows for a certainly — there will be no resistance put up by his first mate, Starbuck.
Despite Starbuck’s growing objections, expressed among ship’s company, to Ahab’s obsession in hunting down the whale that “dismasted” the captain of a leg — “I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance” — and despite Starbuck’s growing insubordination expressed face-to-face — “Beware of thyself, old man!” — Ahab, who knows full well his pursuit of Moby-Dick is mad, also knows this about power dynamics since Time Immemorial: Evil is advantaged over good.
For Ahab knows that, at the end of the day, Starbuck’s “soft humanity” will not allow Starbuck to organize a mutiny, “usurp” Ahab’s command. Indeed, he reads his first mate’s mind clearly: that the “humane” Starbuck cannot abide the idea of Ahab sailing home “a caged tiger.” And when does Ahab know this? From Starbuck’s first retreat: “Starbuck is mine; cannot oppose me now, without rebellion.” Melville describes how Starbuck’s continual agonizing “burns up” his courage, how amoral Ahab views Starbuck’s moral “enfeeblement” with contempt.
Which is a tragic shame: Absent Starbuck organizing a mutiny — absent Humanity standing up to Evil — the mad captain is free to hoist them all onto “Fate’s handspike”: Moby-Dick, finally met, smashes everything — the whaleboats, the Pequod itself, all the crew including captain and first mate (all but the narrator Ishmael), leaving nothing behind but “chips” swirling in a “vortex.”
To me, this tale has always symbolized Evil’s leviathan force and, opposed against it, humanity’s relative weakness, its “softness.” That is, unless humanity organizes a mutiny, so to speak — creates a counterforce that, with the power of numbers united in purpose and organization, can mobilize against Evil and prevent it from having its usual way.
“Soft humanity” muscling up against Evil: We see this encouraging development in two ongoing instances — and they come at a time of another ominous development: the rise of strongman rule amid deepening public cynicism.
Ukraine and NATO
In a battle that much of the world sees as a clear contest between Good and Evil — unprovoked, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has attacked neighboring Ukraine, denying its sovereignty and hellbent on wiping out its people and culture, that is, committing genocide — the disadvantaged side, Ukraine, has put up massive resistance, a wall of it. The Ukrainian people thrust their bodies in front of Russian tanks to stop their advance; the Ukrainian army has outperformed an army ten times its size; the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedic actor, has stepped up as a modern-day Winston Churchill. The valor on display in Ukraine is stirring. “Soft humanity” muscled up into steel.
In parallel and at Ukraine’s back, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — NATO, the West’s premier defensive alliance — has galvanized after years of drift, funneling oceans of weapons to the Ukrainian territorial forces and stationing NATO troops along Ukraine’s perimeter. To counter Putin’s pummeling, NATO now sends offensive weapons to Ukraine, evolving from a purely defensive posture. Both Ukraine and NATO have evolved as a powerful fighting force and, for now, have stymied Putin’s monomaniac pursuit of restoring Ukraine to Imperial Russia.
But after nearly five months of vicious war and atrocities, with horrific losses for Ukraine — 1,000 troop casualties, killed or wounded, now suffered daily; whole cities laid waste (Mariupol, Kharkiv); millions forced into exile; Putin committing war crimes at every point — how long can this super-heroic effort carry on? The Ukrainians vow to fight to the end, but so does Putin, threatening nuclear war. Will the West, showing some chinks and temporizing, stay the course? It will if it understands the imperative to maintain the post-World War II rules-based order; if it understands that, if Putin wins, atrocity and decimation become normalized. President Joe Biden authorizing another $1 billion in military aid to Ukraine is a good sign. “Soft humanity” muscling up militarily.
The January 6 Committee
Former president Donald Trump’s attempted coup d’etat — to reverse his loss at the polls by screaming fraud, inciting a violent mob to storm the U.S. Capitol, and trying to stop the electoral count certifying his successor — strikes at the heart of the self-governance model that is American democracy. Trump’s attempted coup of January 6, 2021 is the most grievous internal threat to the body politic since the American Civil War, 160 years earlier.
In response and to the rescue, the U.S. House of Representatives formed a select committee to investigate the January 6 insurrection. Laboring in the months since, the Committee, in public hearings, is now presenting evidence of Trump’s attempted coup. Its findings are devastating: Trump knew he lost yet claimed fraud; knowing he lost he still raised a quarter-billion dollars for a phony voter-security campaign; knowing vice-president Mike Pence was in mortal peril at the Capitol, he poured rhetorical gasoline on the fire; he pressured state officials to change their electoral count; tomorrow’s hearing will show how he pressured the Department of Justice to declare the election invalid. These hearings are revelatory in showing how many Starbucks in Trump’s crew found their voices and spines, defied their monomaniac captain, defended the ship of state. Will the Attorney General do likewise? “Soft humanity” muscling up politically.
The problem is: Only 20 million conscientious Americans (out of 330 million) are tuning in to the hearings. Republicans, ideological blinders in place, call the hearings “propaganda”; large swaths of Americans remain indifferent to American democracy in mortal peril. Meaning: With a public so little aware, and with lying and violence now deemed “legitimate political discourse,” another coup is entirely possible; certainly more violence is. For now, we have the January 6 hearings as confirmation that America can save itself. One wonders how colossal a Moby-Dick it takes to concentrate the American mind…?
In this darkening era, with democracy regressing and strongman rule ascending — reflected, above, in Vladimir Putin’s illegal war on democratic Ukraine and the blot on our own democracy inflicted by Donald Trump — righting the balance will require the world’s Starbucks to screw up their courage and face down their malevolent Ahabs. We have proof, above, that we can (cynics, take note). If we fail, it’s disaster — “chips” swirling in a “vortex.” To a robust humanity.