The King Gets the Head, the Queen Gets the Tail

Let me bring your attention to Moby Dick, Chapter 90, Head or Tails, “De balena vero sufficit, si rex habeat caput, et regina caudam.”

Melville explains how a group of poor fishermen must give up a prize whale they have captured and brought ashore to a wealthy duke.  The laws of England establish the King as “Honorary Grand Harpooner.”  Because the whale is an animal of “superior excellence”  it must by right belong to the king.

As the fishermen enjoy their good luck and dream of their profits, a delegate from the duke claims the whale.  The fisherman ask who is making the claim:

“The Duke.”

“But the duke had nothing to do with taking this fish?”

“It is his.”

And that seems to be that.  The fishermen press:

“We have been at great trouble, and peril, and some expense, and is all that to go to the Duke’s benefit; we getting nothing at all for our pains but our blisters?”

“It is his.”

“Is the Duke so very poor as to be forced to this desperate mode of getting a livelihood?”

“It is his.”

“I thought to relieve my old bed-ridden mother by part of my share of this whale.”

“It is his.”

“Won’t the Duke be content with a quarter or a half?”

“It is his.”

Melville, of course, writes in the 19th century, but alas how much this short chapter seems to show how little things have changed.

The king is entitled by law to riches of the land and “coercing alms of beggars” is de rigueur.  In this story, the king gives the whale to the Duke, he benefits from work and riches of the “poor sun-burnt mariners” who haven’t any legal claim on the accomplishments of their work.  (See any modern parallels?)  Is the duke impoverished and can in someway justify this theft?  No, not at all.  It simply is the way it is.

Is that the way it is?  Don’t we live today in a society that increasingly expects more from the poor and gives more to the rich?  It is hard to be self-sufficient — a favorite call from conservatives — when you make less and keep less of what you make.  Lower wages, higher costs, higher tax rates.  Do these seem fair?

If you don’t think poor, bare-footed workers suffer today to enrich those who hardly work at all, read another book.  Take a look at Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco.   See how desperately poor and disadvantaged more and more people here in the United States live.

In reality we have enjoyed less than a 100 years of share relative prosperity in this country.  Only a generation or two ago even American students were taught about the Magna Carta , almost in a mocking way, to show how different the democratic and free society of the United States was from the lingering injustices of monarchy and birthright.

Today we are devolving back into a economic and political plutocracy that is emerging as a firm aristocracy that by any objective measure is inconsistent with the principles of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Herman Melville’s classic is more than just a story of a man and a whale.  It is a history, too.  We can’t become numb to nuance, we can’t be blind to facts.  Simply said, we have far too many honorary grand harpooners eager to steal your catch.


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