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How Can a President Who Reads Moby Dick Use Drones?


Teju Cole, a novelist who lives in Brooklyn, has written an essay on the The New Yorker’s website attempting to reconcile Barack Obama, drone warrior, with Barack Obama, the man “for whom an imaginative engagement with literature is inseparable from life.”

There was a feeling during the years of George W. Bush’s Presidency that his gracelessness as well as his appetite for war were linked to his impatience with complexity. He acted “from the gut,” and was economical with the truth until it disappeared. Under his command, the United States launched a needless and unjust war in Iraq that resulted in terrible loss of life; at the same time, an unknown number of people were confined in secret prisons and tortured. That Bush was anti-intellectual, and often guilty of malapropisms and mispronunciations (“nucular”), formed part of the liberal aversion to him: he didn’t know much about the wider world, and did not much care to learn.

His successor couldn’t have been more different. Barack Obama is an elegant and literate man with a cosmopolitan sense of the world. He is widely read in philosophy, literature, and history—as befits a former law professor—and he has shown time and again a surprising interest in contemporary fiction. The books a President buys might be as influenced by political calculation as his “enjoyment” of lunch at a small town diner or a round of skeet shooting. Nevertheless, a man who names among his favorite books Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” Robinson’s “Gilead,” and Melville’s “Moby Dick” is playing the game pretty seriously. . . . It thrilled me, when he was elected, to think of the President’s nightstand looking rather similar to mine. We had, once again, a reader in chief, a man in the line of Jefferson and Lincoln.

But somehow this elegant and literate man has accelerated the drone campaign begun under his graceless and illiterate predecessor:

How on earth did this happen to the reader in chief? What became of literature’s vaunted power to inspire empathy? Why was the candidate Obama, in word and in deed, so radically different from the President he became?

It is a question Cole finds impossible to answer, and so he takes “helpless refuge in literature again, rewriting the opening lines of seven well-known books”:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Pity. A signature strike leveled the florist’s.

Call me Ishmael. I was a young man of military age. I was immolated at my wedding. My parents are inconsolable.


The New York Times’ detailed report last year on the president’s secret “kill list” noted that the president relied on the writings of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas when selecting his targets. It is perhaps this comforting fact Cole has in mind when he writes, “I believe that when President Obama personally selects the next name to add to his ‘kill list,’ he does it in the belief that he is protecting the country. I trust that he makes the selections with great seriousness, bringing his rich sense of history, literature, and the lives of others to bear on his decisions.”

“And yet,” he concludes, “we have been drawn into a war without end, and into cruelties that persist in the psychic atmosphere like ritual pollution.”

Incidentally, President Bush was an avid reader.


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