Chapter 90: Heads or Tails

Aristocracy is a funny thing for Americans. We fought a war of independence at least in part to reject the idea of aristocracy, but then didn’t actually get rid of it. What we did get rid of — very monumentally — is the idea of hereditary supremacy. We believe (albeit with some major, especially racial contradictions for some) that all men are created equal. In other words, we know that some people are richer than us, but we don’t think they’re better than us, and we think that however unlikely, we or our children could someday be aristocrats too, with the right amount of work, luck, etc.

I find myself confronted with just how wonderfully foreign the idea of hereditary power is to American culture when I teach my students about Rome every year. I always take a lesson or two to talk about social class — patricians (aristocrats) and plebians (commoners) — and I spend a good chunk of one of those lessons explaining that the distinction has nothing to do with rich and poor. I usually use Oprah and Bill Gates as examples — fabulously wealthy people whom Romans would still consider commoners, and as such, unfit to rule. Stranger still, the plebians, who found nothing but oppression in such a system, bought into the idea of hereditary power as much as the patricians. It’s a curious and foreign idea to us as Americans.

And so goes Ishmael’s bafflement with English law. In “Heads or Tails,” Ishmael almost incredulously discusses a law stating that an Englishman, having caught a whale, must pay a tribute — the head goes to the king, and the tail to the queen. Of course, as Ishmael reminds us, a whale is nothing but head and tail, so said Englishman is left with nothing at all once he pays the tribute. One might expect more from a man in such a position than “respectful consternation,” passive aggressive questioning, and a local vicar’s advocacy, but that’s all the English have to offer, as Ishmael tells it.

Chapter 90: Heads or Tails

Heads I win, and tails you lose.
I will take your whale if I so choose,
And if that peasant he should whine,
Papa king claims rights divine!

Heads I win, and tails you lose.
Cry to clergyman from weathered pews,
And if that clergyman should write,
Papa’s got law on his side.

The king gets the head and the queen gets the tail
And there’s naught in the middle in the whole of the whale.
Complain if you wish, and beg if you dare —
The king’s law is always fair.

Heads I win, and tails you lose.
What a backward land when monarchs rule,
And I guess those peasants there resigned
‘Cause they don’t demand what’s thine!

The king gets the head and the queen gets the tail
And there’s naught in the middle in the whole of the whale.
Complain if you wish, and beg if you dare —
The king’s law is always fair.

(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea November 23, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea March 1, 2010

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