Beowulf for Four More Years

In endorsing Barack Obama for four more years, I tell the tale of the last four through the framework of Beowulf. The ideas are elaborated in far more detail in my book, which you can order through Amazon, but here they are in a compact version.

Denmark, the reigning superpower, found itself ravaged every night by the monster of jealous resentment. Angry forces were tearing apart the body politic. The danger was not an external force—Denmark had no foreign enemies that could threaten it—but an internal one. Danish king Hrothgar despaired and no counselor appeared to have solutions.

Then a brave young warrior showed up promising to end the monster’s attacks. He faced down one of Hrothgar’s doubting warriors—an old grizzled veteran who considered him an upstart (John McCain)—and gave the Danes hope that he could route the monster of divisiveness. For a few brief moments, it appeared that the Danes had entered a post-monster era.

But our hero hadn’t realized that jealousy wasn’t the only monster he had to fight. Or rather, he hadn’t realized that jealousy is a secondary monster, birthed by a more primal one. Resentment’s mother was a deep sorrow over the death of the society’s foundational hopes in a future. Let’s say she was angry over the perceived death of the Danish Dream. In her unhinged happiness, this monster lashed out, determined to make others pay.

How did our hero respond?

He was clearly taken off guard by the intensity of the attack. At times he appeared to be like Danish queen Wealtheow, who thought that the monster could be placated by compliments and soft words. He tried to reach across the aisle, just as (in one of Beowulf’s digressions) King Finn tries to engineer peace with the Danes through a diplomatic marriage. In our hero’s case, the reaching out meant taking center or even center-right positions, like opting for a healthcare mandate instead of a public option, cracking down on undocumented immigrants, offering unbalanced lower-spending-for-higher-tax deals, going easy on the financiers that had brought the economy to its knees, allowing guns in national parks, increasing off-shore oil drilling, conducting drone strikes against Al Qaeda. But as Finn could have told him had Finn survived, diplomatic marriages don’t work when the other side is really, really angry. Finn is cut down by the Danes and, by the summer of 2011, our hero was reeling before the onslaught of his enemies.

At times our hero seemed to disappear, retreating into King Hrothgar’s despair and  calling out, “Rest, what is rest? Sorrow has returned.”

But our hero rallied. He had a weapon that went deeper than sorrow, one that had been forged by a race of founding father giants. This sword was the belief in opportunity for all. To merge two of Beowulf’s fights into one (Grendel’s Mother and the dragon), the the young “Occupy Wall Street” Wiglaf (Beowulf’s nephew) reminded the hero that he had been strong in the past and could be again. He could kill these monsters.

Indeed, it turns out that the dragon, emblem of greedy kings, was the root of all the society’s problems, of jealous resentment and destructive sorrow. When dragons start hoarding and wealth stops circulating, monstrous anger enters the world. To defeat this monster, our hero needed to work together with the next generation, not by himself.

There was reason to be hopeful because our hero was no longer an untested young warrior but one who had reigned as a successful king. He had extended medical care to millions of his warriors who did not previously have it, he had started circulating at least some of the dragon’s wealth through society, he had allowed gay warriors and undocumented immigrant warriors to openly enter his ranks, he had avenged the deaths perpetrated by past invaders, and he had kept the kingdom safe. The dragon might seem to be getting the best of him in the summer of 2011, but Wiglaf shouted words of encouragement and, even more importantly, came to his aid. The king rallied and with renewed valor they took on the fight.

Will our hero survive the onslaught of the billionaire dragon, even as he experiences all of its fire, poison and wealth? If he thinks, in his self sufficiency, that “I got this,” then he may go down. As Michael Tomasky warns in his Newsweek cover article this week,

[I]n the last four years, [Obama’s] “I got this” moments haven’t been so appealing—or just haven’t worked. He couldn’t roll Netanyahu on settlements or House Republicans on the debt ceiling. The situations he’s walked into with “I got this” arrogance—the first debate being Exhibit A—have ended disastrously.

Instead, his best moments have usually been his most vulnerable, when he drops that shtick and lays himself bare before the public. When he goes against type and drops the jazz-cool façade and becomes one of the “us” he’s always preaching about. That more-open Obama will show that he’s hungry to keep doing this job and will lay out enough of a second-term agenda (as he began to do last week) to let voters know he has business he considers unfinished. The Obama who works that mojo can recapture the narrative of the race and seal this thing.

We live in a society where greedy kings are trying to take over the kingdom, with their plans to lower taxes for the wealthy, cut Medicaid and other social safety nets, and deregulate business. If they are successful, society’s wealth will disappear even more rapidly into the dragon’s hoard. As I write in the last sentence of my book, the battle to stop our dragons is a battle worthy of a great people.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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