Obama’s Star, Beowulf’s Sword


Like many progressives, I was thrilled with Obama’s inauguration speech yesterday. (Greg Sargent of The Plum Line has links to a number of the responses from liberals. ) I was particularly excited by the way that the president framed his vision of America in terms of our founding ideals.  When he said, “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still,” I thought, “Where he uses the metaphor of a star, the Beowulf poet resorts to the image of the sword that the hero uses to kill Grendel’s Mother.”

I’ll elaborate in a moment but first a note on the speech. Here is Sargent in his Washington Post blog explaining why Progressives liked it:

Halfway through President Obama’s inaugural address, James Fallows [national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly] tweeted: “I believe this is the most ‘progressive’ speech he’s ever given.”

I would take that a step further. Obama’s speech lacked signature lines and was more direct than soaring, but it was nonetheless enormously ambitious. It drew a direct line from language of the Founding Fathers straight through the great progressive presidents of the 20th Century, linking the founding language of liberty directly to the great debates of the present. Obama made the case for still more progress in the arena of civil rights — and for expanded progressive governance to combat inequality and protect our “citizens” from economic harm — by grounding it directly in the nation’s founding values.

“The greatest progressive arguments throughout the country’s history have been rooted in the language of the Declaration of Independence,” Michael Waldman, who was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton, told me today. “This speech was really rooted in that tradition.”

In my book on How Beowulf Can Save America, I make the case that only by plugging into the ideals asserted in The Declaration of Independence can we find our way through the contentiousness that currently is ripping us apart. Grendel’s Mother, I argue, is destructive grief run amuck, and in America today we may have many angry citizens lashing out because they believe the American Dream is dying. Beowulf needs a giant sword, discovered while trapped in the depths of despair, to fight through to the sunlight–which is to say, hope in the future.

As you will see from the following excerpt, my thinking and Obama’s line up fairly closely.

Excerpt from How Beowulf Can Save America, chapter four

In the chapter on battling Grendel, I talked about the importance of understanding why our fellow Americans experience resentment. I argued that if we combine empathy (an extended hand) with firmness (a firm grip), we have a chance of penetrating their hardness and appealing to a common decency and sense of fair play.  The same is true here [the battle with destructive grief] only grief is more difficult to handle as sorrow goes deeper than resentment. That’s why, when Beowulf tries to arm wrestle with the mother as he did with the son, he finds himself stumbling. The monster throws him, kneels upon his chest, and begins stabbing at his chest.

Put in terms of our situation, it is not enough for progressives or for President Obama to be calm and rational when dealing with enraged Tea Partiers. For that matter, it won’t help them when they wrestle with their own grief. Unless they tap into a higher ideal, they will not penetrate the hardness of the one nor be able to maintain their own strength indefinitely. Sooner or later, like Beowulf, we will falter and find Grendel’s Mother sitting astride us, plunging her knife against the chest armor that guards the heart. Sooner or later, just as we feared, we will find ourselves trapped deep in depression.  This is why we were reluctant to jump into the lake in the first place. To open the heart is to see it get stomped on.

Looking ahead to the monster that is the subject of chapters five and six, at such moments we are in danger of becoming cranky, cynical dragons.  Dragons are those who have either abandoned their idealism altogether or, like certain disillusioned leftists who have become angry rightwing ideologues, seen it become distorted beyond all recognition. (I have in mind such neoconservatives as Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, and Charles Krauthammer.) I fear for those current-day progressives who are bitterly disillusioned with an Obama who persuaded them to hope again.

Responding with a Truth We Hold To Be Self Evident

Our higher ideal, expressed in The Declaration of Independence, is bigger than our individual grievances and will fortify us, just as, in his darkest moment, Beowulf’s great sword fortifies him.  Those who came before, like the warrior giants who forged that weapon, can infuse us with their spirit and inspire us to push through our pain. Wielding the sword means acknowledging and claiming that we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before. We are fighting the good fight, one that the founding fathers began and that Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Harvey Milk, and a host of others continued, each working to insure that America honor its promise.

The sword is so powerful that it can slay both sorrow (Beowulf stabs Grendel’s Mother) and resentment (he beheads the corpse of Grendel that lies close by). The sword can rid the lake of its monsters.

Obama spoke of his heroic forebears on election night, those persons both known and unknown who paved the way to his remarkable victory. Hundreds of millions, at home and abroad, felt the exhilaration of a country acting in accord with its deep ideals of fairness. The description of Beowulf’s victory over Grendel’s Mother captures these feelings through images of sunshine and spring. The blade (the sharp edge of pain) melts in the monsters’ blood like hard winter ice in a spring thaw, and the dark cavern is filled with light. This is how it feels to step out of the cold darkness and into hope:

A light appeared and the place brightened
the way the sky does when heaven’s candle
is shining clearly.

Tea Partiers are not entirely wrong when they look to America’s revolutionary roots for guidance. They, no less than progressives, are searching for America’s promise of fairness, and this common heritage has the potential to bring both sides together. Granted, their differences at times seem insurmountable—when enraged grieving fixates on scapegoats, it proves a very powerful troll—but we’ve seen giant forebears like Lincoln and King successfully change hearts and minds in the past. Not all who are angry are impervious to Walt Whitman’s celebration of a diverse nation that contains multitudes

We share with our fellow citizens a set of national symbols that articulate the American Dream, symbols like the American flag, the “Star Spangled Banner,” the Pledge of Allegiance, “America the Beautiful,” and (Martin Luther King used this one in his “Dream” speech) “My Country ’tis of Thee.” Each of these calls for us to reach beyond our tribal impulses and embrace an inclusive vision.

Some progressives shy away from these symbols because political mountebanks have turned them into clubs and used them to beat up those they disagree with. Daily we see politicians and pundits proving Samuel Johnson’s dictum that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. These false patriots claim that those who disagree with them are not “real Americans” (Sarah Palin), that they “don’t understand America” (Mitt Romney on Barack Obama), even that they “hate America” (Rush Limbaugh). But that just means they are defining America by their fear and anger, by what they are against rather than what the country is for. They are wielding contorted imitations of the great sword, not the great sword itself. If we let them define the symbols for us, we play into their hands and Grendel’s Mother will tear our hearts out.

True warriors distinguish between a true sword and debased versions. Grasping the true sword gives Beowulf back his fighting spirit. Lifting high the banner of fairness can help us regain our own spirit and find common cause with our fellow citizens. Collectively reclaiming our vision of America, we can make our way through the dark lake and back into the light.

It won’t be easy, but when has heroism ever been easy? It’s enough to know that the battle is worth it.


One further note:

Following the mention of the guiding star of The Declaration of Independence, Obama went on to make reference, as I do in the book, to the Women’s Rights, Civil Rights, and Gay Rights movements:

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth. 

His focus on the need to act collectively is the focus of the last two chapters of my book, where I explore that it takes to defeat the bitter dragon of greedy self absorption and cynicism. Only when Wiglaf comes to the aid of Beowulf is the king able to defeat the monster. Obama needs the help of America’s citizens if we are to see meaningful gun control, immigration reform, climate change legislation, and significant middle class economic gains. To this end, it will be interesting to see what occurs with the Organizing for America organization that has been spun off of the reelection campaign to put pressure on legislators on such issues. The idea of harnessing the political grassroots was discussed following Obama’s initial election but then gave way to traditional legislative routes. With a filibuster-happy Senate and a House too often controlled by the Republican rightwing, something new needs to be tried.

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