Election 2012: Time to Be Beowulf Strong

Tonight, as Barack Obama makes his case for his reelection, I find myself looking back through this blog, which roughly coincides with his presidency. More than any other work in the past three and a half years, I have turned to Beowulf to assess his leadership, both his successes and his failures. (His opposition, meanwhile, has most often prompted me to turn to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books.) The applicability of Beowulf led to my recent book, How Beowulf Can Save America, which is now available on Kindle ($5) as well as in paperback. 

I put the finishing touches on my book in April, and there is always the concern that political writing will become outdated. Looking back over my epilogue, however, I see that the observations still seem to be holding. Here is my call, both to moderate Republicans to be Beowulf strong against the crazies in their party and to Obama supporters to come to the aid of their standard bearer, who is being scorched by dragon fire. As I say in the closing paragraph, the times call upon us to be warriors.

Epilogue to How Beowulf Can Save America

People can become monster-like when their economic expectations come under attack. The widening income gap and hollowing out of the middle class are prompting Americans to rage against others who are superficially different from them, closing their eyes to the humanity of their fellow citizens. In the process, they deny their own humanity, which is the very definition of monstrosity.

There are many unscrupulous conmen and women out there who will stoke our fears for their own selfish ends, less concerned with the health of the republic than with getting us to watch their shows, buy their books, swell their membership, and vote for them. There are hucksters less concerned with the good of the nation than with protecting the economic and political power of the 1 percent. In these difficult economic times, people are particularly vulnerable to demagogic appeals and prejudicial scapegoating. Thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, the hucksters have unprecedented amounts of money to increase the hysteria.

Fear and anger are compelling emotions that, by their volume and force, threaten to overwhelm rational, measured responses. As I noted in the Grendel chapters, those possessed by anger can seem ten feet tall and unstoppable. If we are to fight to make sure that America lives up to the American Dream, then we must become citizen warriors and resist backing down before our fellow citizens when they exhibit troll behavior. We are called upon to marshal the self-discipline to respond effectively, which means not reacting with angry sword thrusts of our own. We must deal with our grief in healthy ways as we work with those of our fellow citizens who are thrashing around in their own unexamined grief. Above all, we must resist the lure of cynicism, the temptation to walk away from the battle insisting that it can never be won.

Always we must remember that, while the battle sometimes seems daunting, it is less so when we work in concert with others. There are few activities more exhilarating than joining with a group of fellow citizens to build a better society. The dragon’s hoard has wealth sufficient for all of us if we marshal up the collective will to liberate it.

As I write these words in April of 2012, Republicans and Democrats each face specific challenges that demand heroic responses. Those Republicans who have not surrendered to rightwing extremism need to keep pushing for moderation in whatever ways they can. They must call out Grendelian resentment whenever they encounter it, chastising fellow Republicans who scapegoat illegal immigrants, American Muslims, gay and lesbian Americans, and African Americans, among others. Moderate Republicans must resist the urge to become hysterical about their own grieving. They must, above all, do what they can to convince their party not to make drastic cuts to the social safety nets (“hammocks” as some in their party deride them) and not to move ever more of the country’s riches upward to the very wealthy. Perhaps these moderate Republicans might point out that Henry Ford made millions by insuring that his workers had enough money to buy the cars they made.

Granted, moderates will find themselves under dragon fire if they call for a more equitable distribution of the country’s riches. Heroes don’t always reap immediate rewards. But if they stay strong, sooner or later they will attract Wiglafs to their side.

Democrats and Progressives, meanwhile, need to extend a hand to all Americans, even as their grip remains firm with principled conviction. They must remind themselves that they have access to a giant sword—America’s belief in fair play—which will come to their aid when things look bad. They must find allies as they fight to lessen the income gaps.

Amongst those allies are America’s youth, our Wiglafs. Occupy Wall Street captured young people’s imagination because their ideal America is not a country where the 1 percent commands most of the country’s wealth. This idealism can potentially reinvigorate those political leaders who are willing to listen to this call for economic and political justice in America. In part because of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, Obama shifted his agenda from debt reduction to income equity. It’s up to Wiglaf to support a president who has made this shift and to spur him on to ever more effective measures against our dragons.

The general election of 2012 involves a very clear choice. A man who has captured the imagination of the historically disenfranchised will be facing a CEO of a private equity firm that practices a harsh form of capitalism. Obama has presented himself as champion of the middle class as well as the poor and disenfranchised while Romney has embraced a Ryan budget that promises severe cuts to programs for the vulnerable and sizeable tax breaks for the wealthy. Warrior work at this juncture involves knocking on doors, making phone calls, writing letters, giving money, and voting. Obama may have strayed at times into dragon realms, but Wiglaf’s criticism of Beowulf demonstrates that one can be critical and supportive of the president at the same time.

So America, can we heed the call of the hero?  When Grendelian resentment comes storming at us, can we hold fast to those values of inclusiveness that are enshrined in our Constitution, emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty, and lauded in such literary masterpieces as Leaves of Grass, Huckleberry Finn, The Grapes of Wrath, and Beloved? When Grendel’s Mother, heart-wounded, sinks her claws into us and pulls us into deep despair, can we remember that we have ideals that are bigger than we are? And when dragon gloom threatens to burn us with its wrath and inject us with its poison, can we remember that we have each other?

The bad news is that monsters teem all around us and have become ever fiercer as income gaps have widened and the 1 percent has grown stronger. The good news is that each one of us has Beowulf and Wiglaf potential.  I believe that we can defeat our monsters, just as the Geat warriors defeated theirs, if we keep a firm grip, wield the sword of fairness, resist the flames of dragon despair, and stand strong together. The battle before us is a battle worthy of a great people.

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