Needed in Congress: A Deus Ex Machina

Pompeo Girolamo Batoni, "Peace and War" (1776)

Pompeo Girolamo Batoni, “Peace and War” (1776)

As I write this, right wing GOP House members continue to hold the government hostage over Obamacare, and all over the country government offices and institutions are shutting down. Some are predicting that this could last for weeks. We appear to need a deus ex machina.

Literally meaning “god from a machine,” the deus ex machina was a plot device used in Athenian tragedy to resolve an apparently intractable problem. A god would by lowered by a crane onto the stage to provide a happy ending when all other avenues were blocked. Euripides used the device in several of his plays.

I know such plot twists don’t seem very realistic. In fact, Aristotle criticized them on the grounds that poets should choose probability over artificial contrivance. Nevertheless, a deus ex machina concludes one of the world’s greatest works, Homer’s Odyssey.

The situation there appears to be even more grim than the current standoff in Congress. Odysseus has killed 100+ suitors and now their families are out for blood. Rather than attempting to patch things up, he instead wades into more bloodshed. Although he appears on the verge of victory, the problem would not go away since these people too have relatives. Instead, Ithika would be rent with an unending blood feud, one that could last for decades. Luckily, a god steps in. Here’s the passage:

Odysseus and his gallant son charged straight at the front lines,
slashing away with swords, with two-edged spears and now
they would have killed them all, cut them off from home
if Athena, daughter of storming Zeus, had not cried out
in a piercing voice that stopped all fighters cold,
“Hold back, you men of Ithaca, back from brutal war!
Break off—shed no more blood—make peace at once!”

So Athena commanded.  Terror blanched their faces,
they went limp with fear, weapons slipped from their hands
and strewed the ground at the goddess’ ringing voice.
They spun in flight to the city, wild to save their lives,
but loosing a savage cry, the long-enduring great Odysseus,
gathering all his force, swooped like a soaring eagle–
just as the son of Cronos [Zeus] hurled a reeking bolt
that fell at her feet, the mighty Father’s daughter,
and blazing-eyed Athena wheeled on Odysseus, crying,
“Royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, master of exploits,
hold back now!  Call a halt to the great leveler, War—
don’t court the rage of Zeus who rules the world!”

So she commanded.  He obeyed her, glad at heart.
And Athena handed down her pacts of peace
between both sides for all the years to come–
the daughter of Zeus whose shield is storm and thunder,
yes, but the goddess still kept Mentor’s build and voice.

So who will be our Athena-disguised-as-a wise-old counselor? Who has the wisdom and the authority to stop adrenaline-crazed warriors in their tracks. How about the Speaker of the House?

Okay, I know that Boehner, time and again, has cravenly buckled to the Tea Party wing of the House. But if he would only let the spirit of Athena flow through him, he could open the government back up again tomorrow.

How? By presenting the Senate’s clean Continuing Resolution to the full House. The Democrats and enough moderate Republicans would pass it, allowing the country to get back to business.

I can see it now: John Boehner standing up to his right wing and saying, “Command yourself. Call off this battle now, or Zeus who views the wide world may be angry.”

I suspect there would be not a few Republicans who would be secretly relieved, even those officially in favor of a government shutdown. For one thing, they are not in as strong a position as the Ithakan king and need some way out of the current mess.

We can think of such Athenian wisdom as our democratic principles. Obamacare passed through Congress, was upheld by the Supreme Court, and then was reaffirmed by the 2012 presidential election. That is consistent with Zeus’s notions of order and should be a solid foundation for any American leader to stand on. Enough with these backdoor shenanigans.

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