“We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” Franklin Roosevelt memorably told a nation in the midst of its greatest economic crisis. As I look at America today, I see a lot of our politics dictated by fear. It is as though the unscrupulous and the irresponsible are stampeding us into extreme positions.
Some want to slash away indiscriminately at the budget (fear: large deficit), some want to block the building of mosques (fear: Islam), some countenance torture and imprisonment without due process at Gitmo (fear: terrorism), some like Mike Huckabee associate Obama with Kenyan Mau Maus and Indonesian madrassas (fear: the Other), some want more guns, guns, guns, even on college campuses (fear: just about everything). Every month there are new fears, and Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and a host of fire breathing political celebrities are making fortunes by stoking them. As every drug dealer knows, addiction can be profitable, and the addictive adrenaline rush of fear has hooked millions.
When I feel discouraged at this state of affairs, I remind myself to return to this website’s foundational work. Grendel is the embodiment of fear in Beowulf. Even though Denmark is the reigning super power in the region and has no fear of outside invaders, Grendel nevertheless strikes at the very heart of King Hrothgar’s kingdom. When people slash away at him with swords—see this as a panicked response to fear—he just gets stronger. That’s what happens when we fight fear with fear.
No wonder King Hrothgar is left with his head in his hands. We know the country is desperate when the king’s counselors advise praying to the old stone gods–which is to say, to discredited myths. Magical thinking can prevail at such times.
Enter Beowulf, whose strength lies in his groundedness. He doesn’t panic when fear strikes the hall but holds his own. Even though fear is ten feet tall and ugly as sin, he finds strength within himself to resist it. His muscular grip is all that is necessary for fear to begin to doubt its power. Put slightly differently, fear disintegrates when confronted with a stout heart. If we are strong in the face of fear, fear itself will become fearful.
If you’d rather have a female heroine, consider Queen Wealtheow. She finds herself in the midst of a potentially volatile situation. Should King Hrothgar die, she will be left with two small children and their ambitious and untrustworthy uncle. She’s worried that, fearful of the future, Hrothgar will disinherit their children and name Beowulf his successor. In other words, she knows that a panicked response will undermine the established institutions. Her strategy is to work quietly and diplomatically to ensure an orderly succession. She bestows gifts and speaks to people’s higher natures. There are no fireworks, just a skillful use of words, and in the end she gets her way.
A debate is currently underway amongst liberals and moderates about whether Obama is (as I would put it) a Beowulf. On the one hand, columnists like Tom Friedman and Richard Cohen, both of the New York Times, are saying that his quiet but firm response to the Middle East may be a major reason why revolutions there are proving successful. (I like to think that a woman, Hillary Clinton, is also key in this.) Andrew Sullivan, meanwhile, is calling him principled and smart in the way he has handled the economy and gay rights (after having been at first angry that Obama wasn’t louder in support of the latter).
Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post and Paul Krugman and Frank Rich of The Times, on the other hand, think that Obama is failing to stand strong and lead. As a result, they say, he has allowed the forces of fear to get up a full head of steam.
I don’t know who is right, but part of me is less concerned at how Obama is responding than at how we the people are responding. Each of us needs to be a Beowulf and a Wealtheow. If we are, then we don’t need a supernatural epic hero to lead us. Nor should we. After all, democracy is supposedly about the people leading themselves.