Many of us are still in shock over Mitt Romney’s statement, secretly taped at a fund raiser, that the 47% who are currently anticipated to vote for Obama are people
who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. . . And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Although I (and many others) have posted on how Ayn Rand has seized control of Paul Ryan and the right wing of the Republican Party, I hadn’t realized until this moment the extent to which her ideas have also taken over Romney.
The blowback from the commentariat has been overwhelming. A livid Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Beast writes,
He’s describing half the country as parasites, bleeding the productive half dry. Half the country. He includes me, an Obama supporter, who pays three times the tax on my income that Romney does, who immigrated at 21, whose parents never went to college, and whose blog now employs six other people.
You know what, Mitt? F*** you.
Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, meanwhile, who in recent columns has been sounding increasingly like a Romney supporter, writes that the statement is
a country-club fantasy. It’s what self-satisfied millionaires say to each other. It reinforces every negative view people have about Romney.
My small businessman son noted to me yesterday that Romney is sounding like the dragon and the dragon kings in Beowulf. He’s absolutely right so I take the occasion to share an excerpt from my book’s dragon chapter (available, as you see, in the upper right hand of this blog). I completed the book in April so it is out of date in minor ways. For instance, while I talk about Paul Ryan, I had no idea that he would be Romney’s vice presidential pick. Beowulf proves its prescience, however, by accurately describing the mindset that drives Romney’s statement.
Excerpt from Chapter 5: The Dragon: Cynicism and Despair
(from How Beowulf Can Save America by Robin R. Bates)
At one point in Beowulf, King Hrothgar looks back into the past and sings the praises of the exemplary King Sigemund. This legendary warrior, he says, killed a dragon, took possession of its treasure hoard, and proved to be “a fence round his fighters.”
By way of contrast, Hrothgar then shifts to the bad King Heremod, whom he describes as “a burden, a source of anxiety to his own nobles.” Later in the poem we are told that Heremod vented his rage against his comrades, cut himself off from his own kind, gave no more rings, and became “a pariah king.”
I cite these two examples because, when a wealthy developed capitalist nation like the United States faces a deep recession, it can choose to either battle the dragon or become a dragon. The United States today can either take the generous, caring and protectiveSigemund routeor the cynical, hoarding, and self-isolatingHeremod route.
Following standard Keynesian economics, it might choose to borrow money to stimulate the construction of infrastructure, prevent layoffs of teachers and public sector employees, supportthe unemployed, and take other measures that will jumpstart an economic recovery. This Sigemund approach—let’s call his “fence round his fighters” a “social safety net”—is intended toget the country through tough times. Once treasure is flowing again and employment is back up (so Keynesians tells us), can then pay back the deficit it ran up.
Or a country take a page out of King Heremod’s book and refuse to give any more rings, enacting stringent austerity measures instead. There are economic arguments to be made for a Heremond strategy, including the notion that letting companies feel the full force of the free market (economists call it “creative destruction”) results in great efficiency, rooting out the weak and rewarding the strong. Furthermore, proponents say that deficit reduction tamps down the prospect of inflation while protecting the next generation from paying today’s bills.
But even in the best of cases, austerity cuts generally hit the most vulnerable members of the population far harder than the wealthy. Often when a Heremod spirit reigns, there is raging against weaker comrades, and recently we have been seeing pensioners, union members, government workers, and Medicaid and food stamp recipients blamed for our economic mess.
To cite one instance of a dragon-like austerity measure, in 2011, when unemployment was close to 10 percent, the Republican-led House of Representatives passed Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which would have moved Medicare to a voucher program (thereby raising costs for beneficiaries), cut funds to education and food stamps, and trimmed Head Start and college Pell grants. At the same time, it called for abolishing the estate tax on multimillion-dollar estates and extending the top-end Bush tax cuts. In March 2012 as I write this, the House has just passed a comparable budget that, according to the president of the respected Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, “would likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history and likely increase poverty and inequality more than any other budget in recent times (and possibly in the nation’s history).” The plan has been embraced by Mitt Romney, who earlier in the year stated, “I don’t care about the poor” in a pronouncement designed to trigger middleclass resentment against beneficiaries of what he calls Obama’s “entitlement society.”
Dragon gloom descends upon a society in which the upper class has sucked up most of the wealth, leaving everyone else to squabble about the remains.The engine that drives America has always been its belief that all of its citizens have a shot at participating in its wealth. When that belief begins to sputter, there is no glorious future—only individual success stories—and the prevailing emotion becomes cynical despair.
Cynicism is a monstrous and deadening attitude that leaves a country feeling that it cannot solve the challenges that threaten it. In the midst of the Great Depression, America may have collectively rallied to the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second inaugural, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Today, however, fear seems to be in the ascendency. President Obama’s vision of lifting up those who are down is in danger of losing out to cynicism.
America in the Dragon’s Grip
Many participate in a country’s dragonization. At the top there are those who game the system for their own private gain, using lobbyists to ensure that they receive special subsidies and tax loopholes. Then there are the legislators and media figures who benefit from their relationship with the economic elite, either financially or from the ego boost that comes with associating with power. Finally there are those who, while taking a financial pounding themselves, are willing to support the dragon system, turning their resentment and sorrow away from those who profit and towards other dragon victims.
Just as resentment and angry grieving have a cold and a hot side, so does dragon cynicism. In its cold state, a country in the dragon’s grip gives up on a belief in collective solutions, including government solutions. Instead, it hunkers down and guards its possessions. When people have lost hope in a future, then the status quo prevails and the society becomes old, scaly-hard, and poisonous. In the case of the Republican Party, it is also becoming increasingly old and white. There is the deadly coldness of sclerosis and paralysis in a dragon society, and as long as no one disturbs existing wealth and power arrangements, the beast can seem to sleep.
If threatened by someone promising hope and change, however, the dragon turns fiery. In the poem, the dragon is roused when a thief sneaks in and steals a gold-plated cup. Wealthy Republicans saw Democrats trying to steal a cup in December 2011 when they proposed tax increases on those making over $250,000 to pay for extending a payroll tax break. Greeted with dragon fire, the Democrats promptly retreated. The poem captures the fierce anger of those who are dragon-possessed:
The dragon began to belch out flames
and burn bright homesteads; there was a hot glow
that scared everyone, for the vile sky-winger
would leave nothing alive in his wake.
Everywhere the havoc he wrought was in evidence.
Far and near, the Geat nation
bore the brunt of his brutal assaults
and virulent hate.
In recent American politics, dragon fire has sometimes taken the form of hyperbolic language, sometimes the form of corrosive legislation. The rightwing editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal regularly urge corporations to circle the wagons and stave off the “socialist” president. Various rightwing millionaires and billionaires have been funneling money to angry protest groups (as the billionaire Koch brothers have done with the Tea Party Movement) and pledging to donate record amounts of money to campaign Super Pacs that relentlessly launch negative ads. Their allies in Congress, meanwhile, filibuster presidential appointees in order to hamstring the National Labor Relations Board and the Consumer Financial Agency. As of this date it remains to be seen whether conservative Supreme Court justices rule will rule against the Obamacare mandate, thereby preventing millions of Americans from receiving health care.
In the next chapter I will lay out how Beowulf fights the dragon spirit that is laying waste to his country’s future hopes. Here I let the poem show us how America has gotten to its current impasse.
If you want to read what comes next—an in-depth description of a greedy and increasingly insular king–I included it in a previous post. And of course you can get the book in its entirety from Amazon. I am currently working out an arrangment where, for five days, readers will be able to download the book for free on their Kindles. I will keep you all posted.
A note on the artist:The artist’s work can be found at kitsune-aka-cettie.deviantart.com/art/Beowulf-and-the-Dragon-55984486.