Biden and Beowulf: Three Thoughts on the Elections
We are still pagans
I’ve been reading Beowulf recently, in the very fine Heaney translation, as part of an ongoing learning journey. One discovery has been this notion of a Germanic ethos in the early Middle Ages in Western civilization. This ethos implied an incredible individualism. You lived for the moment, for fame in the here and now; and you won that fame by fighting battles. It was a world filled with feuds.
It is said that this pagan ethos is still present in modern civilization — buried under classical values, Christian theology, secular humanism, and anything else.
Of course it is.
Joe Biden is now president of the United States. I believe he ran for president because he saw the divisions in our society caused by the relentless feuding of the Trump era, and believed, rightly or wrongly, that he was the man for the moment.
At the age of 78 this old warhorse decided he had to step in for the good of America, and paint another vision. And his hope, of course, was that enough Americans would agree with him. And they did.
Biden was a remarkably young senator once; and then a repeated (and repeatedly rebuffed) candidate for President. Let it be said that Biden was ambitious. Let it be said that ‘twas a grievous fault. But on this occasion I believe he did not run out of personal ambition.
I cannot easily think of another American president of whom that could be said.
THOUGHT I: Dumb and dumber
The events of the last two months have had lasting effects that will take some time to play out. One effect has been the pushing further to the left of people like me who are slightly left of center and could easily see ourselves voting for “the right Republican”.
The list of the outrageous is never ending. A tiny sample includes the congresspeople who pushed the Big Lie; Giuliani who debased and shamed himself; the insurrectionists at the Capitol; and so much more. There is item after item just about the last two months, and that is well before we get to the surpassing weirdness of QAnon.
I kept waiting for the “true” GOP to rise up. And there were points of light, with Romney and others. But for the most part, it was not just a shameful and a submissive acquiescence; it was a proactive effort to keep pushing untruths. The circular logic of claiming irregularities often enough and loudly enough that the dumber amongst us start believing in a fact-free dispensation.
For many years, I’ve believed that on the right, all that motivates folks is reducing tax rates, a Hobbesian view of law and order, and occasionally some weird ethnic interest completely unconnected with America’s interests — as an example, there is a large swathe of Trumpist Indian-Americans who absolutely love the Modi-Trump dynamic.
I’ve learned nothing in the last two months to change this belief. It was funny and contemptible — until it wasn’t.
Thought II: It could have been so much worse
One way I’ve kept my sanity over the years is to reduce the number of people I follow on Twitter. That number is now eleven. It is the main reason I don’t go to bed in a rage every night, or wake up in the morning and get immediately infuriated. Social media is very bad for your health in an era of polarization and alternative facts.
But from November 3 to noon, January 20, I cheated. And I cheated a lot. I didn’t follow anyone, but I kept checking the Twitter feeds of journalists I respect, Maggie Haberman and Jake Tapper being top of the list. And two non-journalists: George Conway and Marc Elias. Now that the inauguration is done, I will do my best to stop checking their feeds.
Many believe we came so close to chaos as more information comes to light about what Trump attempted to do in November and December. But that was actually not my biggest concern. There is much talk of the 74 million who voted for Trump. But if this election had been put in question, my biggest fear was about the 81 million who voted for Biden, and their rage.
Thought III: The System Worked
I am very optimistic about the United States, the tenor of this essay notwithstanding. I believe we self-correct here - in fits and starts, and often for the wrong reasons. I believe much of that has to do with the founding principles and substructure of the American Republic. I also believe it has to do with our one truly great cultural artifact, our universities, about which I will write at another time.
We have seen the founding principles work in the most dire of circumstances recently. Trump wanted to be Sulla, who led his army to dictatorial power and presaged the rise of Caesar and the fall of the Republic. Instead, the structure held together, and Trump will go down as a Caligula, destroyed by his own incompetence and depravity.
The freedoms that define the American ethos are partially pagan in nature and thus have spawned repeated dissension and violence. The Trumpist ideology in American life goes back centuries. We forget very quickly — for example, it wasn’t that long ago that George Wallace, a virulent segregationist, won 14% of the popular vote and 46 electoral votes. And we have the big example: the United States is the only democracy I can think of that had an actual bona fide Civil War.
And despite all that, here we are with a legitimate transition of power between two diametrically opposed camps.
There has been nothing like the United States in the history of humanity, and it is a source of great pride to see the American experiment continue in the form it was meant to.