In the old days in Denmark, long before the TV Mini-series Borgen, King Hrothgar is enjoying a prosperous and successful reign. He builds a great hall where people gather to feast, recite poetry, sing songs. But the noise of people’s revelry and the insupportable sound of happiness angers the demon Grendel who lives in the nearby swamp. And so the monster goes on a rampage killing all he meets and fear, danger and death ravage the land.
A warrior named Beowulf shows up to challenge the monster, fights him unarmed, tears Grendel’s arm off and hangs it in the hall while the terrified demon slinks off back to his swamp to die. While all are celebrating to honor the hero, another more fierce and more dangerous demon emerges from her watery lair for revenge—Grendel’s mother! Beowulf wrestles with her in the depths of the waters and finds her a more formidable enemy than her son, only winning the battle by virtue of a specially forged sword.
Naturally, with the two monsters dead, peace is restored to the land.
As any reader of these more recent blogs can attest, I’m pretty much in the camp that Racism is the Grendel monster ravaging the countryside and a top priority for our national attention and educational Mission Statements. But after reading a short little article about Wall Street wolves seeking to privatize water rights so they can profit by denying basic human needs unless you have the money to pay up, it reminded me that there is something evil lurking behind Grendel—unchecked Capitalism. In fact, the disaster of slavery and its unending horrific legacy of Racism begins with this even more dangerous mother who gave birth to it all—human greed unleashed and given full cultural approval.
It’s crucial to remember that the demand for enslaved people came from an economic need and greed. When it became clear that white convicts didn’t work so well and Native Americans tended to die from diseases spread by the Europeans, it was the heartier enslaved Africans that were just the ticket. Once in place as an economic institution, now there was the need to create a narrative that would allow the slaveholders to sleep at night and feel like they were doing God’s will and being charitable to un-baptized people who were certainly “better off than in the jungles (which didn’t exist) of West Africa.” So the priests got their Biblical quotes and misquotes in line, the scientists cooked up their cock-eyed theories of racial superiority, the politicians aligned the laws with it all and the slave patrols (later to become police forces) kept everyone in line. God, Science, Manifest Destiny decreed and convinced the unsuspecting populace that this was the natural order of the world, with the secret mission of growing rich and powerful off the unpaid labor of human beings brutally treated, bought and sold, raped and beaten, kept away hidden in the corner.
How does this work? Three words: "Follow the money." This simple formula is the key to unlocking so many of the world's atrocities. Is there a dictator abusing rights in a foreign country? The good old U.S.A. will rush in to depose him—well, actually only if there’s oil or other natural resources that we need. Otherwise, why bother? If it’s in our economic interest, we’ll do anything and sugar-coat it with all the needed words to make it appear noble and grand.
If Racism is the long over-due discussion we’re finally edging closer to, unchecked Capitalism is still at the back of the line. Yes, there was a brief flurry in the Occupy Wall Street movement, but it seemed to have petered out and now they’re back at work trying to take water from us to sell back to us. Just as we’re educating ourselves and some are starting to teach the children about the untold stories of systemic racism, so do we need a parallel track looking at our history of profit from human misery.
And let’s not leave out ecological devastation. Grendel’s mother had at least two children— racism and environmental destruction leading to climate change. Behind every environmental disaster is people who don't live in the neighborhood getting rich off of strip mining, razing the rain forest, mass producing junk we don't need and don't have room for in the garbage bin, building the nuclear power plants, creating an oil-dependent auto industry, you name it. We can’t wholly eradicate either racism nor climate change without dealing with the mother.
Just as smoking was considered the norm in the 50’s and now people gather sheepishly outside to sneak a smoke, so might the idea of taking more than your share at any cost and not giving back when your good old boy excuses you from paying taxes might finally become the cause for shame it deserves to be. And then line up the laws to make unchecked greed the offense it actually is.
Just when you thought you could return to thinking about that lovely trip you once took to Formentera and what you would do for a zucchini, I’m introducing you to the mother from hell and suggesting we better paid attention. Aargh! Isn’t the pandemic and the aftermath of the our own Demon’s disaster enough? Yes but…
The monster unnamed is the one that’s the most dangerous. Let’s start talking about Grendel and his mother. (And yes, you can take some time off and watch Borgen. It's excellent!)