M.J. Mathisen: Soapbox | AspenTimes.com

M.J. Mathisen: Soapbox

M.J. Mathisen
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

I’ve read some interesting parallels of late put forth by those champions of op-ed at the Grey Lady. And as usual they have inspired a larger dialogue and a more probing look into this amazing campaign that is coming to a close.

If the polls, pundits and proverbial wisdom on the street prove true, this week will set some historical precedents. We all know this. Most of us are quietly wading through the morass of media examining every excruciating bit of minutiae about both candidates, and biding our time until we can become a part of history. Casting (either way we vote) what should be for everyone the most important ballot of our voting careers. That this Romanesque spectacle will be written about and scrutinized for years goes without saying. And perhaps providing the only footnote of hope for the last gasp of a bright and shiny and all too brief nation. That’s one scenario of course, and just as once there was an idea that was Rome, there too was an idea that was America. And that idea, according to Joyce Carol Oates, whatever it once was has become a “cruel joke.”

But if you think like me, you would have to concur that the stakes are much bigger than that. Huge mythic themes are at play here that transcend skin color, and John McCain’s sad descent into the maelstrom of the aged and infirm has only served to better illustrate this case. Watching him prattle on at town hall meetings wandering around the stage looking lost and angry and cackling like Wilford Brimley with Tourette’s syndrome is not a pretty sight for anyone, and certainly doesn’t provide for a feeling of stability.

We are in a battle of good and evil, light and dark … the late mythologist Joseph Campbell would have delighted in the obvious symbolism and classic archetypes that are currently playing out in this campaign. And though I’m certain that his own political and cultural beliefs would have been antithetical to the Bush administration’s, he would also note the necessity of such a thing. For one cannot know light without knowing darkness. A critical tipping point has now been reached in America. To quote Campbell, “One thing that comes out of myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.”

How ironic (and very apropos) that a biracial and multi-ethnic leader has emerged to channel that message. And largely by his own hand McCain’s public unraveling in the final stages of the campaign has also unwittingly embraced these classical arcs of literature. Becoming Grendel to Obama’s Beowolf, McCain has become representative of all that must be slain in order for the new story to emerge. Surely the final nail in the coffin of his campaign was when he aligned himself almost entirely with Bush doctrine. And this, we can assume came from the Rove acolytes he was pressured into hiring to peddle this shameless nostrum. Stanley Fish recently wrote in the NY Times a clever article describing the similarities of Milton’s “Paradise Regained” to today’s campaign. In the four-book poem an agitated Satan is perpetually seeking to unhinge the sangfroid of Jesus … who engages the satanic conundrums and temptations of Milton’s creation with a reserve not found in actual scripture. Not surprisingly, this is a Jesus that most of us could get behind, and as Fish illustrates so deftly in his analogy, Obama is looking’ mighty Christlike right now.

But my point is this: What Obama truly embodies are the fundamentals of eastern philosophy. And that has provided the calm, steady hand of victory for Obama, not Christianity (as much as Obama-leaning Christians want to douse and deify him in their faith, and despite being a Christian by his own admission). It has been his zen-like composure and sagely restraint that has seen him through.

Lao Tzu tells us in the Tao Te Ching:

In ancient times,

those who were skilled in conflict put themselves beyond defeat

and awaited their opponent’s reach for triumph.

To secure against defeat depends on oneself;

the opportunity for triumph depends on ones opponent.

Therefore, those who are skilled in conflict

can secure themselves against defeat,

but it is their opponent who provides the opportunity for triumph.

Sounds like something taken right out of the Obama playbook and it is only one of many passages that speak to harnessing the natural harmony of the universe ” the Tao, as it were. And almost all apply to the way in which Obama has approached his campaign. Through calm, calculated foresight he has allowed McCain to simply self-destruct in a quagmire of his own anger. By staying on message and not lowering himself to the cheap smoke and mirror tactics of the McCain/Palin ticket, Obama has shown America, the world, and most importantly the haters and fear mongers of the right that there is a different path. And a markedly better one at that. Instead of invoking a wrathful god who punishes nonbelievers, Obama, by background and skin color alone, denotes tolerance and understanding. By name alone, and as president, he’ll force the entire radicalized Muslim world to rethink its hatred of the United States.

And then there’s his rhetoric ” we’ve gotten so used to him speaking that we forget just how skilled an orator he really is.

Add all of this up and put it into context for a road map of how he’ll lead America (and the world) and we can see a new global identity being forged from the ashes of the Bush administration. One, hopefully, that we can be proud of.


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