Homer's 'Iliad' and the Obamacare Debacle

By Cliff Ennico

August 15, 2017 6 min read

Those trying to figure out the mood of the American voter right now are bound to be scratching their heads.

Last November, the voters threw Republicans into Congress and the White House in almost record numbers with a mandate to slash government spending, end Obamacare and enact massive tax cuts. Straightforward enough, right?

Yet last month, the Senate Republicans, for the second time since the election, failed to pass a bill to end Obamacare, leaving the entire American health care industry in a state of confusion. Some of the senators who refused to support the bill expressed concern about their re-election prospects if such a bill were to be passed.

What's going on here? Why elect a party to do something and then penalize it when it actually tries to do it?

The answer lies in human nature and is as old as the human race.

Between 750 and 650 B.C. (as most historical evidence says), a Greek guy named Homer sat down and wrote a long poem called "The Iliad." Set during the Trojan War, it is about a hero named Achilles. The Greeks are besieging Troy, and Achilles, being half-man and half-god, is their killer.

As the story begins, Achilles is sulking in his tent, refusing to fight. He is ticked off because Agamemnon, the Greek general, pulled rank and claimed some Trojan War booty Achilles feels he was entitled to (including a fair maiden named Briseis whose booty Achilles also coveted). Achilles is a mercenary (we would call him an "independent contractor" today), and he invokes his early termination clause, retreats to his tent and updates his LinkedIn profile.

As he sulks, the Trojans beat holy hell out of the Greeks, to the point where Agamemnon relents and offers to give Achilles back his war booty if he will just armor up and get back in the fight.

In response, Achilles does something amazing. He stands up before the Greek army and gives the first antiwar speech in Western literature — a long, rambling harangue about the futility of war and how the only thing it accomplishes is the premature death of great heroes. Basically, he says: "Dude, keep your bling. I'm not marching anymore!" and goes back into his tent, stunning everybody.

Achilles' tentmate, BFF and Facebook friend is a guy named Patroclus.

Patroclus is ashamed by Achilles' speech and mistakes his friend's conscientious objection for cowardice (not the last person to do so, BTW). In an effort to restore Achilles' honor, Patroclus takes Achilles' armor and pretends to be Achilles (helmets hide a multitude of sins). He appears before the assembled Greek army and proclaims a change of heart.

The Greek army goes into battle and is promptly slaughtered, Patroclus having been promoted beyond his abilities. Patroclus is killed, and a Trojan named Hector walks off the field with Achilles' armor.

Upon waking and learning of this horrible news, Achilles undergoes a major transformation. Grabbing his sword and shield, he rushes out and wipes out the entire Trojan army single-handedly. He kills Hector, reclaims his armor, jumps into a chariot, ties Hector's naked body to the back and drags the body around the Trojan walls for all to see. Still not satisfied that he's made his point, Achilles then chases some Trojans into a river, grabs some prisoners, forces them to kneel before Patroclus' funeral pyre and cuts off their heads.

Why does Achilles do this extreme flip-flop from pacifist one day to murderous butcher the next? And what does any of this have to do with the Obamacare debacle?

The reason for his turnaround is extremely simple. As they would say in a Bruce Willis movie, "this time, it's personal."

Until Patroclus is killed, Achilles is not personally touched by the Trojan War. He is a hired sword in somebody else's fight. He can afford to be an independent swing voter.

But the killing of Patroclus gives Achilles a stake in the war's outcome (either avenging his friend's death or reclaiming his own honor). He becomes an activist and a community organizer for the Greeks, even without getting his booty back.

It's easy to advocate slashing government spending or ending Obamacare as an abstract proposition. But when Medicaid is threatened and you are faced with having to spend tons of your own money to keep Mom in her nursing home or assisted-living facility, you rush out of your tent in a hurry and join the battle (or go to your congressperson's town hall meeting and raise hell).

Likewise, it's easy to advocate raising someone else's taxes, but when someone proposes raising your taxes to benefit someone else less well off, you cut off their heads (by voting for their opponent) and sacrifice them to the gods of politics.

People don't vote for — they vote against. Modern politicians, like the ancient Greeks, ignore that at their peril. Every one of the millions of line items in the federal budget has a constituency — if you cut it, those people will cut you, even if they voted you in to do exactly that.

Cliff Ennico ([email protected]) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our webpage at www.creators.com.

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