Will the Center hold? (shorter version)

The photo above is William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

“The Second Coming”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

the falcon cannot hear the falconer;

things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

the ceremony of innocence is drowned;

the best lack all conviction, while the worst

are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

when a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;

a shape with lion body and the head of a man,

a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know

that twenty centuries of stony sleep

were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

and what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

I find there is something visceral about Yeat’s poem “The Second Coming”, his  words and phrases reach into my gut, grab hold, and demand my attention.  His poem has been often quoted when people write about social change.  “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold… The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”  These lines seem to perfectly describe events unfolding today.  Yeats wrote this poem after the end of the First World War, a time of great social and civil unrest.  The poem captures more than just political unrest and violence of his time.  “Its anxiety,” wrote Nick Tabor “concerns the social ills of modernity: the rupture of traditional family and societal structures; the loss of collective religious faith, and with it, the collective sense of purpose; the feeling that the old rules no longer apply and there’s nothing to replace them.”    How apt a description!

The Saturday Evening Post (July/August 2017 issue) celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love by reprinting an earlier article published in September 1967 “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” written by Joan Didion.  They included a photo of Didion in San Francisco from the original article. I find the faces of these young people serious and intent in a way that argues with what I have come to think about the generation that eventually became the counter culture hippy movement.

Didion wrote “The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those who were left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves.

It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the year 1967, and the market was steady and the GNP high, and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose, and it might have been a year of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not. All that seemed clear was that at some point we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job, and because nothing else seemed so relevant I decided to go to San Francisco. San Francisco was where the social hemorrhaging was showing up. San Francisco was where the missing children were gathering and calling themselves “hippies.”

Last week we witnessed “children” gathering again, this time in Washington D.C. and across the country, to express their anger and frustration for the senseless shooting of students and teachers in a Florida school.  “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”  A powerful image that describes perfectly the horror of what happened in Florida.  How many times can we stand by and watch children killed in school?  What kind of adults are we if can watch such anguish and not be moved to act?  The students made a good point, they want to go to school without fear of being shot.  Every parent wants their children to come home when school is done.  But I am beginning to wonder if we have lost our adulthood, if we have become so polarized by our politics, bought and paid for by special interests, that we have gone deaf and will never find the courage to act even in defense of our country’s children.  The fabric of our political and social life has never felt so close to tearing apart.  Will the center hold?

Full disclosure, I have a lifetime gun carry permit and in some circumstances I carry a gun for personal security.  I was 12 years old the first time I took gun safety training at the insistence of my father because I wanted to go deer hunting with him.  Although I eventually learned I didn’t enjoy killing animals I have enjoyed marksmanship at target practice.  In my experience having lived in Minnesota and North Dakota (the state with the most guns per capita yet the fewest gun deaths), most gun owners are very careful with guns.  It was only after moving to Indiana that I encountered a different form of gun owner, men who brandished their big pistol as if it somehow equated with genitalia.

It disgusts me to see internet photos of a baby girl posed holding a semi-automatic rifle;  or listening to people belligerently insist it is their second amendment right to own a gun no matter how irresponsible they may act; or to read the bumper stickers on trucks saying something about prying guns from cold dead fingers.  I think the first should be considered actionable child endangerment; the second a poor argument against amending the constitution based on current needs and risks for guns; and the third as the sentiment of seriously misguided people.

It requires a written test, a proficiency test, regular renewal of registration, proof our eyesight is adequate, a photo  Id, and liability insurance for us to legally drive a car.  Should gun ownership require less?  The second amendment was not written to give a pass on responsibility for gun ownership.  When it was written most Americans needed guns for survival both for hunting and the protection of their home.  What are our needs today? Hunting is still a viable reason.  Sportsmanship.  Home and personal protection are still viable reasons.  Ranchers carry guns for good reasons.   I am not in favor of taking away guns, but neither am I a supporter of the NRA’s political position.  I think our society needs better control over access, better enforcement of laws that already exist, and stricter rules about ownership.  Guns are dangerous tools and owners should bear responsibility for their use and safety.

The unfortunate truth is that even if we were to enact tougher licensing and restrictions it will not eliminate gun deaths, the most common form of which is suicide.  More than 65% of guns deaths in the U.S. are self-inflicted.  Sad but true.  And taking away guns will not protect us from mass killings or terrorist attacks perpetrated by mentally disturbed people.  How many times in the last 12 months have we heard news of a disturbed person driving a car into a crowd in order to kill people? Suicide is a manifestation of despair.  Mass shootings are a manifestation of mental and emotional disturbance.

Where is the center and what happens when it cannot hold?  Richard V. Reeves writes that “Without a middle class, the upper class concentrates wealth and becomes ever stronger.  The lower class becomes disenfranchised and susceptible to rightwing nationalists.  Moderates tend towards the middle, looking at issues from both sides.  Extreme views fall outside of the middle.  Fanaticism occurs at the fringe of social views.”  There are many other sensible gun owners whose views don’t fall at either end of the argument.  But most remain silent because we will either be condemned by the left for owning guns or condemned by the right because we think gun ownership is a responsibility not a right.  The only people we are going to hear from are those yelling from the fringes insisting they will not compromise.  So where do we go from here?  How do protect our children from being shot at school, or people at an outdoor concert?

We are witnessing opposition from the edges, the hollowing out of our social institutions and norms.  Speaking as a moderate I can’t help but wonder if our Republic will hold.  Americans seem to think we can treat Democracy with careless neglect and it will still continue to serve us.  We act as if we are entitled to our both views and our citizenship, when in fact it requires hard work and sacrifice to make our country work.  It is painfully true “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”  And the worst occur at the narrow fringes of our social and political views.

Our national debate has devolved into two sides refusing to meet in the middle.  One side convinced the other is going to destroy our country, while the other side is  convinced they are the only ones who are right.  Neither view will resolve the political rift that has grown in our society or help us to get beyond it.  Neither authority without choice, nor freedom of choice without accountability will work.  Both ideologies are dangerous when people who hold them refuse to compromise.  Whether a person is Liberal or Conservative we must come back to the middle, we must find ways to compromise.  In the end fixing our problems is likely to mean that no one gets what they want.

We cannot continue going from one crisis to the next, allowing history to repeat itself.  The outer shell of our culture and society still remain but the middle ground is gone, hollowed out from the ends.  What institutions can we depend upon?  Marriage, family, government, religion…nothing seems to bring us together.  Change seems to be coming at us faster and faster and one wonders if the center will hold.  We are social creatures dependent on social bonds that are badly frayed.  We don’t seem to recognize how hollow the  institutions of democracy have become.  We still think we can depend on them to carry us.

The patriots cry “We deserve the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.  The liberals cry “We can all have the American Dream”.  We’ve forgotten our freedom was won with hard work and sacrifice, our dreams built at great personal and social cost.  How hard are we willing to work?  Are we willing to give up our privileges so others can can also follow their dreams?  Can we sacrifice our idealism so that every family, culture, and community in our country can thrive?  Because without family and community what are we working for?  What does citizenship or equality even mean if it’s every person for themselves?  It is shameful that a few are allowed to get rich while the majority fall into poverty.  How do we find a center, a home base, a sense of knowing where we belong when institutions fall apart and nothing that once seemed true remains?  How do we reconstruct our sense of belonging, a collective sense of purposefulness?

It’s an old trick, divide and conquer, a way to control society.  It apparently still works because we are even divided in the source of our information; listening to and believing news media who spread stories that are easily proven false.  We have become too lazy to check the facts, preferring to believe a  story that confirms our bias, or call it false if it does not.  We are losing our perspective on what is civilized behavior.  We socialize on the internet rather than with the person next to us.  We tweet things we would never say to someone’s face but have no shame in publishing it for everyone to read.  We are more concerned what others think of our recent Facebook picture than if we shame, insult, or bully people on the internet.  Is it any wonder we feel separated and disconnected from others?  We spend more time interacting with faceless, nameless people on the internet than the person standing next to us.  Perhaps it’s time we acknowledge that social media is anything but social.

History tells me that humanity has been in jeopardy of destruction before.  We survived the terrible failure of modern society that resulted in two world wars and inspired Yeats to write his famous poem.  Is this time different?  Will we survive this failure of society to respond to the threats we face?  Maybe, maybe not.  We can imagine all sorts of reasons for failure, but can we imagine reasons to succeed?

Can we learn to respect others views, to listen without judging, to consider every idea with measure and thoughtfulness?  Can we look for the truth in our “facts” and set aside bias?  Can we work together to address our country’s problems?  Maybe we can find reasons to become better citizens.  Maybe we will remember that our strength once came from a diversity of people, our innovation from new ideas.  Maybe then, the center will hold.

10 Replies to “Will the Center hold? (shorter version)”

  1. It reads well, Jody. Both impassioned and reasonable.

    **I am beginning to wonder if we have lost our adulthood**

    An epitaph for our times!

    At one point you say something along the lines of one side being convinced the other side will destroy our country, while the other side is convinced they are the only ones who are right. That mutual mistrust and sense of superiority probably works in both directions, so perhaps: “each side is convinced the other side…and each side is convinced only they…”

    Best wishes, and thanks for sharing such a stimulating read.

  2. Chris,
    Yes, you are right the mutual mistrust and sense of superiority does work from both sides. I left the sentence open that way for a reason. I want people to read it and think they know which side I’m saying is which. When, like you, they don’t see I’ve actually assigned a side to either position, a few may see what you did, that it applies to both sides. Maybe it’s too subtle, but I think I’ll leave it as and see if others catch it too. Thanks for your input.
    How’s your son doing?

    1. Snowstorm = 2 days off school = 1 happy lad!

      I am not pleased by the weather though. Proper snowfall, the first of the year, is normally something to delight in. So long as you have a warm den so return to. But this year it’s messed up. Where I live we’re getting angry flurries of the stuff falling in bright sunshine, which ain’t right. The snow itself is dry and doesn’t clump properly. And it’s driven by icy winds from the east, against the grain of our usual airflow.

      Climatologists tell us it’s far warmer in the arctic this winter than it has ever been – “an anomaly among anomalies”. Consequently something they call the polar vortex has broken open, spilling an icy mass of air down to this latitude.

      It feels like somebody else’s winter, not ours.

      1. Chris,
        Ah yes, I remember those snow days with great fondness! I did notice Europe was getting hit hard with unusual cold.
        I’ve been reading about and watching the arctic amplification effect for the last five years . The arctic is where we are going to see self-amplifying tipping points first.
        Take away ice and snow and the ocean absorbs more heat. Melt the permafrost and the ground releases more methane. Both effects are positive feed back that makes the arctic warm faster than the rest of the planet. When the arctic warms faster than the equator it reduces the temperature difference with the equator causing the jet stream to slow down and meander. Instead of a fast tight stream of air the amplitude widens into deep troughs and ridges. A trough brings cold arctic air plunging south and a ridge brings warm moist air far into the north. The boundary between cold and warm fronts brings a greater chance of turbulent stormy weather to the mid- latitudes. The polar vortex is another name for the gyre of cold air that circles the poles. If the jet stream wobbles so too does the vortex at the poles.
        I find the science compelling and relatively easy to follow even if we don’t have long term records of this phenomenon. This was the first year I heard meteorologists on mainstream media talk about this pattern. I’ve been watching patterns change as predicted by scientists yet people are still denying climate change is real. So sad. I really hate what Scott Pruitt is doing trying to make climate change denial sound reasonable. “Let’s have a debate” he says, as if scientists haven’t been doing this for the last 20 years and reached a consensus. It is just a delaying tactic funded by the coal company that bought and paid for Pruitt’s election and nomination to head up the EPA. Coal executive wants to squeeze a bit more profit from the industry.
        Frontline has done several stories on this https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/war-on-the-epa/

        Have a good day,

  3. Ah, comrade, I raise my voice and shout! Nicely done, Judy. It is an odd time in which we live. And, the Didion piece shows just how long the slide has begun going on. I think we can mine that adulthood remark, follow that vein for a considerable distance. It is one I’ve been kicking around for a recent post.
    Over the past two years that Yeats poem has run through my brain like a soundtrack to a bad movie. A conversation with friends and family are minefields in which they examine each word for a hint of explosive opposition. There is no center, no, well, on the otherhand.
    Thanks for such a stimulating piece.

  4. Brian,
    I look forward to reading what you mine from that “adulthood” remark! It’s nice to share ideas with like minded companions, or comrades. So unfortunate that the Soviet Union gave the word “comrade” such a bad taste.
    How is the lambing going? I drove by a farm and cheered up as soon as I saw this spring’s crop of calves on the ground. There is something about the wild dance of new calves that perfectly articulates the exuberance of spring. I suspect lambs probably sing a similar song. Is the mud drying yet? Here in Indiana we are getting lots of rain interspersed with sun and warmth. I enjoyed two days of beautiful weather that allowed me to cut back bushes and clean out beds.

  5. I appreciate the anguish in this piece, but the author has been suckered into one of the more pernicious political myths, the myth of moral equivalence for the difficulties our country faces. Take this sentence: “Our national debate has devolved into two sides refusing to meet in the middle.” As any number of historians have demonstrated, the rise of the radical right, and the politics of negativity, racism, etc. that the radical right practices, is the result of a well-funded, long-term strategy for which there is almost no equivalent on the left. We know that after the Goldwater debacle in 1964, that rich right-wingers got together and came up with a long-term strategy to shift the country far to the right. They created a whole set of institutions–the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, etc.–to churn out academic propaganda in support of the right-wing agenda. They seduced the leaders of evangelical churches with promises of secular power (the very power that Jesus refused to accept from the Devil during his 40 days in the wilderness), leading millions of Americans to vote against the economic interests of their families in favour of policies enriching the 1 percent. The left is so weak that its supporters cannot even dream of carrying out such an effective program to poison the national discourse. When you make the moral equivalence argument, you are actually furthering the propaganda of the right.

  6. Richard,
    Thank you for your comment. I hadn’t really thought of the issue of political division in terms of their moral equivalency, but now that you point it out I can see how my argument could be seen that way. Even as a moderate I lean more left than right. I am aware of the “rise of the radical right, and the politics of negativity, racism, etc. that the radical right practices, is the result of a well-funded, long-term strategy for which there is almost no equivalent on the left.” If we were talking about which side is the most responsible for the divide, or which side is the most reprehensible morally, I agree the finger would point towards the radical right.
    Perhaps in an effort to reduce the escalation of division, I attempted to point out what I thought were difficulties on both sides. I do think our country suffers from a Liberal bias, but I do not think radical liberals as morally reprehensible or dangerous as radical conservatives. Liberals want to promote freedom but don’t want anyone to suffer the consequences of bad choices. This may not seem to be a serious issue but I think it is an underlying issue that continues to stymie government solutions.
    I’m sure that after the struggles of the Great Depression our country’s leaders did the best they could to create a social safety net, but today that safety net has also created a welfare system that traps families in multi-generational poverty. A trap that seems particularly effective for African Americans. Why this is I don’t know. Perhaps it is a black-white prejudice, or white privilege issue. Perhaps the real issue at the foundation of our division is income inequality and how it leads to an oligarchy that wants to protect its wealth at the expense of everyone else. Right and left politics are often exacerbated by religious differences but I think they mainly stem from economic differences. The Democratic party was once the blue collar working class party. But when money in politics became an issue (probably after the Regan tax cuts) many Democrats in Congress began to associate with Wall Street and they lost touch with working, middle class values. I think this more than anything was the backlash that got Trump elected.
    I think the important question now is how to move forward? We could point fingers and be full of moral repugnance, but will this help us solve problems? Consider the American Civil War. I think the southern refusal to abolish slavery was morally wrong but what was the outcome of the North forcing the abolition of slavery? Was the cost of war worth it? Did we actually solve the problem of African American inequality in our country or merely draw it out (because it certainly continues today)? Consider President Obama. I think he was one of the most intelligent and capable presidents our country has had in my lifetime. When he came into office Democrats had a majority in Congress yet even then Obama had difficulty getting Congress to support him. I often wonder if Democrats in Congress are as color blind as they like to believe? Once wealth controls our decision making we all begin to look alike.
    I do not believe that war ever solves any problem, in fact, it generally makes our future relationships more untenable. How far are we willing to push political issues? Gun control may very well be the line in the sand that becomes a wall too high to cross. The liberal right may be morally correct, but the only way to change the balance is to put forth candidates, win elections, and change the laws.

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