We seem to be living in riven times. (Though one could ask with substantial justification: When hasn’t humanity lived in riven times?)
Schisms abound, and they appear to be more rancorous and sharp than at any time in recent memory. The European Union is fragmenting; the French may well follow the lead of their counterparts across the channel by doing a “Frexit,” with the added dimension of electing an overt racist to lead them.
Much of the world stays mired in intractable poverty under the autocracies and kleptocracies that serve as both its cause and effect.
And in the United States, we endure, in a kind of downcast awe, the awfulness that is Donald Trump.
So is the vaunted center, that core of shared values and aspirations and steady-minded tending of continued progress in the human project, whatever the differences in means and tactics to achieve it, slipping away from us?
Is the center no longer holding?
THE SECOND COMING
By William Butler Yeats (1919)
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?
Yeats wrote those lines at the end of the first War to End All Wars, when Europe was in ruins and the rest of the world was dazedly asking itself the equivalent of the contemporary question, “What just happened there?”
No one seemed able to answer that question, at least in any rational sense. People do nonsensical things all the time, so why wouldn’t the same apply to nations and the entire world community?
For Yeats, the ‘center,’ that locus of broadly shared norms and reason and civilizational stability, had come under crippling duress, with no clear path to recovery.
“The Second Coming” seems every bit as relevant and pointed today as it was 98 years ago. Dark portent words and phrases abound: fall apart, mere anarchy, blood-dimmed, waste of desert sand, a gaze blank and pitiless, indignant desert birds, darkness, nightmare, rough beast slouches…
For Yeats, the “center,” that locus of broadly shared norms and reason and civilizational stability, had come under crippling duress, with no clear path to recovery. Framed against Christianity and its promised Second Coming that served as the central story binding Western culture together over two millennia, the question bore asking in the wake of the Great War’s startling brutality:
“The Second Coming of what? A savior at last, or a ‘rough beast?'”
Yeats feared the latter, hence the fearsomeness of his poem, and its status as a continuing conversation piece in the western canon.
The specter of the end times, a great destructive world-smash from a God who could no longer abide his creation, has always occupied a prominent place in the human psyche. Jesus himself was among those who promised as much:
“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows.”
(Matt 24: 7-8)
The New Testament that arose from the time Jesus walked the earth gave his earlier eschatological references the full force of literature in the Book of Revelation, albeit of an extravagant sci-fi or fantasy genre. Revelation is chock-full of epic battles and golden thrones and crowns in heaven awaiting the righteous after they have vanquished the armies of darkness and their black horses and sent them crashing down again to the bottomless pits of hell.
It’s a fantastic fever dream of a tale, one that has been employed for centuries by religious fanatics and hucksters alike, hell-bent on either instilling the fear of God in their wayward flocks, or else just browbeating them into forestalling their fate by reaching deeper into their pockets when the collection plate makes its rounds.
Predictions of our imminent doom based on Revelation almost always come from the extreme conservative wing of Christianity, often allied with political causes that denounce the moral transgressions of modernism. (The usual litany of sexual license, permissive child-rearing, gay rights, abortion, secularization.)
In other words, they sound a lot like Billy’s son, Franklin Graham, on the religious side, and Michele Bachman on the political side.
But this is an area where ironies and contradictions abound across the modern political and religious landscape. Let’s consider a few below.
One would think that if any group could be excused for running around as if its hair were on fire and raging about the darkness descending, it would be today’s liberals. What else could they make of the rhetorical bile of Trump and his administration’s retrenchment of all that liberals hold dear regarding internationalism, the environment, education, health care, minority rights, and concern for the poor?
Shell-shocked over Trump’s election and all that has transpired since, liberals have sounded for all the world like the world might be ending, many of them going on loudly announced media fasts or raising their hand in a “Please Stop!” gesture if the conversation begins to drift toward you-know-who over the drinks or hors d’oeuvres.
Conservatives’ favorite retort to these clear signs of liberal doomsdayism is to bark, “Your side lost; get over it!” (Memo to conservatives: They’re over it, but many have transcended their despair and have moved from over-drinking to organizing letter-writing campaigns, along with browbeating their congressional representatives at Town Halls.)
Meanwhile, conservatives, particularly those with religious evangelical stripes, seem to have hedged their bets recently about the end times. They’ve long observed what they consider the moral decay of the permissive welfare state and ascribed it to a sure sign of the end times’ imminent arrival. But right in the middle of humanity’s careening toward Armageddon came a Hail Mary pass for humanity in the person of Trump, who has miraculously connected with his receiver and just may manage to forestall Judgement Day for a while longer after all.
Leading evangelical author Dr. Lance Wallnau went so far as to claim,
“I heard the Lord say, ‘Donald Trump is a wrecking ball to the spirit of political correctness.’ America has been unraveling for two decades and Christians are probably the people that are the most sensitive to it. What Trump represents is something like a block in the door that was closing.”
As if that weren’t enough godly intervention, Wallnau added this:
“I really believe that the mercy of God intervened in this last election cycle and gave us an individual who has the willpower and the tenacity to be able to do a reset.”
And on the political side, the always reliable Michele Bachman told a radio interviewer:
“We know that [Trump’s election] just wasn’t in the natural. This was in the supernatural where God sovereignly, I believe, answered the prayers of believers beseeching him, and he’s given us a reprieve.”
So there we have it: liberals terrified that the center is not holding and conservatives suddenly buoyant, talking about “blocks” in the doorway that had been leading to perdition.
Is that upside-downness perhaps just one more sign that the end times are near?
Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts quoted extensively in a recent column from a letter one of his more thoughtful and supportive readers wrote him. In it, she asked him to accept the 2016 election results, let go of the anger and fear he has experienced with the Trump presidency, and return to being a beacon of hope and light that she had previously noted him for.
He responded that while he understood her sentiments, he couldn’t very well do as she asked because the Trump phenomenon represents something extraordinary in American history, none of it good.
The deep schisms in American life that Trump has exacerbated to a seemingly greater degree than ever has led Pitts to a deep pessimism he has never felt before, and he is genuinely worried that the differences may be irreconcilable.
But really: civil war? Who gets the nukes and B-1 bombers in that scenario?
It’s a troubling thought that I fear may be true. It’s as if we’re leading up to a new Civil War pitting party against party (filibusters, “nuclear options,” accusations of evil intent), region against region (the coasts vs. the heartland), and entire clans facing Thanksgiving and other gatherings with unease, politics becoming a kind of no-discussion land occupying a huge dark hole around which all other conversation carefully flows. (I know married couples who do not discuss politics, leaving me wondering whether they watch news or election results in separate rooms, the TVs blaring loudly enough to absorb the shouting and jeering they do in response to the outrage du jour of the opposition.)
But really: civil war? Who gets the nukes and B-1 bombers in that scenario?
Do the opposing sides conduct a chivalrous prewar negotiating session in which they carefully divvy up the respective arsenals before commencing to blow each other up? (Egads, I have family in Texas, and California is about to send cruise missiles in that direction!) (Carefully avoiding Austin, of course…)
No, I don’t think a new Civil War is in our future. At least not a literal one.
But does the Civil War of Sensibilities that seems already well under way between conservatives and liberals have any chance of receding to something less virulent and despairing? I’m not at all sure of that.
True, politics has always been a contact sport, joined with religion in eliciting deep passions, given their similar roles as arbiters of How Life Ought to Be. Though we tell ourselves our political perspectives are informed by a capacity for reason that the other side inexplicably lacks, politics in truth reaches to the very depths of our emotional lives, to a place of conscience, upbringing, indoctrination, experience, competing narratives, and the ultimately mysterious locus of personhood that makes us the unique and often self-contradictory voices that we are in this world.
The fact that those voices not only don’t always harmonize with others but often clash in a near unbearable screech should come as no surprise. Perhaps the bigger surprise is how we have been able to temper that disharmony as much as we have.
Peaceable kingdom? We’re a long way from that genteel vision in this world still riven by war, avarice and acrimony.
But in truth, it has always been thus. Cain murdered Abel, the armies of Rome fought to the death against the invading Goths, Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton, and in our real Civil War, bullets flew from one brother towards another in a tragedy for which both sides paid a fearsome and unconscionable price.
Compared to that true “American Carnage,” the tempests of our time appear more as a wayward breeze, ruffling with ease any attempts to tamp down the roiling passions that so define our not-all-that-even-tempered humanity.
One of those tunes that always haunts…
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My first thought while listening to the Ashokan Farewell from Burns’ Civil War production was how the tune is simultaneously mournful, deeply soulful, and peaceful. In many respects it is very soothing. Odd that it seems to fit The Civil War saga/tragedy so well. No nukes, no fighter bombers to divvy up back then; a much slower, simpler time, though clearly not idyllic in any sense. The world has accelerated at such an alarming degree that we now see and experience the confluence of technology, climate change, overpopulation and globalization at a rate that far outpaces our ability to fully understand and assimilate those changes. A decade ago globalization seemed inevitable (note Friedman’s The World Is Flat). Today we see Auber-nationalism bursting on the scene, most notably in the U.S., Great Britain, and France if Le Pen prevails. The nationalism of Trump’s “America First,” Britain’s Brexit and the rise of Marine Le Pen feels like a fierce, intense reaction to the confluence of those factors that make globalization so distasteful and frightening to so many people. Fear of the beast is real, and terrorism, changing workforce needs, and general bewilderment as to “what happened” feeds on a global fear of the approaching beast.
Well done, Andrew. Many thanks.
So here’s what your thoughts brought to the fore for me, Jay: the profound paradox that we are experiencing on a pretty much global scale a negative, virulent reaction to globalization. It’s like Le Pen and Trump are evil twins, May is their sister, and Putin, Orban in Hungary, and Sisi in Egypt distant cousins. It’s a hard and fast retrenchment from the dizziness that is modern life, and it has spread like a virus via all the modern technology and one-worldness that globalization has brought just as readily to those who are most decrying it. It’s also the antithesis to the thesis that is globalization, if we want to give a nod to Marx here. But will it bring about an ultimate synthesis, per Marx, or a descent into the trenches of chaos, nationalism, and fear? The multi-trillion dollar question, that one is…
I have reached a stage in my life and amidst the accelerating centrifugal forces at loose on the planet when I surrender to my inability to forecast where we are headed. There are times when I sense an impending darkness capturing more and more of the globe, and most disturbingly many of the supposedly enlightened corners that have been cleansed of tribal lunacy by liberal democracy and both secular and religious messages of tolerance and good will toward all. There are times when I am comforted by the long ebb and flow between tyranny and human rights and dignity, thinking perhaps “this too shall pass.” We survived Richard Nixon didn’t we? And then there are times when I can, for the first time in . . . how many decades has it been? . . . , see the world explode into nuclear war or some unimaginable ecological catastrophe as the fools who could have prevented such happenings check the stock market before they burn or drown with the rest of us. Ah, such a cheery spring message. I used to be a white water canoeist and I remember the advice was always to keep on paddling, furiously if necessary, as the ferocious power of the white water washes over your boat. You may indeed drown in the current, but you will at least go down nobly giving your best effort till the end. In today’s Trumpian dystopia I choose to go down paddling – writing letters, making phone calls, organizing, marching. And ultimately, I do believe the triumphant message sung countless times by our brothers and sisters of the civil rights movement – We Shall Overcome!
David, I was scanning the San Francisco Chronicle’s website this morning and one of those “Trending” boxes caught my eye; apparently, the sixth most popular story on the site is entitled: “If a nuclear bomb is dropped on your city, here’s where you should run and hide.” Nothing tongue in cheek about it; this was straight from scientists’ best, most up-to-date findings on how to deal with nuclear fallout, what kind of buildings are best to run to for shelter after the blast, a reminder to grab water or beer or whatever else on the way, etc.
Read for a while until I realized, This is madness…
Thank you for your powerful commentary here. I appreciate and resonate to it.
Madness indeed, my friend. We have fallen down the rabbit hole. Thanks for prompting me to write. It is balm for the soul in these riven times (excellent use of the word riven, which I seldom see these days). It is hard to stay centered these days for anyone paying attention to national and international affairs. Thank God there is baseball, the comforting flow of the game brought to us on radio every night. Yes, radio. Just like our fathers and grandfathers (or mothers and grandmothers!) experienced the game going back almost 100 years now. “For those of you just tuning in . . . “
That’s right, David. Now if the Giants would just get their mojo together and quit only deepening my anguish, I’d be in a lot better frame of mind heading into summer…
Beautifully expressed, David. I too have surrendered to my inability to forecast where things are headed; a realization that came over me as Trump continued his march to the White House. It has all led me to focus on the moment, as I suppose we must anyway. I like the paddling metaphor and, on reflection, feel like I am paddling hard to ride this current no matter where it is headed.