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.
Feature image: Bain News Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons