Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.
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In a column featured on our homepage, E. J. Dionne uses W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” to help explain the surprising popularity of Donald Trump in this country and the rise of far-right and far-left political parties all across Europe. Here’s the first section of the poem, the part that Dionne discusses:
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.
And here’s Dionne:
The line invoked most—“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”—is irresistible. It’s always tempting to assume that the side we oppose brings vast reservoirs of demonic energy to bear against our own sad and bedraggled allies.
The other oft-quoted verse comes four lines earlier, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” This sentiment comes back again and again, at times of stress when Establishments seem to be tottering and when moderate and conventional politicians find themselves outshouted and outmaneuvered.
We are definitely in for another “Second Coming” revival, and Donald Trump is the least of it. The center is under siege all over the democratic world.[...]
Political Establishments worthy of the name and middle-ground politicians who care about more than power understand the dangers of a Yeats moment—to social harmony, to tolerance and, if things go really badly, to democracy and freedom. The next decade will test whether the political classes of the world’s democracies are up to the challenge.
Is this right? Yes and no. Dionne’s first observation is a good one: Yeats's line about the worst being full of “passionate intensity” does give politicians and pundits a golden tongue with which to lick their wounds after defeat. They may have lost a debate or an election, or sunk to the bottom of a poll. But at least they are not the worst, and anyway every dog has its day, including the loudest-barking cur.
Still, if Dionne is right about the source of the poem's appeal to Beltway insiders, I think he's wrong about its message. When Yeats wrote that "the centre cannot hold," he was not thinking of political "centrists" or the established political class; he meant the social center of gravity that keeps a country from disintegrating. The unity of any social organism—church, state, or political party—is constantly threatened by centrifugal forces (“turning and turning in the widening gyre”). At certain moments in history those forces can tear a country apart, and Yeats believed he was living at such a moment in Ireland's history. When he wrote, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity," he did not mean that the centrists or moderates of the Establishment lack all conviction while dangerous radicals are full of passion, as Dionne seems to suggest. If a careful reading of the poem itself weren't enough to prove this, the poet's political record would be. For Yeats was never exactly a moderate in his opinions and affiliations. He did caution against the dangers of political zeal, but what he objected to was less the zeal than the politics. His mad old men knew "a Helen of social welfare dream, / climb on a wagonette to scream." Prose translation: If you are a Helen, you have better things to do than campaign for some social or political cause, however worthy it might be (for example, you can sit in a castle while men go to war over you and write poems about your beauty). Yeats's own political inclinations were inchoately reactionary. He believed in a kind of aristocracy of the spirit and looked down his nose at the masses and their elected representatives. He was no centrist.
Why is this important?
Robert Conquest has died at the age of 93. By the end of his life, he was best known as a historian, whose landmark book The Great Terror detailed Stalin's brutal purges. Conquest's assessment of Stalin's aims and methods, controversial when The Great Terror first appeard in 1968, was largely vindicated when new information came to light after the fall of the Soviet Union. (When a new edition of the book was published in 1990, Conquest wanted to call it I Told You So, You F***ing Fools.)
But long before Conquest became famous as a historian, he was known as a poet. He belonged to a group of British writers known collectively as The Movement, which included Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, and Elizabeth Jennings. It was a fairly heterogeneous group, more a ragged circle than a movement. Its members all belonged to roughly the same generation, but had little else in common apart from a desire to get out from under the shadow of literary modernism. Most of them were more influenced by Yeats and Robert Graves than by Eliot and Pound.
Amis, who also wrote poetry, became famous as a novelist. Larkin became the most important poet of postwar Britain. Thom Gunn moved to northern California, joined the counterculture, and started writing free verse.* Elizabeth Jennings, a Catholic, enjoyed a loyal following but was never taken as seriously as the Movement men—and certainly not as seriously as she deserved to be taken. (She was never well known in the U.S.)
Conquest's reputation as a historian eventually eclipsed his reputation as a poet, though not totally: among those who love the limerick, he was considered a modern master. After the jump, three of his finest (with unasterisked profanity).
In the New York Times Magazine, Eliza Griswold on the plight of Christians in the Middle East:
From the London Review of Books, an excellent piece by Tariq Ali about the current situation in Greece. He begins by comparing the Syriza government's capitulation to E.U. demands with the U.S.-backed military coup in 1967:
After all-night negotiations with other European heads of state, the Prime Minister of Greece has agreed to an emergency plan that will allow Greece's banks to continue dispensing euros. That plan includes all the austerity measures Greek voters rejected in last Sunday's referendum—and then some. It will require Greece to cut pensions, raise taxes, and sell off state assets, and it does not include any reduction of Greece's overall debt. It is not a compromise in any meaningful sense of the term; it is an utter capitulation.
The following open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, signed by five leading economists, was organized by Avaaz in conjunction with its petition demanding an end to the austerity program in Greece. So far, over five hundred thousand people have signed.
The never-ending austerity that Europe is force-feeding the Greek people is simply not working. Now Greece has loudly said no more.
This week will be remembered as an important one in the history of this country, a very good week for most people on the left and a bad one for most on the right. For the second time, the Supreme Court protected the Affordable Care Act from a legal challenge that would have crippled it. The following day the Court ruled that gay Americans have a Constitional right to marry.
The ruling in the health-care case was a clear rejection of narrow Scalian textualism, a theory of statutory interpretation that has had great influence in the past couple of decades. Many would argue—along with the four dissenting Justices—that the ruling in the marriage case was a rejection of judicial restraint, a principle sometimes confused with textualism. As John Roberts reminded us this week, there is a difference.
For most supporters of same-sex civil marriage, what mattered most was not the process but the outcome. That is understandable. When it comes to matters of the greatest personal urgency, most people are procedural pragmatists. They'll wait for a legislative victory if they have to, but if they can get what they want from the courts, they'll take it. Proponents of same-sex marriage will no longer have to wait for the legislative process to catch up with public opinion. That might have taken years, and since there seemed to be little doubt about the final outcome—since it was only a matter of sooner or later—why not get it over with? Why make gay couples wait for democracy to slowly run its course when we could all see where it was headed. That, at any rate, was the pragmatic argument for having the Supreme Court settle this. (I don't say that was the only argument.)
Meanwhile, opponents of Obamacare will have to figure out how to get rid of it politically, having failed again to get the Supreme Court to kill or maim it for them. This means they'll have to wait for at least one more election.
The GOP response to the marriage decision has not been uniform. Many Republicans are eager to put this controversy behind them as quickly as possible so that they can concentrate on the truly important things: repealing Obamacare and cutting taxes. It is useful to compare the range of views about same-sex marriage on display at the National Review with the much narrower range of views about the Obamacare decision: the flagship publication of the American right, though generally opposed to both decisions, makes room for supporters of same-sex marriage (Charles C. W. Cooke, Reihan Salam), while speaking with one hoarse voice against Obamacare. This contrast confirms the view that today's GOP is less a conservative party than an anti-government pro-Market party. Capitalism über alles.
Ever since reading David Cole’s compelling account of the legal issues at stake in King v. Burwell, I've had trouble imagining how any intelligent and intellectually honorable person could support the plaintiffs in this case. So, being stuck at home with a bad cold on the day the Supreme Court announced its ruling, I wandered over to the website of the National Review in search of intelligent, intellectually honorable rebuttals of the majority opinion.
Sure enough, two intelligent men, Yuval Levin and George Will, were both arguing, with as much drama as they could muster, not only that John Roberts and the others Justices in the majority were wrong, but that their decision was a precedent that would do lasting damage to America’s Constitutional tradition. According to Levin and Will, the majority’s interpretation of a disputed provision in the Affordable Care Act was, in effect, an attempt by judges to revise badly written legislation in order to rescue it from its internal contradictions. Yet another example of judicial overreach, about which conservatives are forever complaining (and sometimes with good reason). Here’s Levin:
It is tempting just to look away from the news about the Charleston shooting. Such incidents now seem to function in our culture as a kind of hyper-reality television. As new details emerge, we bat them around in conversation with family, friends, and colleagues. We strike the attitudes of baffled outrage that decency seems to require. After a few days or weeks the outrage becomes stale, the story slips from the headlines, and we all move on—until the next horrible shooting a few months later. In the meantime, nothing changes. Our gun laws and our mental-health system remain the same.
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