“The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason.”
March 2023


Can The Center Hold?

William Butler Yeats, in a poem titled The Second Coming, wrote:

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.

Does this sound familiar, even current? Can this be avoided? Some politicians say it cannot: Marjorie Taylor Greene advocates a divorce between Red and Blue. And the Speaker of the House, who traded away his gonads for his position, has embraced her and made the lunatic fringe look like thought leaders.

We have been here before. In the 19th century we had a civil war about deeply felt divisions. Abraham Lincoln, correctly revered as an American leader, wanted to avoid exactly this. He hated slavery but was willing to tolerate it in places where it had existed for more than 200 years. He opposed its extension in new territory that the United States was buying and conquering but was certainly no egalitarian. As Jon Meacham details in his most recent book, And There Was Light, Lincoln thought whites were a superior race. If the North had been able to win the war without black soldiers there may never have been an Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln was principled, a visionary, and a skilled wordsmith. But he was also pragmatic. Kevin McCarthy is only one of those. And the Republican Caucus in the House is none of those.

What drives us crazy these days? Well, many things. Trump, for example, an enthusiastic liar whose love of power is exceeded only by his lust for money, is willing to say anything to win. Anything. But his fans are carrying him, not learning from him. And Fox News as we now know, wants to give its audience what they crave, not what its talking heads seemed to know was and is true.

As a nation we worry too much about Russia, not enough about China. Senator John McCain predicted that Putin would not stop after annexing Crimea in 2014. He said Russia was a gas station masquerading as a country, trying to use petro power to rebuild a lost empire. And President Obama let it happen. He also drew a red line in Syria and watched it crossed, in the process surrendering much of what was left of American power in the world after failed interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. So much has been lost in fear of Russian nuclear might that a good and moral policy of supporting Ukraine is fraying around the edges after just one year. When the US, Russia and the UK got Ukraine in 1994 to surrender its 1,900 nuclear warheads, the third largest arsenal of such things in the world, they “assured” they would “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and “refrain from the threat or use of force” against that country. Putin cares no more for his word than Hitler did after Munich, but we are or used to be better than that.

Why did President Obama not anoint Joe Biden for the nomination in 2016? We may never know how that really happened, but it was surely his greatest error in a mediocre presidency. And now our poor, ill informed, manipulated brethren can’t tell the difference between his leadership and Biden’s. Or between Hillary’s stewardship and Antony Blinken’s. We now have a spectacular Secretary of State and no one proclaims it.

As a people our historic aversion to ideas and love of celebrity have been taken to new heights by the internet and its effective dissemination of garbage. Social media companies want to hide behind a liability shield protecting them from defamation. No journalistic medium wants to be sued, but the New York Times celebrates “All the news that’s fit to print” while the social media celebrate the number of eyeballs they can attract and retain. That’s a big difference. And the money is so huge that Congress wants to look the other way.

The list goes on: abortion, guns and taxes. Abortion is a terrible issue because both sides of the argument are right. It surely does involve killing a fetus and equally involves the exercise of a fundamental right of a woman to choose whether or not to change her life profoundly. In the end, freedom should win, but the issue will not go away.

As for guns, James Madison and the other framers drafted a Second Amendment to keep the new national government from having too much control over the states, and to allow slave owners the means of defeating slave rebellions. Madison did not, would not and could not have embraced a population where guns outnumbered people, where military weapons were freely available, and where a first grader could shoot his teacher. Hunters need rifles but not high-capacity magazines or guns capable of shooting 80 rounds in 60 seconds as the lunatic in Highland Park, Illinois had last July 4. And no one outside of law enforcement needs a handgun. They result in more suicides and household accidents than successful self-defenses. In Chicago we see the marriage of handguns and carjacking, a combination so awful it dominates our politics and sense of self.

Franklin Roosevelt famously identified Four Freedoms underlying the American experiment: freedom of speech and thought, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Oliver Wendell Holmes said of taxes that they were the price we pay for civilization. He may have been alone in embracing taxation, but the Tea Party and its successors in the Freedom Caucus have made taxes into a dirty word. Where are the latter-day heirs to FDR and Holmes?

So, will the center hold? It did after the American Nazi movement grew out of America First in the 1940s. But it took the distraction of a world war coupled with great leadership to put the evil genie back in the bottle.

What do we have now?