The center Cannot hold

I’m sure everyone’s familiar with William Butler Yeats’ epic poem, “The Second Coming“.  Written in the aftermath of the First World War, and the Easter Rising and subsequent Irish War of Independence, it depicts chaos, anarchy and the collapse and disintegration of the familiar.

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.

Many (including myself) see it as a foreshadowing of our current political, social, economic and cultural condition. The excerpt above might as well be written about current reality on the streets of many American cities.

The biggest problem of such division, from our perspective as readers and writers, is that we tend to wall ourselves off from the perspectives of the other side. We may not like those perspectives, but unless we’ve bothered to read them, how will we ever understand them? We can’t bridge the divide between us if we choose to make it even worse than it already is.

I was reminded of this while doing some research over the past week for a forthcoming book. The Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s was, in many ways, a harbinger and foreshadowing of the Second World War. Volunteers from abroad fought on both sides of the war, and their accounts of it have survived. Many went on to fight in other armed forces during World War II.

Peter Elstob, a British citizen, fought for the Republican (i.e. Socialist/Communist) side, that of the popular government, during the Spanish Civil War. His novelized memoir of that conflict, “The Armed Rehearsal“, is a poignant, powerful book that I first read in my teens. It, and his later lightly fictionalized memoir of World War II service in the Royal Armored Corps, “Warriors for the Working Day“, have been part of my library ever since.

Peter Kemp, also British, fought for the Nationalist (i.e. Fascist) side, General Franco’s insurrection. His memoir “Mine Were of Trouble” has become one of the most famous memoirs of the Spanish Civil War, written from a very different political perspective to Elstob. He, too, served in the British armed forces during World War II as part of Special Operations Executive (SOE), memorialized in “No Colours or Crest” and “Alms for Oblivion“.

On reading both memoirs, one is struck by the common humanity of both sides. They may have fought each other, but outside the combat zone they were so alike in their British background, their wants, needs, hopes, aspirations and simple human nature, that it’s painful to read about them. Both sides in the Spanish Civil War hated and even slaughtered each other out of basic mutual incomprehension, whether civilian or military, and regarded their conduct as righteous and justified. They didn’t just fail to understand each other: they didn’t want to understand each other. It was “my way or the highway”.

Sadly, that’s what I see today in these dis-United States. Left and right don’t only misunderstand each other, they don’t want to take the time or make the effort to understand each other. The other side is damned simply because it/they won’t accept the “obvious” truth of “my” side. There’s no room for debate, for discussion, for argument, for reasoned discourse. Intolerance rules. Anyone trying to preach tolerance is regarded as a “weak sister”, a “sellout”, even a “traitor to the cause”. Cling to ideological purity in all things, or else!

Sarah Hoyt and I have both seen revolutions from the inside, she in Portugal, I in many parts of Africa. In both our lives, Communism and its hangers-on have destroyed much that was worth keeping, thanks to their insistence on ideological purity and dogmatic devotion to the cause. Both of us see precisely the same things happening now, in our adopted American society, and we’re appalled . . . yet there’s nothing much we can do about it, except use our words to try to explain, to bring a new perspective, to discuss objectively what’s going on. We’ve both lost friends as a result, because we didn’t measure up to their partisan standards; and I’m sure we both regret that very much – yet what else can we do but speak up? To fail to do so would be untrue to ourselves.

I guess that’s the writer’s curse. We can’t be silent; we have to express what’s in our minds and hearts – yet by doing so, we risk alienating the very people we’re trying to reach. It’s a very tough row to hoe, to use a Southern colloquialism.

John Donne put it well:

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker…

We have to use our talents; it’s a compulsion for many (perhaps most) writers. Yet, sometimes, caught up in the “widening gyre” as we do so, being a writer is no fun at all . . . We’re witnessing “things fall(ing) apart”. We’re experiencing that “the center cannot hold”. Unless we, too, adopt an extremist creed, we’re being pulled apart by readers’ passions and expectations. We can’t satisfy all of them, or even more than a few of them.

Pity the poor writer!

25 thoughts on “The center Cannot hold

  1. It is good to understand an enemy.
    But understanding is not acceptance.
    Nor is it the drawing of false equivalence.
    The most important thing to understand about an enemy, is that they are an enemy, and they mean to do you harm.

      1. Opponents do not threaten your life, liberty, or pursuit of property.
        Enemies do.
        There is the potential for a slippery slope, but there are enough differences between various stripes of conservatives (not to mention those who just fear authoritarianism) that the prospects of a purity spiral reaching critical mass are pretty remote.

      2. That’s actually pretty easy:

        An opponent doesn’t care that you don’t agree, and will leave you alone to live your life.

        An enemy will regard your disagreement as justification to kill you.

        Peter’s magnificent exercise in “a pox on both your houses” ignores that distinction.

        Remind me again which side of this debate has been spouting that justification since 2000?

    1. Dude,
      Some months ago, here, you were trying to tell me that Floyd was clearly murdered.

      Does that make me further to the right than you? Does that make you my enemy?

      It is of these ambiguities that I think Pete is speaking; that we can blind ourselves to complexities that do not fit any neat, cut and dried, theories.

      My thought: Do we actually know that the status quo is materially different in terms of opposing fighters than the situation with the criminals of ten to fifteen years ago? Is it possible that my advocacy of harsh measures for certain criminals was sane, and that opposition to my position, no matter how rooted in the conventional wisdom of American culture, was insane?

      1. I still hold that what happened to Floyd was murder.
        I’ve restrained people as part of the day-to-day responsibilities of a job. What the officer did was beyond the pale. Applying bars and locks to extremities are an excellent way to get and keep control, but the neck is not an extremity.
        Doing that to his throat and spinal column was lethal force (force likely to cause death or serious bodily harm). But the initial bind almost certainly meets the “reasonable man” standard, even if it’s a sign of poor training and worse judgement. (Trying to physically subdue someone in an altered mental state sucks. 0 stars. Would not recommend.)
        It was *maintaining* the leverage after the suspect was subdued that made it murder. The officer had ample opportunity to shift and control the suspect in a safer fashion. He had other officers there to assist him.
        He continued holding that pressure for minutes.
        Even after the suspect became unresponsive.
        That was murder.
        He should be tried for it, and a jury should determine the extent of his guilt and fate.
        But the relevance of that disagreement is not immediately obvious to this particular discussion.
        There are any number of “activists”, politicians, bureaucrats and media members who have called for, enabled, or ordered the deaths and destruction of other citizens for nothing more than peaceful non-agreement with a political argument.
        THAT is the point of discussion.
        To illustrate: David French is a grifter who would cheerfully betray nearly every tenet of the political philosophy he purports to champion, and then laud himself as “principled” for doing so.
        But he is not an enemy.
        Despicable, certainly.
        Definitely more dangerous to the cause of limited government, local control, and rule of law than many honest opponents.
        But not an enemy.
        (At least, not yet. Given his trend, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get there by Nov. 4. But that’s a decision he’ll make. His madness, not the mob’s.)

        1. According to the official autopsy, which was done in great detail, Floyd suffered NO damage to neck or throat (either soft or bony tissues). He was not asphyxiated. He died entirely of a drug overdose and complications of heart disease. (The ‘autopsy’ contracted by the family, more than likely angling for a cut of a lawsuit, was “performed” by watching the initial video. And that doc has previously demonstrated that he can be bought.)

          Click to access Autopsy_2020-3700_Floyd.pdf

          If you knew someone might suddenly become dangerous, as happens often enough in these cases, would YOU stop restraining them? The reason cops don’t is because that’s commonly when the perp lunges for the cop’s gun, and that never ends well.

          1. Rezlac,

            The department’s own training procedures slides show the instructor kneeling on the back of a face down suspect in the process of being restrained.

            However, once the handcuffs clicked shut, that same slide tells officers that the suspect should be repositioned to avoid positional asphyxia. That’s where all 4 of these officers screwed the pooch.

            I wouldn’t charge murder; that requires proving intent. I would charge criminally negligent homicide against the arresting officer for not repositioning as soon as the handcuffs clicked, and the other three as accessories for not insisting that he do so.

          2. that and video from the scene shows him saying “i can’t breathe” before the cop touches him, and tox screen shows he has a lethal dose of fetanyl in his system, with weed and meth on top of that.

  2. Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
    Because their words had forked no lightning they
    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
    Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
    And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
    Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    And you, my father, there on the sad height,
    Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
    Do not go gentle into that good night.
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    — Dylan Thomas

  3. > we tend to wall ourselves off from the perspectives of the other side. We may not like those perspectives, but unless we’ve bothered to read them, how will we ever understand them?

    They frequently and loudly announce they want to destroy my society, overturn its Constitution, dispense with rule of law, take my stuff, discriminate against my race, and make me pay for “crimes” they think someone else’s ancestors may have committed.

    Frankly, I don’t *care* what their perspectives are, and I don’t give a flying damn about understanding them. If someone is shooting at you or burning your property, their justifications are of no consequence. Not until after the threat has been dealt with, anyway.

    *I* am not the one causing problems, and I’m not accepting any blame for their crazy.

    1. Understanding your enemies can be a tool for killing them more efficiently.

      Okay, yeah, I’ve gone off the deep end, probably, in advocating for a slow, deliberate strategy domestically.

      And my foreign policy is almost certainly a little insane.

  4. Rod Dreher of the American Conservative has written about the Spanish Civil War. Oh my God but we do not want that here. The two sides tore each other apart, becoming increasingly partisan and opposed until there was no sanity left. He saw a 1983 British tv series that went and interviewed survivors on both sides. It was horrible all around.

    Here’s the link:
    What scares me is the ideological aspects. If you are ‘on the right side of history’ and doing everything you can ‘to make things better for everyone’ then by definition, your opponents are not misguided. They are evil and evil can never be negotiated with. It can only be exterminated.

    The spoils system, for all its problems, was more honest than what we’ve got now where everyone conceals their naked self-interest behind a scrim of purity and righteousness.

    1. Yeah.

      There are people fundraising off this stuff. Conservative professional election strategists fundraised off repealing Obamacare, and cheerfully did nothing effective; Liberal professional professional election strategists are fundraising off Ginsberg’s death, and may cheerfully do nothing. The fundraisers will cheerfully advertise all sorts of hazards, purely to get people to open their wallets, not from any conviction that the other side poses a danger to the status quo.

      There is routinely a challenge of sorting out real signal from the noise that they add.

      There are a lot of aging radical politicians who have no interest in the next world, and want sixties radical larping as comfort in their old age.

      We’ve also tolerated a lot from criminals and from young moron reformer wannabes in the last few decades.

      That said, I’m being determinedly optimistic, because I do not want to spare the attention.

  5. “Unless we, too, adopt an extremist creed, we’re being pulled apart by readers’ passions and expectations.”

    Meh. I’m sitting at home behind a keyboard ignoring all the passions and expectations of lunatics. Who, from what I can tell, are actually very few in number. Many people do give lip service to that faction, but there’s a long way between public lip service and private devotion. Or where they spend their money.

    I’m one little member of a vast legion of people wondering where their Nutty Nuggets went. At this point not really caring about the where or why, just searching to get them back.

    My Nutty Nuggets is “good versus evil”. No mainstream outlets are doing that one. They’re all doing “there is no evil, everything is relative.” Looking out the window at the world, that A) seems manifestly untrue and B) I’m not going to spend my time reading about it.

  6. From a writing perspective and conversations I’ve had with my readers online, I think most of my readers do not want the rage and politics, and enjoy reading as an escape from it. From a personal perspective, for me the question is what do we do so things don’t fall apart? How can we contribute as writers and citizens and do our small part to keep the center holding?

    1. A sense of perspective helps

      “Why did they go away, do you think? If there ever were such things.”
      “Who knows? Times change. Would you call this age a good one for unicorns?”
      “No, but I wonder if any man before us ever thought his time a good time for unicorns.”

      And, indeed, as C.S. Lewis observed, fiction, particularly speculative fiction, can do just that

      If we were all on board ship and there was trouble among the stewards, I can just conceive their chief spokesman looking with disfavor on anyone who stole away from the fierce debates in the saloon or pantry to take a breather on deck. For up there, he would taste the salt, he would see the vastness of the water, he would remember that the ship had a whither and a whence. He would remember things like fog, storms, and ice. What had seemed, in the hot, lighted rooms down below to be merely the scene for a political crisis, would appear once more as a tiny egg-shell moving rapidly through an immense darkness over an element in which man cannot live. It would not necessarily change his convictions about the rights and wrongs of the dispute down below, but it would probably show them in a new light. It could hardly fail to remind him that the stewards were taking for granted hopes more momentous than that of a rise in pay, and the passengers forgetting dangers more serious than that of having to cook and serve their own meals. Stories of the sort I am describing are like that visit to the deck. They cool us.

      1. What a lovely, and ON POINT, C. S. Lewis quote!
        What’s that from? I’ll have to do a re-read, or, theoretically, an initial read (but I think I finished all his work some 30+ years ago. Obviously, I could use a brush-up.)

        1. It’s from “On Science Fiction.” I know that’s in On Other Worlds but it may be in other collections.

    2. Attend your local municipal meetings! The decisions your community makes on a boring local level affect your life in so many ways and you DO get some say. Street trees and parking lot minimums and sidewalk regulations do matter.
      So does storm water management, if you live at the bottom of the hill and the new condos at the top of the hill ensure that every time it rains, you now get a basement full of water.
      Most municipalities are desperate for the citizens to come out early to discuss the Taj Mahal of swimming pools (a >MAJOR< topic here in Hershey) or the incredible expansion of our roads and God only knows how we're going to pay for them and maintain them.

      I know my board of supervisors and they know me and I am also familiar with the other people who run the township.

      The other huge advantage in attending your municipal meetings is learning where the power structure really lies.

      Here in Hershey, they're called 'The Entities' and they own about half the land in the township.

  7. The problem with the Spanish Civil War was that, in response to “annoying royalists and conservatives proposing annoying laws,” the new Communist government not only took over in a voting fraud/coup, and not only closed the churches and looted/confiscated a lot of stuff, but they killed every priest, monk, and nun they could get hold of, within a fairly short time. And they continued to round up and kill monks, nuns, priests, and lay religious teachers the whole time they were in a position to fight, sometimes in preference to military targets. (And they also killed a lot of people on their own side for not being some enough, including some of the foreign volunteers.)

    Even if Sr. Mary Euthyphrophemia is a giant pain in the butt, making her and thousands of others the first ones against the wall is a sign that nobody is safe. Therefore, you turn off all the hesitation to fight your side in any way whatsoever, with any help whatsoever. Who can think of you as a countryman with different ideals, if you start with slaughter of unarmed women and men who don’t even live in the world?

    1. Orwell wondered why it was so furiously denied on the Left that there had been a revolution in Spain. Or the Revolution by Marxist logic. It never seemed to dawn on him that the Revolution means you overthrew the government and have no more claim to legitimacy than your opponents.

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