“The Centre cannot hold…” Yeats

In these opening days of the new decade, I am haunted by Yeats’ ominous stanza in his poem The Second Coming:

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.

By way of example, our healthcare debate has become so swaddled in half-truths and lies that, as Yeats warns, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” It didn’t.

Another example, Goldman Sachs will give each of its employees on average a $600,000 bonus. The American way of business will, of course, award most of that bonus money to those at or near the top, while several hundred miles off our Southern shore, our Haitian neighbors have again been clobbered by the latest in a long continuum of manmade and natural disasters beginning with the Duvalier family.

A child roams a blown-out street in Haiti looking for water while an investment banker two hours away by plane wearing a suit worth more than the child’s former neighborhood, explains why he deserves a $10M bonus. The dissonance challenges the heart if not the mind. There is no saving grace, no “ceremony of innocence” here. Can the banker really see the Haitian child or does he just register an image on the news?

The extreme polarization of wealth and the anomie and unrest it engenders in a people have historically signaled a nation’s downfall, not necessarily by revolution but often by ensuing irrelevance. China and India are building the strongest middle classes in the world just as we did after World War II. But now our own middle class is on the wane as too many families slide into penury while a few manage to find their way into the plutocracy.

How is it that those who have the most to lose believe so unquestioningly in those who have the most to gain? Is it aspirational?  Do they believe that if their leaders enrich themselves even further that they too will become rich?

Conservatives love to quote our founding fathers, but rarely cite one, William Livingston, the first Governor of New Jersey, a lawyer and leader of the New Jersey militia during our Revolution. In one of his essays he writes, “He is a Patriot who prefers the Happiness of the Whole, to his own private Advantage. . . . He is a Patriot, the ruling Object of whose Ambition, is the public Welfare: whose Zeal, chastised by Reflection, is calm, steady and undaunted . . . Whom no partial Ties can prevail on to act traitorously to the Community, and sacrifice the Interest of the Whole to that of a Part.”

Our own survival – and our moral and economic leadership in the world – depends on reestablishing equilibrium between the American promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for the individual, and the security and wellbeing of the community.

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