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Whither our better selves?

Fraser Smith Big

“… Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity…”


“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats

Yeats’ famous poem came at the end of World War I, a time of great chaos and fear. Such moments are not rare in world history. Maybe we are living through another right now.

President Barack Obama apparently thinks  so. On Tuesday in Dallas he suggested that many wonder if the center can hold. Yes, it can, he said, because America will return to its better self. People will realize they have more in common than they may think.

Most of us hope he is right, to be sure.

But the prospect of things falling apart is clear.

  • Government, our best hedge against anarchy, can hardly be thought of as government. Closer to the anarchy referenced by the poet.
  • The populace lines up to support either Black Lives Matter or the police. Cases of police overreaction or unprovoked police action are ignored or languish in a slow-moving system. A gunman kills five policemen in Dallas.
  • Racial animosity, barely suppressed, threatens to divide the nation even more sharply.
  • One of our major political parties revels in anti-government dysfunction. Democratic congressmen, frustrated by lack of action on guns, hold a sit-in in the House of Representatives.
  • GOP primary voters choose TV star and real estate mogul Donald Trump as the party’s presidential candidate. The GOP leadership fractures.
  • Trump, arguably, would be seen by Yeats as a merchant of “passionate intensity.” And not much else beyond a keen ear: He saw the voters’ distress clearly.
  • Some lack conviction. But don’t count Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in that number. Trump is dangerously unqualified, she says. She steps across the line ostensibly separating justices from the fray of politics, if there ever were such a separation. The high court, it is said, reads the headlines.

Whether the center can hold seems likely to be a question for some time. Neither party’s likely candidate has much charisma or respect. Both are in the running for most disliked or least respected.

The best available healer, Obama, cannot succeed himself.

Does this offer much hope for that vulnerable center?

Sen. Bernie Sanders promised to support the Democrat’s presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton. That promise may heal his side of the equation. Without his endorsement, Clinton’s path to the White House will be far more difficult.

In  his unerring ability to find his opponents’ weak spots, Trump said Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of Clinton is like the Occupy Movement endorsing Goldman Sachs.

Trump referred to Clinton  as “crooked.” He and his party have done a good job of demonizing her over the last decade or longer.

She’s so objectionable to some in the GOP that House Speaker Paul Ryan stood by Trump even when Trump committed what Ryan  called the definition of racism. Trump attacked the American judge presiding over a lawsuit by students who say Trump bilked them of tuition at a university bearing his name. He may have made a racist observation, he may have bilked students, but Ryan and many others still want him for president. No center there.

Not that Clinton has given her team much to work with.

Why won’t she release the speeches she made before Wall Street backers? OK, Trump won’t or hasn’t released his tax returns. But Clinton wants to be the high-road candidate. Hiding or dissembling obviously helps Trump in his determination to discredit her.

He has to do this, of course. While she has been serving in numerous public service or political capacities, he’s been on TV or presiding over failed gambling enterprises. He can’t run on those – save for arguing that he was skillful at using the bankruptcy laws to his advantage. He has no issue platform to speak from –  save for invective.

The Yeats poem ends a bit obscurely. It suggests a saving angel might intervene, but the language suggests something ominous:

“..What rough beast its hour come round at last

 Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born.”

The president says we must save ourselves.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is To purchase a reprint of this column, contact The Daily Record.