“Things fall apart, the center 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 filled with passionate intensity.”
These prophetic words of William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) are taken from his well-known poem “The Second Coming.” Written in 1919, these verses reflect the sense of loss and confusion in the wake of World War I, as well as the deeply felt uncertainty as the Irish begin their war of independence from British rule.
But almost 100 years later, this poem speaks directly to us Americans, who are forced to face a similar sense of loss, confusion and uncertainty. Today the keynote of our Pledge of Allegiance, “one nation, indivisible,” rings in our ears as “two nations, deeply divided.”
It seems to me that many of the issues over which the North and South spilled rivers of blood in our Civil War remain unresolved: the balance between individual liberty and communally enforced equality, states’ rights, and, of course, endemic racism. What makes matters so profoundly unnerving, even dangerous, for us as a nation, is that those of us on one side of the divide do not talk to, do not know how to talk to, those on the other side.
David Brooks, a longtime columnist for The New York Times, is in my estimation a significant voice for moderation in what needs to be a national conversation in search of a new center. We cannot let “things fall apart” any more than they already have. I find Brooks’ Aug. 22, 2017, op-ed piece, “What Moderates Believe,” to be a wise and constructive statement as to what a centrist position might look like, one that eschews the self-defeating extremism at both ends of our political spectrum:
“Moderates do not see politics as warfare. Instead, national politics is a voyage with a fractious fleet. Wisdom is finding the right formation of ships for each specific circumstance so the whole assembly can ride the waves forward for another day. Moderation is not an ideology; it’s a way of coping with the complexity of the world.”
Among the core convictions of moderates is that “[t]he truth is plural.” No matter how rich and diverse our experience, each of us has no more than a partial view of reality. Our wisdom is to accept that we can never know everything and that we therefore need to be open to – though not blindly accepting of – the experience and considered views of others. It is admittedly often extremely difficult to “hear” the other, but unless far more of us Americans can learn to do so, then our democracy will fail – and sooner rather than later.
In addition to his affirmation that the truth is plural, I agree with Brooks’ assertion that for the moderate, “[g]overnment can create economic and physical security and a just order, but meaning, joy and the good life flow from loving relationships, thick communities and wise friends.” Political life should not, cannot, become a substitute for our spiritual, intellectual and aesthetic pursuits.
Where I disagree with Brooks is over his insistence, consistent with his roots as a moderate Republican, that government is best when it’s as limited as possible. He is more skeptical than I, a lifelong Democrat, as to what government at its best can accomplish: “In politics, the lows are lower than the highs are high. The harm government does when it screws up – wars, depressions – is larger than the benefits government produces when it does well.”
I would suggest that the most important statement in Brooks’ column comes near its conclusion: “Humility is the fundamental virtue. Humility is a radical self-awareness from a position outside yourself – a form of radical honesty.”
No mortal can know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Only God, in God’s incomprehensible infinity, can be said to know everything.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.