Column #026. First published in the St. Cloud Times Sep. 22, 2009
“Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.”
William Butler Yeats wrote these words 90 years ago, in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Subsequent decades bore him out — World War II, Holocaust, Gulag, Killing Fields of Cambodia, Rwanda, and the list goes on. The 20th century wasn’t one of humanity’s finer moments.
Yeats’s diagnosis reaches wider and goes deeper than a catalog of catastrophes. The image of a center is a mirror held up not only to the interaction of civilizations and nations and armies, but to smaller institutions and organizations and — there’s no escaping it — our own hearts and minds, the way we relate to each other every day.
What has shown up in the cracked mirror in recent weeks is not flattering. Centers aren’t holding.
You’d think a president speaking to children about working hard and staying in school would be welcomed by everyone. However, some decided they knew already that whatever he said, or what the U.S. Department of Education suggested for follow-up lessons (such radical themes as “personal responsibility, goals, and persistence”), would be subversive, and their screeching derailed a teachable moment.
A full-page ad in the Sept. 2 Times rewrites history to blame Obama and the Democrats, exclusively, for the bad economy, and along the way dismisses global warming and criticizes White House dinners and the first lady’s wardrobe.
A flyer for the Sept. 12 Lake George Tea Party, left on car windshields, repeated both the totally discredited claim that the president wasn’t born in the United States and the totally discredited scare tactic about “death panels.”
A member of Congress who, on the floor of the House, shouted “You lie!” when the president had just made a demonstrably true statement — became an instant hero to a segment of the population. The way had been prepared by our own 6th District Rep. Michele Bachmann, who last year proposed that the media do an exposé of her colleagues for un-American views.
Our governor suggested that national health care reform be blocked in Minnesota by invoking the 10th Amendment. So much for positive, constructive, non-partisan leadership from the state’s chief executive, whose attention is increasingly focused elsewhere.
A friend sent me an article about recent research on sleep apnea, a condition that repeatedly deprives one of oxygen while sleeping. (Where is this going? Hold on; you’ll see.) He knew I’d been using a CPAP — continuous positive airway pressure — machine since 2004. The article tells me my life expectancy has likely been extended several years.
I will leave it to physicians to make the medical case for sleep study. But one phrase in the article grabbed me: the repetitive cycle of decreased oxygen “sets up a cascade of pathophysiological events.”
The phrase fits. The deprivation of mental oxygen brought on by the uncivil, hyperpartisan rhetoric that floods the media sets up a cascade of pathosociological events. The fault isn’t entirely on the right, but that is where most of it is.
The center isn’t holding now because in terms of public presence, public voice, almost an entire political party is suffering from a kind of mental apnea.
I keep hoping that my traditional Republican friends will exert, if not Continuous Positive Airway Pressure against the Rush Limbaugh crowd, at least Intermittent Pressure. You need to come forward and stem the cascade of pathopolitical events — obscenities at town hall meetings, carrying loaded weapons into them, calling the president a liar on the floor of Congress, blackmailing schools into prior censorship of the president (when his message could have been taken right out of the traditional Republican playbook), rewriting history, proposing a kind of secessionism for Minnesota.
Plenty of evidence implies that Yeats was right, but it’s not that the center cannot hold; it’s that those in the center, the majority, have been so numbed by the high-decibel noise from the fringe that they are suffering their own courage apnea.
The center can hold and things can be put back together, but only if we reclaim the virtue of civility.