Robert L. Fried: ‘And what rough beast, its hour come round at last . . .’

For the Monitor
Wednesday, December 06, 2017

We live in strange times indeed. We have a president who is a compulsive if not pathological liar. We have a steady stream of powerful men of all political persuasions who are forced to own up to the crimes they have committed toward women who served them as junior colleagues or aspirants to career opportunities that these men controlled.

We have a Congress whose majority publicly acknowledges that unless they pass tax cuts that primarily benefit rich corporations, their donors won’t open their checkbooks. We have a State Department that appears to be ravaged by a plague of desertions and firings, and whose leader, the secretary of state, is regularly humiliated by the president (when he is not busy humiliating his attorney general).

We have government departments led by persons who have vowed to dismember or subvert the very agencies they have been charged with leading, and a family dynasty of the president’s that wields the kind of influence known only to nations run by potentates and dictators.

We have a wholesale attack on truth, science, the free press, and people whose religion, ethnicity or sexual identity are despised by our uneducated and alienated fellow citizens.

And we have the sharpest divide in at least a century among Americans who either revile this president as a bombastic, narcissistic idiot, or who cling to him passionately as their disruptive savior – but who seem unable to acknowledge that he has reneged on almost every single pledge to better their lives that he made in his campaign, and has offered them only a diet of incendiary tweets that do nothing at all to solve the real problems they face.

How did we come to this point? And, more important, what are the likely outcomes of the seeds of chaos sewn by the election of 2016?

A century ago, in 1919, the poet William Butler Yeats wrote that:

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 . . .

His poem “The Second Coming” accurately foretold the rise of Hitler, Stalin and Japanese militarists, and the untold millions who were to die under the maniacal tyranny of such “rough beasts.”

The optimists among us are hopeful that the horror of the Trump presidency will recede, if not in 2018 (should Democrats retake control of one or both houses of Congress), then by 2020, when Americans repudiate Trump at the polls. They see Trump continuing to undermine his own agenda by his addiction to undisciplined tweeting. They see a Republican Party torn asunder by factionalism, with the Trump/Bannon/Moore contingent at war with the McConnell/Ryan forces. They anticipate a Democrat healer with broad appeal among all social classes uniting the country in a return to sanity, bipartisanship and good government.

The pessimists see us in a downward spiral toward a 21st-century version of fascism. They believe the forces are ascendant that promote Trump’s trashing of democratic and humane values like a free press, checks and balances, human rights, scientific knowledge and a foreign policy based on promoting democracy throughout the world. They foresee some national or international crisis – likely fomented by Trump’s recklessness – leading to the imposition of martial law. They believe that even good people will become convinced that we need a strong leader to safeguard our interests in an increasingly tribalized and chaotic world order.

While I tend to hold with the optimists, I respect that the pessimists offer us a clear and stern warning that America’s embrace of democratic and humane morality is far more fragile, far more vulnerable, than we have been taught to believe.

I grew to maturity in the 1960s and 1970s, when talk of “the greening of America” seemed to signal the advent of an era of increasing personal freedom and environmental consciousness, a time when American companies were more concerned with the quality of their products and the well being of their workers than with the short-term gains of their shareholders, when Americans rallied around Civil Rights and equal opportunity.

It has been very painful to see the ascendancy of a culture that celebrates greed over moderation, amid an almost total indifference to inequality of income and increasing poverty, beset by a disdain for science and a primal fear of “the other” that has fueled the rise of militias and the embrace of military-style weaponry in the hands of everyday citizens.

We have, in this country, created a political maelstrom in which, indeed, “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” We recoil in horror at the re-emergence of the threat of imminent nuclear warfare. We experience a feeling of helplessness at the environmental pollution of our planet. We are shocked by the devastation of vulnerable people everywhere, wrought by natural forces and the perfidy of reckless authoritarian leaders masquerading as populists and defenders of national self-interest.

As we, in our amazing diversity, prepare to celebrate the holiday season in so many ways, we hear the echo of Yeats’s fateful prophecy, “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” Now is the time to embrace one another in friendship and tolerance, and to manifest, by our public and private defense of humane and democratic values, that we stand ready to repel “the beast” in whatever forms it may appear.

(Robert L. Fried of Concord is a retired educator who is now a writer, gardener and tinkerer. He can be reached by email at rob.fried@gmail.com.)