Thursday, November 25, 2010

David Brooks: Ideal Leaders "full of passionate intensity"

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats is one of my favorite poets, and in my Berkeley years, way back in the 1980s, I read him religiously, which is perhaps how he wrote to be read, so I'm always gratified to catch some allusion to his poetry, especially one encountered in the writing of a columnist and public intellectual like David Brooks.

In his recent NYT column on Congressional gridlock, "Sin and Taxes" (November 22, 2010), Brooks notes that current-day American politicians are different from those of even as recent as the 1990s, and he reasons why:
For centuries, American politicians did not run up huge peacetime debts. It wasn't because they were unpartisan or smarter or more virtuous. It was because they were constrained by a mentality inherited from the founders. According to this mentality, a big successful nation exists in a state of equilibrium between its many factions. This equilibrium is fragile because we are flawed and fallen creatures and can't quite trust ourselves. So all of us, but especially members of the leadership class, should practice self-restraint. Moral anxiety restrained hubris (don't think your side possesses the whole truth) and self-indulgence (debt corrupts character).

This ethos has dissolved, on left and right. The new mentality sees the country not as an equilibrium, but as a battlefield in which the people, who are pure and virtuous, do battle against the interests or the elites, who stand in the way of the people's happiness.

The ideal leader in this mental system is free from moral anxiety but full of passionate intensity. This leader pushes his troops in lock step before the voracious foe. Each party has its own version of whom the evil elites are, but both feel they've more to fear from their enemies than from their own sinfulness.

Compromise is thus impossible. Money matters should be negotiable, but how can one compromise with opponents who are the source of all corruption?
A bit of Calvinist-inspired Protestant self-doubt, it seems, is good for the state of the soul, but with politicians too sure of their own election, the consequence is an all-out, no-holds-barred culture war in which the self-righteousness scorn their opponents as totally depraved.

But enough moralizing. You surely caught the allusion to the poem "The Second Coming" in this line by Brooks: "The ideal leader in this mental system is free from moral anxiety but full of passionate intensity." Here's the entire poem by Yeats:
The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
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.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
I won't attempt any lengthy explication, or try to apply this 1919 post-Great War poem to our time. That would be tempting, but this isn't the place for it, though the line "the centre cannot hold" is surely apt, and perhaps also subtly intended by Brooks in referring to our current 'ideal' leaders, so "full of passionate intensity," the type whom Yeats identifies as "the worst," a characterization with which Brooks apparently agrees.

But rather than further pursue that line of thought on these leaders so full of sound and fury, I'll just enjoy the lines of the poem . . . pausing to appreciate the literary allusion.

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At 4:40 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

My first approach to Yeats' poetry: songs by Angelo Branduardi based on his poems, back in 1980s (like you, but well, I attended high school at that time). A masterpiece, both the words and the music.

My second approach, in the 1990's, was Yeats' brief but fundamental essay on Blake.

At 4:47 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I see you are a young man still . . .

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 5:01 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Well, you saw a very recent photo of me... or, did you think I photoshopped it?

Portrait of the Blogger as a Young Man (but that was not Yeats).

If, instead, your "still" meant: "Your forties notwithstanding, you still behave as a child"... thanks!

At 5:05 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I see what you mean . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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