Saturday, August 05, 2006

Understanding the 30s: a new Serenity Prayer

Victor Davis Hanson has written a compelling piece on the current moral malaise in the West and its pernicious effects. It's a topic many of us have been hammering home lately, although Hanson--as usual--says it especially well.

Hanson makes a point I've thought about many times recently, which is that previously it seemed difficult to understand how so many people of the 1930s could be blind to what was happening in Germany--what it meant, what it would lead to, and why it was so important to stop Hitler before his power had grown.

How could they have not seen, not known? Ah, we would have been so much smarter than they were, if faced with the same circumstances!

But lately, along with Hanson, I'm having no difficulty imagining the mindset of the 30s, and how it must have felt to watch, as Churchill put it, The Gathering Storm.

And I keep thinking of the poet William Butler Yeats's masterpiece "The Second Coming" (written in 1919 after World War I), which presciently foretold the events of the 30s, as Yeats himself acknowledged. I've quoted it before, I'm quoting it now, and I probably will quote it again, with emphasis on two especially important and famous lines:

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.

Perhaps those two lines expresses a common truth of human nature, one that comes to the fore when a terrible danger is building: those doing the threatening are passionate and intense, and the majority of those reacting are confused and in denial. For who among us wants to face a truth so harsh, to look true evil in the eye and understand that to fight it will require great suffering on the part of innocent people?

But evildoers (in Bush's famous and much-maligned phrase) don't care about the anguish of innocents--although they pretend to, if it suits their propaganda purposes. Whereas the enemies of evil do care, and very much.

That's part of what gives many of those who would combat evil their lack of conviction: the need, at times, to fight fire with fire, to kill to prevent worse killing from happening, is something that is very difficult for compassionate people to accept.

It's almost as though we need a new version of the Serenity Prayer:

God grant us the serenity to change those things that can be changed with talk and diplomacy, the courage to fight for those things that require it, and the wisdom to know the difference.

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