For months now the final line to William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” has kept running through my mind. “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” I am hardly alone. The poem, with its iconic imagery of order collapsing into chaos, is one of the most googled and cited of all times, and never more so than now.
What happened in Charlottesville over the weekend brought that stanza into sharper focus and helped me understand why it has stuck with me so powerfully. Here, finally, was the brazen re-emergence of an ugliness that in normal times skulks in the shadows but lately seems to be confidently slithering its way back into the open light of day.
Call this beast what you will—whatever the politicians may say, it is not difficult to name. It is ethnic and racial hatred and bigotry. It is domestic terrorism, white supremacy, violent extremism. It is the damage in the human heart that looks for scapegoats and finds grim solace in the diminishment of others, holding them down, punishing them for wanting to share in the basic dignities we ourselves hold dear.
It is bellicose nativism and the false promise of the strongman. It is neo-Nazi thugs violently betraying the ideals of the country they have the insane audacity to claim as their private domain. It is license to spill the blood of those who are different or disagree or get in their way.
And of course it is so much more than that. It is a leader’s insidious failure to condemn them, their violence, and their cancerous ideology by name. It is his aides spinning his vague response as a broad denunciation of all violence, as if this particular violence, this particular hatred—Nazis and Klansmen, for God’s sake—did not deserve special mention. It is partisan allies rushing, too late, to condemn what they should have denounced months ago, and what they themselves have abetted through their all-too-clever, oh-so-careful silences.
It is the political calculus that has chosen, time and again, to feed the beast for fear of being consumed by it.
And it is the voices of calm telling us not to overreact. Not to make too much of it. We can only handle so much disgust, after all, so much fear and doubt. It was just a small group, we reassure ourselves. They are not representative. This is not America.
But we need to be honest: this, too, is America. It is not all of who we are, by any means, or even the majority, but it clearly lives in the darkest corner of our soul. We are a country that fought a Civil War over slavery, that celebrated the Confederacy as “noble” almost ever since, that flew its flag over our statehouses, that still fights for its statues, that enforced Jim Crow laws for generations, that turned a blind eye to lynchings, and that long condoned violence and discrimination perpetrated against all manner of people based on their gender, race, religion, sexual identity—whatever made them “different.”
And now we are a country focusing the might of its federal government’s powerful gaze on how white people might have been victimized by attempts to atone for all of this. Because the beast is fed up with all the attention that has been paid in recent years to equity and fairness. It does not want to hear how that benefits white people too. The beast wants us to believe that our problems are not only caused by other people, they are other people. People who are other than us and who take something away from us by their mere presence.
The beast does not want to hear about black lives mattering, or marriage equality for gay couples, or any of the pleas for justice it sneeringly paints as “identity politics,” or even, really, about issues like poverty and climate change that so obviously transcend race and difference in all its forms. But this is precisely what we need to understand: the beast is a ploy, a decoy to distract us from fixing the brokenness in our own hearts and in our politics, a distraction to keep us from attending to the real social breakdowns and environmental harms that are eroding life for everyone, all of us.
As a country we should be tackling the hard work of knitting our communities back together again, rebuilding the institutions that foster connection and shared experience, restoring the availability of meaningful work and a sense of common purpose. Sebastian Junger in his book Tribe wrote correctly, “Modern society has perfected the art of making people feel not necessary.” We should be addressing that deficit, not gutting our public responsibilities and encouraging people to retreat ever further into media bubbles and walled enclaves.
Over the summer my mother shared with me the draft of a memoir she is writing about her childhood in Nazi-occupied Holland. She recounts going into the homes of friends and discovering the Nazi swastika on display, and how her mother’s work for the Resistance was found out not by German agents but through the betrayal of Nazi-sympathizing neighbors. Our hearts turn to evil in small degrees, not great leaps. It is the quiet sympathizer we have most to fear.
Yeats’ rough beast exists in every country in every age. We are human, and it lives in us too. It is hatred and violence, but far more it is indifference. It is the failure to denounce what should be denounced, to name what should be named. But this ugliness finds new life only when it is given license to grow. Charlottesville was a call to us not to give it that license, not to feed it with the gift of our indifference, but to send it slouching back into the shameful dark where it belongs.