The Center Is Not Holding

Can you keep your head when all about you are losing theirs?

Earlier this week I was listening to the excellent New York Times podcast called The Argument when one of the co-hosts, Michelle Goldberg, said something that put the first five months of this year into stark perspective. She said that 2020 started off like 1974 (an impeachment crisis), quickly became 1918 (a pandemic), turned into 1929 (economic crash), and is now 1968 (massive urban unrest). 

The impeachment crisis was polarizing from the start, but each challenge we faced since became polarizing with remarkable speed. The initial wave of solidarity surrounding the pandemic has degenerated into yet another series of cultural conflicts, over masks, over jobs, over churches, and virtually anything we can find to divide us. 

Then came George Floyd’s shocking, brutal death. The initial wave of bipartisan sadness and anger soon gave way to the violence of riots and a president who poured fuel on the flames:

Trump’s defenders claimed that he was merely predicting shootings, not threatening violence (indeed Trump made the same argument the next day), but the context says otherwise. The history of the phrase – rooted in get-tough policies of the late 1960s and used by George Wallace in his 1968 presidential run – also says otherwise.

As I read Trump’s words, as I recalled the agony of Floyd’s final moments, and I saw flames erupting in cities across the nation, I thought immediately of W.B. Yeats, and his poem, “The Second Coming,” also written in a time of violence and pandemic:

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.

Those are famous words, no doubt, and they’re often-quoted in times of trouble. They’re not scripture of course, but they speak an important truth. When the center fails, a culture starts to crumble. And by “center” we shouldn’t think “political moderates.” Instead, we should think of it as the center of moral and cultural gravity – a nation’s moral core. 

In the United States this “center” is swallowed by the partisan heart and the partisan mind. It’s blasted apart by outrage and clickbait. To take the most recent example, from the moment the first window broke in Minneapolis, you could see the American unity fail. Some people supported the riots outright, but most did not. A tiny few people defended the police officer who allegedly murdered George Floyd. The vast majority did not. 

But we divided still, and we divided on what we despised the most. We divided on what we said quietly and what we said loudly. Think of our arguments as lowercase or uppercase. 

On the left: Of course rioting is wrong, BUT POLICE BRUTALITY IS THE CRISIS.

On the right: Of course Floyd’s death was wrong, BUT RIOTING IS TYRANNY. 

We see the same kind of dynamic regarding the pandemic:

On the left: Of course we need to consider economic pain, BUT HUMAN LIVES ARE AT STAKE.

On the right: Of course we need to care for the vulnerable, BUT THE ECONOMY IS COLLAPSING.

In many ways, this is the most insidious form of partisanship. It breeds constant moral indignation. “How dare you say that I don’t care. I do care, but the real issue is ...” The partisan is indignant at the claim of indifference and then indignant again at the allegedly misplaced outrage from the other side. 

Who is left to balance the competing claims? Who is left to truly, actually care about all the relevant injustice and pain? Who is left to hold the center? I found this tweet, from my friend Daniel Darling, a senior vice president for the National Religious Broadcasters, to be particularly poignant. This is the voice that’s missing in the commanding heights of American politics and culture:

I know that I go back again and again to the importance of character in leaders. But character holds the center. The irony of the first stanza of Yeats’s poem is that if a man or woman lacks all conviction, he cannot be “the best.” Time and again we’ve seen good people crumble before the bully. We find that “the best” do indeed lack conviction. They are not who we thought they were. 

As a father raising a son, I’ve often gone back to a different poem, “If” by Rudyard Kipling. It begins like this:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.

Yes, I know this is classic Victorian British stoicism – stiff upper lip and all that -- but men and women with these qualities are indispensable in a time of crisis. They exist in this nation, and they can emerge from surprising places. can’t be too blinded by tribal or cultural biases to hear them when they speak.

For example, if you’d asked me to identify who would make the most powerful statement of the week – one that recognized the full gravity of the injustice done to George Floyd while also decrying the violent fury in the streets – the last name I would have conjured up was Atlanta rapper Michael Render, better known by his stage name, “Killer Mike.” But there he was last night, and as his city began to burn these were his words:

I didn’t want to come, and I don’t want to be here. I’m the son of an Atlanta City Police Officer. My cousin is an Atlanta City Police Officer, and my other cousin, [a] police officer. I got a lot of love and respect for police officers down to the original eight police officers in Atlanta that, even after becoming police, had to dress in a YMCA because white officers didn’t want to get dressed with n*****s.

And, here we are, 80 years later. I watched a white officer assassinate a black man, and I know that tore your heart out. I know it’s crippling, and I have nothing positive to say in this moment because I don’t want to be here. But, I’m responsible to be here because it wasn’t just Doctor King and people dressed nicely who marched and protested to progress this city and so many other cities. It was people like my grandmother, people like my aunts and uncles, who are members of the SCLC and NAACP.

More:

So, I’m duty bound to be here to simply say that it is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy. It is your duty to fortify your own house so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organization. Now is the time to plot, plan, strategize, organize, and mobilize. It is time to beat up prosecutors you don’t like at the voting booth. It is time to hold mayoral offices accountable, chiefs and deputy chiefs. Atlanta is not perfect, we’re a lot better than we ever were, and we’re a lot better than cities are.

He continued, condemning the killing of George Floyd in the strongest possible terms, but then he appealed to his neighbors to use the system to change the system. He begged them not to burn Atlanta. He spoke with emotion and with power. You can watch it all here:

This is what it looks like when the center tries to hold. The center has to hold. It’s time for the best of us to regain our conviction, to withstand the passionate intensity of our nation’s worst voices. Otherwise, the “blood-dimmed tide” will continue to rise. 

One last thing ... 

If you go to any church that plays contemporary worship music, chances are you’ve heard or sung this song at least a dozen times, probably more. But it’s beautiful, and it’s right for this moment. So please hear it again:

Photograph by Jason Connolly/AFPGetty Images.