The W. B. Yeats poem “The Second Coming” first appeared in 1919, almost a century ago. That’s probably why, though he alludes to it frequently in his column “Enter the Age of the Outsiders,” David Brooks never quotes from it directly–nor does he mention Yeats directly. He knows that most of his readers will understand the references but he is hoping they won’t bother to think about when the poem was written.
His jeremiad, after all, is based on the premise that things are different, now.
now many of the big suns in our world today lack conviction, while the distant factions at the margins of society are full of passionate intensity.
Yeats, as even most undergraduates know, wrote:
The best lack all conviction, while the worstAre full of passionate intensity.
Brooks isn’t hiding his debt to Yeats for the wording of his text, simply the date of the poem.
This is critical to Brooks’ point that things are different now. The Yeats poem’s 1919 provenance tells us, “Hold on a minute there, things are not so different as you might think.”
The other day, I used Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism” in a post here. Though its most famous line is “A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing,” perhaps it is the following half of the couplet that is most significant today: “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring.” That applies to all of us, even as we write (as we write, of course, all of us make mistakes, realizing we should drink even more deeply than we did).
Unfortunately, like almost all of us, these days, pundits pick and choose among “facts” and “artifacts” as they argue and write. They rarely bother to explore context or to verify. Politicians do the same thing. The comedian John Oliver sees this as such a huge trend that he has created a “quote” generator so that we can cite the famous without bothering with either content or veracity.
At the heart of Brooks’ argument is that “Jeb Bush looks wan but Donald Trump radiates confidence.” Trying for balance (false equivalency, really), he follows by claiming that the “Democratic establishment… is pulled along by formerly marginal players like Bernie Sanders.” At no time does Brooks indicate that he’s aware (though he certainly is) of the long list of ludicrous presidential candidates (and even presidents) who have appeared over the two+ centuries of the United States.
Brooks claims that the primary problem with American “is mental and spiritual.” He concludes:
Some leader has to be able to digest the lessons of the last 15 years and offer a revised charismatic and persuasive sense of America’s historic mission. This mission, both nationalist and universal, would be less individualistic than the gospel of the 1990s, and more realistic about depravity and the way barbarism can spread. It would offer a goal more profound than material comfort.
Here, he presents, unconsciously, part of the problem leading to this not happening. First of all, America does not have a “historic mission,” certainly not in terms of the world as a whole. It dominated the 20th century not through mission but through size and wealth and its unique position as a “new” power on the world scene without the baggage that pulled so many of its competitors down. “American exceptionalism” is, and always has been, self-congratulatory nonsense.
Brooks’ vision is also an elitist vision, one pining for a savior. He doesn’t seem to realize that any such savior would more likely be Yeats’ “rough beast” slouching “towards Bethlehem to be born.” The altruism he pines for doesn’t exist.
If we want to “save” the United States, we need to do it ourselves, through our own little actions, working each day to improve the lot of each of us and of those around us. If we rely on leaders to save us, this, from Percy Bysshe Shelley, results:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.