The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
One hundred years ago, William Butler Yeats wrote the poem “The Second Coming.” Much was happening in the world when he wrote it. The First World War just ended. The Spanish Flu pandemic had killed millions and almost killed his wife. Yeats looked at the world and saw not hope but despair.
The poem feels as relevant as ever now. The world feels in disarray. Climate change is here with no end in sight. We’ve just gone through our own pandemic which has killed millions. The rise of right-wing fascism and the fall of democracies is everywhere.
One line from “The Second Coming” that has always resonated with me has suddenly appeared in my consciousness more and more. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” What does this line mean? I think of the online discourse around politics for one, both left-wing and right, and the amount of certainty there is in people’s arguments. I am unabashedly left-wing myself. And God knows, in a former life, I was an angry Twitter head, an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing. My sense of certainty that I was right, that I had the right answers, that I knew what the world needed was frankly pretty nauseating. The self-righteousness was oppressive as my family and friends can probably attest.
Reflecting on that time now, the sense of righteousness came from a need to feel powerful. In truth, it felt good to judge and feel superior to other points of view, especially centrist or right-wing ones. Why did it feel good? I could rationalize what I felt, but to put it simply, I felt powerless in the face of all that was happening: Trump, climate change, a broken health care system, and all the rest. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, social media exacerbated these feelings. I lived in the invisible hierarchies of my mind. My self-worth was based on where I fit in the hierarchy. And to be completely honest, being left-wing was an aesthetic choice. I got to be cool. I got to talk about Marx. I was team Bernie, not boring Clintonites. In some ways, it was culty behavior. I got to be a cool kid. My politics were a way of saying, “look at how cool and smart I am.”
As I’ve gotten older, I see more clearly how the idea of “myself” is insidious, how my ego…