WASHINGTON—Watching news from around the world this week summoned to mind the words of William Butler Yeats’ The Second Coming:
“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold …”
Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated by a gunman while giving a speech Friday, stunning the world. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his resignation after the waves of scandal that have defined his career finally caught up with him. A “humanitarian catastrophe” was reportedly at hand in Ukraine’s Luhansk region as Russians took near-total control of the area, and the United Nations warned of a worldwide “looming hunger catastrophe” because of that war.
If it doesn’t quite add up (yet) to the “mere anarchy” and “blood-dimmed tide” of Yeats’ imagination, it still adds to a sense of — well, falling apart. You know, of growing chaos spiralling out of control.
In the U.S., the stock market was down again after a report delivered news you might otherwise consider good (employment and wages up) but that fed fears of continued inflation and accompanying interest rate hikes that could spur a recession. U.S. President Joe Biden heralded the jobs as signs of his success, but voters appear to disagree, as inflation worries top their list of concerns. Biden has made fighting inflation his “number one goal” for months, and despite weeks of slowly declining gas prices in the U.S., he hasn’t tamed the beast yet.
And meanwhile, across the country: yet another mass shooting of an increasingly familiar kind Biden and everyone else seem powerless to stop and a series of decisions from the Supreme Court that repeal abortion rights, disembowel gun control measures; gut climate change regulations, weaken the separation of church and state.
There were reports this week that Democrats and progressives were “frustrated” with Biden’s inability to do much to handle the overlapping crises they perceive to be plaguing the U.S. — one told CNN Biden’s administration was “rudderless, aimless, and hopeless.” Who could blame them? News reports this week were that negotiations among the president’s own Democratic caucus on what used to be his signature Build Back Better legislation were progressing in ever-diminished form more than a year after he first announced it.
The sense of futility might be familiar in Canada, where the government of Justin Trudeau flails along apparently unable to get people passports in a reasonable time or process them through airports without staggering delays and similarly unable to do much to beat back inflation worries. A set of overlapping ethics and judgment scandals accompany his government’s business, as Andrew Coyne recently wrote in the Globe and Mail, summarizing the governance as “incompetent” and “unethical.”
Biden’s popular support in polls is disastrously low. Trudeau’s approval rating is a net negative 28 points.
And yet, as Coyne asked, what alternative is on offer? Unlike in Britain where a famously buffoonish, dishonest populist was finally given the boot by his own party, the right-of-centre parties in Canada and the U.S. have been almost entirely taken over by buffoonish populist authoritarian movements fed on resentment and conspiracy theories.
The Conservative party leadership race this week saw one of the two main non-convoy-aligned candidates (Patrick Brown) booted from the race for alleged campaign finance violations. Meanwhile, the front-runner (Pierre Poilievre), fresh from marching with the anti-vaccine convoy crowd, released a perplexing ode to old, scarred lumber — literally, he was talking about salvaged wooden beams and barnboards — evoking macho lumberjack imagery meant to stir Canadians who see themselves as similarly old fashioned (or, you might say, “old stock”) to “reclaim what has always been yours.”
In the U.S., even as new hearings for new revelations in the Jan. 6 commission are scheduled to continue to outline how close the country came to being victim of a coup, the movement that tried to stage it marches on: Florida schools are now being required to audit their ideology for signs of being too woke, star Rep. Lauren Boebert won her primary after denouncing the separation of church and state; South Carolina became the first state post-Roe v. Wade to bring forward a new near-total ban on abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court will soon consider a case that could give states veto power over federal election rules and results. Donald Trump stumps on the campaign trail as the party he still unofficially leads appears poised to win control of Congress in elections later this year.
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” Yeats’ poem famously says, again feeling like a summary of the moment. Perhaps conviction isn’t what — or not only what — one side is missing, and “best” isn’t a superlative many would apply to any of the bunch. But the worst in our politics across the continent are surely the loudest, the angriest, the most strident. Meanwhile, things fall apart.
Citizens are caught between a squish and a hard place — between the ineffective and the unhinged, the incapable and the unfit. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre,” as Yeats had it. And yet, finding no place to turn to for stability, or sanity, or competence.
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