Saturday, August 8, 2015

Yeats' Warning About the "Passionate Intensity" of True Believers

In his poem "The Second Coming," William Butler Yeats warned, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity." The sad profundity of this couplet is regularly on display in our troubled world, perhaps best encapsulated in Hamas' warning to Israel, "We love death more than you love life." The Hamas true believers are so passionate about their cause--the annihilation of the Jewish State as a prelude to making the non-Muslim world submit to Islam--that they are not only willing but eager to kill and be killed for it; meanwhile, after every outrage committed by Hamas--and by other terrorist groups--there is a vocal segment of the Western world that responds by asking, "How have we wronged these people?" Blaming the victim is neither a sound psychological approach nor the basis for a strong foreign policy. The sane response to extremist, uncompromising genocidal murderers is to do anything possible to stop them, as the West belatedly figured out regarding Nazi Germany.

In A Poet's Apocalyptic Vision, David Lehman describes how Yeats' poem is a "chilling statement of our condition" that "extrapolates a fearful vision from the moral anarchy of the present." Lehman adds that Yeats' powerful couplet "retains its authority as an observation and a warning. We may think of the absence of backbone with which certain right-minded individuals met the threats of National Socialism in the 1930s and of Islamist terrorism in the new century. Both dogmas demand of their followers a 'passionate intensity' capable of overwhelming all other considerations."

Perhaps the fastest way to offend someone in our world dominated by "political correctness" is to speak truth to power. Many people do not want to hear the truth, especially if the truth contradicts their deeply held beliefs. For instance, while it is sometimes true that there are two sides to a story it is also sometimes true that one side is simply right and the other side is simply wrong. It is not politically correct to speak of good and evil anymore but that does not mean that there is no such thing as good and evil.

The 9/11 attacks did not happen because of America's foreign policy decisions (which is not to say that all of those decision are beyond reproach) and those attacks were not the desperate but understandable actions of downtrodden people. The truth is that the 9/11 attacks were acts of unspeakable evil committed in the name of a backwards-thinking ideology that is determined to force the rest of the world to submit or die; some people spoke that truth in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and those people were deemed bigots, because the supposedly politically correct thing to do is to try to figure out what rational motivation caused the attackers to kill so many innocent people. The problem is that there was no rational motivation; there is no reasoning with people like Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin or Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. If you try to reason with such people then you are only delaying the inevitable battle until the conditions of that battle are less favorable for you. Confronting Hitler in 1933 would have been easier than confronting him in 1936. By 1939, there was no longer a choice: Hitler had to be confronted and he had exploited six years of naive appeasement to build Germany into a world class military power.

If Western leaders are unwilling or able to learn from the political and historical lesson of how Hitler duped Chamberlain at Munich, then they should heed the poetic words that Yeats wrote after World War I before it becomes necessary for the 21st century Yeats to make similar declarations after World War III.

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