Monday, August 29, 2011

Thoughts on "Politics" by W. B. Yeats


'In our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms.' -- Thomas Mann

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here's a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!

This poem was of course written during the rise of Communism and its identical cousin Fascism -- we see references to Italian Fascism/Mussolini, Soviet Communism/Stalin, and Spanish Fascism/Franco. It seems odd that he fails to mention the most obvious hyperpolitical country, Nazi Germany -- except that Germany is in fact mentioned in the Mann quote. (A terrible thing for Mann to thus represent Nazi Germany, especially considering Mann's own work from that period, Dr. Faustus -- but the quote is exactly right for the poem, and is a proper sign of the times.) That was a time when politics dominated the world, more so than anything else. Fascism and Communism were supposedly about economics, but were in fact all about politics -- they were economics politicized and, in Germany, race politicized.

And here we are now, with so much of America politicized. Race, gender, economics -- all are politicized. Is that not a danger? Is not Yeats pointing out this danger? And what is politics in this sense? What is it compared to what is really important (what Yeats points out, the love of someone else -- love! the opposite of politics!).

Yet, man is a political animal, is he not? Well, there is politics in the sense of the social games we necessarily play in order to live together, and there is politics in the sense of power held over others. The two are different things, even as they are not unrelated. But when the latter sense overwhelms, takes over a society, we end up with the kinds of dangerous, ugly regimes as we saw in the first half of the 20th century. Why, then, do we turn toward such hyperpoliticization ourselves? Is it, as it was with Fascism in Europe, the nihilistic result of the collapse of the welfare state?

Do not mistake me: I am not claiming we are Nazifying America or some such. There are indications that we are fighting exactly those fascist tendencies that seem to naturally arise in such situations as we find ourselves in. But in waging that fight, many are becoming politicized as well who never were before. As such, they threaten those who want to keep power, who are promising that the government will save them, if only we give more and more police and economic power over to the government. And thus we all become ever-more politicized. As such, those of us who just want to be left alone are dragged into the fray, made what we hate in our politicization. Politicization fractionalizes, we are made into Us and Them -- we are tribalized, and morality thus degrades. That is the end result of this kind of politicization. This is the great evil of such politics.

The world (or is it just the U.S.? -- which seems to be the world when you are a citizen of the U.S., considering the news coverage) is increasingly imbalanced in the way it was during the Great Depression. Where are we headed? Do we have the wherewithal to resist it again?

The world needs more than just politics. When we overbalance toward politics, we fall into evil, as that is the necessary outcome of pure power-seeking that constitutes the political. We need aesthetics/beauty. We need economics/wealth. We need science/truth. We need philanthropy/gift-giving. We need education/knowledge. We need religion/philosophy/wisdom. We need them all in equal measure, balancing each other out. Only thus can politics find its proper place, proper balance, and become a realm of justice rather than power (which uses the rhetoric of justice for unjust means).
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