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Watching Brexit, hearing Yeats

England's decision to leave the EU raises fears that 'the darkness drops again' is not just a line in a poem

CAMBRIDGE, England — Lines from Yeats’ “The Second Coming” reverberated in my head as I watched the Brexit returns in this university town, which voted “Remain” even as the towns around it, and most of the rest of England, voted “Leave”:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The British vote to leave the European Union isn’t good for Britain’s—or the rest of the world’s–economic welfare. And the possibility that it may fracture the European political order is worrisome. But I was surprised by my extreme reaction, as if I was witnessing an apocalypse. Surely, I thought, my innate pessimism about world affairs was getting the better of me, filling me with a sense of doom.

To be sure, my pessimism isn’t totally irrational. After all, I’m immersed in the memory of a bloody century that, in Europe, murdered my family and my people and many millions more. And, in my professional work, I’ve long focused on the potential violence that lies just below the surface of human nature and history, on the extreme possibilities of human behavior. Still, I thought, my reaction was excessive, overwrought.

But as Yeats’ poem continued to careen round my head despite this attempt at self-therapy, I realized that the urge to vote for Brexit, at least for some Brits and at least in some ways, was connected to something large and global–a growing set of sentiments around the world, including in America, that may be leading to something that’s dangerous indeed, and that’s worthy of great concern.

After all, the great spasms of barbarity in the last century — especially the two great wars and their savageries — began with limited steps that, harnessed to some of the same sentiments that propelled Brexit, led to other steps that, in the end, yielded horror on a grand scale.

Those steps included elections. And the sentiments were nationalist, populist, racist and xenophobic—sentiments that are, once again, erupting around the world.

Some of those eruptions have already given rise to extremist political parties in Europe that have given voice to sectors of the popular will and, democratically, have won or have come close to winning, governmental power.

And such impulses have propelled a candidate for the US presidency into a position that, not long ago, seemed utterly implausible.

It may not be so far-fetched, after all, to see the events in Britain as a harbinger of dire events yet to come — both in Europe and in America.

Small wonder, then, that Yeats’ lines continued to reverberate in my mind:

…somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Except now it’s not a matter of twenty centuries. It’s a matter of less than one. And that rough beast may be slouching toward all of us to be born.

About the Author
Walter Reich is the Yitzhak Rabin Professor of International Affairs, Ethics and Human Behavior, and Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, at George Washington University. He is also a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
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