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    Op-Ed
    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good

    The Day recently published an op-ed I wrote in which I quoted Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming.’ My son-in-law in Ireland has since advised me that, in 2018, Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole proposed the ‘Yeats Test’ to determine how bad things are in the world.

    “The proposition is simple: the more quotable Yeats seems to commentators and politicians, the worse things are,” O’Toole wrote. He noted, for example, that after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, “there was a massive surge in online searches for William Butler Yeats’s doom-laden ‘The Second Coming.’”

    The 1919 poem has lines such as “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” and the one I referenced about what might be slouching toward Bethlehem.

    Now I feel bad about possibly contributing to a general sense of malaise. This is especially ironic as the overriding theme of my op-ed was hope.

    It is, however, similarly ironic that Yeats’ quotations are seen as indicia of how bad things are in the world as he wrote some of the greatest love poems ever. No one seems to be quoting “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” much lately, however. Even less so, “The Wanderings of Aengus.”

    The great love of Yeats’ life was for the Irish revolutionary, Maud Gonne, and it was largely unrequited. It makes me wonder if unrequited love might be a significant factor in the underlying dynamic of ‘how bad things are in the world.’

    Unrequited love, not for an individual, but for an ideal.

    I was not yet a teenager when I was awed and inspired by John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address and his charge to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Kennedy was 43 years old, handsome and dynamic. Is the criticism of the age of our soon-to-be octogenarian candidates less about them and more about our own needs and what we look for in leadership? People tend to project upon presidents the best and worst of who we are, from Kennedy’s Camelot to Tricky Dick Nixon. In this sense, an unrequited love for an ideal might exist when we find it so difficult to project onto octogenarians our very real hopes for the future. Is the concern about the candidates’ age more about us and our need to project our hopes and dreams on a leader?

    When it is difficult to project our dreams and hopes for the future on a leader, do some people instead project their fears and frustrations, a shadow projection that would explain Trump’s rallying cry of “I am your retribution”? The promised retribution is not an intention to make people’s lives better, but a grifter’s appeal to those so angry with their own lives that they’re wiling to tear everything down. A promised retribution appeal to those who, like Howard Beale in the movie Network (“I’m mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore”) evidences the fact that it is easier to fix blame than to fix a problem. Trump once again showed that fixing blame is one of the only tools in his toolbox in directing Republican legislators to reject the bipartisan immigration legislation. Why fix a problem when it will take away the ability to blame and advance a negative hate-filled agenda?

    Every four years we get a ‘reason to believe’ fix as to our nation’s well-being and future with inaugural addresses that offer us visions of Camelot, or “the shining city on the hill,” “the new deal,” “the fair deal” or “the thousand points of light.” This hopeful imagery and rhetoric was largely absent in Trump’s doom-laden and divisive inaugural address in 2016 that offered us instead “American carnage.” Is it surprising that what we then experienced included a pandemic and an insurrection?

    In the election of 2020 there was more of a sense of escape from nightmare than to dream of what our future might hold. Like any good horror story, there is now the dangling story line of ‘is the villain/monster really dead, or can it come back?’

    So the story we are offered is a sequel, and the selling of that story by mass media asks us if the hero who saved us from the former guy in 2020 is too old now, and shrugs off the disturbing news that the former guy can’t tell the difference between Nikki Haley and Nancy Pelosi. Also, that he wants to get rid of NATO, maybe democracy itself, and that he would tell the satanic Putin to ‘do whatever he wants.” These are not normal times and media coverage that normalizes the nation’s choice in 2024 is simply dangerous.

    In my opinion, Mr. Biden has a strong populist case for re-election, and he can and should win a second term — but only if the president and his team explain what he intends to do with it.

    And my single piece of advice for those lamenting that we don’t have a young, handsome or beautiful candidate to project our hopes and dreams upon: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good!

    Steven Spellman is a retired state Superior Court Judge and former state Senator. He lives in Noank.

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