Left Behind

Like President Bush, I enjoy clearing brush in August. We both like quittance of the suit and tie, freedom from duty and detail and to breathe deeply the insouciant air of summer.

He makes for his ranch in Crawford, Tex., a town with no bars and five churches. I come to my holdings near Carrigaholt, here in County Clare, where there are six bars and one church and the house my great-grandfather left more than a century ago for a better life in America.

Of course, we have our differences — the president and I. He flies on Air Force One with an entourage. I fly steerage with hopes for an aisle seat. His ranch runs to 1,600 acres. My cottage sits on something less than two. He fishes for bass stocked in his private lake. I fish for mackerel in the North Atlantic. He keeps cattle and horses. I have a pair of piebald asses — Charles and Camilla I call them, after the sweethearts on the neighboring island.

I suppose we’re just trying to reconnect with our roots and home places — Mr. Bush and I. He identifies as a Texan in the John Wayne sense as I do with the Irish in the Barry Fitzgerald sense. And we’re both in our 50’s, white, male, Christian and American with all the perks. We both went into our fathers’ businesses: he does leadership of the free world; I do mostly local funerals. Neither of us went to Vietnam, and we both quit drink for all of the usual reasons. I imagine we both pray for our children to outlive us and that we have the usual performance anxieties.

The president works out a couple of hours a day. I go for long walks by the sea. We occupy that fraction of a fraction of the planet’s inhabitants for whom keeping body and soul together — shelter, safety, food and drink — is not the immediate, everyday concern. We count ourselves among the blessed and elect who struggle with the troubles of surfeit rather than shortfall.

So why do I sense we are from different planets?

”The same but different” my late and ancient cousin Nora Lynch used to say, confronted by such mysteries and verities.

Out of Ireland have we come.

Great hatred, little room,

Maimed us at the start.

I carry from my mother’s womb

A fanatic heart.

It was in August 1931 when W.B. Yeats wrote ”Remorse for Intemperate Speech,” which includes this remarkable stanza. Yeats had witnessed the birthing of a new Irish nation through insurgency and civil war. He had served as a Free State senator, and, after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, was the country’s public man of letters. An Anglo-Irishman who had ditched high-church Christianity in favor of swamis and Theosophists and his wife’s dabblings in the occult, he was torn between the right-wing politics of between-wars Europe and the romantic, mythic past of Ireland.

His poem confesses and laments that reason and breeding, imagination and good intentions are nonetheless trumped by the contagion of hatred and by the human propensity toward extreme and unquestioning enthusiasm for a cause — whatever cause. It is what links enemies, what makes terrorists ”martyrs” and ”patriots” among their own — the fanatic heart beating in the breast of every true believer.

Yeats’ remorse was real, and well it should have been. The century he wrote this poem in became the bloodiest in the history of our species. Wars and ethnic cleansings, holocausts and atom bombings — each an exercise in the god-awful formula by which the smaller the world becomes, by technologies of travel and communications, the more amplified our hatreds and the more lethal our weaponries become. Great hatred, little room, indeed.

So far this century proceeds apace: famines and genocides, invasions, occupations and suicide bombers. Humankind goes on burning the bridges in front and behind us without apology, our own worst enemies, God help us all.

And maybe this is the part I find most distancing about my president, not his fanatic heart — the unassailable sense he projects that God is on his side — we all have that. But that he seems to lack anything like real remorse, here in the third August of Iraq, in the fourth August of Afghanistan, in the fifth August of his presidency — for all of the intemperate speech, for the weapons of mass destruction that were not there, the ”Mission Accomplished” that really wasn’t, for the funerals he will not attend, the mothers of the dead he will not speak to, the bodies of the dead we are not allowed to see and all of the soldiers and civilians whose lives have been irretrievably lost or irreparably changed by his (and our) ”Bring it On” bravado in a world made more perilous by such pronouncements.

Surely we must all bear our share of guilt and deep regret, some sadness at the idea that here we are, another August into our existence, and whether we arrived by way of evolution or intelligent design or the hand of God working over the void, no history can record that we’ve progressed beyond our hateful, warring and fanatical ways.

We may be irreversibly committed to play out the saga of Iraq. But each of us, we humans, if we are to look our own kind in the eye, should at least be willing to say we’re sorry, that all over our smaller and more lethal planet, whatever the causes, we’re still killing our own kind — the same but different — but our own kind nonetheless. Even on vacation we oughtn’t hide from that.

August 17, 2005
The New York Times