Contrasting the Spirit of “Invictus” and the Will Toward Death

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley’s Invictus captures, at least for my sense of life, how much we have lost in Western societies since the nineteenth century.

Written as the Victorian Age wound down to give way to the Edwardian — that last brilliant decade before the West’s headlong suicidal march into the slough of despond that was World War I — this short poem does not, for a moment, pretend that all is well.

Indeed, in the human condition, it is seldom “all well”: it is the nature of our lives that they be filled with challenges, and it is indeed the rare man or woman who is not repeatedly bloodied, pained, treated ill, faced with tears and cause to fear and cruel twists of fate.

Instead, what Henley lays forth is something that was very much of his time, and very much lost to ours: the sense that, although society could stand a great deal of “improvement”, the liberty to be the master of one’s fate and captain of one’s own soul thereby was worth far more than “relief” from the menace of the years could offer.

Oh we, we who cannot for a moment abide any other thought than that governments ought to insulate us from all worries, make all things well, keep us from concern and, indeed, subsidise not only our needs but our whims, have fallen deeply away from liberty indeed!

We are no longer masters of our fate, but supplicants begging, in the style of Dickens’ Oliver, for the boon of a crust from one-time servants who in fact are in control of our futures.

We are no longer captains of our soul, for the emotional distress of others must take precedence over the price of being the captain of our own selves: the speaking of truths, however painful to others.

Yet none of our “national security state”, nor our “welfare state”, nor even our “equity and redress state”, bring anything other than yet another fall into circumstance and, often, the Pit.

In other words, we have sold our souls, once free, into slavery, for a pottage now increasingly denied so that others, with even greater senses of entitlement and demand, can take our thin gruel as their due.

I am moved to consider this, our fate as our nations unwind, our social fabric is tattered and our lives are laid waste by the eminently predictable outcomes of decades of getting something for nothing, oddly enough, by the public outcry over this or that “outrage”.

I ask that question not to bury true outrages, but because nothing much done in my name by my MP — or anyone else’s MP — seems to ever make a difference.

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; it is the problem.

Never did I expect that I would take comfort in the words of former American President Ronald Reagan (for he presided over a massive expansion of government during his time in office; we cannot in good conscience say that he meant what he said), but there you are. They express our plight well, but not accurately enough.

Try, instead:

In this world, government as we know it is not the solution to our problem. Government as we know it is the problem.
Let us open our minds to ways and means suited to our needs today.

If we thought that, we’d be rapidly unravelling all sorts of things from the last century, because they block us from building institutions suited to the twenty-first.

Alas, that’s not been our answer.

Government was the answer to the question “how do we keep mismanaged private companies that employ lots of people in business” — oddly enough, the cars still don’t sell well, favourites amongst the manufacturers putting the jobs of those at the more successful plants at risk to those at the least successful, and despite all that the layoffs of the workers continue, while the bonuses and pay of the leaders grows.

Let’s not speak of $8,000 of borrowing by the Ontario Government for each and every Chevrolet Volt sold in Ontario as a subsidy. Not only did we subsidise GM and Chrysler against Ford, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai (all equally parts of Ontario’s auto sector), but now we pick winners and losers amongst products?

Government was the answer to the question “how do we stimulate the economy” — oddly enough, we have created a bigger bubble here in Canada in real estate and consumer debt than even the Americans managed; we have done so in far less time; we have less to fall back on when it bursts (and it will be burst by the governmental debt placement needs from deficits, like it or not) — and two generations of Canadians will be impoverished as a result.

Government was the answer to the question “how do we stop hatred from threatening people” — and the result is an ever-growing list of claimants to “hurt feelings” while the ability to speak to factual truths is now subject to prosecution in kangaroo courts where the rules of evidence are set aside. Meanwhile the safest streets in the Western world are made subject to a Safe Streets Act whose sole purpose is to jail, jail, jail. This from a Conservative government supposedly interested in unwinding the excesses of its predecessors. Hah!

When we look at the whole question of national unity, what do we find? Governments fighting with other governments — how anyone from Québec or Ontario can hold their hand out for Alberta’s money while castigating them as furiously as was done last month is beyond me, but, then, there is no sense of responsibility, or shame, in the minds of those “entitled”.

The average person has very little animus; their “leaders” revel in it.

That this is true in the very House of the Canadian People on a daily basis, where the nation’s business is almost never discussed — but where the “charge of the day”, the “mud of the moment”, and the unbridled bending of national interest to personal and party gain is all that is delivered?

We citizens are left begging for scraps of what was ours by right.

An examination of the budgets of any level of government shows that 20¢ at least out of every dollar collected in taxes is simply lost to the operation of the system. Keeping the funds in the hands of those who earned it — something Henley could assume in speaking of his ups-and-downs in life — would do far more to achieve wealth than any amount of redistribution.

Here’s the real truth, not the shibboleths of the sainted Reagan, but the dirty reality:

Our current crisis is a direct outgrowth of the fact that we are the problem. The Leviathan that is now our government is our creation, and as it destroys us all we can take pride in the fact that we are Moloch’s author and willing servant.

We are now in a race: for many of us, the system we have created will bring us down.

Some few of us will survive it, as it crashes under its own weight. Most will be crushed in one way or another by it in its death throes, as it is manipulated to throw off one last benefit or another, or in its scramble for whatever wealth is left to keep the structure afloat another day.

And we shall drift unconsciously toward that civilizational dénouement, and wonder aloud who will save us as the rubble is beaten by yet more falling ruble of a bankrupt society that has also gone broke.

The dead will not truly begin to pile, though, until we hand the rest of our souls over to the “One on Horseback” that most of us will cry out for, rather than reclaim our human heritage to be free.

Yes, I am glad to see Thomas Mulcair made NDP leader; he will oppose Stephen Harper well. I would be delighted to see the McGuinty Government in Ontario be punted to the curb on a confidence motion and have the people of Ontario awaken from their dogmatic slumber in an election. Seeing Mayor Rob Ford get his come-uppance on the transit file — one he blew — makes me smile.

But I’m also aware none of it matters.

All these politicians and their ups-and-downs are picayune cling-ons of the old order, and are irrelevant compared to the times that lie ahead of us.

Yet you can be sure it is that nonsense, and not anything of real import, that will remain front of mind and conversation, even as we collapse into a Second Dark Age.

And that’s the rub: you can’t just walk away. For there’s nowhere to go, is there? We’re forced to try to channel this, and that leads to the dashing of hopes again and again.

Such is the price of being master of one’s soul, in the year 2012.

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