William Butler Yeats wrote these ominous words: “the centre cannot hold.” And while they were penned nearly a century before our time, they seem particularly apt and nearing fulfillment today. In later lines, the poet tells why: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

One needn’t look far to see realization of that prophecy in the tensions tearing apart the West today, with the extremes—“full of passionate intensity”—stretching society so far that “the centre” is in danger of collapse. 

On the one hand, extremists fight tooth and nail against any use of the land that violates their views of pristine landscapes untrammeled by man or his animals or his machines. Extremists, on the other hand, see the West and its public lands as having no value beyond acting as a cash register to accrue profits for themselves and their corporations as they pick the public’s pocket for pelf. 

We have government functionaries who have, somehow, risen to levels of responsibility and now, drunk on perceived power, invent their own rules and regulations and refuse to reason with users of public lands. On the other side, we have extremists who disrespect—even deny—government authority, refuse to honor contracts and agreements, ignore court orders, and wield weapons in defiance of the law in anarchic attempts to claim for their own what belongs to all. 

Then there are declarations from the high and mighty that forever alter traditional uses of public land without so much as a nod to those surrounded by their new monuments to scorn and vanity. Tearing us in the other direction are ill-conceived and illegal attempts by state legislatures, at the behest of private interests, to take over federal lands when the bloated bureaucracies in their capitols lack any demonstrated ability to manage public lands better than those in Washington, and lack the financial wherewithal to do so.

Missing in all this is “the centre” Yeats alluded to—the moderate view, the pragmatic approach, the consensus seekers who try to find a balance that, while imperfect, allows advantages for all and requires sacrifice from all. Today, it seems, those who do not hold to the extremes have been shouted down by the “passionate intensity” of the extremists so often that we’ve become apathetic. And while we may not “lack all conviction,” perhaps we’ve lost interest. 

But we must, at the expense of the extremes, rebuild “the centre” if the West, this iconic representation of America, is to survive in any recognizable way. 

Compromise does not mean compromising your principles. Believing that only your point of view is valid, that it’s your way or no way, is, at best, unprincipled. Not to mention arrogant, conceited, and egotistical. 

Listening to others, valuing their viewpoints, learning from them, and working toward common ground in “the centre” is diplomacy. It’s statesmanship. It’s the essence of the Golden Rule. It’s survival. 

And, it’s the cowboy way. 

Rod Miller writes fiction, history, and poetry about the American West from his home in Utah. Find him online at writerRodMiller.com and writerRodMiller.blogspot.com.

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