I didn’t read the book at the time it first came out. It was in 2013 that Charles Krauthammer published “Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics.”
I first read it the other day and I was immediately struck by how much I agreed with what the writer was saying.
I’ve know the writer, or rather I was aware of who he was but had never been struck in the same way by his op ed pieces for the Washington Post as when I read this book. I knew that Krauthammer had been injured in a diving board accident during his first year of medical school in 1970 and that he sustained injuries that left him paralyzed below the neck requiring him to be hospitalized for 14 months and be confined to using a wheelchair ever since.
And if this wasn’t enough, writing just a few days ago, June 8 in the Washinton Post, he told his readers that; “I have been uncharacteristically silent these past ten months…. In August of last year, I underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in my abdomen. That operation was thought to have been a success, but …. recent tests have revealed that the cancer has returned…. My doctors tell me their best estimate is that I have only a few weeks left to live. This is the final verdict. My fight is over.”
From: Charles Krauthammer,Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
What matters? Lives of the good and the great, the innocence of dogs, the cunning of cats, the elegance of nature, the wonders of space, the perfectly thrown outfield assist, the difference between historical guilt and historical responsibility, homage and sacrilege in monumental architecture, fashions and follies and the finer uses of the F-word.
What matters? Manners and habits, curiosities and conundrums social and ethical: Is a doctor ever permitted to kill a patient wishing to die? Why in the age of feminism do we still use the phrase “women and children”? How many lies is one allowed to tell to advance stem cell research? What matters? Occam’s razor, Fermat’s last theorem, the Fermi paradox in which the great man asks: With so many habitable planets out there, why in God’s name have we never heard a word from a single one of them?
These are the things that most engage me. They fill my days, some trouble my nights. They give me pause, pleasure, wonder. They make me grateful for the gift of consciousness. And for three decades they have occupied my mind and commanded my pen. I don’t claim these things matter to everyone. Nor should they. I have my eccentricities.
I’ve driven from Washington to New York to watch a chess match. Twice. I’ve read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Also twice, though here as a public service—to reassure my readers that this most unread bestseller is indeed as inscrutable as they thought. And perhaps most eccentric of all, I left a life in medicine for a life in journalism devoted mostly to politics, while firmly believing that what really matters, what moves the spirit, what elevates the mind, what fires the imagination, what makes us fully human are all of these endeavors, disciplines, confusions and amusements that lie outside politics.
This book was originally going to be a collection of my writings about everything but politics. Things beautiful, mysterious, profound or just odd. Working title: There’s More to Life than Politics. But in the end I couldn’t. For a simple reason, the same reason I left psychiatry for journalism. While science, medicine, art, poetry, architecture, chess, space, sports, number theory and all things hard and beautiful promise purity, elegance and sometimes even transcendence, they are fundamentally subordinate.
But in the end, these things must bow to the sovereignty of politics. Politics, the crooked timber of our communal lives, dominates everything because, in the end, everything—high and low and, most especially, high—lives or dies by politics. You can have the most advanced and efflorescent of cultures. Get your politics wrong, however, and everything stands to be swept away.
This is not ancient history. This is Germany 1933. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” every schoolchild is fed. But even Keats—poet, romantic, early 19th-century man oblivious to the horrors of the century to come—kept quotational distance from such blissful innocence.
Turns out we need to know one more thing on earth: politics—because of its capacity, when benign, to allow all around it to flourish, and its capacity, when malign, to make all around it wither.
This is no abstraction. We see it in North Korea, whose deranged Stalinist politics has created a land of stunning desolation and ugliness, both spiritual and material. We saw it in China’s Cultural Revolution, a sustained act of national self-immolation, designed to dethrone, debase and destroy the highest achievements of five millennia of Chinese culture. We saw it in Taliban Afghanistan, which, just months before 9/11, marched its cadres into the Bamiyan Valley and with tanks, artillery and dynamite destroyed its magnificent cliff-carved 1,700-year-old Buddhas lest they—like kite flying and music and other things lovely—disturb the scorched-earth purity of their nihilism.
Politics is the moat, the walls, beyond which lie the barbarians. Fail to keep them at bay, and everything burns. The entire 20th century with its mass political enthusiasms is a lesson in the supreme power of politics to produce ever-expanding circles of ruin. World War I not only killed more people than any previous war. The psychological shock of Europe’s senseless self-inflicted devastation forever changed Western sensibilities, practically overthrowing the classical arts, virtues and modes of thought. The Russian Revolution and its imitators (Chinese, Cuban, Vietnamese, Cambodian) tried to atomize society so thoroughly—to war against the mediating structures that stand between the individual and the state—that the most basic bonds of family, faith, fellowship and conscience came to near dissolution.
Of course, the greatest demonstration of the finality of politics is the Holocaust, which in less than a decade destroyed a millennium-old civilization, sweeping away not only 6 million souls but the institutions, the culture, the very tongue of the now-vanished world of European Jewry.
The only power comparably destructive belongs to God. Or nature. Or, if like Jefferson you cannot quite decide, Nature’s God. Santorini was a thriving island civilization in the Mediterranean until, one morning 3,500 years ago, it simply fell into the sea. An earthquake. A volcanic eruption. The end.
And yet even God cannot match the cruelty of his creation. For every Santorini, there are a hundred massacres of innocents. And that is the work of man—more particularly, the work of politics, of groups of men organized to gain and exercise power.
Btw, as many of you probably know, two of our most famous op ed writers, Geoge Will and Charles Krauthammer, are both conservatives, and both are at Fox News and might easily be thought of as Trumpists. They’re not. Although I didn’t read it at the time in August of last year Krauthammer wrote an op ed piece, highly critical of Trump to say the least. He was speaking very much for me, and probably for other classical liberals, when he wrote that “the sinews of our democracy had at five moments last week held up against the careening recklessness of the Trump presidency.”
These “moments” being:
- The military says no to Trump on the transgender ban.
- Attorney General Jeff Sessions, relentlessly humiliated in public by Trump, holds on against the president and refuses to resign.
- The Senate Republicans reject Trump’s attempt to throw out Obamacare.
- The chief executive of the Boy Scouts publicly apologizes for Trump’s speech, which he gave at the Boy Scout quadrennial jamboree, and which was a wildly inappropriate confection, at once whining, self-referential, partisan and political.
- For the first time a good number of police chiefs reprimand Trump himself for encouraging police brutality, characterizing Trump’s encouragement as the thuggish undertone of a man who, when heckled at a campaign rally, says approvingly that in the old days “guys like that (the heckler)” would “be carried out on a stretcher.