Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics Hardcover by Charles Krauthammer (Crown Forum)

Things That Matter is a compilation of pieces that CK wrote for the Washington Post, Time, The Weekly Standard, et al., the largest number coming from the Post. These essays cover three decades of experience, though the voice is even throughout. The subtitle claims that the essays concern passions, pastimes and politics, and so they do, but the book is actually divided into four sections: personal, political, historical, and global. Needless to say, these are not absolute divisions, and the ‘global’ section consists of only three essays, each of which is approximately 4x the length of the average Post piece, which runs approximately two and a half pages. The brevity of the Post pieces makes the book feel as if it is a very fast read.

Most readers will know that CK is a noted conservative commentator who was originally trained as a psychiatrist. A diving accident in his first year of medical school left him paralyzed and consigned him to a wheelchair. Nevertheless, he has a specially-engineered vehicle and drives himself wherever he needs to go. He was once a democrat, what many would term (including CK) a ‘Scoop Jackson democrat’; the party, he says, left him.

Most know that he is a fervent supporter of the sometimes hapless Washington Nationals. Not all will know that he is a member of a speed chess club. Hence, the personal section of the book is particularly interesting. He writes of his brother, Marcel, of Paul Erdos the peripatetic mathematician, of the center fielder Rick Ankiel (once a successful and then, suddenly, a failed pitcher), of the brain power of border collies and ‘natural’ childbirth. His writings on science are particularly lucid; his knowledge of contemporary science goes well beyond the average layman’s and serves him well both in terms of argument and in terms of rhetoric.

While CK is somewhere between an agnostic and an atheist, he is a very reverent agnostic who has little patience for flippancy in an area of such importance. He was raised an orthodox Jew and one of the most interesting and cogent essays concerns the gradual disappearance of the Jewish diaspora, a function of both fertility (1.6 average births, when 2.1 are required to sustain the numbers), intermarriage and secularism.

The most important essays may well be those in chapter 16, under the ‘global’ rubric. There he outlines the principal contemporary theories of international relations and offers his own recommendations for a tempered form of democratic globalism, one in which “we are friends to all, but we come ashore only where it really counts.” Ultimately, he sees the lines of division between such views as traceable to one’s position with regard to Hobbes. He opposes Hobbes to Locke; some would oppose Hobbes to Rousseau. Regardless, the pivotal question is whether or not institutional structures can lead us to utopia when human nature is more recalcitrant than one might wish. Plans for a global community managed like a single country must confront the reality of, e.g., a North Korea and the fact that while the Soviet empire was a largely rational adversary, open to the notion of deterrence, many of our current adversaries (as he puts it) long for heaven.

The more profoundly political and philosophic essays are superb, but the ‘cultural’ essays on such subjects as ‘the myth of the angry white male’, social security as ‘of course’ a Ponzi scheme, and ‘the church of global warming’ are delicious in their humor and wit. He has a gift for the acerbic but persuasive example. In talking about President Obama’s notion that we ‘didn’t build that’ but were in fact supported by government infrastructure at every turn, he offers two counter examples: “We don’t credit the Swiss postal service with the Special Theory of Relativity because it transmitted Einstein’s manuscript to the Annalen der Physik. Everyone drives the roads, goes to school, uses the mails. So did Steve Jobs. Yet only he created the Mac and the iPad.”

While some of the essays will challenge the beliefs of others they are neither confrontational nor nasty. They are all interesting and they are all well-written. This is one of those ‘best sellers’ that deserves its position and its sales. Highly recommended.

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