A review of “The Point of It All: A Lifetime of Great Loves and Endeavors” by Charles Krauthammer, edited by Daniel Krauthammer, Crown Forum, NY, 2018, 360 pp., $28.
Among the many voices of contemporary quiet reason in the public square, Charles Krauthammer most certainly ranked in the higher echelon. When he announced his impending death in June 2018, it was assumed correctly that his silence would be deafening. Who else could so passionately yet so remarkably rise to persuade readers of the inherent value of our quickly receding pluralistic society? Who else could call balls and strikes in as objective a fashion in the maelstrom of current events?
If ever there was a time our nation needed Krauthammer’s particular voice, it’s now. Nothing supports this notion more than events from the preceding weeks, which Krauthammer presciently foretold in 1990:
Our great national achievement – fashioning a common citizenship and identity for a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-racial people – is now threatened by a process of relentless, deliberate Balkanization. The great engines of social life – the law, the schools, the arts – are systematically encouraging the division of America into racial, ethnic and gender separateness.
In this essay, “The Tribalization of America,” he was early to diagnose and give name to the quickly metastasizing disease, at the time only beginning to rip our nation asunder. I wonder how the medically trained Krauthammer would have covered the recent debacle on the Washington Mall between Kentucky Catholic School boys and Native American protestors. Or, for that matter, Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Maizie Hirono (D-HI) browbeating U.S. district judgeship nominee Brian Buescher over his Knights of Columbus membership.
Unfortunately, the pithy reactions I once counted on in the early 1980s when I was first introduced to his writing are no longer fresh. We do, however, have indicators collected in “The Point of It All” that point in the general direction Krauthammer might have taken. For example, a 1985 Washington Post Thanksgiving Day column handily upbraids Harris and Hirono decades before either entered public life or took upon themselves to implement a religious test on wannabe judges:
The French revolutionaries decided to start the world anew. They decreed not just a new state, but a new religion, a religion of pure reason to overthrow Christianity, and a new calendar to go with it. The calendar, too, would abolish everything that was before. Even the week had to be replaced – by a 10-day stretch (10 being a far more rational number than seven) called a “decade” and free of Sundays!
The purposes of the American revolution were more modest not to recreate the universe, but to alter a few “of its arrangements.” The American revolution repatriated liberty and established a new political order. But its ambitions stopped there. It left the weekend alone.
Religion, too. One result is that we have generally avoided religious wars. France’s revolutionaries, bent on extirpating every remnant of the ancien regime, ushered in decades of bitter conflict between anti-clericalists and a reactionary religious right.
While inherently not specific to the Buescher vetting by the unabashedly anti-Catholic lady senators, Krauthammer decades prior surgically extracted the locus of their pearl-clutching – Jacobin rage directed at any religious resistance to left-of-center causes. The same could be said about the media’s initial response to high-school boys wearing Make America Great Again caps and caught smirking in defiance at adults intentionally violating their personal space.
Elsewhere, Krauthammer declares democracy in retreat by the hands of those purportedly advocating for a cornucopia of “rights” only dreamed up in recent collective memory:
The enemies of human rights like to pretend that there are two kinds: “political rights” (free speech, worshp, etx.) that the West emphasizes, and “economic and social and cultural rights” (the right to social and economic services guaranteed by the state) that non-Western, non-democratic (and especially communist) countries champion.
What’s wrong with expanding the list of rights to include such nice things as the right to a guaranteed job, the right to “social insurance,” the right “to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress” and the right to “periodic holidays with pay, as well remuneration for public holidays”?
What’s wrong is that these rights undermine – intentionally undermine – the very idea of political rights. A right is something that the individual claims against the state. You have the right to free speech. It is a personal liberty, a sphere of activity protected from state encroachment.
He continues, explaining that economic rights are claimed by the state on the behalf of the individual. “As such, they guarantee the individual’s dependence on the state for the necessities of life and thus are instruments for increasing state power over the individual.”
The takeaway from the essays and speeches collected in “The Point of It All” is that Krauthammer was a deeply thoughtful, religious, scientifically and humanely learned man. These qualities color his elegant yet down-to-earth prose, ensuring we may partake easily of the author’s brilliance. A brilliance, sad to say, too soon removed from our modern conversation.
Photo credit: Charles Krauthammer and President Ronald Reagan, Wikimedia Commons.