[This book review was published in the Spring 2014 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 107-117.]
Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics
Crown Forum, 2013.
”This book,” Charles Krauthammer tells us, “was originally going to be a collection of my writings about everything but politics. Things beautiful, mysterious, profound or just odd.” There’s much of that sort in the book, but he discovered that it was impossible to leave politics out of it, because he found that “everything lives or dies by politics… Get your politics wrong, and everything stands to be swept away.” The result is that Things That Matter, a collection of his columns (and five somewhat longer essays) spanning more than three decades, gives readers a fully representative window into his long intellectual journey.
Krauthammer will hardly need an introduction to readers in the United States, to whom his columns have been available in a number of media for more than three decades. They will recognize his writing as a combination of frequently sharp insight, a Mark Twain- or Tom Wolfe-like facility for acute perception of his fellow man, independence of thinking, and a refusal to bend to the demands of ideological conformity (presently called “political correctness”) – all sprinkled with occasional lapses into tunnel vision and unquestioning conventionality. When his columns are put together in one place, as they are here, the result is a book with multiple rewards. The style often provokes a chuckle, and the substance is almost always provocative.
Even for American readers, however, it will be helpful to review Krauthammer’s varied background. Born to a Belgian mother and French father comprising a “Jewish-immigrant household,” he spent much of his childhood in Montreal. He studied political philosophy at Oxford before going on to medical school, where he became a psychiatrist who favored empirical rather than Freudian psychology. His penchant for writing led to articles in The New Republic, speechwriting for Vice President Walter Mondale, a regular back-page essay for Time, and a column in the Washington Post since 1984. These associations illustrate Krauthammer’s early “social-democratic orientation” and explain his life-long affiliation with the Democratic Party, but any such categorizing is insufficient. His thinking, rather than remaining static, has evolved. He says he was always a “Cold War liberal,” which was one given to the assertion of American power in defense of the non-Communist world, and that he “gave up on the Democrats” on foreign policy issues when during the Reagan administration they “adopted a foreign policy of retreat.” Whereas the Democrats left him, as he sees it, on those issues, it was he who left them on domestic matters. Explaining that “I’m open to empirical evidence,” he says “the results of the Great Society experiments started coming in and began showing that, for all its good intentions, the War on Poverty was causing irreparable damage to the very communities it was designed to help.” From that realization “it was but a short distance to a philosophy of restrained, free-market governance... a vision of limited government that, while providing for the helpless, is committed above all to guaranteeing individual liberty.”
The insightful perceptions and acute Mark Twain-like observations appear frequently in the columns. Take, for example, the passage in which he comments on how ridiculous it is for genetic engineering to eliminate the unique traits of dogs of various types, such as cocker spaniels, bulldogs and Boston Terriers, to mold them into better show dogs. We can almost hear the voice of Samuel Clemens (i.e., Mark Twain) when Krauthammer says “a society that grieves for the accidental demise of the snail darter… should not easily acquiesce to the deliberate destruction of a unique breed of animals.” Pointing to the high intelligence of border collies, he asks “Must we ruin this too? Reduce it to imbecility in the name of prettiness?” Another example is when he takes on the platitude that “all people are basically alike.” He observes that this “is a radical denial of the otherness of others.” Such a “happy vision” has “practical consequences… Hence the vogue for peace academies, the mania for mediators,” and “if the whole world is like me, then certain conflicts become incomprehensible; the very notion of intractability becomes paradoxical… Other messages from exotic cultures are never received at all… The more alien the sentiment, the less seriously it is taken.” Like Twain and Wolfe, Krauthammer sees to the bottom of things: “One would think that after the experience of this century the belief that a harmony must prevail between peoples who share a love of children and small dogs would be considered evidence of a most grotesque historical amnesia.” This leads directly into a third example, where Krauthammer’s background as a psychiatrist gives him an insight that can help explain why a society such as the contemporary United States is postured to see the world through a veil of contrived myths and half-truths: “When the comfortable encounter the unimaginable, the result is not only emotional but cognitive rejection.”
The dominant opinion-making culture in the United States is so powerful that we can well imagine that Krauthammer would be hounded out of the public eye rather quickly if he breached any of the more iron-clad taboos, but within the parameters that are allowed, he is willing, as we’ve said, to express politically incorrect opinions. It is along these lines that he speaks, say, of “the absurd taboo against profiling” by which “we will swallow hard and pretend airline attackers are randomly distributed in the population.” Again: he sees enforced “sensitivity training” as an essentially totalitarian technique that is “either sinister or idiotic. It is sinister when it works, as in Communist China….” His observation was provoked by an episode in which “five years ago, a religious student at the University of Michigan expressed the view that homosexuality is immoral. He was made to recant and ordered a dose of sensitivity training.” Krauthammer’s defense of the student was made in a column in 1993. Whether he would survive defending someone’s right to criticize homosexuality in 2014 is, of course, an open question.
We needn’t dwell long on his conventionality, which appears on some other subjects. That his thinking includes some of it cannot be surprising. Even the most independent of minds will see a given subject in conventionally-accepted terms until something comes along to prod it into special inquiry. In many areas, Krauthammer accepts without question the prevailing worldview, even though serious scholars have sought to burst the bubble. We hesitate to cite examples, since many readers will not think, without an extended explanation that would take us far beyond the scope of this review, that any given conventional view we refer to needs piercing.
We will pick some of Krauthammer’s subjects for discussion, but with the caveat that we are leaving others, equally provocative, for readers of the book:
The 500th anniversary of 1492. When Krauthammer picked up on the U.S. National Council of Churches’ condemnation of Columbus’s discovery of America as “an invasion and colonization with legalized occupation, genocide, economic exploitation and a deep level of institutional racism and moral decadence,” he was able to tackle one of the prime examples of the anti-European bias that has become common in the thinking of many Americans. He reveals it as both shallow and vicious. He does not accept the “cultural relativism” that declares “the great modern civilizations of the Americas” are “no better or worse than that of the Incas.” Rather, Krauthammer says, “mankind is the better for it. Infinitely better. Reason enough to honor Columbus and bless 1492.” Such an affirmation differs sharply from the psychology of the many Americans, most especially those with college educations, who, without thinking and even while enjoying the incidents of our lives today, congratulate themselves on their virtue for joining in the facile assertion of the illegitimacy of their own civilization.
The celebration of anti-bourgeois art. Much excellent art is created in the United States, but it is mostly excoriated, not honored, in the higher precincts of official art culture. This caused Krauthammer to comment on an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art which featured “a portrait of the Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung and floating bits of female pornography.” He saw the irony of such museums’ demanding a tax subsidy. Perceiving “the status anxiety of the middle class,” he wrote that “they are afraid to ask the emperor’s-new-clothes question – Why are we being forced to subsidize willful, offensive banality? – for fear of being considered terminally unsophisticated.”
An explanation he gives for the degeneracy misses a major point about the ideological history of the past two centuries. He attributes the grotesque art to artists’ seeking “a new role” in a world in which photography and film have preempted the role of representational art. This is, of course, a small part at least of the explanation, but a deeper answer lies in the alienation the subculture of the artistic-literary intelligentsia has felt toward all mainstream life (very broadly “the bourgeoisie,” but taking a jaundiced view of virtually all elements of the American population) since the early nineteenth century. Having given birth to “the Left,” that intelligentsia has sought allies in all unassimilated or disaffected groups, and in its art and writing has turned its wrath precisely on anything “normal.” The worldview it has spawned has long permeated the opinion-making centers in the United States and all who follow in their train, so that it is no longer adequate to call the phenomenon a “subculture.”
The “arrogant knowledge class.” Krauthammer may have “missed the point” in his discussion of art, but elsewhere he shows he comprehends the role of the intelligentsia to which we just referred. He states it strongly: “For a century, an ambitious, arrogant, unscrupulous knowledge class – social planners, scientists, intellectuals, experts and their left-wing political allies – arrogated to themselves the right to rule either in the name of the oppressed working class (communism) or, in its more benign form, by virtue of their superior expertise in achieving the highest social progress by means of state planning (socialism).”
Another instance, however, in which he missed applying this knowledge came in a column discussing the United States’ movement toward accepting homosexual marriage, a shift that has been pushed along by federal court decisions overruling popular referenda. Krauthammer says he has no quarrel with gay marriage as being a threat to traditional marriage, which he says is dying by its own hand. His criticism of the shift is, rather, that “it is critical that any fundamental change in the very definition of marriage be enacted democratically and not by judicial fiat.” This is much too limited an assessment, since “judicial fiat” is just part of a much larger picture. The overriding of strong majority opinion, on this and many other subjects, is overwhelmingly the work of the opinion elite. It is surprising, given the breadth of Krauthammer’s thinking, that he doesn’t place the decrees of “liberal judges” in context. Those decrees ride the wave of “acceptable opinion” as defined on an ever-changing basis by that elite, of which the liberal judges are a part.
Immigration. His 2006 column discussing the flood of illegal immigration into the United States mixes clear-headed realism with wishful thinking that surprisingly contradicts the realities he acknowledges. He urges building a virtually impenetrable double fence along the border between the United States and Mexico; and then, after a year or so’s delay to allow confidence to grow that the fence is effective, a granting of full amnesty (with some minor conditions) to the “11 million illegals” who are already in the country. (Oddly, the 11 million figure remains a constant in almost all discussions of the issue even now, eight years later, despite the continuing flood.)
Krauthammer starts by telling why an amnesty won’t work: “The obvious problem is that legalization creates an enormous incentive for new illegals to come. We say, of course, that this will be the very last [amnesty]… The problem is that… everyone knows it’s phony.” He recalls that 3 million illegal immigrants were granted amnesty in 1986, with the commitment at that time that that would be the last one. Why, then, does he favor amnesty now? The answer is that he counts on the double fence’s cutting the influx to “a manageable flow.” With the immigration essentially stopped, there will be no need for future amnesties, nor for sanctions against employers who hire illegals. It seems he overlooks the millions who enter the country illegally not by swarming across the southern border but by overstaying student and other visas. Nor does he consider the expectations of the “11 million,” once they are citizens, to bring in their family members; and the question of whether, given the multiculturalist ideology so honored in the media and academia, the political will to maintain a meaningful physical barrier would long continue. He starts by saying “everybody knows” amnesty is “phony.” Somehow, his desire to mitigate his realism with compassion causes him to try squaring the circle.
His call for “democratic realism” in U.S. foreign interventions. One of the book’s longer essays examines several viewpoints about what the United States’ role should be in what Krauthammer, in 2004, saw as a “unipolar world.” These run from “isolationism” to “liberal internationalism,” and then to “realism,” “democratic globalism” and “democratic realism.”
It is the last of these that he prefers. He is sympathetic with the “democratic globalism” championed by George W. Bush and Tony Blair, among others, which would have the United States lead the way toward “the advance of freedom and peace” throughout the world, relying on American power and influence. Krauthammer sees a virtue in the position’s disregarding “the utterly corrupt and useless international institutions” that “liberal internationalism” continues to believe in. But he doesn’t totally accept the assertion of American hegemony. “The danger of democratic globalism is its universalism, its open-ended commitment…, its temptation to plant the flag of democracy everywhere.” In its place, he sets forth an axiom to govern an alternative that he calls “democratic realism”: that “we will support democracy everywhere, but we will commit blood and treasure only in places where there is a strategic necessity – meaning, places central to the larger war against the existential enemy” [which today, he says, is “Arab-Islamic totalitarianism”].
We would do well to notice two things about this. One is how quickly and easily the western world, and preeminently the United States, has moved into yet another “existential struggle.” In the early 1990s much of the world had just emerged from an eighty-year struggle against Wilhelmine Germany (against which Woodrow Wilson saw the need to fight a war “to make the world safe for democracy”), Nazi Germany, and then expansionist Communism. With 9/11, “radical Islam,” spread across the thousands of miles of the Islamic swath, emerged as a new “existential threat.” But isn’t this altogether too facile? It is no small thing to postulate a struggle-to-the-death between major world blocs.
The problem is broader than a conflict with a radicalized part of the Islamic world, even though that is the way it is often framed. It is seldom understood that when the United States seeks to introduce “women’s rights” and “homosexual rights” into the Islamic countries, and even into China and Russia, it takes a stand that is starkly at odds with their respective cultures in general, and not just with “Islamism,” defined as simply a “radicalized” faction within Islam. The same can be said about the insistence on a secular “democracy” that does not accept the values, norms and religious beliefs that are held by the overwhelming majority of the Islamic populations. When all of this is taken into account, we see that there is an “existential threat” to Islam (as well as to the other religions and cultures).
Whether there is such a threat from any portion of Islam is by no means clear. Michael Scheuer, who served as “chief of the Bin Laden section” in both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, has long argued that it is precisely the American interventions into the Islamic countries that has incurred the wrath of Bin Laden and his followers. “They are over here because we are over there.” This raises the question of whether the United States would indeed have an “existential struggle” with wrathful Muslims if it were not asserting prerogatives that are deeply offensive from their point of view.
The other thing to notice about Krauthammer’s “democratic realism” is that the scope of its interventions is still enormously wide, even though not as wide perhaps as those favored by “democratic globalism.” Krauthammer says “we cannot afford not to try” nation-building in “Afghanistan, Iraq and ultimately their key neighbors” [Iran? Saudi Arabia? Pakistan? Jordan? Syria? Egypt? Libya?] to “establish civilized, decent, non-belligerent, pro-Western polities.” Although he casts it as a restrained policy, it is in fact an Herculean project. There is by now considerable experience that shows that “nation building” in many cases doesn’t work (despite the examples Krauthammer cites of Germany and Japan in the wake of World War II) – witness the chaos in Iraq and Libya, and the quite predictable resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The only way to consider it to have worked is if we value its fruits – i.e., to see value not in the creation of stabilized societies but in having set off a chaos of sectarian and tribal warfare within Islam. If that were the undeclared purpose, it has succeeded remarkably.
Krauthammer’s perception of Israel. Another of the book’s longer essays has to do with “Zionism and the Fate of the Jews.” He places supreme value on Israel: “It is my contention that on Israel – on its existence and survival – hangs the very existence and survival of the Jewish people.” He adds “they cannot survive another destruction and exile.” The reason they cannot lies in their “low fertility and endemic intermarriage,” producing existentially threatening demographic trends. “There is nothing on the horizon to reverse the integration of Jews into Western culture… [T]he ties to tradition grow weaker.” Krauthammer observes that “while assimilation may be a solution for individual Jews, it clearly is a disaster for Jews as a collective with a memory, a language, a tradition, a liturgy, a history, a faith….”
Standing against all this, “Israel is the very embodiment of Jewish continuity.” The reason is that “for them the central problem of diaspora Jewry – suicide by assimilation – simply does not exist. Blessed with this security of identity, Israel is growing,” with a “relatively high birth rate,… [and] a steady net rate of immigration.” The creation of Israel “was the right decision, the only possible decision” as a place where Jews “could finally acquire the means to defend themselves.”
Readers will find in Krauthammer an eloquent champion of Jewishness as something to be cherished and of Israel as its bastion. Jews and non-Jews alike will do well to understand the viewpoint. Although those who dispute it will do so on many grounds, for our commentary here it will suffice to make two observations. The first is that Krauthammer is doing what peoples of a certain religion or ethnicity often do quite understandably, which is to identify themselves with their own group even when that involves a preference over a broader society to which they belong. Krauthammer is an American, but the essay shows that first and foremost he sees himself as a Jew. An ideal throughout American history (until the emergence of a competing “multiculturalist” ideology) has been that of a “melting pot” into which the varied immigrant groups would assimilate. There was a strong tradition of accepting immigrants provided they blended into the cultural mainstream. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, excoriated the idea of a “hyphenated American,” insisting that all should become simply “American.” In what we have just quoted, however, Krauthammer stands foursquare against what he sees as an insidious process of Jewish assimilation into American or European life.
There is an interesting footnote to this: At one time, gentiles in the United States resisted Jewish assimilation, such as by not allowing Jews to belong to their country clubs and the like. This has long been seen as vicious bigotry. Now, we find a champion of Jewishness who sees assimilation as immensely destructive, and Jewish exclusivity as a good, which might seem to put him on the side of the very gentiles who wanted a separation. American society during the past seventy years has, however, found a way out of this embarrassment – by establishing the double standard by which all minorities (and women, who are seen as a minority even though they are not) can have their own exclusive groups while the “majority” may not. (Many of us today won’t live long enough to see whether those in the “majority” today are permitted to have their own exclusivity once the American demographic has changed enough to count them among the minorities. The double standard, which is a creature of partisan ideology, may well evolve in a new direction.)
Our second observation is that Krauthammer’s devotion to Israel is almost certainly an important reason for his favoring American intervention throughout the Middle East to recast the Islamic nations, as he says, into pro-Western secular democracies “in the Islamic crescent stretching from North Africa to Afghanistan”. There are others, however, who support such interventions on other grounds, including a concern about repulsing the aggressive impulses within Islam. It is reasonable to suppose that a regard for Israel’s survival ranks high among the reasons for an interventionist policy. If the question were asked “Is it in the national interest of the United States to attempt forcibly to remake Islamic societies?,” Krauthammer would no doubt say yes.
The topics we have chosen are merely a few of the subjects covered by Krauthammer’s columns and essays. We highly recommend the book for those who covet good writing and welcome mental interaction with someone who is reasonable in tone and acutely perceptive.
Dwight D. Murphey