a commentator on the affairs of man

שמעון ונחמה
Nechama and Shimon

A couple of weeks ago, on June 21, Charles Krauthammer, an American commentator and syndicated columnist died at the age of 68. In his senior year at McGill University he was editor of the school newspaper, the McGill Daily and this led him to define his political and social attitudes. He wrote that he disliked the politics of certainty and the politics of the extreme (Maoism was quite popular there in the 60s) and as an editor, decided to go the way of pluralism, which was not so popular then. After completing his studies he went on to Oxford, studying political philosophy. He later wrote, ‘…my muse for this prudential view of the possibilities of politics: John Stuart Mill, whose On Liberty is the foundational document of classical liberalism’.

Krauthammer continued studying, becoming a doctor of medicine at Harvard, and afterwards specialized in psychiatry. His first introduction to real life politics was when he went to Washington, D.C., to direct planning in psychiatric research under the Carter administration. In 1980 He began work as a commentator, and joined the Washington Post in ’84 where he worked as a regular columnist till his death.

Though I was not a follower of his, and read only a few of his columns through the years, I was impressed by his rationality and his humor, and bought his book, ‘Things that Matter’, which is an autobiographical study of his thoughts and ideas through his working life. Though he has been labeled a conservative, or neoconservative, by my standards he seemed a liberal. He explained the seeming contradiction himself when speaking of his hero. ‘Mill held that truth emerges from an unfettered competition of ideas and that individual character is most improved when allowed to find its own way uncoerced’. That was the liberal view in the 19th century. But in the 20th century, ‘Modern liberalism’s perfectionist ambitions seek to harness the power of government, the mystique of science and the rule of experts to shape both society and citizen and bring them both, willing or not, to a higher state of being’.

While still a student, he deliberated whether to make his career in science or in medicine. ‘I had long preferred the graceful lines of physics to the ragged edges of biology. But at 16, I’d come to the realization that I didn’t have what it took to do important work in theoretical physics, namely genius. I chose medicine. I have no regrets. It was challenging and enlarging. I absorbed more knowledge in those seven years than at any other time in my life’. After that, as a commentator, he discussed a great many of the issues that confront contemporary man, and western society with a very open minded and self revealing attitude.

He criticized culture and art; the morality of stem cell research and genetic engineering; the Me Generation, the cult of the body, family and children; gender issues and abortion. He considered religion, and the religious characteristics found in idealistic secularism. In writing about individual and collective guilt, individual and collective punishment, he argued well against the conventional attitude towards collective punishment. He discussed the existential anxiety of man alone in the universe. He examined change and revolution, and the influence of technology on our common culture. He scrutinized racism, both in its classical forms and its derivatives in our society. He studied the problem of gun control. Through his running commentary of the philosophical problems confronting us because of social changes and technological and scientific progress he was aware of the irony that the arts, physics, music, mathematics and other manifestations of human genius are dependent on politics. As he said: ‘Because if we don’t get politics right, everything else risks extinction’.

Regarding stories in the media about the personalities of politicians and social leaders, he wrote: ‘As a former psychiatrist, I know how difficult it is to try to understand the soul of even someone you have spent hundreds of hours alone with in therapy. To think that one can decipher the inner life of some distant public figure is folly. “Know thyself” is a highly overrated piece of wisdom. As for knowing the self of others, forget it. Know what they do and judge them by their works’.

He recognized that violence has become a serious threat to the well being of society, pointing out possible causes. ‘We live in an entertainment culture soaked in graphic, often sadistic, violence. Older folks find themselves stunned by what a desensitized youth finds routine, often amusing. It’s not just movies. Young men sit for hours pulling video-game triggers, mowing down human beings en masse without pain or consequence. And we profess shock when a small cadre of unstable, deeply deranged, dangerously isolated young men go out and enact the overlearned narrative’.

I believe that at his core, he was an optimist. He was constantly looking for solutions. He believed that America had become a democratic success because it aspired to the greatest possible freedom for the individual. Yet he realized that increasing public safety almost always means restricting liberties. In discussing the right of the citizen to carry weapons, he concluded by weighing the two alternatives, both of which were a loss of freedom. Which is better he asked, to outlaw weapons or to perform invasive searches on people going about their private business every time they enter an airport or a public building?

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35 responses to “a commentator on the affairs of man

  1. Thank you for this lovely tribute to a complicated yet grounded person. Years ago I had the rash indiscretion to actually apply for a position of one of his researchers for his book. Not surprisingly no response. He was a learned yet humble man.

    • It occurs to me that one of the most difficult tasks of a thinking person, is to re-examine those things that most people take for granted. We all have preconceived notions and ideas about how things work. And when we get a new piece of information, it’s easiest and natural for us to try and fit this information into a file that’s already working for us. What was special about him was that he was careful to study every issue on its own, even if it didn’t fit into the pattern. Sorry your application to work with him didn’t turn right, but I’m sure you’ve met a number of people in your life who enriched you with intellectual stimulation. Thanks for the comment ekurie.

  2. A man whose questions raise a circularity of questions and answers, where no one answer or solution will suit all, but where, some will find a point from which to experiment. Without doubt, one size will not, nor does not, fit all.

    A man rather like you Shimon.

    A pat and tickle for Nechama frome me.

    Shalom xx

    • Your right, menhir. Not only does one size not fit all, but we all have different tastes, different things we’re interested in learning, and we’re at different stages of our life and have different perspectives. Nowadays, when a lot of people seem to be responding to Trump’s election emotionally, and because a lot of people in the west seem to have been polarized by political contention, I thought it might be worthwhile to read his attitudes towards issues of state. Thanks very much for your gesture towards Nechama. Shalom xx

  3. Charles was a brillant man and when he spoke I always listened intently to what he had to say. I will miss the man, his views, and the wisdom he spoke.

    • Thanks John. I thought that his rational approach to social issues could serve as an example to those who are so frustrated by politics in the western world. I think we’re seeing a backlash to the many social changes that developed in the last decade. But it’s not the end of the world. Nor does it have to be the most essential interest for those of us living in a democratic society. Krauthammer was a thinker, and it’s quite a pleasure reading his thoughts.

  4. Peaceful picture. I’m sorry I came to an awareness of Krauthammer only recently. I feel like I missed out on a long-term friendship, the way I feel about favorite authors. Thanks for sharing this.

    • One of the great advantages of reading is that we can find teachers and friends in all parts of the world and from all the ages that came before we arrived. When I was a child, I had very few friends, but discovered new worlds by reading. I think there’s a good chance you would enjoy his book. Thanks for your comment, Judy

  5. I often did not agree with Krauthammer, but I so miss his reasoned thought and intelligent writing. He seemed dedicated to enlarging and deepening his understanding of our world, and invited us all to do the same.

    • You know, I have friends with whom I disagree a lot. And the disagreement only leads to more interesting conversations. I certainly didn’t agree with all of Krauthammer’s ideas or conclusions, but thought he provided an excellent example of critical thinking, and had I had the chance, I think I would have thoroughly enjoyed arguing with him. Thanks very much for your comment, Kitty

  6. He certainly sounds like a learned, interesting free thinker! I am not familiar with him sadly, but I did enjoy reading his diverse views. That is an absolutely beautiful picture of you and Nechama. Two beings radiating one energy.xxx

    • Yes, that’s exactly what he was Dina, a free thinker. And it’s always a pleasure to listen to such a man or woman. Glad you liked the picture. To tell the truth, I didn’t think we looked so good, neither I nor Nechama, but it’s a common posture for us… she dozing off with one paw on my chest, and I love the feeling, so I thought I’d share. Thanks xxx

  7. A person who was able to make people pause and maybe rethink their perception of long held ideas & beliefs: he also liked John Stuart Mill, which was a great recommendation.
    A sad loss.

    • He lived a good life, and enjoyed his work. I read a public letter he wrote when his doctors told him that he only had a few weeks to live. He wrote in the same temperate style that was characteristic of him, and seemed to have no regrets or complaints. It was good knowing him, if only through his writing. Thanks, David

  8. I love the intro pic of you and Nechama, friend Shimon … because it speaks volumes … Always, cat.

  9. I enjoyed this tribute. Thanks.

  10. Hi Shimon.
    You already know my knowledge of the written word, but I do have to tell you I enjoyed your thoughts on that Dr. I too, learned a lot in those formative years, and I sure do agree with his sentiments as they are actually uplifting to me. I am sure NOT up on the ‘isms! Can hardly apologize for that.

    • I agreed with some of his thoughts, and disagreed with others, but like yourself, I found him uplifting. He was a man who thought for himself. Always good to get a comment from you, and you never need apologize. And it’s always interesting learning about the many contributions of doctors to our society, even beyond their work in medicine.

  11. I love the picture of you and Nechama, Shimon. Hugs for you both. ❤

  12. In certain ways, Charles Krauthammer helped to fill the void that was left after William F. Buckley, Jr., passed from the scene. Like Buckley, he demanded thoughtful argument from his opponents, but never (as far as I can remember) villified those who disagreed with him. Of course there were many others writing and speaking thoughtfully about culture and politics, but both of those men were accessible — and publicly visible — in a way many were not.

    Of note is that, upon their deaths, both men were spoken of with deep affection as well as respect. Those who were privileged to enjoy a personal relationship with Dr. Krauthammer often said, without embarassment, that they loved the man. Love and respect are a fine legacy.

    • You opened my eyes Linda. I hadn’t thought of a connection between the two of them, but as soon as I read this, I realized. I first got to know William Buckley when I was quite young myself, and at the time, I was on the other side of the barricades. But I enjoyed reading Buckley and saw him as a scholar. I also liked his languish, and his gift for expressing himself. I agree with you about the love and respect. That in itself is a great recommendation. We hear a lot of noise these days, and I hope that there will be many more moderate voices soon.

  13. Wonderful tribute, Shimon. I was likely more familiar with the Dr’s work than you, as he was more widespread in the media here. He was always a calm thinker in a sea of screaming heads. Perhaps that was a function of his injuries, where he had to purposefully take a breath before speaking, which gave him pause to get his thoughts together while also making sure that each breath counted. Regardless, his viewpoint was appreciated.

    • I’m sure you were more familiar with the good doctor than I was Bill. And I’m glad you enjoyed the post. More than his viewpoints, I enjoyed the way he shared his method of examining critical issues. He was a scholar and a gentleman.

  14. My sister and I shed tears upon hearing of the passing of Charles Krauthammer. I agreed with everything he wrote about or said in the last five years, one of the last conservative eloquent voices heard among the current worldwide harangue. On his Twitter account I believe he only followed one feed: Jewish sacred music. He dispelled the stereotype that all of us Jews are liberals! He was measured, reasoned, witty, and brilliant.and as a bonus quality, he was not impressed with Barack Obama.

    • I never got to twitter Cheri, so I can only guess what it’s like, but I find it interesting that he subscribed to sacred Jewish music… in his honor, I’ll tell you a secret that I heard from a great Gypsy musician; that the gifted Jewish poet Yehudah Halevy, hummed tunes from the holy temple to the Gypsy musicians living in Spain during the 11th century, and these folks incorporated them into some of their Flamenco. I love sacred music too, and enjoy your comments. My best to you and your sister.

  15. He is a great loss to humanity.
    Never read is book, but did pay attention to things he said/wrote. Brilliant thinker, logical – and so rare now – highly educated. Worthy of admiration and respect. Some say everything happens for a reason – maybe his accident turned him to the great person he was.
    Lovely tribute

    • I suppose all of us experience accidents and traumas, Phil. Some learn from the experience and grow stronger overcoming our disadvantages, and others discover PTSD and spend the rest of their lives calming down. Thanks for the comment.

  16. A most interesting tribute to somebody you really respect.

    • I did respect him greatly, Peter. But what I liked most about him was listening to him explain very complicated matters simply. Thanks for coming by.

  17. A beautiful tribute to a man of substance. Thank you.
    I love the photograph of you and Nechama….absolutely beautiful xxx

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