Tag Archives: writers

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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in memory of Ursula K. LeGuin

I first came across science fiction in the 50s when studying in America. Came across those inexpensive SF magazines and paper back books with appealing covers enjoyed by a relatively small circle of readers. They offered conjecture as to the future; a future in which technology would offer solutions to many of the hardships associated with sustaining material existence. And they seemed to ask what would concern us in the era that seemed then to be just around the corner. What would have to be dealt with when we were freed of our day to day burdens that were then such a large part of maintaining our existence.

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Ursula K. LeGuin started publishing after I had left America, but she continued in the tradition of those writers and thinkers of the 50s and 60s. She challenged us to change our thinking as to the purpose and the content of human life. In her honor, I would like to re-examine one of her classic stories; a story translated to Hebrew and published in the newspaper here after she passed away a little more than a week ago. The story is called, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’. It can be downloaded for free from the internet.

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It’s a short story which presents a version of Utopia. It describes a small city. No emphasis is put on technological inventions. Because the people there live simply. But she stresses, the people themselves are not simple. They are sophisticated and intelligent. They are happy. They have no king and no army. They have no cars because they don’t need them. There is music and sporting competition. She describes a festival, the first day of summer, and it is joyful. The one negative aspect of this utopia is an idiot child who is kept in a dirty basement, all alone and neglected. Her description of the conditions of this child’s living space are dismal and repulsive. But the young are taught that this is what has to be. That the happy lives they live are dependent on the misery of this one child.

She also tells of the those who leave the city. She doesn’t tell us much about them. Just that they leave. They leave alone, and we don’t know where they go. They seem sure of themselves. There is the suggestion in the story that they leave because they cannot bear to live in a city where even one person is treated so cruelly. It is of that I wish to speak, the people who walk away from Omelas.

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I have written in the past about my experience in kibbutz. I wanted to try living there after I had studied a bit about communism and socialism, and thought this would be an opportunity to see if the theories could be realized in real life. At the time, the Soviet Union was a cruel dictatorship, and I didn’t want to believe that this was the inevitable outcome of establishing a communist society. While on kibbutz, I fell in love with the society. But I also saw its faults. I left because my dear wife just didn’t appreciate this ideal as I did. I don’t regret that I have lived the rest of my life back here in Jerusalem. I consider myself blessed. Still the experience has stayed with me.

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My example of the paradox of ‘life in utopia’ is less dramatic than the story of Omelas. My work was being part of a team there that grew bananas. There was a fellow on the team that used to bum cigarettes off of me. As members of the commune, we both had all of our needs supplied. “to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities”. Once a week, I would find as many packs as I used to smoke then, in the same compartment where my newly laundered clothes would be delivered. No charge. Yet day after day, sometimes saying he had run out, and most often just asking if I had a spare cig’, he would ask for one of mine. I never asked him why. But I wondered. Could be he was trying to stop smoking… or was it his way of making friendly contact? No big deal, but it made me a bit uncomfortable.

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Often, what makes everyone happy, will make someone unhappy. Everyone wants to listen to music, but one fellow prefers silence. Everyone wants a nice green lawn in front of his home, but one fellow wants the grass to grow wild, to grow knee high around his house. Sometimes the happiness of the majority can be like a poke in the eye of a small minority. That’s the way it is among people. Even the best society can’t be perfect because human beings aren’t perfect. And no matter how good, there will always be someone looking for the faults; unhappy because of the imperfections. We’re not all built the same way, neither physically, emotionally or mentally. Ask yourselves, is it possible to build a society, even with no expenses spared… even with great consideration and respect towards all… in which one person won’t stand up and yell, “you’re all a bunch of happy idiots”? And isn’t that person an unhappy individual?