258 Things That Matter

One of the nation’s most eminent columnists and TV commentators, Charles Krauthammer, has collected a variety of his Washington Post columns in Things That Matter:  Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics (New York:  Crown Forum, c. 2013).  When he began the project, he planned to print exclusively non-political essays (tentatively titling the collection There’s More to Life than Politics, thus suggesting that personal and cultural things matter most), but he quickly realized that just as he had moved from psychiatry to journalism years ago because he believing in the “sovereignty” of politics, so too his book should reflect his conviction that:  “Politics, the crooked timber of our communal lives, dominates everything because, in the end, everything—high and low and, most especially, high—lives or dies by politics.  You can have the most advanced and efflorescent of cultures.  Get your politics wrong, however, and everything stands to be swept away.  This is not ancient history.  This is Germany 1933” (#2).  

Krauthammer assembles his essays thematically rather than chronologically.  He treats things “personal” and gives us some insight into his life story as well as his perspective on events ranging from chess matches to baseball, from dogs, from Columbus to Nixon, from psychiatry to art.  He considers things “historical,” looking especially at Israel and recent American history, including a number of columns spawned by the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.  Obviously well-read and erudite, these columns serve as tiny windows on the world the author finds fascinating and thereby reveal facets of his personality.  But it’s when he turns to politics that he clearly deals with what’s most important to him.  Here he often provides important historical materials, such as the role of the French Revolution in shaping the modern world.  The bloodbath beginning in France in 1789 with the attack on the Bastille has been routinely  replicated by totalitarian 20th century movements.  Whereas the American Revolution in 1775 focused singularly on liberty, the French pursued both liberty and state power, thereby birthing “the model, the monster, of the mobilized militarized state” fully realized in Lenin’s and Stalin’s USSR.  “In Saint-Just’s famous formulation:  ‘The Republic consists in the extermination of everything that opposes it.’  This brutal circularity of logic is properly called not revolution but nihilism” (#1810).  

In less virulent forms this infatuation with state power has played an important role in American history and is surely evident in the convictions and aspirations of our current President, Barack Obama, who routinely embraces what Krauthammer calls the “fallacy’ of “equating society with government, the collectivity with the state” (p. 136).  Thus he promotes redistributionist taxation and central planning to “spread the wealth around.”  The “Julia” advertisement in the 2012 Obama campaign celebrated a woman “swaddled and subsidized throughout her life by an all-giving government of bottomless pockets and ‘Queen for a Day’ magnanimity.   At every stage, the state is there to provide—preschool classes and cut-rate college loans, birth control and maternity care, business loans and retirement.  The only time she’s on her own is at her grave site” (p. 137).  

Invoking state power to sanction traditionally perverse and ultimately destructive sexual behaviors further typifies today’s left.  Gay activists, promoting same-sex marriage, have opened the door for polygamy as well.  It is, indeed, “utterly logical for polygamy rights to follow gay rights.  After all, if traditional marriage is defined as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender, and if, as advocates of gay marriage insist, the gender requirement is nothing but prejudice, exclusion and an arbitrary denial of one’s autonomous choices in love, then the first requirement—the number restriction (two and only two)—is a similarly arbitrary, discriminatory and indefensible denial of individual choice” (p. 163).  

Under the New Deal, state power was wielded to care for the elderly through the Social Security Administration.  It has, for nearly 80 years, proved a boon for the millions whose retirement years are blessed by a monthly check.  Rightly defined, however, Krauthammer insists, it’s clearly a Ponzi scheme!  It’s a “pay-as-you-go” program whereby recipients get paid by newcomers to the system, which is by definition a Ponzi scheme.  “The critical distinction between a Ponzi scheme and Social Security is that Social Security is mandatory.  That’s why Ponzi schemes always collapse and Social Security has not” (p. 175).  Still more:   if Social Security can “rustle up enough new entrants” and change some its standards to fit the new demographics, it can evade failure for at least the foreseeable future.  It is indeed a Ponzi scheme but a “vital, humane and fixable” one!  

Whereas Social Security may be something of a sustainable fraud, “‘The largest threat to freedom, democracy, the market economy and prosperity,’ warns Czech president Vaclav Klaus, ‘is no longer socialism.  It is, instead, the ambitious, arrogant, unscrupulous ideology of environmentalism’” (p. 178).   Throughout the 20th century, “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)” (p. 178).  At the dawn of the 21st century these experts and social planners have nestled into the environmental movement and shrewdly used the power of the state to implement their left wing goals and regulate everyone’s activities in order to save the planet.  

Though not a full-fledged Libertarian, Krauthammer shares many libertarian convictions.  His “conservatism” is mainly of a fiscal and constitutional variety.  And ironically, in a book titled “things that matter” he has little to say about things that matter most!  A rather thoroughly secularized Jew, he occasionally lifts his pen to defend Israel and his kinsmen.  But as an agnostic he has little or nothing to say about things religious.  Thus his columns offer information and insight into the passing scene but provide little sure guidance as to our status as pilgrims passing through it.  Things that Matter, consequently, is best appreciated as “light reading”—light in both its journalistic style and ultimately transient subject matter.  

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Looking back over a distinguished career as a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, James V. Schall, SJ, recently published something of an encomium to Christian philosophy in Reasonable Pleasures:  The Strange Coherence of Catholicism (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, c. 2013).  He launches each of the book’s chapters with a quotation worth pondering.  Thus, his Introduction—“On What Proves Profitable to Examine”—begins with a statement in Aristotle’s Ethics:  “However, we should examine the origin not only from the conclusion and premise [of a deductive argument], but also from what is said about it; for all the facts harmonize with a true account, whereas the truth soon clashes with a false one.”  To discern the truth is, Schall says, a “reasonable pleasure,” for it is “the delight we take in knowing the truth of things, especially the truth about ourselves and our place in the existence of things” (#65).   As rational creatures we’re designed to enjoy thinking, just as sensual creatures we’re designed to enjoy eating.  So when we “get the point” of a demonstration we are pleased; when we weary of a speaker’s interminable meanderings, we wish he’d “get to the point;” when we “see the point” of a joke we enjoy laughing.  

Throughout his life Schall has found G.K. Chesterton superbly stimulating.  Thus his chapter on dogma—defined as “an accurate statement of what is true”—cites a passage from GKC’s Orthodoxy which declares:  “If I am asked, as a purely intellectual question, why I believe in Christianity, I can only answer, ‘For the same reason that an intelligent agnostic disbelieves in Christianity.’  I believe in it quite rationally upon the evidence.  But the evidence in my case, as in that of the intelligent agnostic is not really in this or that alleged demonstration; it is in an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts.”  Carefully weighted, the facts point to faith in Christ.  Certainly we hunger for a personal relationship, to experience of God, to see Him, to feel Him.  “But we also long to understand, to make sense of what is that we behold or hold in faith and in observation” (#293).  Thus dogma!  Rather than constricting the mind, dogma enables it to relish what has been grasped, to feast upon the truth that nurtures the soul.  

Along with a small but distinguished cadre of philosophers such as Henri Bergson and Michael Novak, Schall finds “wit and humor” essential human traits.  Still more:  “laughter in itself . . . is one of the signs of eternal life” (#552).  It’s also a vital way to pry open men’s minds to truth.  Heeding Boswell’s Life of Johnson, we learn that the learned doctor’s “trade is wit.  It would be as wild in him to come into company without merriment, as if a highwayman were to take the road with his pistols.”  Thus Schall supports “this proposition:  That particular philosophical or theological theory is most correct, most likely to be true, which can best account for laughter and joy” (#552).  When we laugh we demonstrate our ability to think, to see the incongruities and paradoxes and novelties of existence.  As Aristotle wisely prescribed:   “we cannot laugh all the time at the risk of becoming frivolous buffoons, nor can we refused to laugh at all at the risk of becoming bores and dullards.  Save us from the witless man who laughs at nothing” (#602).  

What’s true of wit and humor easily extends to “play and sports,” distinctively human activities  manifesting the creativity of the human mind.  Contrary to legions of rigorists who disdain such recreational activities, Schall thinks they reflect “the real world in ways that constantly surprise us” (#781).  Here again he finds support in Aristotle, who noted that games, like songs, are played for their own sake and “suggested that watching games was rather like contemplation” (#806).  Obviously games are not “the most important things in the world, but, in their own way, I think that they prefigure what is.”  We certainly ponder life’s meaning in various ways, but an important way is by understanding “what we do when we see a good game” (#891).  Absorbed in a game, easily losing track of ordinary time, we cease to think of ourselves; we realize there’s a reality other than our mind.  If we love the game, we know how to love something other than ourselves.  

Turning to a dramatically different topic, Schall makes a “‘Reasonable’ Case for Hell,” something he’s thought much about.  There is, in fact, good reason for such a place.  Centuries ago, in Phaedo, Plato (upholding a transcendental standard of justice unattainable through human institutions) said:  “Those who are deemed incurable because of the enormity of their crimes, having committed many great sacrileges or wicked and unlawful murders and other such wrongs—their fitting fate is to be hurled in Tartarus never to emerge from it.”  Many folks think “the teaching on hell was revealed to us to make us fear punishment.  I tend to think it was first given to us to make us think, and to be careful where we tread” (#1227).  Truthful thinking, rejecting rationalizations, leads us to confession and repentance, which “is nothing less than restoring to order what we chose to reject.  We live with the consequences of our sins, but, on repentance, no longer with their self-justifying principle, which is that of preferring our will to God’s reason in giving us being” (#1388).    

Even in Christian circles today the doctrine of hell has been shoved to the periphery of church teachings.  A really good God, many think, simply could not eternally punish any of His creatures.  Thus when celebrities such as Princess Diana are tragically killed their fans instantly assume (rather than hope) they’re happily in heaven.  Thinking thusly, they fail to understand, with Plato, that if earthly “crimes are not punished properly, the world is incoherent.  In other words, it would be even crueler if our anguished minds know that the greatest crimes were not punished or the greatest deeds not rewarded” (#1314).  It would also be unjust for God, who granted us free will, to override that freedom.  “Free creatures can abuse themselves and others by their free acts” (#1405), and if we bear no responsibility for them we’re not truly free.  Having designed us to make choices, our good God respects those choices—even if we choose to eternally sever our ties to Him.  “No one is punished unjustly.  No one escapes the justice due to his free acts.  All can be forgiven if they will.  God would not have it otherwise.  He could not make a free being not to be free.  He could not permit a free being to escape the logic of his choosing himself over others” (#1411), including The Holy Other One, God.  

In a chapter titled “the earthly city,” Schall finds Aristotle our best guide to politics.  As social beings we clearly need to discover ways of getting along with each other.  “The great illusion of the twentieth century was that we could ‘force’ men to be virtuous by careful planning of their politics and economics” (#1514).  “Most modern ideologies are little more than efforts to bring the Kingdom of God to this earth by some sort of human means” (#2115).  Charmed by that illusion, millions of men suffered as utopians of various hues (Lenin; Hitler; Mao; Castro; Pol Pot) sought to build societies wherein everyone is equally cared for and content.  They failed to grasp the necessary distinction drawn by both Plato and Aristotle between politics and economics.  They’re not the same thing, and providing for material well-being is not the main raison d’etre of politics.  

Still more, these utopians failed to understand what Saint Robert Cardinal Bellarmine declared centuries ago:  “‘If you are wise, then, know that you have been created for the glory of God and your own eternal salvation.  This is your goal; this is the center of your life’” (#1526).  More recently, Alexander Solzhenitsyn said much the same, explaining what had so sadly gone wrong in the Soviet Union:  “Men have forgotten God.”  By nature, created in the “image and likeness of God,” we rightly understand ourselves only in the light of Christ.  Man is “created not to be merely human but to be more than human.  Homo non proprie humanus sed superhumansus est.  This inner core of his being explains why he is never satisfied with the goods, power, or glory that he initially things will satisfy him” (#1611).  

What most deeply satisfies us, Schall shows, is worship—an activity much akin to wit and humor, sports and play, something in and of itself meaningful and satisfying, something deeply contemplative.  Worshiping false gods, worshiping creatures (especially those of a political sort) rather than the Creator ,has marred the human story.  But worshiping the true God, conforming our minds to what’s really Real (He Who Is), is the most reasonable of all pleasures.  Turning to the rich history of the Church, we find:  “The motto of the Order of Saint Benedict is Ora et labora, ‘Pray and work’: that of the Order of Saint Dominic, along with Veritas, ‘Truth’, is Contemplata aliis tradere, ‘To give to others the fruits of contemplation’; and that of the Society of Jesus is In Actione contemplativus, ‘Contemplation in action’.  By calling these phrases to mind, I want next to consider how it is possible to look on the world and ourselves as engaged in the worship of God in all we do” (#1879).  Praying, thinking, teaching, parenting, evangelizing, sharing the Good News in a multiplicity of ways, reveals a people rightly worshiping God.

And such worship leads us as pilgrims along the way of eternal life, union with God Himself.  Everything good in life posits the need for and availability of salvation.  To be saved from sin, to be freed from sin, to be healed within and prepared for life everlasting, is the point of the human story.  In the wonderful words of T.S. Eliot, in “Dry Salvages”:  

But you are the music

While the music lasts.  These are only hints and guesses,

Hints followed by guesses; and the rest

Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.

The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.

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For many years Reb Bradley has spoken and written about family life and parenting in such publications as Child Training Tips.  In Born Liberal, Raised Right:  How to Rescue America from Moral Decline—One Family at a Time (Los Angeles:  WND Books, c. 2008), he seeks to “answer questions asked by hundreds of thousands of people across the country:  What has happened to America in the last fifty years?  Where did we go wrong?  Why do so many children raised in good homes grow up with values so different from their parents?  Who is responsible for America’s moral downturn—the schools, the entertainment industry, the media?  Is our problem rooted in poverty, racism, and a lack of good education; or are insensitivity, intolerance, and oppressive religion the real culprits? (#83).    

We’re daily reminded by the violence in rap music, video games and schools, that something dangerous has infiltrated youth culture.  We’re routinely alarmed by our kids’ academic stagnation, as evident in SAT scores that have significantly slipped since 1963.  But the real problem cannot be blamed on “society,” since it comes, Bradley thinks, from parents (however personally conservative, however unconsciously) raising little liberals who lack “the key ingredient of maturity—self-control.  Any society that is out of control is comprised of individuals who lack self-control” (p. 4).  To identify this  deficit as the core issue is not a simplistic, though it is certainly a simple, step, for:  “In modern America, most individuals are ruled by their passions—they lack self-restraint—they cannot say ‘no’ to themselves.  If they had the virtue of self-control, they and the society they comprise would not be so ‘out of control’” (p. 4).   Too many of us lack what America’s Founders found essential for a free republic:  self-governing citizens.  In a letter to his brother John, Samuel Adams said Americans “must learn ‘. . . the art of self government without which they never can act a wise part in the government of societies.’  James Madison, known as the ‘Father of our Constitution,’ emphasized the importance of personal moral restraint when he declared, ‘We have staked the whole of all our political institutions on the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves’” (p. 14).  Ironically, in a nation where people routinely celebrate their “freedoms,” increasing numbers of us are enslaved by the cruelest of all taskmasters:  intemperance.  

Just as it’s easy to see the baleful impact of such intemperance it’s easy to discover its source.  “Self-control is a deep-rooted character trait trained into children by their parents in the first few years of life.  It was the observation of Thomas Jefferson that, ‘the qualifications for self-government in society are not innate.  They are the result of habit and long training.”  Thus:  “The true cause of America’s decline is that most modern parents were not raised to value self-control as a virtue, so few have trained their children to have it” (p. 7).   Misled by educators and therapists promoting “self-expression,” “self-actualization,” and “self-esteem,” parents have equated love with permissiveness and predictably reared self-indulgent kids.  They are, in fact, aiding and abetting expressions of their sinful nature, doing what’s enjoyable rather than what’s right!  We are all born little hedonists, following the mantra of the ‘60s:  “If it feels good, do it.”  “It has been said that evil triumphs when good men do nothing.  So also, for liberalism to succeed, parents need not do anything” (p. 10).  

To encourage and teach parents how to lead their little liberals into mature adults, Bradley offers, in this insightful and readable book, suggestions regarding what must be done.  

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