September 18, 2018

Charles Krauthammer and July 4th

Here in America, we have a habit of turning national holidays into barbecues. Whether it’s Memorial Day or Labor Day or July Fourth, a day off means, above all, a time to chill out and party. This party reflex used to bother me: Shouldn’t we be a little more serious about commemorating important moments of our national story? Shouldn’t we incorporate some formal rituals besides fireworks and beer kegs? Maybe because Judaism takes its own holidays so seriously, I figured America should do the same.

This year, though, I’ve changed my mind. Right now, more than anything, America needs a time out from the serious. When I see what the serious world of politics has done to our national conversation, I’m all for a renewal of our pursuit of happiness. Put another kosher hot dog on the grill and let’s talk about the Lakers. Anything but politics.

This won’t be easy, of course, because the serious has a way of obliterating the light-hearted. The serious, in fact, can obliterate everything, even basic civility. Look at how Rep. Maxine Waters took her serious hatred for Donald Trump to call on her supporters to publicly confront and harass members of his administration.

“Let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up,” she exhorted her supporters. “And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.” 

When I see what the serious world of politics has done to our national conversation, I’m all for a renewal of our pursuit of happiness. 

That’s serious stuff. And it works both ways. Both sides of the aisle have taken the ugly side of politics so far that it has left a bad taste in all our mouths. When it comes to political discourse, we are in a national race to the bottom.  

One of our greatest political commentators, Charles Krauthammer, who passed away last week, knew how to put politics in its place.

“What matters?” he asks at the beginning of his book “Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics.” His answer: “Lives of the good and the great, the innocence of dogs, the cunning of cats, the elegance of nature, the wonders of space, the perfectly thrown outfield assist, the difference between historical guilt and historical responsibility, homage and sacrilege in monumental architecture, fashions and follies and the finer uses of the F-word.

“What matters? Manners and habits, curiosities and conundrums social and ethical: Is a doctor ever permitted to kill a patient wishing to die? Why in the age of feminism do we still use the phrase ‘women and children’? How many lies is one allowed to tell to advance stem cell research?

“What matters? Occam’s razor, Fermat’s last theorem, the Fermi paradox in which the great man asks: With so many habitable planets out there, why in God’s name have we never heard a word from a single one of them?”

Krauthammer, a man who built his reputation through political commentary, was telling us that his life went way beyond the seriousness of politics. It went into ideas, philosophy, beauty, mystery. 

Krauthammer’s genius, and his legacy, was that he could take politics seriously without ever losing his dignity or his lust for life.

“These are the things that most engage me,” he wrote. “They fill my days, some trouble my nights. They give me pause, pleasure, wonder. They make me grateful for the gift of consciousness.”

And yet, Krauthammer was also deeply aware of the fundamental importance of politics.

“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.”

We must pay attention to politics, he wrote, “because of its capacity, when benign, to allow all around it to flourish, and its capacity, when malign, to make all around it wither.”

But when political discourse is so malignant, politics can’t make anything flourish. At this moment, tribalism and emotionalism are mixing with social media to create a lethal brew. Our feckless politicians, instead of modeling civil discourse, are leading this race to the gutter. And here’s the worst part: All of the unhinged discourse is, ultimately, useless, corrosive venting. Not only does it not seek solutions, it may not even help these politicians come election time. 

Krauthammer’s genius, and his legacy, was that he could take politics seriously without ever losing his dignity or his lust for life. He knew that “manners and habits, curiosities and conundrums” were the stuff of a winning life.

That’s worth pondering this year as we watch the fireworks and get sloshed on margaritas.