Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Matters That Matter

Although he's been writing for more than 30 years, Pulitzer-winning columnist Charles Krauthammer had never collected his work into a book until the release of Things That Matter, a collection that covers much of that career and many of the diverse subjects to which he has put his mind and words.

Krauthammer has pretty much always been a foreign-policy conservative, but he began his writing career as what he calls a "Great Society liberal" and only began to move rightward in the mid 1980s. Most of the columns collected in Things come from this later period of his work, a decision probably made in light of the general theme of the collection. Krauthammer writes mostly about politics, but he has a wide range of other interests from baseball to science to music to math and Things includes several of these columns. He'd originally intended to collect nothing but such non-political columns, but as he reflected on the idea of the book, he came to understand that unless the politics of a society function properly, then even the best cultures and civilizations are endangered. Since he now sees some of his earlier political positions as wrong, he doesn't include them here.

Obviously, people who don't share Krauthammer's more conservative leanings might not enjoy Things as much as those of us who do. But his writing is elegant, fun and he offers over and over again concise and clear lessons on how to construct an argument to present one's position. With a previous career in psychiatry and medicine, he values precision in language and straightforward linearity in communicating his thinking. It may be that someone who disagrees with Krauthammer's ideas will still disagree with him after reading his position, but they will know better why they disagree and will have sharpened their own arguments by measuring them against his.

I'd demur from Krauthammer's suggestion that unless a society gets its politics right -- in other words, operates a government which both protects and empowers its citizens -- nothing else really matters. I think that the two interweave a lot more than that and politics by itself can't be "right" in that sense unless people are right. A society of people taught respect for each other and themselves from their early days is a society much more likely to accept a rule of law designed to foster the same thing. Laws and policies may prohibit certain behaviors and have an effect on people scared of punishment, but how much stronger a society in which people are eager to do right instead of just not do wrong.

That minor shade of disagreement aside, Things That Matter is an excellent sampling of the later period of one of the best columnists writing today, whether a reader shares his ideas or not. One hopes he does not wait another 30 years for the follow-up.

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