Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics
What matters? 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?
These are the things that most engage me. They fill my days, some trouble my nights. They give me pause, pleasure, wonder. They make me grateful for the gift of consciousness. And for three decades they have occupied my mind and commanded my pen.
I don’t claim these things matter to everyone. Nor should they. I have my eccentricities. I’ve driven from Washington to New York to watch a chess match. Twice. I’ve read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Also twice, though here as a public service—to reassure my readers that this most unread bestseller is indeed as inscrutable as they thought. And perhaps most eccentric of all, I left a life in medicine for a life in journalism devoted mostly to politics, while firmly believing that what really matters, what moves the spirit, what elevates the mind, what fires the imagination, what makes us fully human are all of these endeavors, disciplines, confusions and amusements that lie outside politics.
Accordingly, this book was originally going to be a collection of my writings about everything but politics. Things beautiful, mysterious, profound or just odd. Working title: There’s More to Life than Politics.
But in the end I couldn’t. For a simple reason, the same reason I left psychiatry for journalism. While science, medicine, art, poetry, architecture, chess, space, sports, number theory and all things hard and beautiful promise purity, elegance and sometimes even transcendence, they are fundamentally subordinate. In the end, they must bow to the sovereignty 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.
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” every schoolchild is fed. But even Keats—poet, romantic, early 19th-century man oblivious to the horrors of the century to come—kept quotational distance from such blissful innocence. Turns out we need to know one more thing on earth: politics—because of its capacity, when benign, to allow all around it to flourish, and its capacity, when malign, to make all around it wither.
This is no abstraction. We see it in North Korea, whose deranged Stalinist politics has created a land of stunning desolation and ugliness, both spiritual and material. We saw it in China’s Cultural Revolution, a sustained act of national self-immolation, designed to dethrone, debase and destroy the highest achievements of five millennia of Chinese culture. We saw it in Taliban Afghanistan, which, just months before 9/11, marched its cadres into the Bamiyan Valley and with tanks, artillery and dynamite destroyed its magnificent cliff-carved 1,700-year-old Buddhas lest they—like kite flying and music and other things lovely—disturb the scorched-earth purity of their nihilism.
Politics is the moat, the walls, beyond which lie the barbarians. Fail to keep them at bay, and everything burns. The entire 20th century with its mass political enthusiasms is a lesson in the supreme power of politics to produce ever-expanding circles of ruin. World War I not only killed more people than any previous war. The psychological shock of Europe’s senseless self-inflicted devastation forever changed Western sensibilities, practically overthrowing the classical arts, virtues and modes of thought. The Russian Revolution and its imitators (Chinese, Cuban, Vietnamese, Cambodian) tried to atomize society so thoroughly—to war against the mediating structures that stand between the individual and the state—that the most basic bonds of family, faith, fellowship and conscience came to near dissolution. Of course, the greatest demonstration of the finality of politics is the Holocaust, which in less than a decade destroyed a millennium-old civilization, sweeping away not only 6 million souls but the institutions, the culture, the very tongue of the now-vanished world of European Jewry.
The only power comparably destructive belongs to God. Or nature. Or, if like Jefferson you cannot quite decide, Nature’s God. Santorini was a thriving island civilization in the Mediterranean until, one morning 3,500 years ago, it simply fell into the sea. An earthquake. A volcanic eruption. The end.
And yet even God cannot match the cruelty of his creation. For every Santorini, there are a hundred massacres of innocents. And that is the work of man—more particularly, the work of politics, of groups of men organized to gain and exercise power.
Which in its day-to-day conduct tends not to be the most elevated of human enterprises. Machiavelli gave it an air of grandeur and glory, but Disraeli’s mordant exultation “I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole,” best captured its quotidian essence—grubby, grasping, manipulative, demagogic, cynical.
The most considered and balanced statement of politics’ place in the hierarchy of human disciplines came, naturally, from an American. “I must study politics and war,” wrote John Adams, “that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”
Adams saw clearly that politics is the indispensable foundation for things elegant and beautiful. First and above all else, you must secure life, liberty and the right to pursue your own happiness. That’s politics done right, hard-earned, often by war. And yet the glories yielded by such a successful politics lie outside itself. Its deepest purpose is to create the conditions for the cultivation of the finer things, beginning with philosophy and science, and ascending to the ever more delicate and refined arts. Note Adams’ double reference to architecture: The second generation must study naval architecture—a hybrid discipline of war, commerce and science—before the third can freely and securely study architecture for its own sake.
The most optimistic implication of Adams’ dictum is that once the first generation gets the political essentials right, they remain intact to nurture the future. Yet he himself once said that “there never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Jefferson was even less sanguine about the durability of liberty. He wrote that a constitutional revolution might be needed every 20 years. Indeed, the lesson of our history is that the task of merely maintaining strong and sturdy the structures of a constitutional order is unending, the continuing and ceaseless work of every generation.
To which I have devoted much of my life. And which I do not disdain by any means. Indeed, I intend to write a book on foreign policy and, if nature (or God or Nature’s God) gives me leave, to write yet one more on domestic policy. But this book is intended at least as much for other things. Things that for me, as for Adams, shine most brightly.
Biologist and philosopher Lewis Thomas was once asked what one artifact we should send out into space as evidence of human achievement. “I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again,” he suggested. Then added ruefully, “We would be bragging, of course.”
Not a single State of the Union address, I’d venture. Not one version of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nor, God help us, what we actually did send out into space when we first got the chance. The interstellar Voyagers 1 and 2 carry, among other artifacts, the first audio greetings from our species. Who is it that, on behalf of all humanity that has ever lived, speaks to some unknown alien race across the infinity of space? Whose voice will survive into eternity long after Earth has turned to a cinder? Why, the head of the one political institution that represents all mankind, the then UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. Later discovered to be … a Nazi. A minor one, mind you. Just a small willing cog in the machine. Makes you wish that we’d immediately sent out a Voyager 3 beeping frantically: Please disregard all previous messages.
Thomas was right about Bach. Though I do concede that beaming out a digital copy of the Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence would have made a fine second choice. But here I draw a distinction. While political practice deserves grudging respect for its power, political philosophy commands reverence for its capacity for grandeur and depth, as exemplified in the sublime texts of the American founding. Accordingly, I have weighted much of the politically oriented writings in this volume toward those dealing with constitutional issues and general principles. I’ve skipped over much of the partisan contention that characterizes the daily life of a democracy—the tentative, incremental, ever-improvised back-and-forth that occupies much of the attention of a political columnist. I’ve tried to give as little space as possible to campaigns and elections, to personalities and peccadilloes, to things that come and go.
These contingencies are not ignored, of course. They cannot be. That’s not how actual political life is lived. But because these more transient, more partisan, more pole-climbing events tend to mundanity and redundancy, they lose their interest over time. They fade from memory, and deservedly so. I’ve tried to filter most of that out. I’ve tried to stick to what matters.
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