The Wise Know What Matters

by Kathryn Jean Lopez
Political disengagement is not an option.

What matters?” This is the question Charles Krauthammer, psychiatrist turned Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist, asks as the first sentence of his new book, a memoirish collection. The book is called Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics. He explains that the working title for the book had originally been There’s More to Life than Politics and that it was going to include just about everything but politics. Naturally, though, a man who “left a life in medicine for a life in journalism devoted mostly to politics” decided that he couldn’t disengage.

Thanks be to God.

There is, of course, much more to life than politics. Particularly if by politics what you mean is the ups and downs, the ESPN SportsCenter–like media coverage of Washington maneuvering and campaign “horse races.” But as Krauthammer points out, there is actually no escaping politics. Nor should we seek to. “Politics, the crooked timber of our communal lives, dominates everything,” he writes, “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.”

If we start thinking that we are above politics, we need to remember that if we don’t get our hands dirty paying attention to who it is we are electing, and to policy and pending decisions, we are shirking a responsibility. Disengagement is dangerous. Engagement is our civic duty.

How do you get your politics right? There is a synergy, a symbiosis between right living and a healthy politics. Our politics reflects our individual and community lives. Matters of character are matters of politics.

There are no Pulitzers (yet) awarded for Twitter use, but there are resignations. Anthony Weiner, of course. And there are firings: A State Department official has lost his job for tweeting imprudently. Commenting on this news event, John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary and a prolific, entertaining tweeter, wrote: “The seductiveness of Twitter is its immediacy. And like all seductive things, it can blind you to the consequences of your conduct when you give in to it. I don’t know a single Twitter devotee who hasn’t expressed shame or regret or embarrassment at one time or another.”

Growing in virtue and wisdom, learning to live honorably, is made possible through choices informed by self-knowledge, good influences, and self-examination. Podhoretz describes Twitter as “an open-mic night that’s always open,” and observes: “if I’m in a bad mood, or a surly frame of mind, I find myself Tweeting not in the manner (if not with the wit) of Jerry Seinfeld making puckish observations, but more like Don Rickles going after his audience’s jugular.”

Cynicism about politics can be seductive, too. The media thrive on conflict and scandal, and so it’s often the worst of political life that we focus on. But politics is necessary. “Politics is,” Krauthammer explains, “the moat, the walls, beyond which lie the barbarians. Fail to keep them at bay, and everything burns.

“First and above all else,” he continues, “you must secure life, liberty and the right to pursue your own happiness.” The “glories yielded by . . . 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.”

The alternatives, Krauthammer writes, are things like the “deranged Stalinist politics” of North Korea, creating “a land of stunning desolation and ugliness, both spiritual and material.” Or “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.”

One beautiful Saturday this October, at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fall River, Mass., 15 men were ordained permanent deacons in the Catholic Church. They serve as heralds of the Gospel, commissioned to “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, practice what you teach.” Later that day, I was present as Deacon Tim Flaherty delivered his first homily, at his parish church of St. Stanislaus. He echoed Pope Francis, who echoes the Gospel, in encouraging those in the congregation to come to know and trust God and His infinite mercy. Faith, the newly ordained deacon said, is trusting enough to change your life.

Heaven knows the world could use more of both mercy and justice, and confidence in truth.

We have a choice. Do we seek and encourage the good? In our lives and, yes, in our politics? These things — our lives, our ethics, the quality of our enterprises, our dedication to stewardship of the gifts that we have been given and men have died to protect — are all intimately related. We’re free to disengage, but it’s really not a moral option.

“[C]ampaigns and elections . . . personalities and peccadilloes” are “things that come and go,” Krauthammer writes. “[P]artisan contentions that characterize the daily life of a democracy — the tentative, incremental, ever-improvised” — are political realities. But what are they informed by? What are we arguing about? What are we fighting for? What are we working toward? Who are we? Whom do we live for? These are things that matter. A politics without conscience and the conscious abandonment of politics are both recipes for civilizational disaster.

Wither or flourish. Therein lie the stakes and the power of politics. Politics isn’t everything, but it’s inescapable. Wise engagement makes all the difference. Men of faithful dedication, living lives of discernment, light the path on Twitter, “All-Star” panels, in communities, and even in the halls of power. We know all too well the alternatives, and know those are not choices we can live with.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.