Charles Krauthammer discusses moral distinctions and American social habits.
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GUEST: Charles Krauthammer
HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. A few months back I read one of Time magazine’s occasional essays what was, well, I say only jokingly, the moral equivalent of War and Peace, of Hamlet or MacBeth, just great. I say that jokingly only because this essay was entitled “The Moral Equivalent of…”, and you fill in the dots. And it was about a growing unwillingness, or inability in American life to make moral distinctions, to do anything much more decisive than on almost every hand, to proclaim this minor inconvenience the moral equivalent of that major disaster. Time’s essayist wrote of a moral exhaustion, an abdication of the responsibility to distinguish between shades of gray. He protested our use of understanding to sap us of judgment. Or wisely, that the trouble with blurry moral distinctions is that it can become a habit, one we can ill afford. Indeed, I almost read here echoes of Dean Gildersleeve of Barnard telling her ladies to always have an open mind, but not so open that their brains fell out.
So how could I resist inviting to THE OPEN MIND the author of such insights, Charles Krauthammer, a Time essayist and Senior Editor of The New Republic? Thank you so much for joining me today, Mr. Krauthammer.
KRAUTHAMMER: It’s a pleasure to be here.
HEFFNER: I take great pleasure in reading your essays, and reading your pieces in The New Republic and I did note, as we discussed just before the program, that summertime brings out in you a little bit of the moralist. This year “The Moral Equivalent of…”, but last year in “Deep Down We’re All Alike, Right? Wrong?” You seemed to be concerned about this growing inability to make distinctions.
KRAUTHAMMER: I seem to have an annual need to relieve myself of moral indignation. And those are two occasions that have occurred in Time, yes.
HEFFNER: But I have the feeling that it isn’t just an annual need that comes and goes with the summertime. You are touching on what you obviously feel very strongly about in American life.
KRAUTHAMMER: It is. The problem is is that if you write about it more often, people stop listening, because the message is not a pleasant one, and it’s also not that original. But people need to be shown how the kinds of moral distinctions which we have traditionally always made are simply not being made. And I think the final straw this year was Dr. Seuss and his epic which came out a few months ago and is all the rage, The Butter Battle Book, in which there are two people, the Yooks and the Zooks, who are at war…obviously this is an allegory for the nuclear arms race…prepare to blow each other to smithereens, and the only distinction between them which is…in the book is that one side has their bread butter side up and the other butter side down. And I would submit that that really is the view of many people who are writing about nuclear weapons even more seriously than Dr. Seuss, and that at least once a year one needs a reminder that there’s more of a difference between us and the Russians than butter side up and butter side down.
HEFFNER: Well, when you wrote that, we went out and got the Dr. Seuss book…I don’t know if I brought it with me here today…yeah, sure…and having spent so many years reading Dr. Seuss to my children years and years ago, I was enthralled and entranced by the Dr. Seuss book. I was concerned, though, that what you see as a contemporary political message was what I as a young father would have seen as something very nice, and very right, and very moral to read to my kids. Are you seeing something more here than you should?
KRAUTHAMMER: Well, I doubt it. If you look at any of the comment, or the waves of approbation that have come after this book, everyone from Ralph Nader to Arthur Buchwald, all the sages of our time, they all make it clear…I think that Coretta Scott King had the ultimate quote on the book: Something like “This is the message that we really have to give our children if our species is to survive”, or something of that ilk. It’s obvious that the book is not written innocently as a mere children’s story, but that it is an allegory. And I think it’s more than an allegory, it’s more of an allegory than Dr. Seuss intends. I think it is, in many ways, an allegory for the way in which we think about the world.
HEFFNER: You say it’s more of an allegory than the author intends. Let’s forget about the book for a moment and just talk about this question of “Deep Down We’re All Alike, Right? Wrong?” Before this, and now “The Moral Equivalent of…”. I talk about these things…and I know…I do so very seriously. When I returned to Dr. Seuss and read The Butter Battle Book, those who butter their bread on the top and those who butter their bread on the bottom, knowing that you’re perfectly right, that it’s not the difference between us and the Russians…I wonder whether there still is room in our lives at this time for teaching that kind of lesson. Maybe not about the US and the USSR, but about you and me and my kids and their friends. Why do you want to rule that out?
KRAUTHAMMER: Well, I don’t want to rule it out. What I think I believe in here is a question of balance. And I think that the message that you’re alluding to is one that we’ve heard overwhelmingly in the last fifteen years in the post-Viet Nam era, when there was a loss of confidence in what the West stands for. In what America has achieved and can achieve. And I think there was a sense of relativism in many ways, our system, or our social structure being in some ways a choice, but not necessarily a superior choice to others. I think that has been a very strong message, and I think that what’s needed is the message on the other side, that there are very sharp distinctions and that we want at the same time to celebrate our oneness with others and understand our differences with others. Otherwise we enter the world disarmed, I think.
HEFFNER: That’s interesting that you say that, “Into the world disarmed” because obviously you’re talking in contemporary terms about armament.
KRAUTHAMMER: Which is one of the most salient examples of this kind of thinking, although it’s not restricted to the debate on nuclear weapons. It is true that, for example, in Europe, and you hear this kind of moral equivalent talk all the time, from the European peace movement. But I think it extends to many things. Another example, which I cited, was the way in which the Democratic candidates handled the Farrakhan affair. And I think…I remember a letter to The New Republic by Vice President Walter Mondale in which he had been accused of being silent on the Farrakhan affair and he defended himself by saying he was spoken out against it and that he would always speak out against people who try to divide the country on the basis of race or otherwise, whether it’s Louis Farrakhan, or whether it’s Ronald Reagan. Now that kind of placing of the President and Farrakhan on the same plane, I think, is another example of this inability or this unwillingness, sometimes for political reasons, to make very important moral distinctions.
HEFFNER: Do you think that, in any extent, is the fault, if that’s the word, of the wordsmiths who have…and you suggest this…to some extent, have based our language…words come to mean so many different things, and yet they mean something so infrequently that is specific, that is strong.
KRAUTHAMMER: I think that is one of the causes. There is a sense in the debasement of language, at least in the debasement of thought, if I may be so pompous…it’s clear that when the word “genocide” is applied to anything you don’t like, and no longer means the unique and horrible great evil that it is, then you can’t use the word. And then what happens is that you end up using another word, “holocaust”. And I was watching a public television station a few weeks ago, and I heard a commentator speak of the stock market drop of 1980 as “The Holocaust of 1980”. But when you use “holocaust” what word do you have left? I think the loss of these words, these heavily-charged words, is extremely significant and extremely dangerous.
HEFFNER: May I ask you whether you think there has been some purposefulness in the debasement, and I don’t think that that’s a strange word to use, debasement of language…or whether there has been some purposefulness in this easy, moral equivalency of ourselves in Grenada, perhaps, and the Soviets in Afghanistan?
KRAUTHAMMER: I think it’s more a lack of purpose. I think it’s a drift, and it comes out of the sense that we don’t have the confidence in ourselves or our civilization that we once did. Rather than…I’m very anti-conspiratorial in my thinking and I don’t think that there is any class or cabal that’s plotting to disarm us linguistically…I think what’s happening is, as a natural outcome of a lack of confidence because of a lot of setbacks in the 70s, Viet Nam, our economic setbacks, our prostration before OPEC…all of these things have contributed to a sense of aimlessness and a sense of lack of confidence. And I think that when that happens, one tends to use language which is less self-confident, less charged, less assertive than we once used.
HEFFNER: Why do you say so positively “I’m not concerned about conspiracies, I don’t think conspiratorially”? Why is that a badge to be worn? Why not think that way?
KRAUTHAMMER: Well, in the 1970s I lived in Boston and Cambridge, and I hung around chaps who were looking into the Kennedy assassination with fascination which was almost humorous and dangerous at times. And I see the same thing happening with the KAL-007 Flight. All of a sudden on the first anniversary, all we are hearing are stories about the lining up of the planets, of the American (???) plane and the Space Shuttle and the KAL Flight…were all lined up astrologically and therefore we have evidence of a conspiracy. I think…I don’t take any of this seriously. I tend to judge historical events on their surface because it’s safer and it also tends to make one less paranoid. I don’t…I think in this particular case, I think the more logical, the more parsimonious explanation is one that looks at society in general rather than attributes it to wordsmiths.
HEFFNER: Well, if…it’s interesting…I remember Midge Decter was at this table and we talked about that. She was pretty quick to disavow the notion of conspiracy. And I was just kind of puzzled about that. I’m not saying that I embrace it. But there seems to be a very quick, rapid movement that I know of…now don’t misunderstand me, I’m not talking about conspiracies, but this information can be accomplished so well with the kind of moral degradation that you’ve related to us…the kind of wiping out of moral distinctions. Why not? Because others have been kind of loony in their conspiratorial orientation?
KRAUTHAMMER: I don’t know (???) to be spending a lot of money on this information. But somehow, when we live in a world where the amount of information that’s released into the ether every day could be measured in the tons, I can’t see the (KGB?) as tilting the scales in any significant way by this bogus fact or other. I think that a much more logical or easy to understand explanation has to do with the tenor of the times.
HEFFNER: You know, that depresses me. It depresses me because I can almost see us doing something about conspiracy. It’s very difficult to see us doing something about the tenor of the times.
KRAUTHAMMER: Well, that’s why I think the Hard Right is barking up the wrong tree, if I can use a mixed metaphor. It is true that there are sources of disinformation that need to be exposed, but the real question that I think our society faces is whether…how it looks at itself…how the culture understands itself, how it understands its politics. And I think the answer to that question will hinge our future success or not, and not on whether we expose a couple of (Carla’s?) agents operating out of London.
HEFFNER: How about if we expose a generation of children, those who read the Dr. Seuss books, to the message that you seem to deplore?
KRAUTHAMMER: I think that has an effect, and I think it is, as of now, incalculable. But there is one thing that makes me optimistic…that young people, that young generations have a way of acting precisely against the propaganda that they were exposed to. If the sixties didn’t teach us that, then I think it taught us nothing. I’m not sure if the younger generation will grow up believing as Dr. Seuss does, and Helen Haldicott and others, to know the difference, as she once said, between a communist and a capitalist baby, which of course, is true. The problem in the world is the communist babies, it’s the communist adults. And I suspect that in the end, if there is enough opinion on the other side that sees the light of day, which can expose this kind of propaganda, I think it may, in the end, balance it out. And we may end up irrigating ourselves confidence in the next generation.
HEFFNER: You know, to come back to the thought that did concern me as I read you r piece and I saw you taking off on Dr. Seuss, and then as I read Dr. Seuss…I read him last night, and couldn’t help, once again, to think of the messages that I wanted, when I was a young man, to convey to my children. I don’t want NOT to convey those messages to them. I don’t want them to think that people whose skins are black…my children’s skins are white…are that different. I think that is the moral equivalent, if you will, of butter on one side of the bread rather than on the other. Or different religious beliefs, or what have you. How in the world do we accomplish you political, your immediate political objectives, and still, at the same time, expose our children to the same kind of message, not writ in political terms, but writ in human terms? That is such a wonderful message.
KRAUTHAMMER: I think it’s easy. You teach children to judge people by what they do and not by how they look. I think it’s not a hard message to teach. You can at the same time be against racism, against prejudice, and at the same time be anti-communist, in favor of liberal, democratic values. I think that’s the challenge of our time, but it’s the old argument that’s at least as old as the Cold War, period. Can you be a liberal anti-communist? Can you be strongly opposed to certain ideologies and in favor of others? And at the same time not degenerate into a rabid nationalism or chauvinism, or xenophobia? I think the answer is “yes”. It requires a balance, which is what I talked about a little earlier. And it’s that kind of balance which I think we have to achieve in our culture.
HEFFNER: The question I always end up, or at some point ask my guests is where they think we are going and…you expressed some optimism before…you also expressed what seemed to be, the most dire pessimism, at least that’s the way I interpreted it. With all the critical acclaim for this point of view in its political coronation, “The Moral Equivalent of…”, what do you see as happening to us on the larger political scale?
KRAUTHAMMER: It’s very hard to tell, and often my moods change whether I’ve heard a Democrat or a Republican at a speech at a convention.
HEFFNER: Which way, which one makes you feel “up” and which one makes you feel “down”?
KRAUTHAMMER: Well, I like to think that our future is really in our hands. I don’t, I’m not Svenglarian in the sense that I think that it’s been written and the forces at work will work themselves out in an inevitably catastrophic way. I’m not as optimistic as our president is. That is if you hope that everything will turn out right, even if you do it with blue smoke and mirrors, it will work out right. I think that we can make choices. Actually, what I write about is choices, moral choices, political choices, historical choices. And so I don’t believe that our history, our future history, has been written. I think we will make it…we can make it at the present time, and we will.
HEFFNER: You know, I do this program, THE OPEN MIND, and I do FROM THE EDITOR’S DESK, and I find constantly less here, face to face with an individual, with more time, really, to examine the “ifs”, the “ands” and the “buts”, more in programs in which somebody makes a statement and then you move on to the next point…I find increasingly…we talked before about the debasement of language, words don’t seem to mean that much. You make a statement, somebody picks up with where he is…I think it was Floyd Abrams, when he was at this table, referred to “where you stand depends upon where you sit”…and the notion that you do distort ideas that way…that I don’t see changing for the better. I see increasingly, in the age of public relations, so many more of us grabbing onto the main chance to take words and distort them to win arguments.
KRAUTHAMMER: I think a writer has to have John Stuart Mill’s belief that somehow if speech is free, in some way the truth will out. I don’t say that in a sort of a naïve way that it’s inevitable that there will be a straight path to it and we will have historical examples of the truth losing out, Weimar of Germany, and other places, for example. But in a relatively open society with a rather liberal, democratic history that we have, a writer has to have a belief that somehow, what he says, can…I think Tom Stobart says it in his last play, you can give the world a nudge a little bit if you get the words in the right order. And you have to believe that if enough people read those words and reflect upon them, it can have an effect. I think our history shows that single people or single writers, or single magazines, or single movements can change things. And I think it gives all of us a sense of wanting to participate rather than just folding our tents and retiring to the desert.
HEFFNER: That sounds like such a wonderfully liberal statement. The quotation from John Stuart Mill, with “the truth shall make us free”…that doesn’t seem to me to jibe with your description of what is happening to us as coming from the very atmosphere in which we live. We live in a democratic, free society. Then how do you explain the disparity between what you would expect and what you say we have?
KRAUTHAMMER: I think we are living in a national mood, in reaction to national events, and defeats, which is historically unique in American history. Maybe not the only time that we’ve had defeats, but we really had a period of ten, fifteen years where our growth, our sense of power, have all been questioned. And where for the first time, if you take public opinion polls, and people indicate that they don’t expect that tomorrow will be better than today, which is new. The idea of progress has always been a great engine in American history. And it’s now, in reaction to the historical events, in question. And I think there are…it’s time to take up that cause again. And to say that progress is possible, and to make that case. I think it can be made.
HEFFNER: It’s interesting…you say “the idea of progress”. But the idea of the concept of progress has a very limited history. It’s been with us for a certain period of time. One would assume that ideas have their genesis, come to fruition, and then perhaps die out. Why not?
KRAUTHAMMER: Well, in the eye of eternity, like all the others, I’m sure that our civilization will become the subject of someone else’s history books. I hope that someone else’s history books will be open, democratic and free, but I don’t know. But I don’t think one can live one’s life in the eye of eternity, otherwise I think the only place to retire to is a monastery. One lives in the eye of the present, or in the eye of this generation, this century, and I think that in the view of my lifetime, in the view of my children’s hopefully, I think we can succeed. We need to renew our confidence, to renew the idea of progress, and to make moral distinctions and to be hard on ourselves when necessary.
HEFFNER: Do you think that the soil is ripe? Not out of necessity, but the soil that has historically nourished the idea of progress? Do you think that that soil is there today?
KRAUTHAMMER: I think it is. I think we have an economic system whose historical record is astonishingly good for promoting growth and prosperity. We have a political system whose historical record is equally astounding for expanding liberties, even in our own country, to blacks and to women and to others. And I think that all of those historical legacies we have. I think we cannot trade in our capital forever, and we have to try to renew that capital, which tags me among my colleagues as a conservative of sorts, but I think that renewing that capital is extremely important.
HEFFNER: Does that bother you, that characterization, that labeling of you as a conservative?
KRAUTHAMMER: It doesn’t, because anything that associates me, however remotely, with Edmund Burke, is alright with me.
HEFFNER: Your great hero?
KRAUTHAMMER: He’s not my greatest hero. I happen to like John Stuart Mill better, although he’s not very fashionable these days. But Burke was wise beyond his years.
HEFFNER: It’s interesting to me that you talk about Burke and you talk about John Stuart Mill…these two essays that I’ve latched onto here…a year apart but a moral eternity not separated…”Deep Down We’re All Alike, Right, Wrong”…what did you mean by that?
KRAUTHAMMER: Well, I thought that one of the central fallacies of our culture is that people around the world, other cultures, other ideologies, want the same things that we do: Peace, prosperity and a good life for our children. And in a certain sense the answer to that is “of course, yes”. But that does not guide us in any way in how to respond to the challenges of those opposing ideologies. One could have made exactly the same case about Hitler. His society wanted peace, of course, on its own terms, prosperity, and a good life for its children. It says nothing to say that we have that in common. It says nothing at least in political terms. Perhaps it does in human terms. In political terms we have to ask “What are the challenges they pose to our way of life? And what are the dangers? And I think that to be blinded in some way by our human similarities I think is to be paralyzed politically.
HEFFNER: Is it political, too, to be staid, stopped in opposition, not to understand, not to believe that there is some basic concern for what you call peace, security, the growth of our children?
KRAUTHAMMER: I think it’s important, because it helps us to focus on how we can begin to negotiate with our adversaries, and try to hold out for them the same kinds of ends and rewards which we have. But to understand at the same time, that they may not put the same value on the things that we do. People often argue “The Soviets will stop their arms buildup because they need to increase their material progress”. But their society, which has lived for centuries at a lower standard of living…and there’s no reason to believe that they’ll give up their imperial visions now to put a chicken in every pot.
HEFFNER: We won’t put a chicken in every pot, but this is the point at which I have to thank you for joining me today.
KRAUTHAMMER: Thank you for having me.
HEFFNER: A pleasure, for joining me today. Thanks very much.
KRAUTHAMMER: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I do hope you’ll join us again here on THE OPEN MIND.
And, meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.
This is Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. We would like to know your ideas and your opinions on the subject we discussed. Please send your comments to me in care of THE OPEN MIND at this station.