Late last week, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer announced that he will soon succumb to cancer. The Post respected his wishes to keep the news low-key, and in the editorial board’s tribute to him noted that “[h]is unsparing judgments were cheered by some readers while angering others,” yet “few could disagree that he wrote a column of breathtaking range and intelligence and integrity.”
Urbane, witty, incisive, and intellectually uncompromising, Krauthammer assumed William F. Buckley, Jr.’s place as the preeminent voice of American conservatism in an era when the term “public intellectual” has all but lost its meaning. Whether one agreed or disagreed with him (and on issues like Israel and the Middle East, there was plenty with which to disagree), the debate usually circled around objective things — facts and data and history.
There will be much to mourn with Krauthammer’s passing, but high on the list is his emphasis on a discourse of agreement and disagreement, rather than on pointless debate over “right” and “wrong.”
Here’s why that’s especially important these days:
To say “I agree” or “I disagree” is to engage in an act of individual thought. It is a willingness to stake one’s place on the field and muster an argument to defend and to persuade, regardless of whether anyone else stands with you. It requires intellectual courage.
To say “I am right” and “you are wrong” is to engage in an act of ideological dogma. It is an invocation of a consensus — whether real or perceived — as a way to hide safely in numbers. It is intellectual cowardice.
Right now, in this country, it sure looks like the ideologues are starting to win.
# # #
Just short of a year ago, I stopped being a full-time freelance writer-editor and took a job as a staff reporter at the local paper, covering the county government, the environment, and the general beat. Since that time, I have been writing an average of 4,000 words a week about everything from septic system legislation to a convicted felon running for office.
I made the switch for a couple of reasons. The first was pragmatic. The last five years had been increasingly rocky. There’s always a fair amount of client turnover in freelancing, but gradually it became harder and harder to replace attrited clients with new ones until at the end I had just one “bread and butter” client left, and then they asked me to take on a project that turned out to be a bottomless pit of misery.
My rule of freelancing always was, if I woke up one day and found that I was not having fun anymore, I would quit. That day happened, and I did.
The second reason was idealistic. For most of my freelance career, I worked for clients in the nonprofit sector. These were people with a sense of mission and duty, who sought to improve lives and even save them. They fed the hungry, cared for the dying, and sought cures for fatal diseases. They helped people train for new careers that would lift them into the middle class. My words helped raise money, educate, and inform.
My work made a difference.
But as I had predicted — and had hoped (unsuccessfully) to ride out — it took about five years for the effects of the 2008 recession to really hit the nonprofit sector, and when it did, it was like a tsunami. Grants from local and federal governments dried up, individual donations flatlined for the first time ever, corporations — miserly even in the most bullish years — tightened up on their giving, family foundations decided to divert their money to struggling offspring instead of to local charities, and investors recommended socking money away for later instead of taking charitable donation writeoffs now.
And gradually the clients disappeared. Editors got laid off. Organizations shut their doors. Overnight, good writers went from being a necessity to being a luxury.
(The full effects of this catastrophe have yet to completely play out, by the way, but when the waters finally recede the devastation they leave behind will be biblical.)
The stress of it all gave me an idiopathic atrial fibrillation that put me into the hospital for heart surgery for something that typically shows up in people in their 70s.
I came through that just fine, but still I ended up with just the one client and the bottomless pit project.
And in the middle of all of that, the 2016 election happened.
So I decided to volunteer as a foot-soldier on the front lines of the war on fact. If “the media” was going to be under attack, then I wanted to stand with them and take fire with them in my own small way. I wanted to hold one small stretch of the line against the onslaught.
My editor is terrific, with a passion for the news and a believer in the role that the independent press plays in the community. My colleagues are energetic, self-motivated, and smart.
I get to hold elected officials accountable for their actions or their inactions. I get to turn a spotlight on things that people might prefer happen in shadows. And I get to celebrate people who are cleaning up the watershed or donating backpacks full of school supplies to needy kids.
The new job represents a helluva pay cut (working for that last client for 10 hours a week would pay more than I’m making now), but I haven’t been this happy since the heyday of my freelancing career.
I’m making a difference again.
# # #
The news — factual, accurate, thoroughly reported stories about current events that inform and enrich civic life — may be our last best hope for getting people to stop screaming about being wrong and just simply disagree with one another.
Like civilized people do.
Categorised as: Life the Universe and Everything