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Sean Speer: On the importance of not losing your head


This past weekend my family and I traveled from New York City where we live most of the year to L’Orignal, Ontario, where we spend our summers, Christmas, and other holidays. That our cross-border trek (with a beagle and a baby) took place between Canada Day and July 4 seemed like a fitting metaphor for our binational existence. 

The trip got me thinking of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Charles Krauthammer whose own binational upbringing would have had him follow a similar route dozens of times. He was born in Manhattan but moved to Montreal with his family when he was five. Krauthammer stayed in Montreal (though he spent his summers in Long Beach, New York) until he graduated from McGill University in 1970. He then returned to the United States to earn his medical degree from Harvard in 1975 before moving to Washington in 1978 to pursue his passion for ideas and politics. 

It involved a short stint as a speechwriter for Vice President Walter Mondale followed by a successful stop as a writer and editor at the New Republic. As Krauthammer’s politics gravitated from liberalism to conservatism, he became a nationally-syndicated columnist at the Washington Post where he remained until his passing in June 2018. 

It’s hard to overstate how fortunate we were that Krauthammer chose politics over medicine (as his good friend and fellow Washington Post columnist George Will once put it: “the nation needed Charles more as a diagnostician of our public discontents”) and how unfortunate we are that cancer took him at the precise moment that renewed domestic and geopolitical turmoil calls out for his illuminating and principled commentary. 

Krauthammer was a giant. Will wrote The Charles Krauthammer I knew on his passing: “Some people are such a large presence while living that they still occupy space even when they are gone.”

His columns didn’t just help his readers to put contemporary politics and major geopolitical developments into an intellectual and moral framework. Krauthammer helped to actively define the era through his ability to see the world and write about it clearly without any pretensions or self-censorship. He gave us the “Reagan Doctrine” to conceptualize the Reagan Administration’s Cold War policy and the “unipolar movement” to describe its aftermath. He was at the forefront of cutting-edge debates about bioethics and brought expression to how millions of Americans felt in reaction to the 9/11 attacks. 

My favourite Krauthammer column though, as I mentioned on a recent Hub Roundtable podcast, is his December 2011 column, “Alone in the universe.” The column’s premise is that the absence of intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy may be an admonitory sign that advanced civilizations destroy themselves. As he wrote: 

In other words, this silent universe is conveying not a flattering lesson about our uniqueness but a tragic story about our destiny. It is telling us that intelligence may be the most cursed faculty in the entire universe—an endowment not just ultimately fatal but, on the scale of cosmic time, nearly instantly so.

The only safeguard against such an existential fate is the proper work of politics which he described as the “ordering of society and the regulation of power to permit human flourishing while simultaneously restraining the most Hobbesian human instincts.”

Then Krauthammer explains: 

There could be no greater irony: For all the sublimity of art, physics, music, mathematics and other manifestations of human genius, everything depends on the mundane, frustrating, often debased vocation known as politics (and its most exacting subspecialty—statecraft). Because if we don’t get politics right, everything else risks extinction.

We grow justly weary of our politics. But we must remember this: Politics—in all its grubby, grasping, corrupt, contemptible manifestations—is sovereign in human affairs. Everything ultimately rests upon it.

For those involved in the world of ideas and politics, these passages are a call to persevere in the face of frivolity and frustration. They’re a reminder that a politics of moderation (as defined by one’s temperament rather than ideology) is a crucial precondition for peace, order, and prosperity. It matters. 

Krauthammer’s political moderation came out of his exposure to left- and right-wing radicalism as a student at McGill, which he outlinedCHARLES KRAUTHAMMER TRANSCRIPT in a 2015 interview: 

And I remember at the tender age of—I went to college at 16, so I was probably 18, and a junior—and there was a giant demonstration to liberate McGill, and at the head of it arm in arm was the most radical Communist professor at McGill, a guy called Stanley Gray, arm in arm with a guy whose name I forget, the leader of the French radical nationalist, essentially a fascist party.

Extremely anti-immigrant, they didn’t want anybody to come in because they wanted only French immigrants. They were marching arm in arm. Now, normally it takes ’til middle age to realize that Left and Right are essentially at the extremes, the equivalent, totalitarian, they have different words for them. You know that nationalism, extreme nationalist, extreme socialism they don’t just meet in Berlin in 1933, they can meet at McGill in 1968, or whatever that was.

So I became very acutely aware of the dangers, the hypocrisies, and sort of the extremism of the political extremes. And it cleansed me very early in my political evolution of any romanticism. I detested the extreme Left and extreme Right, and found myself somewhere in the middle.

This commitment to anti-radicalism pushed Krauthammer in a conservative direction at a time when the political Left had something of a monopoly on radicalism. It wasn’t that he left liberalism so much as contemporary liberalism came to tolerate fringe fellow travelers in the form of the anti-globalization movement, moral relativists, naive isolationists, and a disturbing number of anti-Semites. Conservatism, therefore, seemed comparatively analytical, pluralistic, and serious in the interregnum between the end of the Cold War and Donald Trump’s surprising election in 2016. 

We’ll never fully know how Krauthammer would have reacted to the recent rise of reactionary politics on the Right. Cancer treatments caused him to stop writing roughly ten months before his death in June 2018. But we have two reasons to think that he would have been as principled a critic of this regrettable right-wing trend as he was of left-wing radicalism. 

The first is the series of columns that he was able to write following Trump’s election. As other conservative pundits came to reconcile themselves with Trumpism, Krauthammer was uncompromising: Trump, in his view, was a “demagogue” and “Third World strongman” who represented a “systemic stress test” to the American system of government. He refused to say two plus two equals five just because Trump was a Republican and appointed good judges. 

The second was he basically anticipated these developments in a 1993 commencement speech at McGill in which he warned about the risk of getting swept up in fits of political fervour. As he toldCommencement at McGill the graduating class: 

First, don’t lose your head. I’m speaking here of intellectual fashion, of the alarming regularity with which the chattering classes, that herd of independent minds, are swept away by the periodic enthusiasms that wash over the culture… 

The next time you find yourself in the midst of some national hysteria with sensible people losing their heads, with legislatures in panic, and with the media buying it all and amplifying it with a kind of megaphone effect, remember this: 

Remember that a people—even the most sensible people—can all lose their heads at once.

Fundamentally, though, Krauthammer’s strength as a public intellectual was his principled pluralism. Although he changed his mind on key issues over his lifetime (including his shift from the Left to the Right on the welfare state), he never wavered on this fundamental ideal. In a tribute to his hero Isaiah Berlin,A MASTER AT EXPOSING PSEUDO-FREEDOMS he wrote

The true heart of the liberal political tradition is the belief that no one has the secret as to what is the ultimate end and goal of life. There are many ends, each deserving respect, and it is out of this very pluribus that we get freedom.

This consistent principle for Krauthammer reflected a clear-eyed view of the fragility of democracy and the fruits that it enables. His was a politics of Burkean gratitude: the notion that success (or failure) is ultimately determined by an ongoing multi-generational process of maintenance and improvement. 

As Krauthammer told McGill students in his 1993 commencement speech: 

It was the advice of Chesterton who defined tradition as the democracy of the dead. Tradition is the ultimate democracy because it extends the franchise to generations past and benefits from their hard-earned wisdom.

Four years after his untimely death, we still miss the sublimity of his wisdom on both sides of the border. 

Lisa Richmond: The decline of religion has socio-economic implications for all Canadians


The little Anglican church in my neighbourhood is sponsoring a Ukrainian family to settle in Canada. Under the Government of Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees program, the congregation has committed to covering all of the family’s expenses, and providing social and emotional support, for the first 12 months of their new life in Canada.

Refugee sponsorship is just one of myriad ways that faith congregations—Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and others—contribute to Canadian society. (For a fascinating history of religious Canadians’ involvement in refugee resettlement, see Geoffrey Cameron’s Send Them Here: Religion, Politics, and Refugee Resettlement in North America, recently published by McGill-Queen’s University Press).Send Them Here: Religion, Politics, and Refugee Resettlement in North America Researchers have long studied the social, psychological, and civic benefits that accrue from religious belief and religiously motivated behaviour. But, how much does the existence and activity of religious congregations contribute annually to the Canadian economy? The Halo Project at Cardus is an effort to answer that question in dollars-and-cents terms.

Our latest research suggests that the activity of Canada’s more than 20,000 religious congregations produces $18.2 billion worth of benefits for society. We use a method first developed by researchers at the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, which we adjusted for the Canadian context. A congregation’s economic impact can be assessed on the basis of 41 variables, in the following categories:

  • Open space, used for recreation or providing environmental benefit
  • Direct spending on salaries, operations, and facilities
  • Education through an on-site school or child care, among other programs
  • The “magnet effect” of attracting attendees to bar/bat mitzvahs, funerals, concerts, weddings and the like, who then spend their dollars at hotels, restaurants, and other businesses
  • Activities that benefit individual people, such as counselling, refugee resettlement, and other forms of assistance 
  • Community development, including housing initiatives and job-training programs
  • Social capital and care, such as food banks and AA meeting space

The details of our methodology can be found in our 2016 report, which was a pilot study of ten Toronto-area congregations.Valuing Toronto’s Faith Congregations Since then, researcher Mike Wood Daly has applied the methodology to 76 congregations across Canada and to 100 congregations in not-yet-published research.Dollars and $ense: Uncovering the Socio-Economic Benefit of Religious Congregations in Canada

The latest work suggests that direct spending accounts for 26 percent of a congregation’s total Halo impact, on average. This finding has enabled us to create a Halo Calculator powered by congregational-spending data that we obtained from the T3010 Registered Charity Information Return that congregations file with the Canada Revenue Agency. Users of the calculator can enter the name of a congregation, or a city or other geographic area, and receive its corresponding Halo estimate.

There are some important limitations of our methodology. First, some of the variables require self-reporting by the congregation that we are not able to independently verify. Second, our research does not seek to account for negative economic impact that congregations may generate. To take one important example, some people have been abused in congregational settings. Costs relating to their recovery or to the prosecution of the offender are not included in Halo studies. And finally, I want to emphasize that the calculator provides only an estimated Halo value for congregations that have not been directly studied. To obtain the actual Halo impact, a congregation would need to apply its own data to each of the 41 variables.

Yet the Halo Project provides a valuable lens through which to view the contribution of faith communities to our shared life. In my city of Hamilton, ON, for example, the calculator reveals that there are 236 congregations producing an estimated $347 million in economic activity. If Hamilton is similar to other places where Halo studies have been conducted, almost nine of 10 people benefiting from these congregations’ programs and services are not members of those congregations.The Economic Halo Effect of Historic Sacred Places

Some faith groups in Canada have an outsized Halo impact. Jewish congregations account for just one percent of the congregations in the data set yet produce three percent of the total Halo impact. Mennonite Christians have three percent of the congregations but command four percent of the impact. Congregations in BC, Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario have a disproportionately higher Halo impact than do those in other provinces.

Congregations across Canada are at work each day contributing to a stronger and more resilient social fabric, and the impact of religiously motivated activity is enormous. The Halo Project is focused on congregations only, but other religiously motivated non-profits are active as well. Cardus has profiled the work of some of these: Ve’ahavta provides food and services to the very poor. The Service d’accompagnement spirituel pour les personnes malades ou âgées à domicile (SASMAD) is helping to make the lives of the sick and elderly a bit less lonely. Ismaili CIVIC mobilizes volunteers to contribute to all sorts of worthy causes.

Of course, non-religious Canadians and groups are also active in giving and volunteering. But the fact is that religious Canadians contribute disproportionately more, to both religious and non-religious causes. Forty-five percent of the country’s total giving comes from the 14 percent of Canadians who attend religious services on a weekly basis, as do 29 percent of total volunteer hours. Returning to the example of refugee resettlement, my quick scan of the names of the 130 sponsorship agreement holders suggests that 94 of them are religious organizations.

As the percentage of Canadians who participate in religiously motivated activity declines, these contributions will decline also. The socio-economic effect will be felt by us all. Will other civil-society institutions, or the various levels of government, be able to increase their contributions to fill the gap? The Halo Project demonstrates how enormous a challenge this will be, in dollar terms. If the trend continues, all Canadians—religious or not—will be poorer for it.