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To sort out the truth, we must re-humanize the political dialogue

The following is a rabbinic text from 1,500 years ago:

When God had decided to create Adam, Rabbi Shimon teaches that the ministering angels broke up into factions. Some of them said; “Create him;” while others said, “Don’t do it.”

Lovingkindness said: Create him, for he will do acts of lovingkindness. Truth said: Don’t create him, for he is drenched in lies. Righteousness said: Create him, for he will do much Tzedaka. Peace said: Don’t do it, for he is essentially quarrelsome.

What did the Holy One do? He took Truth and cast it into the ground. God then created human beings.

I appreciate Rabbi Shimon’s point, but I must admit he could have made a stronger case had he said, “You want proof that human beings are incompatible with truth? Watch this 30-second  YouTube commercial made by a presidential campaign.”

Watch this commercial made by Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign that claims that Sen. John McCain has stood in the way of federally funded stem-cell research. Rabbi Shimon could then point out that yes, McCain did once oppose it, but since 2001 he has been very supportive.

Or watch this ad made by McCain that claims Obama will raise your taxes. Rabbi Shimon could have then quoted the Brookings Institution’s independent analysis of the plan to reveal that 80 percent of taxpayers would actually see their taxes reduced. 

What inference could be made?
As any good Talmudic mind might, Rabbi Shimon could then have asked if we can make an inference about humanity from two individuals. Well yes, he might have said. Those two individuals are simply giving people what they want. They function the way they do because nobody demands that they do it any differently.

But isn’t a democracy about doing what the people want?

Enter now, into this theoretical rabbinic conversation, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. When asked whether politicians simply do what the people want, he said:

“I’ll tell you what the people want. One of the major inclinations in every human being is a desire to be deceived. Self-deception is a major disease. We live in a world full of lies … we call it ‘credibility gap’ when what we mean really is lying. The task of a statesman is to be a leader, to be an educator and not to cater to what people desire almost against their own interests.”

Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Heschel would blame us for those 30-second ads. They would blame us for allowing a politics that casts truth to the ground. Is it really our fault?

Well let me ask you: When I mentioned the candidates’ ads a minute ago, were you already coming up with a defense for your candidate of choice — hoping that it wasn’t true?

Have we chosen teams over truth?

‘The Big Sort’
According to the author Bill Bishop, we have most certainly chosen teams over truth. He published this year a book called “The Big Sort: Why the clustering of like-minded Americans is tearing us apart.” With sociological, demographic and political research he points out trends that have been going on in our country in the last three decades. We are increasingly choosing media sources that confirm our preexisting opinions. We are choosing religious communities that are more politically uniform. We are living next to people who vote just like us. We are building communities of similar-minded people upon the ground under which truth is buried.

The clustering of like-minded people meets the needs of the individual, but has devastating effects on democracy and society. Citing a number of sociological experiments, Bishop concludes that diverse groups come to moderate decisions and like-minded groups came to extreme decisions. In other words, talking only with people who share our beliefs doesn’t just confirm them; it actually makes them more extreme. And as we distance ourselves from those with whom we disagree, it becomes easier to dehumanize them.

Our country was designed to avoid this cocooning of the mind. Bishop quotes the scholar Cass Sunstein, who explains that the framers of the Constitution rejected the idea that elected officials should mirror exactly the positions of their constituents. They rejected the right of the constituents to instruct an elected official on how to vote. Once elected, the politician was supposed to engage in deliberation with other politicians with the freedom to sway and be swayed. The framers brilliantly recognized that deliberation prevented extremism.

Teams and labels over arguments and principles
But we have since chosen teams and labels over arguments and principles. Here is an example of the power of a label:

Bishop notes that 60 to 70 percent of Americans fall somewhere in the middle on the issue of abortion. In a poll taken on Election Day 2004, only 37 percent said that abortion should always be legal or always illegal. But in 2005 a poll phrased it a little differently. It asked whether people considered themselves strongly pro-life or strongly pro-choice. Asked in this way, the middle disappeared; 70 percent chose one label or the other. And this is preventing compromise in our legislatures. Bishop has a conversation with Minnesota legislators on the issue. A Republican recalls how he partnered with a Democrat to author a bill that sought to reduce the number of abortions and guarantee rights. A compromise was crafted to satisfy both positions. The bill was prevented from passage by extremes in both parties. The Republican said regretfully, “What we have here is idea segregation.” Teams, labels and parties take precedence over facts, arguments and principles.

A county commissioner reports that when he is asked about his stance on property rights people assume they then know where he stands on abortion, guns and taxes. Bishop writes that people are bringing their views in line with their parties. Instead of thinking about an issue on its own merit, they are linking it to other issues and thinking about them from a party perspective.

The parties and our sorting make it harder to be pro-life and supportive of higher taxes. Supportive of the war in Iraq and for universal health care. Even though these issues have nothing to do with each other, we are made to feel that we are contradicting ourselves by not toeing the party line. If we vote for a candidate for a particular party, do we have to defend everything they stand for? Where has all the thinking gone?

We take a one-dimensional picture in our minds and dehumanize others. We do this because it is our nature to control and simplify, i.e. you’re a Democrat, you’re pro-life; I know everything I need to know. Ours is a politics of demonization and dehumanization. Have we thought so completely through our positions on issues that we should lord ourselves over those who in our minds can only have the worst and most selfish motivations?

Considering opposing arguments
What if those who oppose us have an honest intellectual argument for their positions?

Hillel and Shammai were the archetypal debating partners in the Talmudic era. Their disagreements are legendary as are their philosophical schools. The Talmud reports of one disagreement in particular that threatened to divide the Torah in two. At that moment a heavenly voice came down and said elu v’elu divrei elohim chayim — “these and these are the words of the living God.” But the voice went on to say in this case the law goes according to Hillel. Why? Not because the school of Hillel had a more compelling argument. Sometimes both sides have good arguments. The Talmud explains that Hillel’s position was accepted because it was Hillel’s practice when he was teaching to always cite Shammai’s position before going on to teach his own.

There are a number of benefits to this approach: Yes, it creates an environment of greater respect. Yes, it elevates the dialogue and focuses on issues and facts instead of labels and loyalties. Yes, we all learn more instead of hardening ourselves and narrowing our thought process. But most importantly, we don’t let parties own issues. We actually consider them on the merits.

Consider that Iran is a serious threat to the well being of Israel and to the position of the United States in geo-politics. Their pursuit of a nuclear weapon should concern us all. I’ve seen anti-war signs that link Iraq and Iran and make the point that Iran is just another conquest from our imperialist country. Whatever one feels about the Iraq war, whatever the politics surrounding it- Iran must not be seen through a political lens. It must not belong to any politician or party. It is a problem that belongs to all of us.

Consider that global warming is a threat to our way of life as we know it. Tom Friedman’s new book “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” is an attempt to depoliticize the issue. He writes “Green is not just a new form of generating electric power, it is a new form of generating national power —  period.” This issue must not belong to any politician or party. It is a problem that belongs to all of us.

Can we possibly free ourselves from having to support every position of a candidate or party? Defend every statement or action they make? Can we agree that parties and politicians are imperfect and cannot nearly reflect the complexity of a person who may vote for them?

Let us recommit to the truth by being intellectually honest. My challenge to each one of us, including me, going into this election is to run through our minds with fairness and open mindedness the argument of a candidate or party with whom we do not normally identify. To see the world through their eyes. To put away our cardboard cutout perceptions and re-humanize the dialogue.

If there is no market for lies, the producers won’t find them profitable. This year let’s pledge to unearth a little truth.

Aaron Brusso is a rabbi at Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka. He was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where he also received a master’s degree in Jewish philosophy.  Rabbi Brusso also holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and environmental studies from American University. This article is adapted from a sermon he delivered during Rosh Hashanah.


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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Phyllis Stenerson on 10/20/2008 - 12:24 pm.

    Yes! Rabbi Brusso cites one of the basic problems in politics and culture that we citizens can fix. Not easily or quickly, but it can be done. This is something that must come from the grassroots. It will never happen from the top down. We’ll have to unlearn some divisive ways of communicating and learn new ways to have genuine dialogue. Clergy could provide leadership to get this going.

  2. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/21/2008 - 10:35 am.

    Nice article, Rabbi, but I must quibble on one issue: You seem to have uncritically accepted the administration’s contention (and Israel’s) that Iran is without question developing nuclear weapons, even though there are opposing views.

    The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports that it made a dozen or more unannounced inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities over the year ending this spring when it issued its latest report. The IAEA found zero evidence that Iran is seeking to develop uranium beyond the level required for the peaceful production of energy.

    The portion of the IAEA’s report that said Iran was “withholding information” referred NOT to its current program but to the one it ended several years ago.

    This spring’s US intelligence estimate also reported that none of its member agencies/departments found evidence of any attempt to produce nuclear weapons.

    Iran has neither carried out sufficient new drilling to add to its supply of crude available for export OR maintained its refining infrastructure. It therefore really does need to develop new sources of energy before its current wells run dry in a few years.

    Iran has been demonized, as was Iraq before it, by the Bush administration until even most members of Congress believe in what is probably a fictional accusation. As most of them believed the “WMD” fiction of 2002/2003.

  3. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 10/21/2008 - 10:56 am.

    This is an interesting perspective…and yet it suggests other cocoons…

    “We take a one-dimensional picture in our minds and dehumanize others.”

    “…to consider that Iran is a serious threat to the well-being of Israel…”

    “…to see the world through their eyes…”

    If Iran is the enemy of Israel and if they acquire nuclear power of any form, does it not threaten the Palestinian as well as the Israeli?

    And is not the Iranian as fearful of Israel’s use of nuclear power, even as is the Israeli and the Palestinian of Iran’s potential acquisition?

    And certainly policy choices, political “cocoons’ wrap even the candidates themselves…as both are ardently supportive of Israel…but what of the Palestinian?

    How does one “re-humanize” without respect for the rights of all “cocooned” within a policy issue? Who casts the first “cocoon” in the greater scenario?

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