Will America be defined by its political extremes? In defense of feeling embarrassed
America stands threatened. It isn’t Donald Trump, alone. It isn’t the Radicalized Left, alone. It isn’t the Freedom Caucus, alone. Nor is it Russian internet trolls, alone.
We are all in this, all our fates intertwined. Our children’s schools are vulnerable, our churches and mosques and synagogues are vulnerable, women are vulnerable, LGBTQ people are vulnerable, Black and Muslim people are vulnerable, immigrant refugees from war-torn countries are vulnerable — all of us are vulnerable. Vulnerable, together.
So, you might ask: what can we do? The answer will only emerge if we stand together, listen together, and refuse to be made to feel alone. This short essay is an attempt to describe some of the ways we can ensure that the rifts that threaten to tear us apart might be stayed, and perhaps how we might even find our ways back to each other as fellow citizens.
But first, a note on focusing locally:
Why concentrate on the domestic political dynamic and not abroad, when this problem is clearly present around the world?
- Firstly, the phrase “think globally, act locally” rings true: Though not exclusively an American problem, the foundations of American Democracy, if eroded, carry global impact, and so addressing the dynamic here could (please, God) help there as well.
- Secondly, Paul Farmer’s philosophy of “pragmatic solidarity” as a response to infectious disease comes to mind. In short, Farmer points out that, in today’s global marketplace, the notion that what happens there will remain there is ludicrous. It is only a matter of time before the problems that hurt people far away will hurt people nearby. Or, paraphrasing the Torah: “there is no home untouched by death. (Ex. 12:30)”
Now, the problem:
It has been pointed out by thought-leaders on the left and the right (Dahlia Lithwick and Bill Kristol, for instance) that course, base language in American media ravaging the fabric of American society, never moreso than since Trump was elected President. The “words don’t matter President” has influenced and re-calibrated American discourse in measurable ways. ‘
Words do matter. But to focus exclusively on language alone is inadequate. It is the ideas behind the words, the comfort with coarseness that requires our most serious attention.
Among the most serious recent violation of bipartisanship and Americanism happened just this week, when Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, blew a dog whistle for American anti-Semites when he said at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that three Jewish philanthropists were funding a socialist takeover of the United States. Following LaPierre’s extended remarks, United States Representative Claudia Tenney (NY-R), suggested that Democrats are more prone to be mass shooters.
(It is interesting to note that the Jewish Telegraphic Agency changed their headline for the story, first calling it “NRA Chief Singles Out Jewish Billionaires” and then renaming it “NRA chief singles out George Soros and Michael Bloomberg.”)
There is more reason for concern:
- Just this past week, a legislative aide to Florida State Representative Shawn Harrison was fired after he accused two Parkland high school students of pretending to be survivors, a far-right conspiracy theory commonly practiced after mass shootings.
- During last week’s CPAC conference, conservative columnist Mona Charen was escorted out after speaking on an all-women panel titled “#UsToo: Left Out by the Left” and rebuking conservatives for excusing the behavior of both President Trump and Alabama Republican Roy Moore.
- It is likely that, on March 20, Arthur Jones, a Holocaust denier and a former head of the American Nazi Party, will represent the Republican party in a run for a U.S. congressional seat in Illinois.
But, even more alarming than the horrifying propagandist rhetoric and political positions of current American public figures is the apparent public acceptance in their aftermaths and Americans’ short attention spans. As the Talmud reminds us: “later troubles make us forget the earlier ones (TB Brachot, 13).” There seems to always be the next hateful tweet or racist pejorative. Will LaPierre be held accountable by NRA members for his extremism? Will CPAC apologize for this? Will the GOP block the nomination of a Holocaust denier? Will American organizations allow language of extremism to flavor their gatherings? Will we remember the dangers of past sins in time to stop them if and when they are resurrected? After all, as George Santayana famously taught:
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
All this boils down to one question: Will America be defined by its extremes?
By granting any idea prominence in the name of an open tent, the ties that bind are weakened. No organization can thrive if its stewards don’t mindfully guide. It would be like expecting society to function without laws. There must be moral parameters for acceptable language and action, regardless of political opinion being expressed. So, while Anne Quindlen is correct that “ideas are like pizza dough; made to be tossed around,” Steven Covey is also correct when he suggests that healthy groups happen “when two or more respectful human beings determine to go beyond their preconceived ideas to meet a great challenge.”
In other words, when a leader speaks disrespectfully about another person or group of people and no one calls them out for the violation, great challenges go unmet. When we forget the danger of not engaging in public life, we condemn ourselves – and our children – to relive past sufferings.
The free market seems to be punishing the NRA in the wake of #NRABoycott social media campaigns, the real questions that must concern us revolve around the social norms we can only rely upon if we hold every public figure – on the Left and the Right – accountable when they inflame political fundamentalism in public discourse. While it is true that words like “oppression” and “resistance” reflect social realities and reactive political movements, we must remain aware that they can also reinforce the polarization-tendency currently eating away at American society.
As the great American Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote,
I am afraid of people who are never embarrassed at their own pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit, never embarrassed at the profanation of life. A world full of grandeur has been converted into a carnival. There are slums, disease, and starvation all over the world, and we are building more luxurious hotels in Las Vegas. Social dynamics is no substitute for moral responsibility.”
Let every American agree to feel embarrassed when we forget ourselves and allow the intended grandeur of our communities to be converted by carnival-esque extremists into dynamics of pettiness and hate. Perhaps then our intertwined fates will, once again, be for a blessing.