Yes, Congress is Embarrassing …But That’s Not the Worst Of It

Woody Allen used to say that telling jokes to an audience that’s drunk or stoned guarantees you nothing more than cheap laughs. Anything will be funny to those people, because they’re “under the influence.” Their judgment is impaired.

With regard to our Congress– or, in fairness, its craziest members– and their stubborn refusal to do the work they were elected to do (nothing really important, just funding the American government), I am tempted to invoke the Woody Allen rule. There is much to say about the deplorable state of American politics, and particularly about those members of Congress who have taken it upon themselves to hold the American people hostage to their ideological silliness, but it would almost all fall into the category of a cheap joke. It’s too easy. Michelle Bachman and Ted Cruz aren’t worth the effort, basically because any joke or observation about them, no matter how clever or insightful it might be, couldn’t possibly express the depth of contempt that I feel for them right now. There is, indeed, a lot to say, but I’m going to work on the assumption that, even if left unsaid, it is apparent to most people.

I am, however, deeply concerned by a different aspect of this current embarrassment; something that runs far deeper than the flawed personalities who are driving this runaway bus of a government. A number of commentators have asked what Washington’s dysfunction looks like to our allies, not to mention to our enemies. A fair question, to be sure. But I am concerned about what our government looks like to younger Americans… to our children, to young adults who are coming of age as voters, and perhaps most significantly, to those young men and women who might view public service as an admirable career goal, and then confront…. this mess.

I have, on more than one occasion, written about what it meant to me to come of age in an America that appeared sometimes to be coming apart at the seams. When I was in college, the war in Viet Nam was tearing us apart, the student protest movement was turning campuses into a different kind of war zone, parents and children were discovering how very differently they viewed the world, and by most of the objective criteria that we had always used, it looked like this noble experiment called the United States was going south. The government, it turned out, was more corrupt than any of us had even dared to imagine, leading to the resignation of a President. Nothing seemed as it should be.

Despite all of that turmoil, when I think back on the late sixties and early seventies, I remember them as a time of engagement and caring. The student protests were generated by people who actually cared deeply about this country, and though some of what was done in the name of that caring was undoubtedly misguided and even hurtful, it was the very opposite of alienation and cynicism. America mattered to us. Its political system and the way it functioned mattered to us. In the words of a famous rock anthem of those days, we wanted to “change the world, rearrange the world.” Crosby, Stills and Nash didn’t know it, but they were talking about Tikkun Olam.

If I were a young person looking at the American government today, in the beginning of October 2013, I would see a government that has clearly lost its way, and I fear desperately that today’s younger generations will respond by simply turning away. One of the local stations here in New York, in response to the government shut down, was soliciting brief comments from people on the street for videotaping. A young woman- perhaps in her early twenties- looked straight into the camera, and said with both anger and sadness, “You want to know why so few people in this country vote? This is why!”

You know what? She’s absolutely right. What I hear increasingly from younger people is a sense that it just doesn’t make a difference who you vote for, because the political system in our country is so clearly broken. Of course, it might also be true that the current dysfunction in Congress makes a compelling case for why voting really does matter. Let’s get those crazy people out of Congress! The only way to do that is to get involved in the system, and vote them out. That, however, requires a level of engagement that most of them are unwilling to commit to.

But the most insidious– and, in the long term, dangerous– reaction to the current sad situation is the degree to which it will further dissuade talented and committed young people from considering a life in public service. As it is, the global village and its accompanying technology have made life exceedingly difficult for those who live their lives in the public eye. When almost every person on the street has a smartphone that can take pictures and video, there is virtually no such thing anymore as privacy, and certainly precious little room for making an off-handed comment that isn’t immediately put on YouTube for the whole world to watch over and over again. In addition, with American politics having been reduced to the relentless need to raise money, coupled with having to deal with ideological zealots who are willing to do almost anything to advance their causes, who can fault the best and the brightest for saying, in the words of Mishnah Sanhedrin, mah lanu ul’tzarah hazot? Loosely translated, who needs this?

The answer is, we the American people need this. We need people to feel as if public service is a noble calling, because without any attraction for the more talented and committed, we wind up with the likes of Ted Cruz and Michelle Bachman. And we can’t afford that. If nothing else, what’s going on now is proof positive of that.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.