Thursday, October 9, 2008

Toxic politics

One thing that Jews do on Yom Kippur is to examine our relationships with others. I want to expand that idea and look at the relationship that we all have to the current political culture in America.

I've been as guilty as anyone of promoting an antagonistic political atmosphere, because I get angry when right wingers say certain things about my religion or my sexual orientation. However, there's a larger issue here. The closer we get to this election, and the worse this economic crisis becomes, it seems that our national political culture just gets nastier and nastier. It's gotten to the point that those on the right take up pitchforks and torches anytime anyone on the left says anything remotely critical of them, and many people can't even fathom the idea of sitting down to a civilized discussion of the issues. Any questioning of a line of argument is turned around as an accusation of bias. People's relationships and supposed associations are attacked, even without any concrete evidence to back up said accusations, and even when the attacker has associations of his own that could be brought up as a counterattack. The terrifying specter of religious hatred is raised and used to brand our enemies with false labels we choose to fear out of ignorance. We've created a toxic environment in which the issues that actually matter get buried in a sludge of personal attacks and ideological crusading, and any common ground we might have once had gets lost in the mess.

I believe that one of the things that makes this country great is the fact that we all have the right to speak our minds, even when doing so offends someone. I can't muzzle a right winger because he disparages Muslims in a way that I find, frankly, racist and repugnant. A right winger can't muzzle me because I celebrate the fact that I got married to my life partner in California last weekend, even if that right winger is offended by my relationship. I can't muzzle the same right winger because I am offended by his offense. And so on.

When we attack each other instead of disagreeing in a civil and intelligent manner, we demean ourselves and bring our political culture down a notch. When we disparage a religion, or a viewpoint, on its face, instead of debating its merits, we are guilty of willful ignorance and bigotry. When those of our fellow Americans with whose political ideas we disagree become our enemies whose patriotism we question, we begin to emulate those we fought against in World War II.

This Yom Kippur, I have atoned for my own sins in this area, for my own participation in our toxic political culture. I will also forgive those who have offended and insulted me over the past year. I do this in the hope that the next year will see a reawakening of what's good about American politics - the active, intelligent, and civilized discussion of the issues that matter to all of us, and an end to what's bad about American politics - the blame, hate, and bigotry that infects our culture and grinds our collective intellectual development to a halt.

If you banish the yoke from your midst,
If you rid yourself of scornful finger-pointing
And words of contempt;
If you open up your life-experience to the hungry
And soothe the life that has been trampled under foot,

Then even in darkness your light will shine out
And your moments of gloom turn bright as noonday.
Then the Breath of Life will always be your guide,
Will soothe your own life in your own times of dryness
And strengthen your bones when they are weary.

from Isaiah Ch. 57.