Sunday, July 22, 2012

Open your ears,Close your minds

I recently finished reading all four volumes of Robert Caro's magisterial biography of Lyndon Johnson, a work that was supposed to take three volumes but now will actually need a fifth in order to complete the story. As in his first book, about Robert Moses and the creation of modern New York City, Caro focuses on power and how it is accumulated and used. He takes a clear and harsh stance on Johnson's ruthlessness in accruing power to himself, and the lengths he would go to, even destroying another man's career, in order to score political points. He paints Johnson as a bully and a master of the political arts who used those skills primarily to advance his lifelong goal of reaching the White House.

However, and this is to my mind one of the outstanding features of these books, Caro also goes to great lengths to highlight the benevolent side of Johnson. He repeatedly hearkens back to the time Johnson spent teaching impoverished Mexican children, when he was the only teacher who ever truly cared about them. He expends countless words on Johnson's role in forcing through passage of multiple Civil Rights bills over the decades-long objections and filibusters of the Senatorial Southern Bloc, noting that Johnson truly believed in this cause, and not only because supporting it could help him be elected to national office one day. And, in the most recent volume, Caro speaks glowingly of how Johnson's brilliant command of the way that the levers of governmental power worked helped him to ensure a smooth transition in the days and weeks after the Kennedy assassination, thus soothing a shocked and traumatized nation.

What is notable in this regard is that Caro does not feel the need to issue disclaimers every time he writes something positive about Johnson. He leaves no doubt that he is not a fan of Johnson, and yet he does not qualify his praise with silly non-sequiturs such as "well, Hitler was nice to his dogs also". Caro is able to recognize that people are complex, and that even dominant personality traits leave room for other, often contradictory ones to manifest themselves as well.

In this sense, Caro seems to be unique in today's world, and certainly in today's political climate. So much of so-called enlightened discourse has descended into something akin to sports fandom. When one roots for a sports team, he tends to do so blindly, seeing all the players on his team as heroes, and members of the opposition as evil. It was a difficult moment of cognitive dissonance for Yankee fans when Wade Boggs, the Roger Clemens, then Johnny Damon switched from red socks to pinstripes - suddenly these villains had become the good guys. Of course, that is ok because, as Jerry Seinfeld once said, being a sports fans basically means rooting for laundry - you want the team to win and your feelings about the humans inside the uniforms are connected to which uniform they are wearing.

But this mindset moves from harmless to pernicious when it enters areas of discourse that actually have an impact on the way that people's lives are lived and governed. Political discourse seems more and more like rooting for a sports team - you pick your side and you never concede an inch to the opposition. Seriously, has E.J. Dionne every admitted that Barack Obama has made a mistake, and has Anne Coulter even conceded that he has done something right? How many other so-called shapers of opinion could have their names accurately substituted into that sentence? This is not discourse - it's trash-talking with sophisticated vocabularies, and it does no one any good at all.

Of more immediate concern to me is the degree to which this close-mindedness has permeated our religious discourse. A recent Internet rumor noted that a prominent Chassidic Rabbi was planning on boycotting the upcoming Siyum HaShas (once-every-seven-years celebration of the completion of the learning of the Talmud via the page per day schedule) because among the dozen or so speakers invited to attend was a Rabbi who could be associated with being pro-Zionist. Never mind the details and never mind whether or not this rumor is even true (I still do not know)- the fact that it was plausible should give us all pause.

And this phenomenon is not only evident for issues in the public sphere. I have friends on Facebook who tend towards the liberal end of the religious spectrum who never miss a chance to share an article critical of those to the right of them, but rarely if ever find the time to share praiseworthy articles of such people. A day camp in my area separates students based on the school that they go to, supposedly because parents who send their kids to purportedly more religious schools do not want their kids in the same bunks as kids from so-called less religious schools. This notwithstanding the fact that all of the schools in question are officially modern or centrist orthodox, the parents pretty much all have the same upbringing, and the kids go to the same shuls and all know each other. Somehow, we have deemed it acceptable to establish a narrow range of criteria by which we will judge someone to be acceptable, and we are afraid to even consider the possibility that interacting with someone who holds slightly different views could be a rewarding and edifying experience.

How have we reache this point? Frankly, I am not sure and I do not really think that it matters. The more pertinent question is how are we going to reverse this trend of numbing and suffocating close-mindedness? Surprisingly enough, I think that our schools have a tremendous role to play. When we talk about a school that teaches critical thinking skills, we have to realize that we are not referring to teaching kids to reject everything that their parents or their tradition has tried to impart to them. Rather, we are talking about giving children the skills by which they can honestly evaluate new ideas that are presenting to them, and analyze those ideas in light of the foundational beliefs that have been passed on to them. Of course, the key is to first provide children with a firm set of ideas and practices that will form the basis of their daily lives. But once we have put that in place, and of course we will continue to do so as they grow older, it is important to help them realize that there a other people out there with other views and that those views can be listened to, considered, and then either accepted or rejected politely. True discourse can, and often does, end in disagreement - but it always ends with understanding. That seems to be missing from our current political and religious discourse, and it is imperative that we find a way to restore it.

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