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Needed: Calmer, more rational political discourse

OUR politics have become extreme.?  The language we use about our opponents is disrespectful.

“The left-wing nut jobs” who want “to destroy the country,” and “the crazy righties” who are “liars and fearmongerers” in favor of “brutal, naked, raw” capitalism, are typical radio talk-show lingo.

The use of nuance has become a sign of weakness or lack of courage.

To take only a recent example, it was said that the late Sen. Ted Kennedy was a “lion” whose senatorial record was unblemished, as if it were impossible both to appreciate his tenacious work on civil rights and to disagree with his position on abortion.

It should be possible both to appreciate Kennedy’s reaching across the aisle on many issues and to acknowledge that his over-the-top attack on Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork has damaged the Supreme Court nomination process ever since.

But no, in the tone of our current politics, the judgement on Kennedy must be one way or the other, black or white.

For all but the first years of his political career, Ted Kennedy was opposed to any restrictions on abortion. In this he was opposed by his own sister, Eunice Shriver, who died 13 days before he did. I would imagine that brother and sister got along despite their polar opposite positions on abortion. Our political culture needs to learn to get along, too.

President Obama is either adored or demonized. I would prefer the politics of reason.

More examples that need a quieter, calmer analysis: health care reform and executive compensation.

Will health care reform save the country, or turn us into a socialist country? It should be possible to express either view (and other views) without reference to Nazism and without ascribing to our opponents the blackest possible motives.

If ever there were an issue that is not black and white, it is health care reform. On the one hand:

Unlike many of the proponents of the current “public option,” I have lived for a decade in a country with a “public option.” The result was a bifurcated, unfair, class-conscious medical system, with the low quality public option for the masses and a parallel, private system for the wealthy. That would be the unintended consequence of a public option in the US. A public option is not the answer.

One the other hand:

The power of insurance companies already determines many health care decisions, and does so without medical expertise and often even without medical considerations. Not to mention the bureaucracy and runarounds, which have the same effect of denying medical care. Then there is the reported practice by some insurance companies of “recission,” under which one’s insurance is cancelled the moment one gets a serious disease. Free range to insurance companies is not the answer.

Whatever one’s ultimate position on health care reform, it should be possible to examine all sides critically — and calmly.

It would seem reasonable to support President Obama’s position on executive compensation — in a certain sense only. He opposes large bonuses paid to CEOs of failing companies. This makes sense. Failure should not be rewarded.

However, much of the popular outrage is against executive bonuses altogether — even when the companies succeed. I, too, bridle at seven- and eight-figure bonuses. Morally, it is true that such bonuses in a country filled with poverty and some 12 million long-term uninsured citizens are disproportionate, and that those who receive megabonuses and who give relatively little, or nothing, to charity, are a corrupt class.

It is also true that, economically, the best talent to run the big businesses that provide the big numbers of jobs is impossible to secure without the competitive, megabonuses. It is further true that, as the preeminent Jewish scholar, Asher ben Yechiel (“Rosh”) says, “jealousy is a disease without a cure.”

On the question of executive compensation, we have here a conflict of values, a complexity — a nuance. This should be admitted to our political discourse. Indeed, this should alter and soften our political discourse, which is ubiquitously harsh. When I wanted quotes to illustrate this for the beginning of this column, I said to myself: Just listen to the radio a few minutes. That’s all it’ll take. A few minutes — zap — and I had my quotes.

ROSH Hashanah is around the corner. It is a time when we turn inward, think of our faults, figure out ways to do better. Much of this effort is personal, or interpersonal. It would help if it were also communal, and not just in reference to the Jewish community.

Our larger political community could also benefit from a good dose of teshuvah, or refinement of discourse, of increase in mutual respect — none of which need mean a change of one’s deeply felt political positions.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is making the same point, objecting to the extreme language in Israeli political discourse.

“It is important to clarify,” he recently said, “that the Left is not a ‘virus’ [as his own vice premier Moshe Ya’alon said] and the settlers are not a ‘cancer’ [as former MK Yossi Sarid and Prof. Ze’ev Sternhell said].

“There are legitimate disputes in Israeli society and we must maintain unity and show respect for political rivals by talking and acting in a restrained manner.”


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IJN Executive Editor | [email protected]

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