By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
“Curiouser and curiouser!” – Alice in “Alice in Wonderland”
Universities are bowing to pressure and rejecting speakers whose views aren’t in complete accord with the politics of their most strident students. School boards and local legislatures are banning books not only in school libraries and classrooms, but public libraries. Politicians who claim to believe in free elections are making it more difficult for many citizens to vote, due to what they believe was wide-spread election fraud in the last election, but only in those races where the candidate they supported didn’t win. People who were deathly afraid of Muslim legislators being elected for fear we would be forced to follow sharia law are now trying to impose extreme Christian beliefs on members of all religions. Some Americans cheered the brutal Russian attack on Ukraine, supporting a dictatorship over a democracy. Those decrying public health measures – “Don’t tell me to wear a mask or get vaccinated” – are now hoping to deprive women of the ability to control their own health and bodies.
Some days, I feel like I tumbled down a rabbit hole and found myself in a Wonderland version of America. “Free speech for my point of view only,” both sides seem to be saying. “We can’t agree to disagree because not only is my side the only right side, I won’t even credit you with doing what you think is best for our country.” Polarization is the flavor of the day and anyone who disagrees with the most fervid opinions of either side is evil. If you have mixed thoughts – for example, in my case, proudly calling myself a liberal, but yet still thinking that Israel has a right to exist as a nation, even if it’s not perfect – you are an enemy to those who think otherwise.
How did we get to this point? Something in our culture has changed, but only someone with the combined skills of a historian and sociologist might to able to pin-point what has occurred and why. (I know many people point their fingers at social media, but social media is just a tool, which can be used for good or evil.) It makes me nostalgic for a past that may never have really existed: the time when we worked together for the good of the country and could be friends even if we disagreed on politics. I don’t want to go back to smoke-filled rooms where politicians acted as horse traders, wheeling and dealing to decide our fates. But when everything seems topsy-turvy, I can understand its appeal.
I once read about President Lyndon B. Johnson and the behind-the-doors political trading that occurred between Democrats and Republicans during his administration. While Johnson was mistaken about Vietnam and was far from a perfect president, he brokered the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Democrats and Republicans both voted for the act, working for the good of the country, rather than saying they can’t possibly support legislation put forward by the other party. There was a bit of give and take on both sides, and a kind of respect for the other side that now seems lacking in politics, social media and everyday life.
I don’t long for the days when closed door politics were the order of the day or decisions were being made by a select few, but at least people worked together and some of the results benefitted our country. They were also willing to respect each other, even when their opinions differed. If only we could follow the example of the late Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg: they were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but managed to be close friends because they recognized each others’ humanity. If only we could all do the same because, as I’ve had to say far too many times recently, our democracy and society are at risk if we don’t.