Passover is coming, and with it, the season of questions. We Jews have long prided ourselves on asking good questions — even more than on providing adequate answers. We prize debates that go on forever. And, of course, we answer questions with still more questions. Inquiry, discourse, communication: These are some of the core values of the Jewish intellectual heritage.
And yet, while it has temporarily been pushed off the front page by the news from Japan and Libya, our current domestic political moment is one so devoid of truthful discourse as to render our Passover symposia almost absurd, verbally fiddling while the planet burns, deluding us into thinking that conversations like the Passover Seder still matter in our public life.
This is not a matter of ideology. I am not so young as to suppose that a momentary rightward drift in America’s political trajectory represents the end of the world as we know it. (After the events in Wisconsin and Michigan, and the Islamophobic McCarthyism in Washington, a young friend of mine on Facebook asked me how to stay politically engaged but “avoid the despair and paranoia.” He said he was really in a “dark world at the moment, trying to get out.” I remember feeling that way in 1994.) This, too, shall pass.
Substance is not my concern here, process is. “We’re sort of in a truth-free period right now,” former president Clinton said recently. I think that this assessment is spot-on, and should worry all of us who value the very notion of reasoned intellectual discourse.
Contrast, for example, Rep. Peter King’s odious accusations of collective guilt against the Muslim American community with the current efforts around the country to return to pre-New Deal, Gilded Age America. The former, I think, are unconscionable. But at least they’re honest. However misinformed King and his allies may be, they are at least acting sincerely against what they perceive to be a threat, and they are stating their case clearly. In theory, my dispute with King is l’shem shamayim — for the sake of heaven. We both want people to be free from terrorist attacks, and I think we both want Americans be free from religious persecution. We just have a strong difference of opinion as to how best to pursue those goals.
Such is not the case, however, with Republican efforts to “rein in spending” or “reform public unions” or whatever other spin-doctored phrase the Fox/Koch axis has concocted to mask its radical, reactionary, robber-baron agenda. These aren’t goals, they’re pretexts, and the refusal to speak honestly about them makes real public debate impossible.
For example, we now know, thanks to off-the-cuff (but recorded) remarks, that Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, busted the public sector union in Wisconsin not to balance the state budget, but to bust the union, which tends to contribute to the Democratic Party. “Balancing the budget” had about as much to do with Walker’s action as “weapons of mass destruction” did with the invasion of Iraq.