On Politics and Conversation
As we end 2017 and head into 2018, I thought I’d share some personal reflections on our modern political conversation, and how I see the Jewish Journal playing a role.
First, I may love politics and current events, but they do not own me. I like to follow the news, see what’s happening locally and around the world, study the threats to humanity’s future. Politics gets me pumped up. It builds up my outrage, makes me feel alive, as if I’m dealing with stuff that really matters.
So, why does the political conversation so often get on my nerves? Because I see what it does to people. It makes them hysterical. It breaks up relationships. It ignites anger and bitterness. At best, it keeps us in our silos and echo chambers, protected from views we cannot fathom.
My wish for 2018? To manage politics so that it doesn’t fray our communal bonds and bring out the worse in us.
Second, I know that politicians will never make me happy. My friends will make me happy. My family will make me happy. A great film will make me happy. Politicians will make themselves happy — with the perks and privileges that come with power — but they can never make me happy. Usually, they just disappoint me.
It’s true that politics plays a role in Judaism. Our tradition calls on us to make the world a better place. Since politics revolves around power, it follows that if we’re serious about repairing the world, we must engage with power. That’s why you see many rabbis address political issues from the pulpit. They see it as an expression of the Jewish imperative to pursue justice.
But that is not the whole story. We can do plenty of repair work on our own, without asking anything of politicians. This is called community engagement. The Jewish Federation system is an example of Jews taking control and responsibility for their communities. There are thousands of smaller examples of individual initiatives that aim to make the world a better place, politics or no politics.
Much of our community coverage at the Journal honors those efforts.
Third, the news doesn’t help us make sense of the news. Following the news, which comes at us fast and furious through our Twitter feeds, has become an addiction. At a gala dinner the other night, I couldn’t help looking at my phone when I received a piece of breaking news. The item was so juicy I had to share it with the person sitting next to me. This is not healthy.
I’m sure if we injected more news and current events in the Journal, we’d be more “juicy” and look more topical.
I want us to put politics in its proper place, to protect our friendships, to wallow in beauty, to find poetry in life, to have curiosity for the unfamiliar, to repair not just the world but ourselves.
But when you have a publication that comes out once a week, it’s silly to try to compete with the daily news you get every minute. This is not a problem—it’s an opportunity. It means we can focus on deeper stuff, on commentaries and analyses that help you make sense of the news, not to mention the world we live in.
Fourth, there’s so much more to life than current events. It’s a common technique among columnists to quote current events in the opening paragraph to grab your attention. I do it often. It’s a way of showing immediate relevance by dealing with “what’s happening in the world.”
Of course, the Journal will never stop running columns that deal with topical events. But here’s a confession: Very often, my favorite columns are precisely those that do not deal with the latest news. These are the columns that convey timeless ideas that are relevant on any day or week… or century.
Politics today colors so much of our culture we can easily lose sight of how beautiful and pure culture can be. I love art, poetry, literature, music, film and human stories that have nothing to do with the state of the world. Their innate beauty is what makes them relevant.
Fifth, yes, crisis sells, which is one reason Judaism is always in a state of crisis. Everyone knows it’s a lot easier to raise money when you convey a state of crisis. At a time when it’s more and more difficult to get people’s attention, there’s nothing like a good crisis to shake people up.
In media, crises help attract more readers. It’s a known fact that you can boost your online views just by putting up words like “anti-Semitism” in your headlines. This is human nature. We are attracted to conflict. All good entertainment revolves around drama and conflict.
I can’t help being aware of this when I make editorial decisions. If there’s a story, for instance, about a swastika sprayed on a synagogue, it’s deadly serious and there is no hesitation to publish it. But there’s also that little voice inside me that whispers: “The readers will eat this one up.”
One of our biggest challenges at the Journal is to earn your attention without the easy tricks of crises, conflicts and disasters. How do we get you hooked on an idea that elevates the spirit, on a poem that makes you dream, on a biblical story that takes you back 3,000 years?
How does an abstract poem compete with the drama of a terror attack? Or a neighborhood story with the prospect of a presidential impeachment? Or an inspiring view of Hanukkah with the latest sex scandal?
They don’t. They can’t. The drama of conflict will always win out. Yes, it’s human nature.
But at its best and deepest, Judaism helps us transcend human nature. We go beyond our immediate appetites. We read the Hanukkah fable, or the dreamy poem, or the neighborhood story, even though they’re not as sexy as the latest political scandal. This content nourishes our minds, but also our souls: We enjoy beauty for beauty’s sake, story for story’s sake, knowledge for knowledge’s sake, wisdom for wisdom’s sake.
In a sense, I am conveying a militant message. I want us to fight back against the insidious and sensationalistic “breaking news” cycle that corrodes our conversations. I want us to put politics in its proper place, to protect our friendships, to wallow in beauty, to find poetry in life, to have curiosity for the unfamiliar, to repair not just the world but ourselves.
Those are my wishes for our community, but they are also my wishes for the paper you are reading.
See you in 2018.