There are days on which I am startled by how much I’ve changed.
In my teen and early adult years, I loved political humor, particularly satire. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, Saturday Night Live, Second City, Lenny Bruce, just to name a few – I couldn’t get enough of them. Friends and I enjoyed “taking down” politicians such as Mayor Daley and Richard Nixon; we even poked fun at politicians with whom we might agree.
But now, I think a bit differently.
The current president’s malfeasance is bad enough. From my point of view, there is much with which to find fault and even more with which to disagree. All of which should be done: one of the great strengths of our liberal democracy is not only our ability to disagree and critique, publically, but the necessity of it in maintaining a vibrant political order. Through all sorts of media – written, visual, aural – any administration’s strengths and weaknesses ought to be articulated by those who agree, or disagree, with its policies and their implementation.
But I find – much to my surprise – I can no longer listen to political comedians taking potshots at the President. It is the comments that are demeaning and denigrating that rub me the wrong way.
Perhaps it’s because, as I see it, it’s too easy a shot to take these days. And too many of the shots are about things that are silly, not worthy of our time and attention.
Perhaps it’s because after I’ve heard once of something coming out of the White House that I consider to be inane, to have to hear of it again is just too painful.
But, to be honest, this feeling began some time ago, when George W. Bush was president.
I’ve been thinking about this feeling, trying to uncover what it is that bothers me so, particularly when I may not like or agree with a particular president.
I’ve been able to identify three reasons that I am so uncomfortable.
The first is something that I’ve espoused from the bima – that each human being is created in God’s image. That, therefore, every person is due a measure of koved, of respect and honor – even those who degrade others. In a startling commentary on the mitzvah “thou shalt not murder” the rabbis consider the humiliation or embarrassment of a person to be tantamount to murder.
Sometimes it is exceedingly difficult to find the ability to respect one with whom we so strongly disagree – especially if that person shows so little regard for so many himself. But to do less, I’m afraid, ends up degrading ourselves as much as the object of our scorn.
The second reason is probably related to the first. At school, when we engage our students with the writings of great thinkers, we urge them to give each one a “generous reading” – meaning: read the thinking in the best possible light. Allow the thinker to make her best possible argument. Give him as much credit as possible. I think it a good practice for life in general – giving people the benefit of the doubt, working from the assumption that they have a good reason for thinking or doing as they do.
Finally, the third reason: the Presidency itself. I believe that the office of the President will survive the various indignities that the current administration has brought to it. It might be weakened; it might not. I don’t know. I believe that our political system is reasonably and sufficiently robust and resilient – characteristics developed and honed through many years – that a reasonably strong next occupant will restore much of what is missing now.
But there is a certain degrading of the office that occurs, I’m afraid, with the constant degrading of its occupant – whomever that is. When pundits and others on the political right belittled President Obama during his tenure, Democrats were quick to criticize them for doing so. “Stick to issues” was the cry – and rightly so. And when similar shots came from the political left against President George W. Bush, Republicans were quick to find fault – and rightly so.
Our country has seen respect for the presidency – and other political offices – degraded since the days of Richard Nixon. And I don’t think that bodes well for the health of our democracy.
It is one thing to argue issues. It is another to engage in ad hominen attacks. The former is constructive, while the latter can only be destructive. And that destruction, sooner or later, in one way or another, seems to reflect back on ourselves like a funhouse mirror – full of mockery and distortion.
Let’s keep our focus on the issues. There are many, and many important ones, that need that focus.