This week David Wolpe, senior rabbi of Sinai Temple, delivered one of the invocations at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. Even for someone used to and deserving of such honors, this is a big deal.
Indeed, the majority of the rabbi’s congregants were thrilled when news of the invitation got out. But immediately, some in the community accused him of shilling for the president, or joining forces with Rabbis for Obama — the 613 rabbis who have signed a statement in support of Obama’s reelection.
I asked Rabbi Wolpe, given the inevitable sniping and suspicion, why he did it.
“I see this not as politics but as prayer,” he said. “It’s a chance to present Judaism on a national, if not international, stage. It’s a shame some see it otherwise.”
[David Wolpe: A Benediction for the Democratic National Convention]
Yes, a shame — but a predictable one. Hyper-partisanship has infected the Jewish community, as it has America. Too many of us have bought into the idea that our side has all the answers.
But no party, like no person, is invested with perfect insight and far-seeing wisdom. Fixing Medicare? Boosting unemployment? Defanging Iran? To quote Woody Allen, most of us don’t even know how a can opener works.
So why, come election season, do we pretend otherwise? I can understand why the parties themselves have to do fake omniscience. They are essentially engaged in perpetual branding campaigns for Product Red and Product Blue. Every win for “them” is a loss for “us.” No sane brand manager would ever say, “You know, maybe the other guy’s product really does have better stain-lifters.”
Our parties, combined with our more ideologically driven news outlets, conspire to clamp us into groupthink.
My Democratic friends are convinced Mitt Romney hasn’t paid taxes in 10 years and wants to outlaw all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest. My Republican friends are convinced Barack Obama went on an “apology tour” around the world and really does think people don’t build their own businesses.
We have become the willing dupes of misinformation echo chambers. Who’s worse, Product Red or Product Blue? Who cares, really? Take the five latest whoppers from the Republican Convention and stack them against, say, three, from the Democrats — is that the new test of American excellence, whose party lies 20 percent less?
“Both campaigns have decided that deceptiveness carries no penalty,” wrote David Brooks in The New York Times. “I know from conversations I’ve had that both campaigns do rigorous fact checking. When the candidates say something partially or wholly false, they know exactly what they’re doing.”
Unless you aspire to be a robotic ideologue of the Left or Rigiht, the only appropriate resonse to this is to train yourself to take nothing — nothing — at face value.
I do this by turning — first thing each morning — not to the news Web sites or TV, but to the handful of excellent fact-checking and nonpartisan Web sites that now exist. Politifact.com, Factcheck.org and the Washington Post Fact Checker blog — they are what I read first and last each day, and consult again many times each day. Since these often rely on the information at the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, I often check cbo.gov, too. Being a news junkie used to imply you were also a fact junkie — no longer. We have to make a conscious effort to make certain the meat of facts hasn’t touched the milk of spin.
Does Romney really say he would make no exception for abortion in the case of rape or incest?
Click over to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Politifact. It fully investigates political statements, then rates them on a scale from True to Pants-on-Fire. One easy search later, I find that there is, “no evidence that Romney explicitly opposed the exception for rape and incest. While he supported the ‘human life amendment,’ there are many versions, and the most recent ones allow abortion after rape or incest. … We rate the claim Pants on Fire.”
Did Obama really begin his presidency with an “apology tour?” Politifact again calls “Pants-on-Fire.” It reports: “While Obama’s speeches contained some criticisms of past U.S. actions, he typically combined those passages with praise for the United States and its ideals. … We found not a single, full-throated apology in the bunch.”
We all moan about the poisonous political atmosphere. Unfortunately, we Jews are just as susceptible as anyone to the narrow partisanship that infects our political discourse.
The best antidote is to not outsource your brain to your party. Argue hard for your cause, but argue from a place of fact. New Year’s is a time for resolutions, to make yourself and the world a little better. Start by checking each morning, and before each argument, with the fact check Web sites and the CBO reports.
A Republican friend of mine heard about Rabbi Wolpe’s convention appearance and said of course, he’s one of those Rabbis for Obama.
“Why didn’t he speak at the Republican convention?” my friend asked.
Aha! Gotcha. I called Rabbi Wolpe back and asked him.
No, he didn’t sign up for Rabbis for Obama — he doesn’t believe rabbis should involve themselves in campaign politics.
“And if they had asked me to speak at the Republican convention, I would have,” Rabbi Wolpe said. “They never asked.”
Put that on Politifact.