IPA’s Deputy Director of Federal Affairs, Maury Litwack, explores modern political problems within the context of Torah solutions. Any hashkafic, halachic or political opinions are personal and do not reflect the official p’sak or policy of the OU.
“Right now, we are at a very, very low point—the worst I’ve seen since I moved to Washington in September 1972.” – Charlie Cook, famed political pollster
The Political Problem:
Sentences which begin “Back in my day…”, “I remember when…”, or “The way things used to be…” typically end with a comparison of the good old times versus the lousy current times. This perspective, the past as a nostalgic era, implies that there was once a period when human existence was free of the problems and difficulties plaguing the current environment. We are all used to either doling out this advice to a loved one or listening to it, but it’s also commonly found in approaches to communal issues.
“Why can’t we get volunteers for x,y or z? Well, back in the day… we had more young community members involved… you just don’t see that involvement now.”
The tuition crisis is receiving an inordinate amount of retro-reflections as many claim that once upon a time schools were run more efficiently and public school was a valid option regardless of certain obvious perils. More and more, the past seems to be presented as the ideal, if only we grasp its perfection.
The Political Solution:
Charlie Cook’s above referenced comment was made during the height of the recent Congressional debt ceiling negotiations. He wasn’t alone in his opinion that Congress was performing poorly or that the tenure and acrimony is the worst ever. The Economist actually argued that this is the worst Congress ever.
Political debate doesn’t often call for any nuance with regard to retro-reflection. The political tool most often used for a backward glance is generally invoked for the sole purpose of demonizing an opponent in a negative context. This is why a Congressman from Arizona referred to President Obama as the “worst President ever” and why the Wall Street Journal opined that health care legislation is the worst bill ever.
This tactic makes the opposition seem extreme as opposed to just disagreeable. In fact, from a political point of view, the “good old days” don’t necessarily need to be invoked as a comparison; it’s generally assumed that the NOW is always deficient and deserving of condemnation as opposed to the good old past. We’ve had a number of Presidential administrations which merited some level of impeachment proceeding or passed legislation which enslaves or imprisons certain segments of our society. When it comes to Congress itself, little rises to the level of May 22, 1856 when Congressman Brooks (SC) made his disagreement with Senator Sumner (MA) known by walking over to the Senate and beating Sumner with a cane. Real historical perspective simply isn’t necessary if it doesn’t fit the desired attack narrative. Attack the person, attack the idea by generally idealizing the past to condemn the present.
The Torah Solution:
“Don’t say ‘what has happened, why is it that the earlier days were better than these?’ because the question isn’t out of wisdom.” – Kohelet
Rashi points out that an example of this is when we look at the current exile and lament its severity in comparison to previous exiles. It’s interesting that Rashi would use this particular example. Rashi seems to “get” the idea that big problems in the Jewish world, even the state of exile itself, may bring our community to the point of asking, “What about the good old days?” The crisis issues facing any Jewish community tend to produce an obsessive glorification of the “great past”. That certainly was the case when the Jewish nation was traveling in the desert and complaining to Moshe; as an enslaved people in Egypt they enjoyed an array of delicacies which, as a free people, they were suddenly lacking! It was an obvious exaggeration of the past to fit a warped and nostalgic narrative regarding new-found circumstances as opposed to previous conditions.
Kohelet bluntly reminds those who would use this technique that their position isn’t wisdom. Why not? What’s the intellectual danger of such a position?
Wisdom would be an honest evaluation as to whether or not the congressional debt ceiling fight is the worst event since 1972, recalling that, among other things, the past four decades witnessed the resignation of one President and the impeachment trial of another. Wisdom would examine if health care really is the ‘worst legislation ever’ or whether items like the Fugitive Slave Act or the Executive Order on Japanese interment were worse.
Wisdom would certainly not conclude that a big issue like the tuition crisis could be easily solved by transplanting our children to a 1950s public school environment or by wholly condemning our current schools as inferior to the “good old days”. These statements and arguments lack knowledge of history and a true comparison of what has been and what is.
Music writer Simon Reynolds recently published a book called Retromania which examines the endless regurgitation of the past when it comes to pop culture and the danger such obsession presents. In an interview for the book, he best lays out the greatest risk to this type of thinking:
“The past has taken the place of the future in people’s imagination. That might have something to do with politics as well, like with what’s been going on in the last few weeks with the debt ceiling. No one can quite picture a future that seems positive or exciting. At one time the future seemed to suggest grand projects. Now the space shuttle program has been shut down. If I look at what young people are watching on TV and at the movies, when they’re looking for heroism and romance, they’re watching quasi-historical fantasies, it’s not future fantasies. It’s “Game of Thrones,” “Harry Potter,” and that kind of thing, as opposed to going to outer space or the year 3000.”
An understanding of history is obviously important to resolving current problems, but any idealization of the past with no prescriptions for the future appears counterproductive to thinking creatively and optimistically about potential resolutions.
In the words of Robert Kennedy, ‘Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.’
Maury Litwack is Deputy Director of Federal Affairs for the OU’s IPA | Institute for Public Affairs. A recognized advocacy expert, he has worked with elected officials and municipalities on major aspects of their federal and state agenda. Author of The Capitol Plan, a comprehensive Washington advocacy strategy, he was also published in Business Insider, Fox News, and The Hill among others and his commentary has been featured in Forbes and Politico.
To learn more about the IPA, please visit their homepage: OU’s Institute for Public Affairs