I'll Take Mark Hatfield (Ideas #29)

I don't know if I'm the only one, but I'm getting more and more tired of the partisan invective which passes for popular debate in the public forum.


On that note, allow me to spew some nonpartisan invective: Having more friends and colleagues on the right, I am usually exposed to the banal stupidities that pretend to be clever opinion pieces on this end of the political spectrum. As a result, it is always refreshing to see how equally stupid editiorials can be on the left.


I am impressed how liberals and conservatives mirror each other's unwillingness to consider things objectively. Accordingly, I wonder if people would argue the way they do, if they realized how hopelessly biased they appeared to the other side. Of course, while it is not difficult to pick up on the subjectivity of the other side, a great blindness exists in picking up one's own bias. It is not clear whether this is an inherent weakness in the human condition or simply another price we have to pay for subjecting important decisions to the lowest common denominator required by the democratic process (i.e. that in trying to convince people without much intelligience or sophistication, I will be most successful by making a caricature out of my opponent's view)?


Most disagreements come from differing assumptions. If we agree on what "two and two" represent and agree on the nature of addition, we will agree on the result of such an equation. It is accordingly worthwhile to examine at least one of the underlying assumptions that divides conservatives from liberals.*


A leitmotif that exists in the contemporary right's critique of today's left is the confusion brought about by superfluous intellectualization of basic issues. A quote that appears quite often is the assertion that "certain things are so stupid that only an intellectual could believe them."


The mirror image on the left is to view anything on the right as simple-minded. The left demonstrates its tremendously broadminded sense of humor by referring to any conservative think tank as an oxymoron.


In fact, both critiques are correct. On the one hand, not everything need be intellectualized. Many things appear as they are. As such, when intellectuals on the left try to "understand" terrorists, the right responds with the common-sense idea that murder is murder. On the other hand, there are many other things that are not as simple as they might first appear. For example, when Bosnians starting massacring ethnic Serbs once they had the power to do so, it became much more difficult to understand the Serbs as fascist monsters and the Bosnians as innocent victims. There is indeed much nuance to all great issues.


The problem could well be based on people's basic inability to entertain more than one paradigm while making a moral decision. (Ultimately all social and political issues boil down to maximizing morality, but this is for another time.)


One thing that Judaism teaches is that there is more than one valid paradigm that can be used at making a moral decision. Our sages teach us that there are different modes of understanding Torah. In some cases, the simple meaning (peshat) is more relevant than its interpretation (derash). In other case, even when contradicting the simple meaning, interpretation is more relevant as in the verse that speaks about repaying an "eye for an eye."


Any scholar who refused to entertain any drash as contrary to common sense would have been thrown out of the academy. Similarly, anyone who would have rejected peshat automatically based on its childish simplicity would have equally lost his academic standing.


The bat kol that proclaimed to the schools of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai that "elu ve'elu..." was forever ratifiying the idea that two contradictory points of view can both have legitimacy. As mentioned above, this can only be true if the disagreement is on the level of basic building blocks (i.e assumptions and paradigms.) Thus, what is really being said is that differing paradigms can both be legitimate.


On a more fundamental level, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein reminds us of the various paradigms of understanding Torah as related to G-d's own basic dual nature in refering to what he deems "Torat Emet and Torat Chesed." Torat Emet refers to the intent of the source in question, whereas Torah Chesed is discovery of content based on rigorous and intellectually honest analysis of that same source.


As in halacha, the political process should be a respectful discussion aimed at trying to understand 1)whether one's opponent uses the *opponent's own* paradigms correctly (what is referred to as le'tameich") and 2)which paradigm is more relevant in any particular situation.


I don't know how many readers have heard of Mark Hatfield. A republican, he was one of the most vocal critics of the Vietnam War. The veteran Oregon senator voted with the Democratic party at least as often as he voted with his own party. As such, he was viewed as an oddball in the American political system. Like Israel's Yeshaya Leibowitz, he inspired as much fear as he did curiosity. Someone on "my side" who agrees with the "other side" threatens my identity, if that identity is associated with an exclusive mode of thinking. People like Hatfield and Leibowitz highlight the very threatening idea that my opponents may have a legitimate point of view and that I should actually consider it seriously.


In summary, Mark Hatfield seemed to be a man who could vote on an issue after looking at both sides. Imagine that!