(February 8, 2021 / JNS) Just how sick is America in 2021? Los Angeles Times columnist Virginia Heffernan provided the country with an answer that has provoked scorn for the writer. Heffernan’s column “What can you do about the Trumpites next door?” went viral after it was published last week, but perhaps not in the way the author intended. No doubt thinking that she spoke for many of the 81 million Americans who voted for President Joe Biden last November, Heffernan explored what she thought was a perplexing dilemma.
She views the 74 million who voted for Donald Trump as not merely mistaken, but as bad people to be viewed as the moral equivalent of Hezbollah terrorists or French citizens who collaborated with the Nazis. So what should a right-thinking person like her do when the terrorists/Nazi voters next door treat you with neighborly kindness? Heffernan is genuinely conflicted about the answer.
Her foolish essay sums up everything that is wrong with contemporary American society. But instead of just heaping well-deserved abuse on her, the proper response should be to ponder what we can do to heal a country in which attitudes like hers are all too common at a time when our politics is more like a tribal culture war than a set of disagreements between fellow citizens. More to the point, perhaps we should also be resorting to the sources that the founders thought were necessary for the survival of a republic such as the one they had created: religion and morality.
Heffernan, an upscale resident of Brooklyn, N.Y., who fled the city in order to sit out the pandemic in an unnamed exurban or rural red-state enclave, isn’t living in Occupied France. The people next door are just ordinary Republican voters. She even concedes that they don’t believe in absurd or racist QAnon conspiracy theories; they just voted for Trump. Yet to her, supporting a political party and candidate that the writer dislikes means that the people who plowed her driveway without being asked are still beyond the pale.
While she appreciated the gesture in the wake of last week’s heavy snowfall that blanketed the Northeast, she’s still not prepared to treat them as if they are decent people. She blames them for her rage after four years of an administration she considered the font of all evil, coupled with the coronavirus pandemic and the U.S. Capitol riot. Their kindly gesture is, she thinks, not enough to earn her forgiveness for their political sins. The best she’s able to come up with in response to their selfless generosity is merely “a wave and a thanks, a minimal start on rebuilding trust.” She is not, she declares, “ready to knock on the door with a covered dish yet.”
Of course, the neighbor with a plow who did her the favor almost certainly didn’t intend it as a way of making amends for having voted for a different candidate. In the America that I grew up in (and in which I think most Americans still want to live), what her neighbors did wasn’t so extraordinary. Being nice to your neighbors isn’t a Republican or a Democratic thing. It’s decent behavior that has nothing to do with politics.
Heffernan, a native of New Hampshire, writes that back in New York, “people don’t sweep each other’s walkways for nothing.” Like many people who relocate to the city from the sticks, she believes in the stereotype that New Yorkers are all rude and therefore doubles down on that allegedly common discourtesy in order to pretend to fit in. Speaking as a native New Yorker, I can testify that my parents made it clear to me that I was supposed to shovel our elderly neighbors’ sidewalks as well as our own.
But as much as I think her willingness to speak openly about disdaining kindness from political opponents who deserve better from her is shocking, I don’t doubt that her sentiments are shared by a lot of people. Her particular brand of scorn and condescension for opponents seems to be typical among liberal members of the educated and chattering classes. But some variant on it exists on both sides of the political aisle. I’ve seen it myself in the Facebook posts of people I know so deranged by their hatred of Trump—or, conversely, by their rage at his opponents—they are prepared to say publicly that they are no longer willing to remain friends with people with different political opinions.
This problem has been growing worse for years as American politics has become increasingly ideological with both sides no longer believing that their opponents have good intentions. It’s been exacerbated first by a bifurcated media and made worse by the rise of social media that allows us to exist in virtual communities in which we can insulate ourselves from those with opposing views, as well as insult them without ever having to face them or even know who they are. Throw in a year of pandemic isolation and a bitterly contested election compounded by an equally bitter post-election conflict, and you have a culture-war perfect storm.
Part of the answer must involve some sort of political ceasefire. But everything that has happened in the last months has only confirmed the worst suspicions of partisans on both sides about their foes’ ill intent. So rather than looking to Washington for a solution, we need to look inward. And for that the wisdom of the founders and Jewish religious texts may help us more than the chimera of bipartisan agreement.
Jewish sages have viewed the commandment in Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 17: “Love your fellow as yourself” as dictating kindness to neighbors, even extending to foreigners in the midst of Israel, of whom verse 34 states: “You shall love him as yourself.” While some scholars have argued that this does not apply to evil people, the notion that this designation should apply to those with different political opinions in a democracy is impossible to defend except by means of declaring that, like Heffernan’s odious and absurd analogies, everyone who disagrees with you is Hitler—or at least, Hezbollah.
If you think religious doctrines ought not to apply in this kind of argument, America’s Founding Fathers disagreed. George Washington stated in his Farewell Address that “religion and morality” were the “great pillars of human happiness.” Both the first president and Alexander Hamilton agreed that “national morality” could not exist in exclusion of religious principle,” and that “virtue and morality” were “a necessary spring of popular government.”
This doesn’t mandate religious faith, but their sentiments, which were shared by almost all of their colleagues, made it clear that in order for a republic to survive the conflicts that would arise among free people, we need to have our passions restrained by an appeal to a higher morality. As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sachs said in his last published work, a book titled Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, recognizing that we are part of the same moral community, “creates trust.” You don’t have to be a Trump voter to understand that Heffernan’s neighbor with a snow plow may be closer to understanding the concept than her.
Absent the notion that a higher power mandates decent behavior or even a willingness to bridge divides by means of a common sense of morality that transcends politics, we are heading further into an abyss of communal hatred in which sinat chinam—or mindless hatred of the sort that Jews traditionally believe helped destroy Jerusalem in 70 C.E.—will prevail. The question is not whether you can make your neighbors bend to your will and grovel, but whether you are willing to set aside your prejudices in order to recognize commonalities that can heal our broken society.
A failure to do so leads inevitably to the kind of thinking that Heffernan advocates. Far from defending democracy, that kind of “hate your neighbor” philosophy will inevitably doom it.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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