Is There a Politics-Free Zone Anywhere?

 

I don’t want to have political discussions with people on the Left. Period.

On the third Wednesday of every month, I have a Zoom meeting with a small group to discuss Jewish topics. Recently we decided to read essays of Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that he produced in an ongoing series about the weekly Torah readings. But I’m already seeing signs that in an effort by group members to relate his essays to current events, we are going to have difficulty avoiding current politics, and I’m not sure how to address the issue. And, of course, they all are on the political Left.

This morning we were discussing Beha’lotecha (Numbers 8), which focuses on Moses’ struggle with the Jewish people on their journey from Egypt. They are once again complaining about all the wonderful benefits they experienced as slaves in Egypt (leaving out slavery, of course) and Moses is exasperated by their frustration. Gradually, with the help of leaders in the community, he finds a way to deal with his own annoyance and discover his own humility in dealing with the demands of the people.

As we discussed Rabbi Sacks’ essay, one of the women in our group offered to tie Moses’ experience to current events. (I knew then we were probably not headed in a constructive direction.) She brought up how much humility Joe Biden had shown prior to his election, but now that he was fighting the Republicans, he was showing less humility.

My slow burn was igniting.

I said that if we were going to relate the Torah reading to the present day, we needed to acknowledge that there was little humility in Biden’s actions (I didn’t mention all the Trump Executive Orders that Biden reversed on his first day in office) and suggested the group reconsider who demonstrated the least amount of humility in the federal government.

And then I changed the subject.

As you might imagine, every person in the group is an uninformed (from my perspective) Lefty, and a couple are very opinionated. In the past, with another group, I banned references to politics from our conversations. (I’m this group’s facilitator.) But I’m quite certain that if someone wants to relate current events to our Torah reading, politics are going to come up, intentionally or not.

And I have little to no patience anymore with people who don’t know what they are talking about.

So, I’m seeking your input:

  • Should I ban politics from this point forward as part of our discussions?
  • Should I try my best to present the other side (as I watch their jaws tighten and eyes squint)?
  • Do you have any other suggestions about how to deal with this challenge?

I must admit that my tolerance for political discussions with the other side has grown very thin. A part of me says that I can establish a rule against current politics, and if they don’t like it, they can lump it (but I will remind them nicely, of course). Another part of me resents having to set limits at all.

And a third part of me wants to disband the group and move on.

Yet I can tell they love having these discussions, and most of the time, I do, too.

What do you think would be my best strategy?

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  1. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Susan Quinn: She brought up how much humility Joe Biden had shown prior to his election …

    He has much to be humble about.

    • #1
  2. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    If she sincerely thinks Joe Biden is in any way a humble man, she is as mentally “challenged” as he is.

    • #2
  3. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    Banning current politics could be a very good idea. A professor of East Asian history once remarked in my presence that he refused to cover or discuss events more recent than 20 years ago due to the scarcity of reliable data and the tendency of such discussions to quickly become highly emotional (even then there were a lot of Maoists on campus.)

    • #3
  4. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):

    Banning current politics could be a very good idea. A professor of East Asian history once said in my presence that he refused to cover or discuss events more recent than 20 years ago due to the scarcity of reliable data and the tendency of such discussions to quickly become highly emotional (even then there were a lot of Maoists on campus.)

    His argument also makes sense, too (re the data and the emotion). That could be very helpful and well received. Thanks.

    • #4
  5. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    I have a similar problem, living in a small retirement community of about 50 people, in which I am the token conservative (with one or two possible exceptions). When a discussion tends toward the political, I gently make it known that I am a cultural, social, political, and fiscal conservative and am ready to defend my point of view. In the community dining room there is a general agreement that politics and religion are not to be discussed at the table. If someone violates that understanding, I remind them.

    As you say, though, there always seems to be someone who can’t have a conversation that doesn’t involve politics. In those cases, the only option seems to be to avoid them. Unfortunately, there are some people whose lives appear to be completely wrapped up in their political views, as if they have no life outside of political issues such as climate change, gender, racism, etc. They deserve our pity, but not necessarily our company.

    • #5
  6. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):

    I have a similar problem, living in a small retirement community of about 50 people, in which I am the token conservative (with one or two possible exceptions). When a discussion tends toward the political, I gently make it known that I am a cultural, social, political, and fiscal conservative and am ready to defend my point of view. In the community dining room there is a general agreement that politics and religion are not to be discussed at the table. If someone violates that understanding, I remind them.

    As you say, though, there always seems to be someone who can’t have a conversation that doesn’t involve politics. In those cases, the only option seems to be to avoid them. Unfortunately, there are some people whose lives appear to be completely wrapped up in their political views, as if they have no life outside of political issues such as climate change, gender, racism, etc. They deserve our pity, but not necessarily our company.

    Thanks, Jim. You’ve described a reasonable procedure. It’s too bad that I’m so intolerant, but as I said, I’m unwilling to discuss these touchy topics when people are not informed. Good for you in managing the process!

    • #6
  7. Samuel Block Support
    Samuel Block
    @SamuelBlock

    I think a ban is a good idea. There is at least one thing above politics, and it sounds like the point of the group is to discuss the one thing . It might be a good way to rid the group of the types who take the G-d is on my side mentality. There’s always going to be comments that are on the cusp, but putting Moses in a category with modern “leaders” of any stripe is debasing.  

    • #7
  8. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Samuel Block (View Comment):
    but putting Moses in a category with modern “leaders” of any stripe is debasing.  

    Well, not exactly, Samuel. One of the intriguing parts of discussing Torah is that the characters are just as flawed as we are. But on the other hand, comparing Moses to Biden is certainly a step down! 

    • #8
  9. Mad Gerald Coolidge
    Mad Gerald
    @Jose

    In the Biblical discussions I participant in, I am the person who brings up the present day applications to politics.

    I do not focus on political parties, but I do emphasize what scripture says, and how politicians, usually unnamed, violate it.  I think it is important. 

    Although we don’t discuss politics directly, I have the luxury of being surrounded by many who I think agree with me.  Sounds like you are in the opposite situation and that will be difficult. 

    As the group leader, the decision comes down to your tolerance for lefty argument.  If you can define your limit ahead of time, you’ll  know when to offer group leadership to someone else, and move on.

    Hope that helps a little.

    • #9
  10. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    I appreciate (we all of us appreciate) the honor of being asked for advice on this important question.

    First I have questions.  Could you write down the answers, re-read them after a day’s rest, and then send them?:

    1. What is your goal for investing your time and effort in the group?  
    2. If politics is excluded, do you expect to achieve your goal? (Obviously, if it isn’t excluded, you don’t, and there is no question left to decide).
    3. If politics is excluded, would achieving the goal be worth the investment?  (There are other ways you could spend your limited time and energy.

     

    • #10
  11. Mad Gerald Coolidge
    Mad Gerald
    @Jose

    Susan Quinn: As you might imagine, every person in the group is an uninformed (from my perspective) Lefty…

    Blanket and/or generic allegations (Conservatives hate women)  should not be allowed.

    If you do not ban politics, you might do well to require every political statement entered into the discussion to give specific examples (of Biden’s humility), and scripture to back up their point of view. Of course that puts a burden on you to respond in the same way.  If you want to go there.

    • #11
  12. Sisyphus Member
    Sisyphus
    @Sisyphus

    I find that presenting highlights from the works of Peter Schweizer, drawing heavily from the WashPost/NYT lame attempts to respond, really lights up a room. And he’s very bipartisan.

    • #12
  13. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Mad Gerald (View Comment):

    In the Biblical discussions I participant in, I am the person who brings up the present day applications to politics.

    I do not focus on political parties, but I do emphasize what scripture says, and how politicians, usually unnamed, violate it. I think it is important.

    Although we don’t discuss politics directly, I have the luxury of being surrounded by many who I think agree with me. Sounds like you are in the opposite situation and that will be difficult.

    As the group leader, the decision comes down to your tolerance for lefty argument. If you can define your limit ahead of time, you’ll know when to offer group leadership to someone else, and move on.

    Hope that helps a little.

    It does help, in that it validates my concern of pursuing a discussion when my group is on the political Left. It would be wonderful to relate current events to Torah, but I don’t think we’ll be able to go there. Thanks, MD.

    • #13
  14. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    I’m just wondering if I am defining politics too narrowly, in a way that prohibits my exploring any current events. If anyone has any thoughts about the state of the country that could be discussed without getting partisan, I would appreciate your input. I hope that makes sense.

    • #14
  15. CACrabtree Coolidge
    CACrabtree
    @CACrabtree

    Since I bought (and started wearing) my  “Let’s Go Brandon!” T-shirt, I’ve noticed that it’s much easier to identify any Leftists in the group.  They don’t say anything; they just clench their teeth and glare.  I always smile back at them but, for some reason, it doesn’t seem to help.

    • #15
  16. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    CACrabtree (View Comment):

    Since I bought (and started wearing) my “Let’s Go Brandon!” T-shirt, I’ve noticed that it’s much easier to identify any Leftists in the group. They don’t say anything; they just clench their teeth and glare. I always smile back at them but, for some reason, it doesn’t seem to help.

    Are you trying to get me in trouble, CA!? 

    • #16
  17. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    I appreciate (we all of us appreciate) the honor of being asked for advice on this important question.

    First I have questions. Could you write down the answers, re-read them after a day’s rest, and then send them?:

    1. What is your goal for investing your time and effort in the group?
    2. If politics is excluded, do you expect to achieve your goal? (Obviously, if it isn’t excluded, you don’t, and there is no question left to decide).
    3. If politics is excluded, would achieving the goal be worth the investment? (There are other ways you could spend your limited time and energy.

     

    Excellent questions, Mark! And I think they will help me clarify my concerns and possible resolutions. I will work on them tomorrow and report back (since I will be hitting the sack soon). Thanks!

    • #17
  18. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Sisyphus (View Comment):

    I find that presenting highlights from the works of Peter Schweizer, drawing heavily from the WashPost/NYT lame attempts to respond, really lights up a room. And he’s very bipartisan.

    And he’s also very thorough.  Thanks, Sisyphus.

    • #18
  19. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Samuel Block (View Comment):
    but putting Moses in a category with modern “leaders” of any stripe is debasing.

    Well, not exactly, Samuel. One of the intriguing parts of discussing Torah is that the characters are just as flawed as we are. But on the other hand, comparing Moses to Biden is certainly a step down!

    And all types of human flaws can be explored without discussing current politics. You might urge people to look for examples outside the political sphere, or from political matters dating back to before they were born.

    • #19
  20. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):
    You might urge people to look for examples outside the political sphere, or from political matters dating back to before they were born.

    Now this is a great idea! 

    • #20
  21. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):
    You might urge people to look for examples outside the political sphere, or from political matters dating back to before they were born.

    Now this is a great idea!

    Yes, history.

    And Shakespeare.

    Dang old Claudius.

    • #21
  22. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):

    You might urge people to look for examples outside the political sphere, or from political matters dating back to before they were born.

    Yes.  Susan’s post said:  “This morning we were discussing Beha’lotecha (Numbers 8), which focuses on Moses’ struggle with the Jewish people on their journey from Egypt. They are once again complaining about all the wonderful benefits they experienced as slaves in Egypt (leaving out slavery, of course) and Moses is exasperated by their frustration.”

    Strikes me that this could be usefully discussed in the context of some of the arguments about slavery in the pre-Civil-War United States.  Fanny Kemble, a very successful British actress who married an American and lived with him on his Georgia plantation,  rejected the argument that slaves were better off than the impoverished Irish, because at least the slaves knew where their next meal was coming from:

    Though the negroes are fed, clothed, and housed, and though the Irish peasant is starved, naked, and roofless, the bare name of freeman—the lordship over his own person, the power to choose and will—are blessings beyond food, raiment, or shelter; possessing which, the want of every comfort of life is yet more tolerable than their fullest enjoyment without them. Ask the thousands of ragged destitutes who yearly land upon these shores to seek the means of existence—ask the friendless, penniless foreign emigrant, if he will give up his present misery, his future uncertainty, his doubtful and difficult struggle for life, at once, for the secure, and as it is called, fortunate dependance of the slave: the indignation with which he would spurn the offer will prove that he possesses one good beyond all others, and that his birthright as a man is more precious to him yet than the mess of pottage for which he is told to exchange it because he is starving.

    • #22
  23. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    When I teach the Torah in our (Christian) Sunday School class,  I push the class very hard to put aside our current culture (and especially politics). Looking at the Scripture through a lens of contemporary culture or politics will keep us from understanding what the Scripture actually says.  

    • #23
  24. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):

    When I teach the Torah in our (Christian) Sunday School class, I push the class very hard to put aside our current culture (and especially politics). Looking at the Scripture through a lens of contemporary culture or politics will keep us from understanding what the Scripture actually says.

    It might be a revelation to some people to learn that it is even possible to look through some other lens.  If they could identify when they are using that lens and when they are not, that would be a great advance in awareness.

    • #24
  25. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):

    When I teach the Torah in our (Christian) Sunday School class, I push the class very hard to put aside our current culture (and especially politics). Looking at the Scripture through a lens of contemporary culture or politics will keep us from understanding what the Scripture actually says.

    All the same, one of the goals is to look at contemporary culture and politics through the lense of Scripture.

    But it’s hard to get that right until we’ve had some training, and it’s doubly hard if we start off by doing it backwards.

    • #25
  26. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    Susan Quinn: But I’m quite certain that if someone wants to relate current events to our Torah reading, politics are going to come up, intentionally or not.

    If things come up, then they come up.  However, what that lady did was sheer soapboxing.  I would hazard that she lives politics and cannot put it far from her mind.  The Almighty will just have to wait his turn because I WAAANNA SHOW MY LEFTY STREET CRED!  She was out of line (although with a cloying smile for the crowd, no doubt), and you would be well right to call it a no-politics series of meetings.

    Whatever you may stand to lose, you’re covered.  If it’s going to go sour, no need to hang around.  And you never know — maybe it will get better.

    • #26
  27. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Humility and tolerance. It’s very on point. 

    • #27
  28. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    CACrabtree (View Comment):

    Since I bought (and started wearing) my “Let’s Go Brandon!” T-shirt, I’ve noticed that it’s much easier to identify any Leftists in the group. They don’t say anything; they just clench their teeth and glare. I always smile back at them but, for some reason, it doesn’t seem to help.

    Careful, there, comrade: I have it on good authority that “Let’s Go Brandon!” is a white supremacist slogan, proof that you are either a Nazi or a Klansman. Or both. /sarcasm

    • #28
  29. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):

    When I teach the Torah in our (Christian) Sunday School class, I push the class very hard to put aside our current culture (and especially politics). Looking at the Scripture through a lens of contemporary culture or politics will keep us from understanding what the Scripture actually says.

    All the same, one of the goals is to look at contemporary culture and politics through the lense of Scripture.

    But it’s hard to get that right until we’ve had some training, and it’s doubly hard if we start off by doing it backwards.

    That was one of the merits of a solid humanities education (before the left corrupted the universities): You learned how to look objectively at more distant times and places, and so learned how to apply those cognitive skills to your own world.

    • #29
  30. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    Just ban current politics in the rules for discussion – Talk about politics in relation to events during those times.  Almost anything can be steered into a political head-banging session these days and that always takes away the topic at hand, which is a religious study.

    • #30
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