Students’ perspectives prove more inspiring than VP debate

BY LARRY LEVIN, PUBLISHER/CEO

The Vice Presidential debate at Washington University last week once again brought national attention to St. Louis and the campus. Having hosted several Presidential debates in the past, Wash U has become almost a staple of the collective political consciousness during these quadrennial years.

Though this time the focus was “only” on the Vice Presidential candidates, the environment on campus pre-debate was as thrilling as if the top dogs were in attendance. Partly this was due to the great deal of attention given to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin over the past few weeks, due both to her newness on the national political scene and the rather anemic performances she had given in recent television interviews. And across the aisle, Sen. Joseph Biden, despite his three decades in Washington, was known to sometimes forget himself in the heat of battle and slip into rambling tirade mode.

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It would have been exciting to be there if only to see the political and media glitterati in abundance. CBS’ Katie Couric (of recent Palin interview fame), Bob Schieffer and countless other national and local media types graced the Wash U Athletic Center. And jumping ahead a bit, after the debate a large number of Spin Doctors tried to persuade all us media types of why and how their candidates had come out on top.

My thoughts that evening were intensely focused on the hype and spin and opponent-bashing we witnessed all night long, both during the debate and afterward. While thinking about the issues being discussed by the candidates, I found their stated positions on Thursday were mostly predictable and largely echoed those of their running mates.

I found myself instead wondering more about our public political discourse. Have we forever abandoned all pretense of civility, dignity and respect, in favor of rhetorical brutaility?

Sure, there’s been negative campaigning in the U.S. for over two centuries, but at this point the vituperation seems to have drowned out any semblance of decency or concordance.

It’s as though agreement on issues can somehow taint you.

It wasn’t that moderator Gwen Ifill didn’t try. Early on, she asked the candidates about how elected officials can work better together. “How,” she asked, “as vice president, would you work to shrink this gap of polarization which has sprung up in Washington, which you both have spoken about here tonight?”

Certainly both Senator Biden and Governor Palin gave lip service to the notion. They both discussed how they had built support for their actions across the aisle at various times in their (respectively long and and short) political careers. But after initial forays into Positiveland, they seemed to return to Attackland quicker than you can say “Karl Rove.”

Perhaps the most positive and thoughtful responses about battling polarization were these:

“I think its important to focus on the issues that people can agree on…there are ways that people can compromise and focus on the things they have in common…there are things that both sides can agree on…”

The only problem was, that actually wasn’t a response to Ifill’s question from either candidate. It was instead a comment from Sophie Cohen, a senior at Wash U from Chicago, Illinois, in discussing the debate with me.

When I spoke to four Jewish students at the Wash U Hillel the day after the debate — Margy Levinson, Eve Samborn and Ari Roskies along with Sophie — what was most striking, alongside their obvious intelligence and passion for politics, was their calm, deliberate and most notably positive way of discussing the issues, regardless of their personal views.

You might have thought I was actually listening to four mature and responsible young adults. Which, in fact, I was.

Margy echoed Sophie’s tempered comments: “I think it is so important to work together, and to get back to Jewish values. I think that America was founded to make everyone feel comfortable, in a very generalized way.

“You can’t always get what you want….Our country works on compromises, and our country works on making sure that everyone is being included.”

Lest any readers find this to be hollow sycophancy, allow me to point out that all four students expressed opinions during our discussion on a wide range of topics, from Israel to the environment, from Darfur to gay rights. They were articulate, and they were well-informed, self-assured and rational (If you want to see the complete video interview, check it out on our Web site, www.stljewishlight.com).

What they were not, however, was: deprecating, ridiculing, condescending, insulting, or otherwise disrespectful of either their fellow students or the candidates.

Look, I’m sure in private these students have their moments. We all do. Everyone’s entitled to their personal grievances. We’re not perfect, most of us are passionate about politics and our country, about Israel and world affairs.

But just as Sophie talked about applying the principles of tikkun olam — of repairing our world — in supporting her views on environmental matters, so too do those principles apply to our collective discussions about solving society’s ills. Condemnatory tactics keep us divided; language and tone of a meditative nature, even in the midst of substantive disagreement, can go a very long way.

Believe me, I’m not a naive innocent in these matters. As a lawyer and former public official, I’m keenly aware of how our system encourages and in fact expects candidates and officeholders to strive to distinguish themselves from their opponents. But what starts as noble disagreement almost invariably these days disintegrates into spite and malice. And this is not only un-right; but unproductive.

We must stop it. We are collectively better than this. As Jews, as Americans and as intelligent individuals, we must speak our minds, but do so with respect and yes, sometimes even with admiration, for the zeal with which our opponents advance their own views.

It does take courage to break out of the commonplace mold and find a higher ground. In this New Year, let us challenge ourselves to speak our views, but in doing so to hold our political and life adversaries in high esteem. For when we trash our opponents with lies, deceit and inuendo, as seems to be the fashion these days, we only dirty ourselves.