The upcoming election looms large. It’s all everyone can talk about. In these weeks leading up to the most contested and consequential election in decades—maybe even in the history of our nation—the debates have been as much about the behavior of the candidates, as they have been about the content of the conversation.
The first presidential debate was a national embarrassment. The lack of civility and basic politeness displayed by the candidates wasn’t good. Cartoonish old men interrupted each other and behaved like toddlers, for all the world to watch. The American public walked away, caring less about the candidates’ positions…and focusing more on how rude the candidates were to each other.
That hot mess was followed by the vice-presidential debate, in which the candidates were warned that they must be civil and polite. They did a little better, but still not great. Senator Harris’s exasperation at being interrupted in a condescending and chauvinist way was something she clearly prepared for. Over and over, she asked the vice president to let her finish speaking. The moment when she smiled and let Mr. Pence know what the rest of us could see… “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking...” was recorded as a moment of victory for women everywhere. Here’s the clip. (The clip was widely shared. Artists took their own liberties. Here’s a creative rendition I found, which pays homage to that moment.)
The second presidential debate was cancelled altogether. Then, last night, the nation watched as the candidates engaged in the final debate. In an effort to allow for a more civil and civilized conversation, the decision was made to mute the candidates’ microphones when they weren’t talking. A good idea or a bad idea? Journalist, David Litt, wrote an article about this in The Atlantic Monthly. The author claims that, though he was in favor of muted microphones after the spectacle that was the first presidential debate, he then thought the idea was a mistake. He wrote, “The Commission on Presidential Debates is choosing the appearance of civility over an honest, open display of the two men’s characters.” He explains that the behavior of the candidates is, in and unto itself, significant information that reveals so much.
It seems particularly appropriate that we would watch this debate during the week in our Torah when we read Parshat Noah. It’s the Torah portion that describes the famous Noah’s Ark story. AND the story of the Tower of Babel. In an effort to keep humanity from possessing too much power, God decided to make human cooperation more challenging. In that moment, God introduced many different languages to the peoples of the earth. The Hebrew word “bilbul,” means confusion. Unfortunately, the strife and chaos created at the Tower of Babel, remains with humanity until today. A couple thousand years later, we are still unable to speak to each other respectfully. We turn on our screens to watch pre-election debates… and can’t help but wonder if our presidential debates don’t resemble the screaming matches at the Tower of Babel...?
Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf