As a member of a Reform synagogue, you have to understand that this is part of the landscape. I generally don't complain too much, but as election season approaches, people's emotions run high and the rhetoric gets heated and more constant. What always amazes me is peoples' willingness to believe something absolutely horrible about someone they don't know... in many cases that someone is a Republican.
Basically, an increase in talking points in the media will also correspond with an increase in thoughtless comments intended to denigrate a Republican opponent. There is a great example of a quick conversation in synagogue the other day.
In a men's group, we were talking about the concept of charity. I explained that there were some Reform organizations I could not support because they would funnel a portion of donations to fund political advocacy, the majority of which I opposed. There was a great discussion about this and the name Paul Ryan was mentioned in the context was that he is an extremist, because his budget makes such deep cuts to social programs.
The minute that his name was mentioned with the word extremist, there was immediately a nodding of heads in agreement throughout the room. This shows how devastatingly effective talking points can be. Paul Ryan = extremist. No amount of reasoned debate was going undo this perception of Ryan. This, of course, did not stop me from trying.
I opened with what I thought was an iron clad argument... "Well, clearly no one wants to see a return to 19th century capitalism, with bad working conditions and people starving in the streets..." Unfortunately, even something as obvious as this was not viewed as a compelling argument by the group. People insisted that Ryan did indeed want a return to that kind of America and that his extremist budget was proof of this.
Why were people so resistant to this line of reasoning? Ryan has been dehumanized. Look at a few snippets from the opening of a New York Times article about Representative Ryan by Jonathan Weisman (no relation).
[Emphasis below is mine]
Representative Paul D. Ryan strolls the halls of Capitol Hill with the anarchist band Rage Against the Machine pounding through his earbuds....
...For fun, Mr. Ryan noodles catfish, catching them barehanded with a fist down their throats.
He may be, as a friend described him, “a hunting-obsessed gym rat,” ...
..His prescriptions in the Republican budget plan he devised have become his party’s marching orders:According to the New York times, Ryan is an anarchist, cold blooded killer, and dictatorial issuer of "Marching Orders." It is no wonder that people are willing to believe that he wants to bring the country back to the 19th century. Later in the article:
“I’m stunned by how oblivious he is to the pain his policies would cause people,” said David R. Obey, a Democrat from Wisconsin who jousted often with his downstate colleague before retiring from the House at the end of 2010. “What amazes me is that someone that nice personally has such a cold, almost academic view of what the impact of his policies would be on people.”And critics view him as indifferent to people's suffering.
I happen to have a lot of respect for Paul Ryan and do not think that he is an extremist at all. His major fault seems to be that he has proposed a budget for federal government that makes very deep cuts across the board, which can reasonably be described as severely impacting social programs. In a more normal time, this might qualify him as extremist, but today it seems like a more logical response to a large and unruly economic problem.
I will also note that it is exceptional that he has proposed a budget at all, because in the 3.5 years of the Obama administration, the Federal Government has been running without one. This is no small point. I have seen organizations run without a budget and invariably they overspend on seemly good ideas and important things, only to find out later they can't pay the electric bill or payroll. Ultimately, when things get bad enough a Ryan style budget is imposed, not by the board of the organization, but by reality.
It is upsetting how quickly people are willing to believe in the bad intentions of others. I don't understand why people can not look at Ryan and believe that he is not trying to cause peoples suffering. He is also not indifferent to it. He is trying to prevent greater suffering by our nation and the people in it... cutting what we provide now to preserve the ability to provide something later. Reasonable people can disagree about how far you need to go to do this, but there is no need to turn Ryan into a a sub human monster to make the point.
Dehumanizing people, particularly for political gain, is definitely not consistent with Jewish values. We are obligated to judge people favorably to the greatest extent possible. It is possible to disagree with the specifics of the Ryan budget without viewing him as an evil tyrant. In a time when the majority of lawmakers in Washington are doing nothing to address the major problems our country faces, Ryan is a serious man, with a serious message... Maybe his proposal isn't perfect, but it is also not the epitome of evil. Just like us, he wants to prevent people's suffering, not cause it. Implementing cuts now to prevent a collapse later is a reasonable position, it should be treated that way.