It’s politically incorrect but true: Ehud Olmert is responsible for the haredi riots, and the radical “Squad” is responsible for the Capitol Hill invasion, just as Donald Trump was responsible for the Black Lives Matter riots.
Admittedly, the word “partially” should sit in front of the word “responsible.” But when historians assess our era, they will cross such wires insightfully. As dot-connectors deputized to reject partisan groupthink, they will link verbal violence with mob violence, spreading blame broadly. It makes sense. Shouldn’t they – and we – hold those responsible for irresponsible rhetoric at least partially responsible?
Morally and legally, fouling the atmosphere isn’t as bad as committing foul crimes. And false equivalences are no better than partisan blinders. But the historical docket is less forgiving than courts of law: quicker to convict, while sentencing only to eternal damnation, not actual incarceration.
Last week, as some haredi hooligans made themselves the people of the Burning Bus, not the Burning Bush, I was still smoldering about Olmert’s column on these pages, trashing Sheldon Adelson within days of his death. Olmert crudely spit on Adelson’s freshly dug grave, writing: “Everything he loved, I hate.”
There should be a self-imposed moratorium on trash-talking most people when they first die. We used to call it decency or menschlichkeit. Why upset this admittedly controversial but generous man’s family?
To make the point crassly, it’s fair to snipe that Olmert’s self-righteousness might be easier to take if he hadn’t spent 16 months in the slammer. Today, he can defend himself. I would not make that jab upon his death, because it might hurt his family to read those words at that sensitive time.
Similarly, in the US, it’s obviously easier to see how overheated left-wing rhetoric fueled the summer riots that killed more than 26 and destroyed thousands of businesses, while blaming right-wing Trumpian hooligans for the Capitol invasion. Crossing wires emphasizes the wider problem, diffusing guilt widely – despite many people’s certitude that their side is blameless and their opponents are evil.
IN 1895, the French intellectual Gustave Le Bon published The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind . Le Bon identified three keys to mob psychology: anonymity, contagion and suggestibility. Those elements he teased out 125 years ago to describe rioting masses explain today’s virtual mass Internet bullying, too.
I know perfectly nice people who post perfectly awful posts online – emboldened by anonymity, joining the pile-on, validated by everyone else’s harshness. Note how many of Trump’s Capitol Hill hooligans reject masks to fight coronavirus but hid behind masks to assail democracy.
Recently, I wrote a controversial article endorsing Trump’s Senate conviction but suggesting Joe Biden pardon him as a healing gesture. The abuse I received was predictable and personal. When I responded to some attackers respectfully but unapologetically – most continued to disagree but de-escalated. “Sorry, I was perhaps caught in the moment,” one wrote.
This is why Le Bon taught: “The power of crowds is only to destroy.”
“The masses have never thirsted after truth,” he warned. “Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master….”
“In crowds, it is stupidity and not mother wit that is accumulated,” he realized. Why? Because a “crowd thinks in images,” making it “intolerant because the shorthand of images forces everyone to deal in absolutes.” After all, “The stronger the belief, the greater its intolerance. Men dominated by a certitude cannot tolerate those who do not accept it.”
Le Bon expected scholars “to destroy chimeras” – partisan illusions, certitudes and monsters – while politicians “make use of them,” proving that “fanatics and the hallucinated create history.”
Alas, our politics, our media, our social media, even today’s hyper-politicized professors, favor the fanatics and the hallucinated, those mobilized by simplistic images and cemented in certitude. They are nevertheless the shrill minority. We, the silenced majority, are too passive: wringing our hands, furrowing our brows, letting the bullies reign.
WE MUST mobilize. Just as so many of us take responsibility for the environment by reducing our carbon footprints – recycling, going green, reusing shopping bags – believing our little household can make a difference in a world of big polluters, try reducing your partisan toxic carbon footprint. Every reduction helps.
First, avoid simplicity, seek complexity. When politics seems so black-and-white, when you can’t conceive of anything good about their leader or anything bad about yours, check your arrogance. Most political positions are compromises, hedges; if it’s all black-and-white without any gray – think self-critically.
Second, resist joining the cancel culture against rivals – while creating a call-out culture among your allies. Confront your side’s bullies. Spend more time policing your own than others, not to enforce unanimity but to acknowledge complexity and cultivate decency.
And third, find people in your community who voted the wrong way, then don’t just talk to them but listen to them, generously. Try understanding their perspective, bringing humble pie to the conversation, not the usual red meat. A little humility, a little less certitude, goes far.
Ultimately: individuals resist crowds; the idiosyncratic counters fanatics, and mature democrats see the realist’s three-dimensional mosaic, not the hallucinator’s one-dimensional blueprint.
My father, Bernard Dov Troy, raised us on pitgamim, lovely Jewish aphorisms. He particularly loves: “Who are wise? Those who learn from everyone!” Too many today learn only from those who agree with them. Let’s master this rabbinic teaching to improve politics, culture, society, democracy, while saving our souls and improving our moods.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.