June 22, 2012
In honor of Leira, I was asked to chant this d’var Torah. In the interest of decency, I declined.
This week’s portion is Parashat Korach. It is a tale that is perfect for Northern California since it involves political rebellion and earthquakes. The story goes like this:
Korach, a descendant of Levi, thus already a big shot, together with 250 “men of renown” confront none other than Moses and Aaron. Korach challenges their authority and their legitimacy. He accuses them of an undemocratic grab for power. Appealing to a sense of justice and fair play, he castigates Moses, railing that since all of the people are holy, how come you hold yourself above them. He accuses Moses of bringing the people into the wilderness to die so he can rule over them. He points out that Moses has failed to bring the people to the land of milk and honey. Moses is floored, literally, and he “falls on his face”. He says to the rebels that in the morning, God will choose who the leader should be. So, what happens…God sends an earthquake to swallow up the rebels. Wow!
What did Korach do that merited being swallowed into the earth? Here is a man standing up to the powerful and calling for a more democratic and legitimate form of leadership. He makes the compelling argument that since the people are holy, how is the self-appointed Moses allowed to rule unfettered? And, how about the fact that Moses has promised a land of Milk and Honey and all they have seen is desert? Shouldn’t the people have a say in who leads them?
Korach stands up for democracy and the right to vote. He questions the legitimacy of a self-appointed leader. Since he certainly shares our inclination towards Democracy, why isn’t Korach a modern American Jewish Hero? Instead of a hero, he and his rebels suffer this awful fate. That is a puzzle. One answer could be that since Moses is God’s representative on earth, Korach, in challenging Moses, is really challenging God’s authority. Since it is wrong to challenge the Almighty, God zaps the rebels. Ah yes, the good old fashioned vengeful God of the bible. That may satisfy some but it doesn’t work for me. What does? No surprise, I am going to tell you.
Let’s begin with a quote from a recent column by David Brooks in the New York Times:
“The people who pioneered democracy…had a low but pretty accurate view of human nature. They knew that if we get the chance, most of us will try to get something for nothing…. But, democratic self-government is possible because we’re smart enough to design structures to police that selfishness”.
“But, over the years, this balanced wisdom was lost. Leaders today do not believe their job is to restrain popular will; their job is to flatter and satisfy it. A gigantic polling apparatus has developed to help leaders anticipate and respond to popular whims.”
According to Brooks, leaders don’t lead much anymore. Instead, they follow the popular whim. And what is driving the popular whim and the poll numbers which reflect it? Opinions that often are not well informed and, in fact, frequently misinformed. So, what does this all have to do with Korach’s rebellion? Everything!
You see, the argument that Korach made to Moses that he had no right to hold himself above the people was based on the premise that “all the congregation are holy, every one of them”. While all of the people would have liked to believe that they were holy, as we know, this was not the case. Korach was seeking to replace Moses by appealing to the peoples’ vanity, employing a facially appealing argument, but one that was not based on fact. If he was not the first demagogue, he was among the first. He tried to grab power by waiving the flag and distorting the facts. Lucky for the Israelites, there was an earthquake!
Today, the key to accomplishing a political goal is to shape what the people hear and see especially when we have leaders who just follow the popular whim. Facts need not intrude on this mission. The result of this is that we have power seekers railing about “Death Panels”, and the like. The use of unchallenged misinformation to pander to the public is a problem today just as it was at the time of Korach. And now, thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, the spread of misinformation can be affected by ads financed by corporations and wealthy individuals like the Koch brothers or big tobacco. Thus, if the system is as Brooks describes it, that the leaders follow the polls and pander to the electorate, the danger that there will be a leader like Korach is even worse today.
Of course, the media is there to keep the population informed and inhibit the spread of misinformation. Or is it? Today the media is controlled by a small number of large corporations. Look at the major networks: Fox-News Corp., ABC-Disney, CBS-Viacom, and NBC- Comcast. The other players owning most of the local TV and radio stations, cable channels, newspaper and magazines are Time Warner, Gannet, and yes, Bain Capital. Corporations exist to make money and answer to their shareholders. So, when a politician makes a claim that “stretches” the truth, does the media simply report it or does it question it? How often do we hear on the evening news that so and so charged so and so…? However, this claim not based on fact, represents a significant distortion, and is misleading. Ever? The evening news now spends more time on what the public is interested in and less on what it needs to know. We hear more about how much Prince William inherited from Diana than what is happening in the Middle East. It seems as though the search for news is the search for the sensational. The more outrageous, the better. Which makes a better story, conflict or compromise? Watch the evening news and measure how much of the report is about what is happening around the world as compared to what is happening to the Kardashians. Where have you gone, Walter Cronkite? Yes, there is PBS and the New York Times. But, how many do they reach? And, I have not even mentioned the spread of misinformation on the internet or how what is on the internet frequently finds its way to the evening news.
Now, any individual or group given a large audience by the media because what they say or do is “interesting” or “outrageous” or with enough money to purchase an audience with ads can influence policy by spreading distortions. Why does the media continue to report that Donald Trump says the President was born in Kenya? What makes his nonsense newsworthy? The fact that it is repeated over and over gives it the imprimatur of truth and people begin to believe it. Remember the “Big Lie”? It’s back. Did you know that gun control caused the Holocaust? Say things often enough and people begin to believe it. When public figures are permitted to say anything unchallenged, and say it over and over, often in ads financed by powerful interests with lots of money, what is to prevent the rise of a Korach?
This is the point where I am supposed to make suggestions as to how to deal with this. This is also the point where I stopped writing and walked away from my computer in frustration because I am not sure what the answers are. The first amendment is precious and inviolate; but, the marketplace of ideas where one responds to speech with speech assumes a level playing field. For Democracy to work it is essential that there exists a well-informed electorate. Unfortunately, the playing field is unbalanced and the electorate is not well-informed. That is why this is so scary. Let’s hope we are not headed for another earthquake.