Heschel on Politicians

by Bob Schwartz

“I consider the heart of the problem of human existence is to fight against mendacity, against lying. I would like to use a word which may be too often used, but it’s still the most important word—and that is “honesty,” or “sincerity,” or “trust.””

“I am against the word “politician.” I have great respect for the word “statesman.” It’s very interesting, the word “statesman” is not used. “Politician” is used. “Statesman” is a great word….The task of a statesman is to be a leader, to be an educator, and not to cater to what people desire almost against their own interests. To be a leader.”

From an interview with Abraham Joshua Heschel at the University of Notre Dame in 1967, published in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, essays by Heschel.

Q: Your esteem for religious colleagues is greater than your esteem for politicians. I think you once said that the most depressing word in the English language is “politician.” Politicians are necessary, aren’t they? Why disparage them?

A: No, I’m not against politicians in their vocation. I’m against politicians in their tactics. Against the very meaning, the semantic meaning of the word “politician.”

Now let me elaborate. It may take me two minutes to explain it to you. I consider the heart of the problem of human existence is to fight against mendacity, against lying. I would like to use a word which may be too often used, but it’s still the most important word—and that is “honesty,” or “sincerity,” or “trust.”

The tragedy of our time is, we don’t trust each other. The Golden Rule today is not “Love thy neighbor as thyself” but “Suspect thy neighbor as thyself.” We suspect all politicians because we know in advance they don’t mean what they say and they don’t say what they mean.

Q: Is that justified? That suspicion?

A: Ask the people in the country. You’re asking me? I’m only one citizen. I have only one vote.

If you go to the country and ask them, “What do you think of politicians?,” they’ll say a politician is a synonym for a person who is not necessarily truthful. Right? Do you mind my elegant way of speaking?

We have a type of politician today—I suppose we’ve always had, and I don’t want to identify anyone—who tells us that he is doing what the peoples want. And, in fact, that may be so. Of course, that doesn’t reach to the question of leadership. Should our leaders give us what we want, or is there some other role?

I think there is another role. By the way, I am against the word “politician.” I have great respect for the word “statesman.” It’s very interesting, the word “statesman” is not used. “Politician” is used. “Statesman” is a great word.

Now, about doing what the people want—I’ll tell you what the people want. One of the major inclinations in every human being is a desire to be deceived. Self-deception is a major disease.

Q: To be told what one wants to hear?

A: Yes. You want to be deceived.

The task of a statesman is to be a leader, to be an educator, and not to cater to what people desire almost against their own interests. To be a leader.

The great question of today is mendacity. We live in a world full of lies. And the tragedy that our young people—or maybe it’s good—the young people have discovered how many lies are uttered daily and every moment. They can’t stand it. If there’s anything they despise, it’s someone who is phony, false rhetoric. We call it “credibility gap”—what we mean really is lying.

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