T wo weeks ago, the American Enterprise Institute, a leading conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., presented Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former British chief rabbi, with an award at its annual dinner, and his remarks in acceptance of it are worthwhile reading. He elicited laughter from the audience as he began, telling how he was about to say that he’s “moved beyond words, but the truth is no rabbi ever was moved beyond words.”

Speaking of our “tempestuous times,” he recalled asking a friend what it’s been like living in America today. The latter responded, “Well, it’s a little bit like the man standing on the deck of the Titanic with a [drink] in his hand and he’s saying, ‘I know I asked for ice, but this is ridiculous.’ ”

From the perspective of a non-American, he spoke about both sides of the political divide, briefly identifying, some of the areas in which both right and left have lost their way. Perhaps his standing as a respected figure who’s an outsider to our political system and society can enable him to get the hearing that has become almost impossible for an insider to receive, no matter their stature.

Rabbi Sacks spoke of the social covenant that underpinned America’s founding:

A covenant isn’t about me, the voter, or me, the consumer, but about all of us together. Or in that lovely key phrase of American politics, it’s about “we, the people.” ….[A] covenant is about neither wealth nor power, but about the bonds of belonging and of collective responsibility. The social contract creates a state but the social covenant creates a society….

America understands more clearly than any other Western nation that freedom requires not just a state, but also and even more importantly a society, a society built of strong covenantal institutions, of marriages, families, congregations, communities, charities, and voluntary associations….

But, in America, the social contract is still there, but the social covenant is being lost. Today, one half of America is losing all those covenantal institutions. It’s losing strong marriages and families and communities. It’s losing a strong sense of the American narrative. It’s even losing e pluribus unum because today everyone prefers pluribus to unum.

What’s particularly fascinating is the extent to which the failings on the two sides of the political spectrum mirror each other, yet each side’s partisans fail to see themselves in the mirror being held up to them. Rabbi Sacks spoke, for example, of the fact that

Instead of a culture of freedom and responsibility, we have a culture of grievances that are always someone else’s responsibility…. We need people willing to stand up and say, rich and poor alike, we all have collective responsibility for the common good. And we need a culture of responsibility, not one of victimhood, because if you define yourself as a victim, you can never be free.

The left has embraced victimhood for a long time now, but what’s new is that in rejecting genuine conservatism, the right, too, has now heartily adopted the left’s culture of grievance and blame. This is happening on the level of the personal, with the nation’s leader incapable of taking responsibility or acknowledging failure in anything, ever, instead blaming his party, his staff, his generals, the media, whoever it may be. And it is happening on policy, whether foreign, economic, or domestic, where this leader virtually never issues calls for Americans to take ownership of problems and work together to solve them; instead, all is framed in terms of the search for culprits who seek to take advantage of us and must be defeated.

As I wrote regarding Barack Obama prior to the 2008 election, the inability to ever admit mistakes and take responsibility for failures is perhaps the single most dangerous trait a president can possess because it renders crucial course corrections impossible. It is behavior no one would normalize in his personal or professional life.

Rabbi Sacks continued, explaining that the refusal to look inward for failure, only outward for scapegoats, leads to the shutting down of dissenting opinions:

Because we no longer share a moral code that allows us, in Isaiah’s words, to reason together, in its place has come something called emotivism, which says, I know I’m right because I feel it. And as for those who disagree, we will shout down or ban all those dissenting voices because we each have a right not to feel we’re wrong.

Here again, right and left become mirror images of one another: On the left, campus protesters disrupt conservative speakers for fear of having to hear critique, and on the right, the president demonizes and threatens to shut down media outlets critical of him and calls for private employers to fire employees for taking unpopular stands.

Rabbi Sacks connects the theme of personal responsibility to leftist utopianism and rightist populism:

And because half of America doesn’t have strong families and communities standing between the individual and the state, people begin to think that all political problems can be solved by the state. But they can’t.

And when you think they can, politics begins to indulge in magical thinking. So you get the far right dreaming of a golden past that never was and the far left yearning for a utopian future that never will be. And then comes populism, the belief that a strong leader can solve all our problems for us. And that is the first step down the road to tyranny, whether of the right or of the left.

The left sees governmental largesse as the solution and the right sees Mr. “I alone can fix it” as the savior. Both refuse to admit that only when individuals take responsibility for themselves, and family, church, and community members take care of each other that a healthy society can be built.

Rabbi Sacks speaks in praise of

teaching every American child the American story without embarrassment. Because you and I remember what people forget — namely, the distinction made by George Orwell between nationalism and patriotism. Nationalism is about power. Patriotism is about pride. Nationalism leads to war. Patriotism works for peace. We can be patriotic without being nationalistic.

Here, right and left are not mirror images, but they both err, one unwilling to admit failure, the other to acknowledge the possibility of rectification, and both lacking a balanced sense of responsibility. Rightist nationalism says “we can do no wrong” as a nation, which leads to belligerence — and war. Leftist thinking holds America to be irredeemably guilty, leading to empowerment of tyrants — and war. Patriotism, in contrast, strikes a healthy balance, expressing pride in a nation that, unlike most, faces its flaws and seeks to do better.

Both attitudes are also recipes for domestic strife that can tear a country apart, as we are now witnessing. In regard to race relations, for example, the rightist says things are now near-perfect and anyone who objects is a race-baiter; the leftist says we will never escape our sinful past; and the patriot says we’ve come a very long way, but still have some work to do.

Rabbi Sacks concluded by thanking the American Enterprise Institute for its generosity in giving an award “to someone who is not American, not terribly enterprising, and in the words of the great philosopher Marx — I mean, of course, Groucho, not Karl — I’m not yet ready to be an institution.” But perhaps he can serve as something of a de Tocqueville, British style, a mirror in which, if they have any self-awareness left, the respective sides in today’s overheated political climate can catch an objective glimpse of themselves. ( Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 684. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com)