If it sounds hopelessly naïve to expect civility in today’s supercharged political atmosphere — or even to hope for it — David Teitelbaum of Fair Lawn clearly didn’t get the memo.
Instead, Mr. Teitelbaum, working through his Facebook page, Political Writing Game, and his website, www.politicalwritinggame.com, is trying to achieve just that.
Mr. Teitelbaum, who began work on the project in 2010 but did not give it his full attention until 2015, says if he had it to do again, he probably wouldn’t have called the initiative a “game,” although it certainly made sense at the time.
“I was looking to do something unique, not available anywhere else,” he said. “I felt there was a need for it. Generally, when someone writes an article, the talk-backs trail off into nothingness, with a lot of nastiness along the way. It’s the same for political forums.”
He did find a site similar to the one he wanted to create, dedicated to civil conversation. But even there — with some issues garnering between 50 and 200 comments — “you get bored following it. Putting in the competitive aspect focuses people on providing ideas that are interesting, where the comments are on target as well as accurate. The competitive aspect was necessary to make the whole system work.”
In the case of his site, the game involves both commenting on and rating current discussions, looking at criteria such as “most entertaining,” “best discussion introductions,” and “most informative.”
Given the amount of incivility that often accompanies partisan politics, Mr. Teitelbaum also is second-guessing his decision to launch the project so close to a presidential election (“although within 15 months of the election, you’re in electoral season,” he added). On the other hand, with his site garnering some 10,000 “likes,” he hopes he will be able to help educate undecided voters. Not surprisingly, Mr. Teitelbaum spends a good deal of time moderating the site — and if he wakes up at night, “I go straight to the computer.”
“The closer it comes to an election, the less people want to be civil,” he said. With a Facebook ad showing a picture of a smiling Donald Trump and a smiling Hillary Clinton — and saying that “It is possible to discuss this in a serious and reasonable way” — he drew more than 100 new likes every day. He also has drawn in readers by asking if they are worried about the day after the election.
“The fact is that we need to be able to come together as a country that day after,” he said. With a nod to Tisha B’Av, he said that he was “inspired by the idea of causeless hatred,” the reason many rabbis give for the destruction of the Second Temple. “It’s what we’re facing in this country,” he said.
Mr. Teitelbaum, who lives in Fair Lawn with his wife, Ellen, is a longtime officer and board member of the Gerrard Berman Day School in Oakland. David and Ellen Teitelbaum have three children, one of whom made aliyah in 2009.
A pension actuary for 39 years, Mr. Teitelbaum was the majority owner and CEO of Consulting Actuaries Incorporated for 20 of those years. In 2010 he sold the business to employees, and now he works part-time for the firm, providing technical assistance.
Political Writing Game is entirely self-funded, “although it’s not out of the question that it will apply for nonprofit status and seek donations at some time in the future,” Mr. Teitelbaum said.
One person posting on his Facebook page said he had a feeling that “‘the folks who use the word civility expect me to bow down to them. Don’t hold your breath,’” Mr. Teitelbaum reported. “I responded that the meaning of civility goes beyond mere courtesy. As Americans, we’re basically on the same team working toward common goals. The opposite of civility is civil war. If we’re not careful, that’s where we’re headed.”
That kind of comment, he believes, reflects the great extent to which “different groups are demonizing each other.” While he does not seek, say, to convince Trump voters to end their support for that candidate, “there is a responsibility to help Trump supporters support Hillary as president,” should she be elected.
Mr. Teitelbaum, who considers himself “center-left and strongly pro-Israel,” said that he has friends who are “conservative, more to the right. For years we talked about our kids, but as they grew, we started talking about politics and found that we learned a lot from each other. I often realized that each was working from facts, but prioritizing them differently. I came to the conclusion that intelligent people with good intentions can come to different conclusions.”
Facts are very important to him, and he does a lot of research to ensure that people do not post inaccurate statements. “When I get comments on Facebook that bring in information I never heard before, I research it and respond,” he said. “In some cases, it’s just off the wall, but people believe it.
“I have no illusion about changing their minds,” he continued. “I don’t think I can, and I don’t expect to. However, I do try to filter out things that are clearly wrong” so the undecided can make their decisions based on what is true. Mr. Teitelbaum hopes to demonstrate that even if people disagree, that does not mean that those on the other side are “unreasonable, stupid. or gullible.”
On his website, articles, which span a wide range of topics from economics to education, reflect a variety of political views. “Over the course of the campaign, we’ve tried to cover almost every issue,” he said, noting that articles “seem to create the most interest when they get ‘too political.’” For example, he posted two articles on his website, one pro-Trump and one pro-Clinton, and invited people on his Facebook page to check them out.
“We received a tremendous number of pro-Trump and anti-Clinton postings,” he said, noting that he drew no pro-Clinton comments, which is consistent with “everything else I’ve seen on Facebook. I thought it would have attracted more Clinton supporters.”
Trump supporters, he said, often comment by saying things like “Go Trump,” which he deletes. “His people are organized,” he said. “They look at it as wanting to help, if not with money then by getting on Facebook, going to political webpages, and spreading the word.” There’s also “a lot of God,” or religious references, he said of the pro-Trump postings.
With some 1,000 people commenting so far, Mr. Teitelbaum recently posted an essay about Israel, exploring the concept that there should be “no daylight between U.S. policy and Israeli policy.”
“‘Is that a good thing?’ I asked, adding that as a supporter of Israel I wonder if one, it’s best for Israel and two, if it’s right for the U.S. It was one of the hotter topics,” he said, driving people to the website to read the piece.
People who identified as Trump supporters were “unconditionally pro-Israel,” he said. “A significant number referred to religion.” Their reasoning was that God said Israel should be supported and so it doesn’t matter what’s good for the United States. Most of those people did not appear to be Jewish, he said, although he cannot know that with any certainty.
“There was one odd discordant note,” Mr. Teitelbaum added. “Someone wrote that he feels sorry for what the Jews went through during the Holocaust, but in his experience, Jews are rude and look down on other people.”
“I didn’t delete it, considering it a teachable moment, an opportunity,” he continued. Instead, he responded online, posting, “While I appreciate your willingness to share your perceptions, I submit to you that you may have fallen into the generalization trap. I feel strongly that if our country is to come together again after this divisive election, it will be because of the willingness of Americans to judge people based on their individual merits rather than on their political, ethnic, or religious identification.”
Mr. Teitelbaum said that if the least popular person among Trump supporters is Hillary Clinton, then the next is President Obama. The third is Mitt Romney. “I find this to be important because it shows how difficult it’s going to be to put the Republican Party back together after this election,” he said.
His commenters call Mr. Obama “a Muslim and a traitor to his country,” Mr. Teitelbaum said. While he generally deletes such statements, if commenters raise a specific point, he will leave it on and dispute it, if it is inaccurate. For example, accusations that FEMA has established concentration camps around the country have been shown to be a hoax. Mr. Teitelbaum hopes that when the average visitor sees that canard anywhere on the internet in the future, he or she will remember the moderator’s response.
“The more people who sign on, the more people can get educated in different areas,” Mr. Teitelbaum said. He is always looking for feedback and for ways to improve his site, he added. “With more contributors, there’ll be more discussions. I ask people to write about anything they’re interested in. They don’t have to be a great writer or do research. They simply have to come up with an idea, think about it, and write even one paragraph.”
Here are excerpts from comments on Israel. Mr. Teitelbaum said he looked to engage the commenters by asking for clarification, requesting evidence to back their statements, or rephrasing them to make them acceptable to a wider range of readers.
“The United States is an enabler and I expect that I will be called an anti-Semite for saying this.”
“Israel always has our back but Obama does not like Israel.”
“We must continue to support Israel until we know that it is not going to be destroyed.”
“The Republicans think Israel is our 51st state.”
“Many countries owe Israel a debt for taking out Osirik. If they hadn’t, Iraq might have done much more than just take Kuwait.”
“Israel, land of the freeloader.”
There also were a number of statements indicating that we should support Israel for religious reasons. “I’ve learned the hard way not to engage people who make religious statements,” Mr. Teitelbaum said. “However, I don’t delete them unless they cross the lines I have set.”
Examples of those kinds of comments include:
“I support Israel. They are God’s people.”
“Concerning Israel the Lord said, ‘I will bless those that bless you and curse those that curse you.’ How much plainer do you want it !!!”
Mr. Teitelbaum is hosting a discussion on the Iran deal, pointing out that the Democratic platform both supports the deal and commits the party to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Acknowledging that the restrictions end after 15 years, he asks whether Democrats are being naïve or devious. Perhaps, he suggests, their plan is to force Iran to extend the deal or face new sanctions after the 15 years.
“The response was nearly 100 percent anti-JCPOA,” he said. (JCPOA stands for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran deal’s formal name.) “Some commenters believed that either Russia or China would make sure Iran is able to go nuclear. I challenged them to come up with a reason why it would be in the interest of those countries to do so. I also had a discussion with an opponent of the deal who feels that we should go to war with Iran. He and I were clearly not going to vote for the same person in this election, but I searched for common ground and ultimately got him to agree with the following statement:
“‘My hope is that our next President will be vigilant about enforcement and skilled enough to organize a coalition of countries willing to fight to stop Iran from getting the bomb. If Iran understands we are strong, serious, and capable of destroying them, we may not have to fight at all.’
“This is an example of what I try to do. Make people realize that while we may judge a situation differently, our goals are not that different.”