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COLUMN LEFT/ MICHAEL LERNER

Cynicism vs. the Politics of Meaning : Hillary Clinton doesn't deserve the media's sneers for saying what most Americans feel.

June 20, 1993|MICHAEL LERNER | Michael Lerner is the editor of Tikkun, a bimonthly Jewish journal of politics, culture and society.

I thought that Bill and Hillary Clinton were exaggerating about press hostility toward them until I experienced it myself. Mrs. Clinton recently criticized the way American society rewards selfishness and stigmatizes idealism, publicly embracing my call for a politics of meaning that addresses the way this society thwarts our deepest ethical, spiritual and psychological needs.

Too often people find that if they want to be successful in this world, they have to act in ways that violate their own highest principles. The people who do best in the economy are often people who do best at manipulating others.

This focus on money and power may do wonders in the marketplace, but it creates a tremendous crisis in society. People who have spent all day learning how to sell themselves and to manipulate others are in no position to form lasting friendships or intimate relationships.

And families or religious institutions that try to teach values to the young are up against an insuperable barrier, because young people know that the moral teachings they are hearing have nothing to do with how the real world is actually run. Particularly since the Reagan/Bush conservatives gave legitimacy to selfishness as the guiding principle for daily life, it has become increasingly difficult to persuade anyone that idealism makes sense.

What I discovered in my years as a psychotherapist to middle-income working people is that many Americans hunger for a different kind of society--one based on principles of caring, ethical and spiritual sensitivity, and communal solidarity. Their need for meaning is just as intense as their need for economic security.

But I found that most liberals and progressives didn't even understand that people have these meaning-needs. Meaning was dismissed as something to seek in psychotherapy or in church, but not in public life. The problem is that the deprivation of meaning is a social problem, rooted in part in the dynamics of the competitive marketplace, in part in the materialism and selfishness that receive social sanction.

So I started Tikkun magazine in 1986, in part to try to forge a politics of meaning for the liberal and progressive world. Naturally, I was pleased when Bill Clinton wrote to me in 1988 to endorse these ideas, and when Hillary Clinton recently gave a speech saying that America needs a politics of meaning, and defining that in the same terms we have been using at Tikkun--the need to switch from an ethos of selfishness to an ethos of caring.

The press assault was ferocious. Michael Kelley in the New York Times Magazine dubbed the First Lady "Saint Hillary" and misrepresented our venture as "a politics of virtue," with historical resonance to those who see themselves as more virtuous than the rest of the population. (Remember the political disaster ensuing from President Carter's "malaise" speech, suggesting that he was on a higher moral plane than everyone else?) But the politics of meaning's perspective was just the opposite. It was not that people needed to be elevated. We believe that most people already desire a society that encourages love and caring and ethical behavior, not a society that undermines family and values. The problem is in an economic marketplace and political and social arrangements that need to be modified. As Mrs. Clinton has stated, "The market knows the price of everything but the value of nothing."

Kelley had identified me as the source of these ideas, and the next week, the Washington Post ran a story titled "The Guru of the White House," comparing my role to Mary Lincoln's seances, Florence Harding's Tarot cards and Nancy Reagan's astrologer. This for writing articles that influenced Mrs. Clinton's thinking.

Then came the hard right with charges that I was an anti-war radical in the 1960s and suggestions that I was a Jewish swindler poisoning the minds of our leaders (and advocating abortion and condoms, to boot). Meanwhile, media commentators found it ridiculous that anyone would care about "meaning" since, from the standpoint of media cynicism, the whole idea that there are other motives besides self-interested ones seems hilarious.

In all the hoopla, the focus was switched to me, and the ideas that Hillary and I had been fighting for were ignored. I am not now nor have I ever been anyone's guru, but the media's use of such trivializing language diverted attention from the intellectual seriousness of our position.

Because it shifts the dominant discourse from selfishness to caring and idealism, the politics of meaning may be the most important contribution the Clintons make to healing and repairing our world. Liberals and progressives should embrace it before media cynicism destroys it.

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