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A Man of Ideas Who Irritates Right and Left : NONFICTION : THE POLITICS OF MEANING: Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism. By Michael Lerner (Addison-Wesley: $24, 355 pp.)

July 21, 1996|Russell Jacoby | Russell Jacoby teaches history and education at UCLA. He is the author most recently of "Dogmatic Wisdom" (Doubleday Anchor) and "The Last Intellectuals" (Hill & Wang)

Michael Lerner emerged from the 1960s as a chastened political activist, seeking to leaven his radicalism with psychology and religion. He helped establish a "labor and mental health" center in Oakland; he returned to Judaism. He founded Tikkun, a bimonthly magazine of politics and culture, which sponsors conferences and meetings. Lerner has spoken out for Israeli peace with the Palestinians and, along with Cornel West, the Harvard University professor, he has campaigned for improved relations between Jews and African Americans.

Although he has more than his share of critics, Lerner found a friend in a high place. In 1993, Hillary Clinton quoted Lerner and called for "a new politics of meaning . . . a new ethos of individual responsibility and caring . . . a new definition of civil society." Lerner's boat, it appeared, had come in. Wrong. Commentators and pundits savaged Lerner and, in a flash, the president's wife dropped him and his phrases--events to which Lerner devotes an epilogue in this book.

"The Politics of Meaning" presents Lerner's diagnosis of the ills of America. He sees a country suffering from a cynicism and selfishness that spawn frustration, unhappiness and violence. Utilitarian America, he says, fails to recognize the spiritual and philosophical needs of life: "We hunger for communities of meaning that can transcend the individualism and selfishness that we see around us, and that will provide an ethical and spiritual framework that gives our lives some higher purposes."

Sentences like these drive conservatives and leftists to distraction. For those on the right, Lerner too often targets the market economy, materialism and selfishness--the stuff of capitalism--as evils. For leftists, Lerner too often offers spiritualities and religion, the ideology of capitalism, as the cure. The question arises: Is the author a political reformer with a spiritual program, or is he a spiritual reformer with a political program?

Lerner's strength comes from his rejection of left and right platitudes. One of his chapters is called "The Failure of the Liberals," another, "The Failure of the Conservatives." He does not agree with leftists' standard complaint that we need simply more jobs or a re-engineered social welfare system. For Lerner, economics can't do the trick, without fundamentally reorienting how people live. Nor does he accept the conservatives' standard solution, a return to traditional and patriarchal communities. He concedes that many religious conservatives--not leftists--speak to America's spiritual crisis of America, the "hunger for community and connection." Yet he also notes that conservatives veer off into scapegoating and authoritarianism, missing the social context of America's ills.

One problem, however, is that Lerner never gets far past generalities. What does a "politics of meaning" exactly hope to achieve? His answer: "To create a society that encourages and supports love and intimacy, friendship and community, ethical sensitivity and spiritual awareness among people." Who could object?

To be sure, abstractions and generalities have their place. But if anything, Lerner works too hard to preempt criticism by qualifying and specifying. At every turn, he itemizes proposals and policy implications. And his suggestions range from the convoluted to the questionable; they weaken, rather than strengthen, his argument.

For instance, Lerner wants to revamp affirmative action so that society rewards "empathy and caring for others." He calls for a state ballot initiative declaring that California will hire people "not on the basis of race, gender or other external characteristics, nor on the basis of standardized tests, but on the basis of a history of service to their community and state as revealed by exemplary work with church groups, schools, the elderly and other populations in need."

You don't have to be a cynic to envision the trumped-up resumes that might result, or to wonder about lifeguards hired on the basis of community service.

Lerner may be a gifted organizer and agitator, but he is not a gifted writer. Too much of the book reads like an unending speech, a drumbeat of "sensitivity" and "caring."

With his unwieldy prose and desire to cover all the bases, from the spiritual to state referendums, Lerner may be his own worst enemy. Yet he catches something of the American mood, a dissatisfaction with leftist economism and rightist authoritarianism. Lerner has something to say. Unfortunately--or is it fortunately?--his ideas are better than his book.

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