All Politics is Cosmic

The politics of meaning

IN the beginning there was a hunger for vision. And then came a great need for rhetoric. Soon President and Mrs. Clinton sensed representative vibrations in the quasi-mystical-socio-politico-psychological coat of crazy colors that the author and activist Michael Lerner calls the "politics of meaning." They must have felt that Lerner, with his talk of a universal inner pain and "hunger" for connection, might help them administer verbal balm to an America collectively turning inward amid social and economic disruptions. So, shortly into their reign, the Clintons summoned Lerner to Washington, thereby setting in motion Lerner's own inward-turning fall.

Lerner had come sprawling onto the public scene in 1986 with his magazine . A licensed psychotherapist, he had spent the previous ten years in Oakland, California, treating patients at a clinic he co-founded called the Institute for Labor and Mental Health. (Lerner has claimed that his vision for America came to him through his encounters with patients.) But problems have beset Tikkun from the start. A former leader of Students for a Democratic Society and co-editor of the ultraleft magazine Ramparts, Lerner seemed to long for the old confrontational days. He began to confront himself. He began to march on his own magazine.

At its best Tikkun has tried to speak with a nonpartisan voice of common decency, outside the crumbling framework of left-right antitheses. But for Lerner, all politics is cosmic. And in his own offerings in the magazine, for page after page he has spluttered on like an old Volkswagen about "pain" and "healing," "misrecognition" of our true selves and "healing," "surplus powerlessness" and "healing," "healing" and . . . well, "healing."

Increasingly Lerner's writings have been careering toward strange destinations: A radical feminist perspective that called for strengthening the family. An attack on selfishness that talked only about the self. An emphasis on "personal responsibility" which proclaimed that every individual has been crippled by an unfeeling world. A version of Judaism as a revolutionary religion which was to historical Judaism what a macaroon is to a Passover seder.


OUT of the wilderness, then, where he had wandered through the sands of psychotherapy for two decades after the New Left's self-destruction, Lerner bounded hopefully toward 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This faux-Hasidic evangelical, this erstwhile Gramscian revolutionary, this former leader of SDS, sat musing and advising in the White House: a scene almost too beautiful to be true. For the first time since the 1960s a member of the New Left had a President's ear, albeit by way of the commanding attention of the First Lady. (And if Lerner had been a disciple of Talleyrand instead of Gramsci . . . ? The irreverent mind boggles.) Most interesting, Lerner had not had to revise himself rightward to pass into the halls of power. He had had only to dust off a radical disdain for a liberal welfare state's concessions to the status quo. Then he threw over this old scorn the cloak of a flourishing centrist impatience with liberal policy.

In a speech she made about health care in April of 1993, Hillary Clinton dropped the phrase "politics of meaning." Meanwhile, Lerner in his magazine was fawningly touting Clinton and his own association with the President, complete with a reproduction of a memo that Clinton as governor of Arkansas had sent Lerner, thanking him for "clarifying" some important issues. The press swarmed all over Lerner. The New York Times Magazine ran a corrosive article about him titled "This Year's Prophet" a month after running an article that derided the warm reception Hillary Clinton had extended to some of Lerner's zanier notions.

As a focal point for ideas--universal health insurance, an emphasis on rebuilding the institutions of civil society, a publicly responsible journalism--Tikkun at its best never deserved the mostly shallow media trouncing it got when the First Lady made Lerner's phrase famous. But its best began to come less and less often. Lerner's grip on the magazine was reducing it to inanity. And his publicity-hungry maneuverings earned him whatever vituperation he received.

But fatal for Lerner, the Clintons' instincts about his usefulness proved monumentally wrong. The "politics of meaning" came down, in the practical political sense, to changing the reigning cultural "paradigms." "Caring" and "healing" meant sensitivity to the pain of every faint heart in every narrowing form of group self-interest. Thus in a country where more and more people were either losing their jobs or worried about losing their jobs, the question of homosexuals in the military became paramount. And what began to seem like feminism's devolution into a mission of further empowering upper-middle-class women, carried forward in the symbolic presence of the First Lady, topped the national agenda.

In November of 1994 some pundits strained to understand why the beleaguered working class and the anxious middle class voted for candidates who would only preserve a beleaguering and anxiety-producing status quo. The reason is simple. In contemporary America's whirling culture, promises of stability amount to promises of change. And the meaning-oriented Clintons, partly inspired by Lerner's loony visions of a brave new consciousness, promised only to hasten the pace of flux.


IN the 1970s the New Left got into the consciousness-changing business in a big way and made itself extinct. Courage, faith, hard work, and eventual legislation, not a new cultural hegemony, had changed the lot of black people in the South. Determined exposure of the truth, expressions of solidarity, and appeals to American decency, not a transformation of the American mind, had helped to end the war in Vietnam. But Lerner never really left the ruined precincts of the theoretical left. He simply translated "bourgeois hegemony" into "the pain" and the "misrecognition" of our true selves that he believes deform all our lives.

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