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.

In The Politics of Meaning, Lerner writes, "There is no one who is not also a victim, no one who has not been spiritually and emotionally negated as a child." Such pain creates the "selfishness paradigm" that rules our society. Healing this pain is "the condition for the fulfillment of our needs for meaning," for "the consciousness necessary for building a very different kind of society." And this consciousness is the "condition for the liberation of our entire society from a materialist and individualist ethos." There is not much difference between those belligerently vapid statements and the vapidly belligerent declaration Lerner made twenty-three years ago, in The New Socialist Revolution: An Introduction to Its Theory and Strategy (a book that doesn't appear on his list of publications): "The first task of the revolutionary movement . . . is to destroy bourgeois hegemony and develop a radical consciousness among each of the potential constituencies for revolutionary action."

Brother, can you spare a paradigm? The cant term appears over and over in Lerner's writings, and in this book. It is one of the contemporary left's most precious conceptual amulets. (It has also been adapted by everyone from advisers in the Bush White House to business strategists.) Thomas Kuhn introduced the concept in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), to explain how scientific knowledge proceeds by upheaval. The theories of Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein, Kuhn wrote, are all self-contained and discontinuous from one another. There is no steady accumulation of truth in the form of objective knowledge about the physical universe. Instead each theory is a "revolutionary" break from the previous theory, resulting in the arbitrary replacement of one "paradigm" of knowledge by another. Once the paradigm of knowledge in a given period changes, the way science is done and applied is completely transformed.

Having migrated to the universities, the New Left cadres seized on Kuhn's idea; they turned Marx on his head. Marx had argued that material conditions create consciousness; the new theoreticians would have none of it. They held that rather than changing material conditions in order to change social attitudes, it is necessary to engineer new social attitudes--new paradigms of social knowledge--in order to transform material conditions.

This left, however, so infatuated with the impersonal processes of hard science, ignored a significant absence in Kuhn's book. Kuhn applied his idea of paradigm upheavals to the physical sciences but not to the biological sciences. Knowledge about the circulatory system, for example, from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century to today, has been more cumulative than in the physical sciences: there are abiding truths about the operation and treatment of the human heart.

So, typically, the theoretical left chose the wrong scientific analogy. If it hadn't, it might have stressed--as the young Marx, along with social democrats and liberals, did--the relationship between human dignity and the fulfillment of material needs. For there is nothing so transforming as the certainty of a prosperous human future growing out of decent employment and guarantees of life's basic necessities. That is where Marx's early humanism meets life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Meaning and caring and empathy for the Other often flow from those simple material premises--perhaps even a lifting of the ban on gays in the military. Yet the contemporary left has steered liberalism toward the inherently snobbish psychologization of materialism--let them eat consciousness! --whose desiccated fruits are political correctness and the "politics of meaning." It was in part such an abstract contempt for ordinary experience that led the social-democratic thinker Michael Harrington to walk out of the 1962 SDS summit at Port Huron in disgust. The same abstract contempt has helped to disable American liberalism. Yet in The Politics of Meaning, Lerner recommends that courses be given throughout public high school in "the history of domination of consciousness." Lerner never learns.

THE press attacked Lerner (and also gave him forum after forum), the Clintons dropped him, and the press forgot him. Out of that humiliated sensibility comes The Politics of Meaning.

There is not much to say about this sad book, an unreadable compendium of gaseous bromides that Lerner has been repeating for ten years. The overall effect is of an oversized, appallingly written and conceived brochure for a socio-politico-cosmic vacation.

Instead of thinking of a politics-of-meaning society as one in which people are going to be excessively focussed on wondering about their duty, we can picture it as one in which people will be so excited to be meeting one other and having the opportunity to spend time together that we will resemble playful puppies, joyfully exploring and celebrating each other's existence.

Another dignity-restoring mechanism would be to encourage residents of nursing homes to hold memorial services for residents who have passed away.

If [children] are emotionally or physically brutalized . . . we are all likely to suffer the consequences--whether in random acts of violence or in ethically insensitive voting behavior.

Indeed, we might eventually ask whether there really is such a thing as "the physical world," or whether that concept itself is merely an attempt to abstract reality from its essential spiritual, ethical, and material interconnectedness.

Men are often so alienated from their own bodies that many have no idea how much more delicious and stimulating a meaning-based sexuality can be.

As his public fortunes have fallen, Lerner has disappeared into his own ego. He is doing the work of Onan, not Moses.

GIVEN his mental convolutions, it's impossible to resist applying Lerner's cherished psychologizing to Lerner himself. An analysis would go like this. The people Lerner "treated" at his Institute for Labor and Mental Health were working-class and middle-class. That is, they were members of the "silent majority" who had once rejected Lerner's calls for revolutionary action. So for two decades Lerner got back his own. His patients might reasonably have thought he was trying to help them; but Lerner had another agenda. He tells us that his "aim was to better understand the psychodynamics of middle-income working people, and also to try to understand why so many of them were moving to the political Right." And the findings of his research with the people who put themselves in his care were that they had been deformed by pain and misrecognition, maimed by the "deprivation of meaning." In other words, it was their fault that the revolution had failed and propelled Lerner into twenty years of oblivion, not his. They had failed him. This project of self-vindication has been at the "meaning" core of his ambitions since before Lerner was seduced and then abandoned by the Clintons and lost the media spotlight. Now, as an indifferent society once again rejects Lerner's calls for transformation, the self-vindication remains.

Let all this infuriated healing come to an end.

The Atlantic Monthly; June, 1996; All Politics Is Cosmic; Volume 277, No. 6; pages 120-125.