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What is a Politics of Meaning?

Reprinted with permission of Tikkun magazine.

E-mail can be directed to Tikkun at <>.

In past issues of Meanderings, we've written about aspects of politics and culture, particularly with respect to the African-American community. It's easier to focus on which politician isn't doing what than it is to focus on the big picture. Like, for example, why current trends in America make us so despondent. In this conservative era, we clearly shy away from discussions about the negative aspects of our economic system and the evils of rampant consumerism. Clearly something is wrong, and it goes beyond the politicians, beyond the media. To some extent it has to do with the rise of "disingenuosity" as a major factor in daily life. Everyone's on the make, out to get something at someone else's expense. It all seems to be about winning. And there doesn't seem to be much hope for positive change.

I recently heard Michael Lerner on the radio talking about a concept he calls a "Politics of Meaning." What he had to say was moving to me because it matched up pretty closely with what I'd been feeling. Lerner is the editor and publisher of Tikkun magazine, "a bimonthly Jewish critique of politics, culture and society." Kind of like Meanderings, only from a Jewish perspective. Oh, Tikkun had a big head start and charges six bucks an issue. Some day soon, right?

You may recall a section of Meanderings #6 which asked the tongue-in-cheek question, "Why was Cornel West Hugging a Jew at the Summit?" during the National African-American Leadership conference hosted by then NAACP Executive Director, Benjamin Chavis. West was attending the conference. Lerner was picketing Louis Farrakhan's involvement. Their relationship is deeper than a mere hug as they have co-authored a book on black/Jewish relations which should be in bookstores in the near future.

Tikkun means "to mend, repair and transform the world," sentiments most would consider laudable. This brief discussion of the Politics of Meaning appeared in Tikkun's November/December 1994 issue, and without suggesting agreement with everything the essay contains, it presents a good critique of both the conservative right and of the Clinton administration. It is well worth reading and discussing.

What is a Politics of Meaning?

Human beings have psychological, ethical, and spiritual needs that transcend the normal liberal agenda. Liberals have tended to focus exclusively on economic entitlements and political rights. But most people need something more: We need to be part of loving families and ethically and spiritually grounded communities that provide a meaning for our lives that transcends the individualism and me-firstism of the competitive market.

Hillary Rodham Clinton made this point decisively when she said in her Austin, Texas speech in 1993 that "The market knows the cost of everything but the value of nothing." What counts in life transcends the materialism of the marketplace. So, too, does it transcend the "rights-oriented" focus of so much traditional liberal politics.

An economistic focus for the Democrats worked well in the '30s, when most Americans were economically oppressed, and a rights-oriented focus worked well in the '60s, when most Americans responded to the demands for equality of the civil rights and women's movements. But by the late '70s, most Americans were experiencing a different kind of pain--a pain related to the breakdown of values, a crisis in relationships, an escalating divorce rate, a growing frustration with the alienation people were experiencing in the world of work.

The Right became politically powerful in the '80s and '90s because it recognized that the society was in a deep ethical and spiritual crisis--and that people hungered for communities of meaning that transcended the individualism of American life.

But the Right's politics of meaning was severely flawed. Its solution to the deprivation of meaning was to hail an idealized community and family. Yet neither of these had any reality in people's daily lives. The Right's answer to this complaint was demagogic and dangerous: Our fantasy doesn't work because of some "Other" (gays, Blacks, feminists, tax-and-spend liberals) undermining our otherwise wonderful society.

The Right ignored the role of the competitive marketplace, the way our daily lives in the world of work lead us to subordinate all values to the struggle for material success. Nor could the Right acknowledge that an economy whose bottom-line mentality rewarded those who were most effective at manipulating or controlling others would necessarily produce narcissistic personalities who were unable to sustain loving relationships in family life. The Right fails to understand that its defense of the right of corporations to plunder the resources of the world and pollute the environment not only threatens the physical survival of the planet, but also our moral lives, because it models an ethos of looting that shapes everyone's consciousness about "how the real world works." Addressing the crisis in values and the crisis in families without making significant changes in the values that govern our economic life is ultimately futile.

The Right was able to get away with blaming feminists, Blacks, gays, etc.--and ignoring the impact of the competitive marketplace--because the Democrats and the Left simply had no understanding whatsoever of the crisis of meaning. Ethical and spiritual issues? For the liberals, these were purely personal, to be dealt with through psychotherapy, or Sunday-only religion; for the Left, they were nothing but a smokescreen through which Rightists would assault liberal programs.

It took Bill Clinton to weave a politics of meaning subtly but consistently into his economic programs for the Democrats to win back the White House in 1992. But Clinton's policies as President have had little to do with the politics of meaning that he originally endorsed. In rejecting "single-payer" health care plans and catering to the interest of insurance companies and health care conglomerates, avoiding serious ecological reform, assuming crime and violence could be solved by building more prisons, rejecting principled stands on China and Bosnia, and in dozens of other ways Clinton emptied the moral content from a politics of meaning.

No wonder, then, that the American people felt betrayed by Clinton. Despite all the messages warning us that people will never care about anything but themselves and that the only rational thing to do is dedicate your life to advancing your own narrowly construed self-interest, Americans so much want to be part of a morally based order that they momentarily suspended their disbelief and allowed themselves to believe Clinton's promises that he would fight to make fundamental change for a morally based society. So when Clinton began to abandon his promises and to seek respectability as a centrist with "political savvy" who could play the Washington game, most people felt that Clinton had abandoned them, and their more cynical and self-seeking instincts came to the fore. "If even Clinton is going to be more interested in self-interest and his own popularity that in fighting for his principles," many people reasoned, "then I would be foolish to invest my energies or hopes in social change, or, for that matter, foolish to support candidates who want me to pay higher taxes on behalf of someone else, when I know that everyone else is just going to be going for their own narrow self-interest."

The fundamental reality of American politics is not a deep conservatism, but an inner conflict between the parts of us that deeply want to live in an ethically, spiritually, and ecologically healthy world--and hence inclines us to invest our hopes and energies in that possibility--and the part of us that believes that nothing will ever be different and that hence we should invest our energies in narrow self-interest. When idealism seems impossible, people will move either toward a narrow cynicism or toward right-wing versions of idealism (with all their attendant racist, sexist and at times even fascistic possibilities).

That's why it's so necessary to build a very visible movement for a progressive politics of meaning. And that is what we are doing in Tikkun magazine--developing and legitimating a new discourse. Join us--by copying and sharing this statement with your friends and engaging them in discussions that challenge the dominant materialism, selfishness and cynicism of American society. In Tikkun you'll find the details of our Campaign for a Politics of Meaning as we attempt to bring these ideas into the mainstream of American political life. Ideas matter.

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Meanderings 2.02 -- February 1995