Dispatch from the Front Lines of the Politics of Meaning

January 23, 1994|By AMY STONE

NEW YORK — New York. -- Here's the scenario: Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton writes editor of small-circulation "progressive" Jewish magazine back in '88. Mr. Clinton says he thinks the editor's really onto something in seeing the Democrats' defeat as a result of disregarding the "crisis in the meaning of life."

People who know the magazine, Tikkun, and its editor, Michael Lerner, are truly amazed that the Clintons not only subscribe to this "Jewish critique of politics, culture and society" as the cover proclaims, but actually read it.

More amazing, last year, Hillary Rodham Clinton invites Mr. Lerner to the White House and tells him they're on the same wavelength.

This past Sunday and Monday, almost on the first anniversary of Mr. Clinton's inauguration, nearly 900 people made their way through near zero temperatures, snow and ice to the Columbia University campus for a Tikkun conference.

Ages twentysomething and up, they were attracted to a gathering of "liberal and progressive Jews" (non-Jews also welcome) to take a look at "Clintonism After One Year" and see what lies ahead for the "Politics of Meaning."

As for the architecture of meaning, it's worth noting the conference moved between somewhat decrepit Earl Hall -- headquarters for SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) meetings during the student strike in '68 -- and the Byzantine splendor of St. Paul's Chapel -- honoring the apostle who had a vision on the road to Damascus and left Judaism for Jesus.

(During the SDS days, Michael Lerner had been a student on the Berkeley campus at the height of the Free Speech Movement. In 1986, he and his wife, Nan Fink, started publishing Tikkun out of their home in Oakland, bankrolled by her family money. Since then, they've divorced and Tikkun's now published on New York's Upper West Side.)

The over-programmed conference reflected Tikkun's continuing concerns: Israel and the Palestinians; patriarchy in the Jewish world; tensions between homosexuality and Judaism; blacks and Jews; sexuality, victimization and political correctness; and more. Not surprising since "tikkun olam," the Hebrew phrase from which the magazine takes it name, means to mend, repair and transform the world -- the magazine's reason for being.

So what is the Politics of Meaning, and what might conference issues forecast for Hillary Rodham Clinton's spiritual direction?

The Politics of Meaning has to do with social connectedness. It says that the solutions of the past few hundred years aren't working. Both the left and the right have seen freedom from external constraints as the ultimate good. But individual rights // are not enough, say Lerner and Peter Gabel, co-developer of the Politics of Meaning, associate editor of Tikkun, and president of New College of California in San Francisco.

The idea that the modern world frees us to follow choices is an illusion. What we don't realize is that we're helpless. Money and power are the bottom line, the argument goes, and our desires are being shaped by an elite determined to amass as much as possible of both. Here's where "tikkun" -- healing and transforming the world -- comes in. While psychotherapy may tell us that mental health lies in standing on our own (Mr. Lerner has doctorates in clinical psychology and philosophy), individuals need one another. We need to root ourselves in a caring community with a higher purpose.

So how are the Clintons doing? Conference participants voiced:

* Disappointment at Mr. Clinton's backing down on supporting gays in the military: Seen as a retreat from the communitarian values of the Politics of Meaning.

* Frustration with Mr. Clinton's putting his presidency on the line for NAFTA: In the formulation of Tom Hayden, now a member of the California senate, the North American Free Trade Agreement crushes U.S. labor, destroys the environment and rekindles guerrilla warfare in Mexico. Speaking the day before the earthquake that shook his district, he pleaded for the future of Mexico's monarch butterfly and Mayan culture.

* Appreciation of Mr. Clinton's appointments of federal judges: As summed up by Linda Hirshman, professor of law and director of the women's legal studies program at Chicago-Kent College of Law, "The appointment of decent men and women to life-tenured positions on the federal bench can't be underestimated."

* Agony over Bosnia and over Mr. Clinton's loss of courage in taking action: The uncontested hero of the day was Stephen Walker, who resigned from the State Department in August in protest over U.S. policy toward Bosnia.

"Clinton's instincts are in the right place," Mr. Walker said, "but there's more to being president than directing the budget and health care reform. . . . Ignore genocide in Bosnia and it will spring up somewhere else." Mr. Walker wants to end the arms embargo so the Bosnians can defend themselves. "You have the power," he told the conference.

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