Clinton's lying underscores our national ills

September 30, 1998|By Michael Lerner

FOR THOSE of us who hoped the Clinton administration would give a second chance to the 1960s generation to shape public policy, President Clinton has been almost from the start a traitor, abandoning everything he told us he stood for and placing his self-interest above any principles.

For many of us, the Monica Lewinsky matter is the most trivial of a long set of betrayals in which he espoused progressive social ** change while pursuing policies for which the primary goal was to grease the path for U.S. corporate expansion. A good example: welfare reform turning into an assault on the principle of using government to rectify the destructive impact of the free market.

Why did Americans let Mr. Clinton get away with this? Because his underlying motivation -- that he was forced to abandon his principles for the sake of political self-interest -- appealed to what underlies so much of American "common-sense," the notion that ideals and ethical concerns are secondary to our own survival. Thus, we learn to see people as objects whom we can manipulate to satisfy our needs and desires.

It's easy to harshly judge Mr. Clinton and others who make these choices. Yet we live in a society that routinely rewards selfishness. Powerful corporate executives polluting the environment or politicians selling out their ideals -- or even plain good people -- will tell you that they "want" to do the right thing but they "can't."

Our outrage at Mr. Clinton, then, is that he vulgarly exposes the pathology of self-interested manipulation of others that gets rewarded in our economic life and which, inevitably, most people bring home by how they treat each other in private life.

A crisis of the spirit

America's spiritual crisis, manifested in the way that this market-induced ethos of selfishness undermines families and makes ethical behavior seem "unrealistic" or "utopian," was not created by Mr. Clinton. Yet Americans persist in demanding that our leaders somehow magically escape this ethos of selfishness and be on a higher moral plane than the rest of us, and then we ritually act out our hurt and dismay when they turn out to be just another group of flawed human beings. What this guarantees is that our leaders will necessarily be liars, since they must represent themselves as in a "higher place" than everyone else.

This entire perverse dynamic allows ruling elites a powerful protection: They can counter any challenger to the established order by unveiling their weaknesses.

Since all of us have some ethical flaws, any of us can be exposed as being flawed and hence supposedly unfit to lead any movement for social change or transformation.

Until we acknowledge that our leaders will necessarily be "wounded healers," we will always be vulnerable to the McCarthyism of the Ken Starrs of this world. The real challenge is to maintain a compassionate attitude while simultaneously supporting one another to come closer to embodying our ethical ideals.

Telling the truth

Yet compassion only can work if it is coupled with genuine penitence. In Mr. Clinton's case, that would have to go beyond the Lewinsky matter. If Mr. Clinton could acknowledge and help us understand the whole history of his opportunism, and then tell the truth about the slippery slope that led from political compromises to personal betrayals to sexual irresponsibility, he could make a lasting contribution to American politics -- far greater than any legislative impact he is likely to have in his remaining time in office.

Yet, ultimately, America needs far more than a repentant president. We need a national day of atonement in which we can honestly acknowledge all the ways that our society has been rewarding the ethos of selfishness and materialism that we supposedly abhor. Such an atonement would be real if we began to ask ourselves how to create a "new bottom line" so that Americans felt that they were rewarded, not punished, for behavior that was ethically, spiritually and ecologically sensitive.

It is an old Jewish tradition of the Hasidic world to enter Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, with song and rejoicing. Sad as it is to have to confront our sins, the joy resides in acknowledging that which "is" rather than that which ought to be. In this way, we are not stuck in our negativity and in our flaws. We can make progress, move forward.

When people say "Clinton had to lie," they are essentially saying, "I don't believe that things can be really different." That's why it's ludicrous to say that Mr. Clinton represented the '60s; he actually embodied the negation of the '60s, as do all who give up on the possibility of fundamental transformation.

A day of atonement would be a day of rejoicing for the world precisely because its underlying premise is that the world can be healed and transformed. If Americans could learn this, the pain we are going through as a nation would be redeemed.

Michael Lerner is the editor of Tikkun magazine. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 9/30/98

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