"At the intersection of vanity and liberalism" -- one of our Hillary! blogposts of Fall 2007 -- linked to the only known online source of Michael Kelly's delightfully devastating "Saint Hillary," which we here reproduce, with a grateful nod to blogger Winston Churchill of semper-fido, who did the yeoman's work of excerpting the article from Kelly's Things worth fighting for: Collected writings. Cited by Peggy Noonan as "the first and still definitive Hillary Clinton take-down," the article had been mysteriously deleted without explanation from the NYT online database, where a handful of provocative letters to the editor provide fleeting reflections of what someone in high places didn't want you to see. See also "Saint Obama awaits his Michael Kelly" (Anita Kuntz illustration)
"Saint Hillary" by Michael Kelly
New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story, May 23, 1993
Since she discovered, at the age of fourteen, that for people less fortunate than herself the world could be very cruel, Hillary Rodham Clinton has harbored an ambition so large that it can scarcely be grasped.
She would like to make things right.
She is forty-five now and she knows that the earnest idealisms of a child of the 1960s may strike some people as naive or trite or grandiose. But she holds to them without any apparent sense of irony or inadequacy. She would like people to live in a way that more closely follows the Golden Rule. She would like to do good, on a grand scale, and she would like others to do good as well. She would like to make the world a better place -- as she defines better.
While an encompassing compassion is the routine mode of public existence for every first lady, there are two great differences in the case of Mrs. Clinton: She is serious and she has power.
Her sense of purpose stems from a world view rooted in the activist religion of her youth and watered by the conviction of her generation that it was destined (and equipped) to teach the world the errors of its ways. Together, both faiths form the true politics of her heart, the politics of virtue.
She is spurred now by a personal matter -- the death of her father -- and two considerations of practical politics: She recognizes that issues of public values and personal behavior are coming to dominate the politics of this millennial age -- but that so far those issues have been mostly defined and championed by conservative Republicans; she is moved by the impatient conviction that moderates and liberals have wanly surrendered the adjective "religious" to the right. She recognizes, too, the need to provide some sort of overarching theme around which the many and varied proposals the Clinton administration spins out to an increasingly doubtful public may be made to seem neatly fitting parts of a coherent whole.
The first lady’s vision is singular, formed by the intellectual passions and experiences of a life. But it is also the most purely voiced expression of the collective spirit of the Clinton administration, a spirit that is notable both for the long reach of its reformist ambitions and the cocky assurance of its faith in the ideas of its own design. It is very much a work in progress, but its emerging shape is, even by the standards of visions, large.
Driven by the increasingly common view that something is terribly awry with modern life, Mrs. Clinton is searching for not merely programmatic answers but for The Answer. Something in the Meaning of It All line, something that would inform everything from her imminent and all-encompassing health care proposal to ways in which the state might encourage parents not to let their children wander all hours of the night in shopping malls.
When it is suggested that she sounds as though she’s trying to come up with a sort of unified-field theory of life, she says, excitedly, "That’s right, that’s exactly right!"
She is, it develops in the course of two long conversations, looking for a way of looking at the world that would marry conservatism and liberalism, and capitalism and statism, that would tie together practically everything: the way we are, the way we were, the faults of man and the word of God, the end of Communism and the beginning of the third millennium, crime in the streets and on Wall Street, teenage mothers and foul-mouthed children arid frightening drunks in the parks, the cynicism of the press and the corrupting role of television, the breakdown of civility and the loss of community.
The point of all this is not abstract or small. What Mrs. Clinton seems --in all apparent sincerity –to have in mind is leading the way to something on the order of a Reformation: the remaking of the American way of politics, government, indeed life. A lot of people, contemplating such a task, might fall prey to self doubts. Mrs. Clinton does not blink.
"It’s not going to be easy," she says. "But we can’t get scared away from it because it is an overwhelming task." The difficulty is bound to be increased by the awkward fact that a good deal of what Mrs. Clinton sees as wrong right now with the American way of life can be traced, at least in part, to the last great attempt to find The Answer: the liberal experiments in the reshaping of society that were the work of the intellectual elite of Mrs. Clinton’s generation.
The crusade of Hillary Rodham Clinton began on April 6, 1993 in Austin, Texas. There, speaking from notes she had scribbled on the plane, she moved swiftly past the usual thanks and jokes to wade into an extraordinary speech: a passionate, at times slightly incoherent, call for national spiritual renewal.
The Western world, she said, needed to be made anew. America suffered from a "sleeping sickness of the soul," a "sense that somehow economic growth and prosperity; political democracy and freedom are not enough -- that we lack at some core level meaning in our individual lives and meaning collectively, that sense that our lives are part of some greater effort, that we are connected to one another, that community means that we have a place where we belong no matter who we are."
She spoke of "cities that are filled with hopeless girls with babies and angry boys with guns" as only the most visible signs of a nation crippled by "alienation and despair and hopelessness," a nation that was in the throes of a "crisis of meaning."
"What do our governmental institutions mean? What do our lives in today’s world mean?" she asked. "What does it mean in today’s world to pursue not only vocations, to be part of institutions, but to be human?"
These questions, she said, led to the larger question: "Who will lead us out of this spiritual vacuum?" The answer to that was "all of us," all required "to play our part in redefining what our lives are and what they should be."
"Let us be willing," she urged in conclusion, "to remold society by redefining what it means to be a human being in the twentieth century; moving into a new millennium."
It is easy to mock this sort of thing, and some people immediately did. What, asked the New Republic in a question the first lady finds to be a perfect small example of the cynicism she deplores, was all that supposed to mean?
Mrs. Clinton has been groping toward an answer to that question for much of her life. She has read her way from the Methodist founder John Wesley to Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, three left-of-center theologians who sought to link their religious beliefs to a critical involvement in politics and government, to, most recently, Michael Lerner, a liberal Jewish thinker who coined the phrase "politics of meaning," which Mrs. Clinton adopted in her Austin speech.
She gropes still. "I don’t know; I don’t know," she begins, when asked to define her philosophy. "I don’t have any coherent explanation. I hope one day to be able to stop long enough actually to try to write down what I do mean, because it’s important to me that I try to do that, because I have floated around the edges of this and talked about it for many, many years with a lot of people, but I’ve never regularly kept a journal or really tried to get myself organized enough to do it."
But she is well along in her musings. Working her way through a thicket of theologies and ideologies, she offers in language that is a mix of Bible and Bill Moyers, of New Testament and New Age, a tentative definition of what she believes.
"The very core of what I believe is this concept of individual worth, which I think flows from all of us being creatures of God and being imbued with a spirit," she says. She speaks carefully, sitting upright and leaning slightly forward at a small table in a neat and modest White House garden.
"Some years ago, I gave a series of talks about the underlying principles of Methodism," she goes on. "I talked a lot about how timeless a lot of scriptural lessons were because they tied in with what we now know about human beings. If you break down the Golden Rule or if you take Christ’s commandment---- Love thy neighbor as thyself -- there is an underlying assumption that you will value yourself, that you will be a responsible being who will live by certain behaviors that enable you to have self-respect, because, then, out of that self-respect comes the capacity for you to respect and care for other people.
"And how do we just break this whole enterprise down in small enough pieces? Well, somebody says to themselves: ‘You know, I’m not going to tell that racist, sexist joke. I don’t want to objectify another human being. Why do I want to do that? What do I get out of that kind of action? Maybe I should try to restrain myself.’
"Or somebody else says: ‘You know, I’m going to start thanking the woman who cleans the restroom in the building that I work in. You know, maybe that sounds kind of stupid, but on the other hand I want to start seeing her as a human being.’
"And then maybe the next step is I say to myself: ‘How much are we paying this woman who works the three to eleven shift. And who’s taking care of her kids while she’s here working? And how do we make it possible for her to be able to both be a good parent and perform a necessary function?’
"And these are little pieces, and a lot of those little pieces can be done on a very small scale that then aggregates. So I think what we’re basically, what we’re really looking at is, you know, millions and millions of changes in individual behavior that are motivated by the same impulses, even if we’re not doing a very good job of describing them.
This rambling passage seems to validate the New Republic’s impertinence. What does it all mean? This is, as it turns out, a fair question. The meaning of the politics of meaning is hard to discern under the gauzy and gushy wrappings of New Age jargon that blanket it. Michael Lerner, who has been expounding on the subject for several years in the pages of Tikkun, a magazine of liberal Jewish thinking, has described the new politics as all about "how to build a society based on love and connection, a society in which the bottom line would not be profit and power but ethical and spiritual sensitivity and a sense of community, mutual caring and responsibility."
Mrs. Clinton says the right language remains to be invented. "As Michael Lerner and I discussed, we have to first create a language that would better communicate what we are trying to say, and the policies would flow from that language."
The problem with the language goes right to the core of the question of what it all means. Is there one unifying idea that is at the heart of the politics of meaning? "I don’t think there is one core thing," Mrs. Clinton says. "I think this has to be thought through on a variety of planes. I don’t think there is one unifying theory.
Meanwhile, words somewhat fail her. "It is like when you tell someone for the first time that you love them:’ she says. "You’re not fully aware of what that means, but it’s the best effort you can make to kind of convey the full range of emotions and feelings and intentions and expectations that you can articulate at the time."
But there actually is, as the mists of New Age mysticism slip away, a clear line to Mrs. Clinton’s message. It is fundamentally, an old and very American message, one that goes purposely beyond the normal boundaries of politics into the territory of religion. It is concerned not just with how government should behave but with how people should. It is the message of values, not programs. It is the message of the preacher, a role Hillary Rodham Clinton has filled many times delivering guest sermons from the pulpits of United Methodist churches.
It seems odd at first to contemplate Mrs. Clinton in such terms. The public debate over her that swirled throughout the 1992 presidential race centered on two lesser questions -- how left-wing was she and how hungry for power -- but failed to consider the larger point of her life.
She appeared before the public in a series of roles, some of the news media’s design, some of the Republicans’ and some of her own. She was, by bewildering turns, a calculating and radical feminist lawyer and a cookie-baking mom, Lady Macbeth and the little lady.
In an election that Republicans failed to win on the strength of much the same sort of "values" issues that Mrs. Clinton now talks about, one thing the Democratic candidate’s wife was not was a moralist.
"American women don’t need lectures from Washington about values," she said then. "We don’t need to hear about an idealized world that was never as righteous or carefree as some would like to think."
Now, questions of values and matters of morals are the heart of what Mrs. Clinton sees as the way toward national salvation. In truth, they always have been at the core of what she is about, but the many faces of the Hillary of 1992 obscured the larger point of her life.
The politics of Hillary Rodham Clinton are indeed largely liberal (although, the post-election evidence indicates, no more so than those of her husband), but they are of a liberalism derived from religiosity. They combine a generally "progressive" social agenda with a strong dose of moralism, the admixture of the two driven by an abundant faith in the capacity of the human intellect and the redeeming power of love. They are, rather than primarily the politics of Left or Right, the politics of do-goodism, flowing directly from a powerful and continual stream that runs through American history from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Jane Addams to Carry Nation to Dorothy Day; from the social gospel of the late nineteenth century to the temperance-minded Methodism of the early twentieth century to the liberation theology of the 1960s and 1970s to the pacifistic and multiculturally correct religious Left of today.
The true nature of her politics makes the ambition of Hillary Rodham Clinton much larger than merely personal. She clearly wants power, and has already amassed more of it than any first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt. But that ambition is merely a subcategory of the infinitely larger scope of her desires.
Hillary Rodham was born in 1947, into the world she wishes to restore, a place of security and community and clear moral values, to Hugh and Dorothy Rodham and raised in the solidly upper-class, solidly conservative Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, Illinois. Her childhood was, by all accounts including her own, grounded in the old-fashioned, uncomplicated absolutes of her parents’ ethical code. "My father was no great talker and not very articulate, and wouldn’t have known Niebuhr from Bonhoeffer from Ravel from Jefferson, and would have thought a conversation like this was just goofy’," Mrs. Clinton said in an interview several weeks after Rodham’s death on April 7. "But he gave me the basic tools, and it wasn’t fancy philosophical stuff.
"He used to say all the time, ‘I will always love you but I won’t always like what you do.’ And, you know, as a child I would come up with nine hundred hypotheses. It would always end with something like, ‘Well, you mean, if I murdered somebody and was in jail and you came to see me, you would still love me?’
"And he would say: ‘Absolutely! I will always love you, but I would be deeply disappointed and I would not like what you did because it would have been wrong."
The lesson Mrs. Clinton drew from this is one she says is at the core of her philosophy: "It was so simplistic, but it was so helpful to me, because, I mean, it gave me the basis of unconditional love that I think every child deserves to have -- and one of our problems is that too many of our children don’t have that -- but it also gave me from the very beginning a set of values based on what I did."
Mrs. Clinton says the sixteen days she spent in Little Rock as her father lay dying led her to give the Austin speech. Her reflections went back to 1961, when she was fourteen and began attending Sunday-evening youth sessions conducted by the Rev. Donald G. Jones, the youth minister at the First Methodist Church in Park Ridge. It was Jones who taught her the lessons that would most profoundly shape her idea of the way things ought to be.
Jones, who now teaches social ethics at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, was thirty years old, "just out of the seminary, full of vim and vigor," and a believer in the theology of Paul Tillich, whom he considers a theological mentor. Tillich had propounded a theory that sought to redefine the Christian role in the modern world.
"He said that the two major problems of contemporary society were the crisis of meaning and alienation," Jones said in a recent interview "He contrasted this with the sixteenth century; where the two major problems were death and guilt.
"The point he was making was that because death and guilt were the two major problems back then, Protestantism had defined grace in terms of answers to those problems: eternal life and the forgiveness of sins. But now; with the two major problems being the crisis of meaning and alienation, he said, our religious language should speak in terms of unity, of connectedness, of overcoming alienation, of giving meaning."
When Jones read the texts of Mrs. Clinton’s Austin speech, he was struck by the obvious parallels between the oratory of the first lady and the teachings of Tillich on alienation and meaninglessness: "These were precisely the terms .Hillary struck in that speech in Austin. She talked of the discontent lurking beneath the surface and the politics of meaning."
Indeed, this theme runs deep in Mrs. Clinton’s sense of things. ‘"If you go back and read the correspondence that existed in the nineteenth century between people of all different walks of life," she says, "you know, it may not be some kind of heavy theological inquiry, but there will be all kinds of flashes about what happened in a way, that, you know, that the whole cycle of life and its meaning is tied into their daily life.
"And you know, by the nature of how we spend our time today, we have walled ourselves off from that. I mean, we get up in the morning and we go to work and our children don’t know what our work is, because they don’t see us plowing a field or making a quilt. We go off and push papers and then come home and try to explain it. Our relatives age and die often in places far away from our homes. We’ve compartmentalized so much of our lives that trying to find even the time to think about how all of it fits together has become harder and harder."
Jones was a dedicated proponent of the idea, then and now the driving force of the United Methodist Church, that Christian duty lay in taking a direct, helpful interest in the lives of the less fortunate. He organized the white, suburban children of Park Ridge to help provide babysitting for the children of migrant workers in the Chicago area. Hillary was among the students he took on an eye- opening visit to talk with young black and Hispanic gang members at a community center on Chicago’s South Side and also among those taken to meet the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was speaking in the city.
Now, asked if she has always been impelled by what she called, in a recent interview with the Washington Post, "a burning desire" to "make the world better for everybody," Mrs. Clinton says, with a slight, self-conscious laugh: "Yeah, I always have. I have not always known what it meant, but I have always had it."
Then, on a moment’s reflection, she amends her answer in a way that shows clearly the effect Jones’s field trips had on the sensibilities of a child of well-off suburbia: "Especially since I was in junior high and high school and got a sense of what people were up against, and how lucky I had been, a sense, you know, that I was a very lucky person in what I had been given."
But there was more to Hillary’s education than the inculcation of a guilt- induced sense of obligation. Jones also exposed her to the writings of Niebuhr, who argued that the tragedy of history proved that the hope for a better world could not depend on any sentimental view of human behavior but must encompass the legitimate use of power.
"My sense of Hillary is that she realizes absolutely the truth of the human condition, which is that you cannot depend on the basic nature of man to be good and you cannot depend entirely on moral suasion to make it good:’ Jones says. "You have to use power. And there is nothing wrong with wielding power in the pursuit of policies that will add to the human good. I think Hillary knows this. She is very much the sort of Christian who understands that the use of power to achieve social good is legitimate."
There is a Niebuhrian hardness under the fuzzy edges of Mrs. Clinton’s discourses on the politics of virtue -- an acknowledgment that some sorts of behavior are acceptable and other sorts are not, that every right is married to a responsibility that a civilized society must be willing to condemn those who act in ways destructive of that society. "We do this in our own lives," she says. "I mean, we pass judgments all the time. I can remember sitting in a law school class years and years ago in which a hypothetical was being discussed about terrorists "And I remember sitting there listening to the conversation as so many people tried to explain away or rationalize their behavior. And I remember saying, ‘You know there is another alternative. And the other alternative is that they are evil. I mean, you know? There are evil people in the world. And they may be able to come up with elaborate rationalizations to attempt to explain their evil, and they may even have some reasonable basis for saying their conduct needs to be understood in the light of preexisting conditions, but their behavior is still evil.’"
Mrs. Clinton argues passionately for a "reaffirmation of responsible behavior rooted in what I view as a value system in which people respect one another and in which they care for one another."
She offers an example of what she sees in society as the opposite sort of value system. "We have two friends who just moved out of a big city to a smaller town, because they found that their high-school daughter was basically being shunned because she had a curfew, she was not permitted to run wild with other kids, she was not permitted to go out to dance clubs till two or three o’clock in the morning. She was basically being made fun of for being a good kid.
"Now it is not government’s fault that the parents of those other kids are letting their kids engage in behavior and court dangers that they are not emotionally or psychologically prepared to do," she says. Rather, it is the fault of individuals: "affluent parents in this society who drop their ten- and eleven-year olds off at the mall, that let their thirteen- and fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds go off to places that they’ve never met the parents of the kids, they’ve never met the kids or anything like that -- that is a failure on the part of the adult community to care for our children."
A critical aspect of Mrs. Clinton’s analysis suggests the rejection of rights- based liberalism as it now exists. She favors, as does the president, welfare reform, and she argues that society has extended too freely rights without responsibilities, which has led to a great decline in the standard of behavior.
She cites a recent article by Daniel Patrick Moynihan on what the New York senator called "defining deviancy down."
"Senator Moynihan argues very convincingly that what we have in effect done is get used to more and more deviant behavior around us, because we haven’t wanted to deal with it," she says. "But -- by gosh! -- it is deviant! It is deviant if you have any standards by which you expect to be judged."
This line of argument, central to Mrs. Clinton’s view, is, of course, precisely what social conservatives have been saying for years. Social liberals, who dominate the national Democratic Party, have held that it is not the place of either government or society to lay down a set of behavioral standards based on moral absolutes, and that individual freedom necessitates moral relativism.
"I think that is a theoretical and to a great extent an elitist argument:’ says Mrs. Clinton, with some heat. "I think a person would have a hard time making that argument to the kind of people who I know who are working hard and living in fear and are really taking the brunt of a lot of the social and political decisions that we’ve either made or failed to make in the last twenty years. There are standards. We live by them. We reward them. And it is a real fallacy to jump from what we do in our individual and work lives to expect us not to have standards in our social community lives."
Those standards are, it is suggested, the standards of the Ten Commandments. "That’s right," she says. "And in nearly every religion I am aware of, there is a variation of the Golden Rule. And even for the nonreligious, it is a tenet of people who believe in humanistic principles."
We could do a lot worse, she says, than live according to the Golden Rule. "That means: Should we let whole sections of our city be like Beirut? Would we want that to be the place where we live with our children? Of course not. Well then, what would be reasonable policies to pursue in order to avoid that? Would we want young children to be exposed to a lot of the dangers that might lead to drug addiction or abuse or violence or all of the problems we face, if there were ways we could band together as adults to help them avoid that? Of course, we would much prefer that.
It is at this point that some awkward questions arise: If it is necessary to remake society, why should Hillary Rodham Clinton get the job?
Can someone who helped lead the very generation that threw out the old ways of moral absolutes and societal standards now lead the charge back to the future?
At Wellesley College, from 1965 to 1969, Hillary Rodham gradually moved away from the conservatism of her parents and embraced the predominant attitudes of a campus that was steeped in the tradition of liberal, social service-oriented Protestantism and heady with the conviction that the young people of the moment were fated to remake the world.
The times encouraged dreaming of great, sweeping change. Alan Schechter, who taught Rodham political science and remembers her transformation from a Goldwater Girl to "secular liberalism," recalls; "The aura of the martyred Kennedy was strong on the campuses then, and everyone was full of talk about doing something about the race crisis, about the Peace Corps. The mood was one of youthful idealism, commitment, that clichéd line of Kennedy’s -- ask not what your country can do for you."
By the time she graduated from Wellesley to head on to Yale Law School, Hillary Rodham had become a radical, in the true sense of the word: dedicated to the imperative of profound societal change, and confident in her own ability to direct that change.
She began thinking then about the ideas she is giving voice to now. The student commencement speech delivered by Hillary Rodham for the class of 1969 is the direct ancestor of the Austin speech delivered by the Hillary Rodham Clinton of today. They share all the same traits: vaulting ambition, didactic moralizing, intellectual incoherence, and the adolescent assumption that the past does not exist and the present needs only your guiding hand to create the glorious future.
Then, she spoke of "attempting to come to grasp with some of the inarticulate, maybe even inarticulable, things that we’re feeling." Today, she speaks of the struggle to "put into words what is often for most of us inarticulate or inarticulable.’ Then, she spoke of the attempt "to forge an identity in this particular age."
Today, she speaks of "redefining who we are as human beings in this postmodern age." Then, she spoke of "our questions, our questions about our institutions, about our colleges, about our churches, about our government." Today, she asks, "What do our governmental institutions mean? What do our lives in today’s world mean?"
At the heart of the Wellesley speech, she argued for what she then called the experiment in human living" and would come to call "excessive individualism" and "rights without responsibility."
The "prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life," she said, "is not for us. We’re searching for a more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating mode of living."
When asked if the social experiments of the 1960s and 1970s led to the systemic problems she now sees in the 1990s, Mrs. Clinton replies, "I don’t know if it’s unfair to say that, but it’s probably incomplete."
The roots of the problems go back further and spread wider than that, she says. But still, she carefully acknowledges that the questioning and searching of her generation did produce some "excesses" and "wrong decisions."
It is suggested that for Hillary Rodham Clinton, a career liberal activist and former seeker of ecstatic living, to sound the call for a return to traditional ethics will strike some people as a bit much. As easy, moralistic preaching. After all, the last person who tried this sort of thing, Dan Quayle, was mocked for his pains. And he, at least, had been elected.
The first lady jumps hard on the point.
"That’s irrelevant to me," she snaps back. "I know that no matter what I did -- if I did nothing, if I spent my entire day totally disengaged from what was going on around me -- I’d be criticized for that. I mean, it’s a no-win deal, no matter what I do, or try to do.
"But from my perspective, there are millions of people who are worried about the same things I’m worried about. I don’t care who gets the credit. I don’t care who has to be criticized in order to move this conversation forward. I want to live in a place again where I can walk down any Street without being afraid. I want to be able to take my daughter to a park at any time of day or night in the summertime and remember what I used to be able to do when I was a little kid."
At that moment, irritation still edging her voice, she doesn’t sound at all like the Hillary Rodham of 1969. She doesn’t sound like a politician or a preacher. She sounds like just another angry, sincere, middle-aged citizen, wondering how everything went so wrong.
Which brings up the second difficult question.
What exactly can Mrs. Clinton and the new politics do about it all? It is clear that there will be immense practical problems in making the transition from theory to practical politics.
The reason harks back to the question of language. Several weeks ago, when Michael Lerner accepted Mrs. Clinton’s invitation to come to the White House and talk about the politics of meaning, they agreed that, he says, "the question was how to take, in a practical, hard-nosed way, the sum of the ethical ideas of the Bible and apply them to this moment in time."
They fell into disagreement, however, as soon as they began talking about how that might be done. "I proposed that the Clinton administration establish a policy where, for any proposed legislation or new program, there would have to be written first an Ethical and Community Environmental Impact Report, which would require each agency to report how the proposed legislation or new program would impact on shaping the ethics and the caring and sharing of the community covered by that agency."
Mrs. Clinton, Lerner says, "liked the idea, but was worried about using words like ‘caring’ and ‘sharing’ and ‘love’ in talking about government policies. And this concern became the central question of our discussion: Would the press kill us on this?"
Unintentionally hilarious Big Brotherism is, in fact, a hallmark of Lerner’s ideas for implementing the politics of meaning. In the May-June issue of his magazine, Tikkun, Lerner offers a series of specific proposals by which the Clinton administration could turn the theory of the politics of meaning into reality in the workplace.
These include: that the Department of Labor order "every workplace" in America "to create a mission statement explaining its function and what conception of the common good it is serving and how it is doing so"; "sponsor ‘Honor Labor’ campaigns designed to highlight the honor due to people for their contributions to the common good," and "train a corps of union personnel, worker representatives and psychotherapists in the relevant skills to assist developing a new spirit of cooperation, mutual caring and dedication to work."
The reason Lerner’s proposals for the application of the politics of meaning focus so heavily on bureaucratic irrelevancies is the same reason Mrs. Clinton is struggling still with words.
Any clearly expressed, serious proposal to do anything to improve public values runs immediately against the fundamentals of social liberalism that are the guiding ethos of Democratic policies.
Mrs. Clinton argues that the concepts of liberalism and conservatism don’t really mean anything anymore and that the politics of the New Age is moving beyond ideology. But that is not at all true in the area of values where she seeks to venture. It is easy for social conservatives, who have been writing and debating for years about the moral values Mrs. Clinton is now addressing, to speak bluntly about what is morally right and what is not. Conservatism is purposely, explicitly judgmental. But liberalism, as defined by Mrs. Clinton’s generation and those who came after, has increasingly moved away from the entire concept of judgment and embraced instead the expansion of rights and the tolerance of diversity.
Returning to moral judgment as a basis for governmental policy must inevitably mean curtailing what have come to be regarded as sacrosanct rights and admitting a limit to tolerance. And that will bring the politics of meaning hard against the meaning of politics.