Cynicism is the biggest obstacle to a progressive political outlook that addresses the hunger for meaning in our lives.
So said San Francisco psychoanalyst Michael Bader, addressing last week's San Francisco summit on the "Politics of Meaning."
When words such as caring, kindness, meaning and community are introduced into political discourse, they're followed by sneers and derision, he said. In turn, even those who don't view such concepts through a jaded lens "adopt the voice of the cynical other," he said.
As a result, compassion becomes tempered and alienation prevails.
The search for a better political model drew a multidenominational crowd to the summit, sponsored by the New York-based Foundation for Ethics and Meaning, founded by Tikkun editor and publisher Michael Lerner.
"We're all here because we're concerned," said Nan Fink of Berkeley, who co-founded Tikkun magazine 10 years ago in Oakland. Based in New York since 1992, the magazine has provided a forum for much of the discussion and analysis of what Lerner has termed "the politics of meaning."
"These are very serious times," said Fink.
Homelessness, loneliness, greed, family violence, fragmentation: These are some of the specific concerns that participants said have led them to search for a politics of meaning.
Others said greed, cheap labor and the future of children have propelled them to find a political outlook that merges the healing of the soul with the healing of our political and social worlds.
The phrase "politics of meaning" first garnered national attention with the publication of Lerner's book "The Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism." In it, the editor and publisher of Tikkun argues that liberals and progressives must accept as legitimate Americans' hunger for meaning, which has led some to embrace the political right. While the right has provided answers, the left has avoided the questions, Lerner has said.
At last week's summit, Lerner and other panelists at a morning plenary session elaborated on the concept of politics of meaning — as well as what they see as the roots of a spiritual and values crisis in this country that cries out to be addressed.
Recently, Lerner's foundation has broadened the scope of its call for ethics and meaning in American politics. In addition to holding a national summit in April, the foundation is sponsoring a number of regional summits like the San Francisco gathering. Discussion groups have begun to spring up around the country.
Speaking to a full sanctuary at the Unitarian Center on Franklin Street last week, Lerner argued that today people tend to see others not for their fundamental value, but for what commodities they have to offer — the most prized being youth, money and physical attractiveness.
The most obvious consequences of such a "rip-off consciousness," said Lerner, is the difficulty many Americans have sustaining their family and personal relationships.
"The whole notion of solidarity and commitment to the other has been eroded by a market mentality," he said. "You're not sure that your partner is not going to cut a better deal for him or herself."
The resulting insecurity and instability has led many to experience great personal pain, said Lerner, who holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology.
But while the right has addressed such pain with a politics of meaning that emphasizes family and religious sustenance — albeit by scapegoating groups such as immigrants and gays and lesbians, said Lerner — the left has not.
"We're trying to create a progressive politics of meaning," he said. Such a system is in the developmental stages and may take decades to grab hold, he added.
Still, Lerner and other panelists agreed that consciousness about politics of meaning is rising, and that there are glimmers of hope that a politics with heart and soul is indeed possible.
Peter Gabel, president of New College of California in San Francisco and associate editor of Tikkun, pointed to the period surrounding President Clinton's election. At that time, a broad spirit of hope and idealism led many Americans to rally behind the idea of universal health care.
"To be willing to have their own taxes raised to assure that everyone would have health care…that is the politics of meaning," Gabel said.
But cynicism won out. Politicians and the media quashed the health-care drive, giving it a "technocratic face," said Gabel. When the debate shifted from human benefit to cost, Americans lost a sense of the intrinsic value of universal coverage.
The goal of last week's regional summit was to refocus the debate on human values. The event came on the heels of a three-day national "Summit of Ethics and Meaning" held in Washington, D.C., in April.
The conference of some 2,000 people from across the religious spectrum — among them major figures in politics, academia and religion — produced the "Social Responsibility Initiative," a political call to action aimed at rebuilding "a spirit of community and mutual respect in our nation."
The initiative includes calls for increasing the minimum wage and instituting a year of paid family and medical leave, as well as calls for challenging violence in children's television programs.
Lerner, who says he has been marginalized by many in the Jewish mainstream, called the Washington gathering an important opportunity to bring values of Torah into the mainstream political arena.
Indeed, he said, much of the impetus for the politics of meaning movement stems from the Bible, the social obligations advanced therein and the vision of each person as created in the image of God.