The BOOKPRESS May, 1996

A Politics of Ethics and Meaning


Mary S. Webber


In the years to come, the April 14-16 “Summit on the Politics of Ethics and Meaning” in Washington DC may be seen as a turning point in U.S. political history.

Initiated by Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, the conference was presented as “one of the first public events at which people who have traditionally identified with the liberal and progressive social change movements are seeking a way to move beyond the narrow economistic and rights-oriented framework of the past and build a politics based on the deepest ethical, spiritual and psychological truths that have emerged from the human experience.” Over 1900 people responded to the appeal that “unless we speak to the ethical, spiritual and psychological needs of the American people, those needs will continue to be manipulated by racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and/or xenophobic forces—as they have been in the past two decades.”

Among the participants were Roberta Achtenberg, Gar Alperovitz, Helen Alvare, Cherie Brown, Tony Campolo, Nancy Cantor, Joan Chichester OSB, Harvey Cox, Michael Eric Dyson, Marian Wright Edelman, Daniel Ellsberg, James Forbes, Peter Gabel, Henry Louis Gates, Jr, Lois Gibbs, Paul Hawken, Jesse Jackson Jr, Si Kahn, David Korten, Michael Lerner, Corinne McLaughlin, Anh Huong Nguyen, David Saperstein, Pete Seeger, William Sullivan, John Sweeney, Thandeka, Urvashi Vaid, Jim Wallis, Arthur Waskow, Sharon Welch and Cornel West.

It was impossible to hear every one of the speakers and panels, but a sampling of perspectives and points of view may convey the flavor of the event.

Harvard professor and author of Race Matters, Cornel West pointed out that our culture only seems as though it is open to change, but actually is controlled by two sacred cows: economic growth based on corporate priorities, and profound xenophobic sensibilities. He cited the Black Freedom movements of the 1890s the 1930s and the 1960s as instances of people being willing to “bank on an option that seemed to be so far beyond the pale…to go against the odds.” Present day inequities, manifested in the fact that one percent of the people in this nation control 45 percent of the total wealth, make the rest of the population, for whom the system is stagnating, vulnerable to demagogues who appear to offer alternatives.

Michael Lerner pointed out that the Right attempts to capitalize on this disaffection by saying to this struggling majority: “You are being denied the love and care and respect that you need and rightfully should have, because “big government” has given what should be yours to “them” — Blacks, gays, immigrants and poor people.” Lerner first came into the public eye when Hilary Clinton spoke of his “politics of meaning” in her campaign for universal health care. Though named “the guru of the White House,” Lerner noted that none of the media had ever actually covered what his thinking was about. Clinton had promised “hope, transformation, love and care” he said, and his popularity initially soared. But, persuaded by advisors that he needed to “be realistic,” the President moved away from idealism. “As he moved away from hope and meaning, the people felt hoodwinked. When you feel your hopes have been manipulated, the response is profound disillusionment.” Lerner asked what it would take to make tax day a “day of celebration.” The people of Israel rejoiced in bringing their firstfruits to the temple, but resisted taxes imposed by the King for the support of the army. “If taxes serve the powerful, the result is resentment and rebellion.”

Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, called for advocacy for the poor through a renewal of the evangelical zeal that was the moving force of the abolitionist and early women’s movements. Wallis argued that progressives need to reclaim the language of “moral values” and “family values” in an effort to reweave the fabric of family and community. “The only way to find common ground,” he stated, “is moving to higher ground.”

Gar Alperovitz, author and president of the National Center for Economic and Security Alternatives, noted that “people are dying because of the economy. Emergency rooms are closing, and people cannot afford the medicines prescribed…a new paradigm is needed that transcends the corporate-dominated system.” He asked the audience if we were prepared to “construct a human-based economy.”

Ruth Schlossman, principal of an elementary school in Florida, offered a model for elementary education that included “empathy, respect for all forms of life…service learning, critical thinking, responsibility and discipline.” She proposed that schools study the histories of oppressed groups, and tell stories of people who stood up and made a difference.

Speaker after speaker was willing to acknowledge the failings of previous progressive movements — from self indulgence to unresolved racism to the lack of personal responsibility. Thandeka, philosopher of religion and author of The Embodied Self spoke of the need for “a theology for the theologically impaired…for the Biblically challenged American middle class. 4" U.S. Representative Major Owens called for a “third force...the caring majority.” The Rev. James Forbes, of Riverside Church, reminded attendees that the crisis of meaning begins as a spriritual depression for the middle class, but as a real, economic crisis for the underclass. David Korten, author of When Corporations Rule the World, remarked that “a trillion dollars a day moves around the world looking for instant returns…$25 billion a year could completely end world hunger.”

Additional workshops addressed a legislative agenda, visions of community, aging, feminism, philosophy, the role of men, and education. Matthew Fox, theologian, writer and director of the Center for Creation Spirituality, and Peter Gabel of New College offered a vision for a creation-centered, transformed educational system. Calling education “elitist,” Fox called today’s college students “indentured students,” so burdened by educational debt that they do not dare to state a radical idea. He called the University a “sieve that sifts the soul away,” and cited an unnamed medical school that hired a priest to prevent suicide. “Greed,” said Fox, “is a sin of the spirit”. In lyrical language he described the possibilities of an alternative, creation-centered learning to address the reality stated by Lester Brown of World Watch Institute that we have only 15-16 years left before we have done irreparable damage to the planet. “The question”, he said, “is what you will do with those 16 years.”

After an address by William Sullivan, co-author of Habits of the Heart, ethics awards were given to Sr. Joan Chichester, Marian Wright Edelman, Matthew Fox, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and James Hillman.

Two documents were distributed to the attendees. One was a Social Responsibility Initiative; a statement that provides the opportunity for interested persons to sign on to a set of principles and personal actions. It states:

1. We start, first, with an understanding that social responsibility must begin in our own lives.” This commitment spells out the personal changes that will be required by a “Politics of Meaning.”

2. Economic institutions both reflect and shape the values of our society.” This aspect analyzes the impact of a market based system on the framework of a society. It spells out the policy measures in that will be needed in corporations in order to bring about a shift in present attitudes and approaches.

3. Responsibility for Political and Governmental Institutions. This includes the statement: “We commit ourselves to restoring both democratic accountability and a spirit of public service which overtly manifests caring and respect for citizens both in the efficient delivery of services and the ways in which it treats the users of those services.”

4. Though a strong spirit of voluntary civic responsibility and participation is deeply embedded in the American tradition, we have come to leave too much of our social responsibility to distant governmental bureaucracies.” This statement is a plea for “more direct involvement in voluntary community service” and includes a proposal for a national service corps.

A similar document offers a “Progressive Ethical Covenant with American Families,” spelling out the ways in which societal pritorities can be reshaped to reject pervasive selfishness, materialism and cynicism. “To be pro-family, we must start a process that challenges the way we’ve come to internalize the market consciousness, seeing other people in terms of what we can get from them. Similarly, loving relationships will be stronger when we reject the cynical attitudes that teach us to distrust each other and to ridicule the possibliity that human relationships really could be based on loving and caring.”


Mary S. Webber is the Director of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy (CRESP) at Cornell University and a member of EcoVillage at Ithaca.

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