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One Man’s Definition of Clinton’s ‘Politics of Meaning’

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“Bizarre New Age Cult Takes Over White House!”

That’s not the cover line on the combined July 19/26 issue of the New Republic. But it might as well be, as Leon Wieseltier picks up the magazine’s heated discussion of how the Clinton White House has adopted the slogan “politics of meaning.”

The magazine questioned the term a few weeks back, and last issue, Michael Lerner--the occasionally profound editor of Tikkun magazine--fired back a letter labeling as cynicism such pondering of the phrase, which he coined.

Now, in an intricately reasoned essay, Wieseltier takes a few more pokes at that pretentious term.

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As Bill and Hillary Clinton would have it, the politics of meaning is meant to fill America’s meaning void.

But, Wieseltier argues, “The contemporary problem is not that people believe in too little, it is that they believe in too much. Too much of what too many people believe is too easily acquired and too thoughtlessly held. . . . Not the lack of meaning, but the glibness of meaning, is the trouble.”

The Clintons’ commitment to a fuzzy notion of “community,” and distaste for individualism, is at the heart of this meaning business, Wieseltier says.

He quotes Hillary Rodham Clinton, who said that the role of government now is to build this “place where we belong no matter who we are.”

The Administration wants to remold society to achieve a “common good,” and believes that can be achieved through national “conversations.”

But “democracy was designed for disagreement, and just as well,” Wieseltier says. The problem is that while “once there were rational deliberations that led to an end, there are now emotional conversations that lead everywhere, and never end.”

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Wieseltier believes he can trace this “Clintonite” strain of thought and modus operandi not to some great political thinker or philosopher, but rather to management guru W. Edwards Deming, whose ideas on Total Quality Management (“TQM” to true believers) transformed postwar Japan and are currently transforming American businesses as disparate as the New York Times and General Motors.

Now, he asserts, this TQM “cult” has crept into the White House as “Total Quality Meaning.”

For example, Wieseltier labels the meetings of Vice President Al Gore’s National Performance Review “a strange mixture of personal confession and institutional uplift, exercises in econo-psychobabble, in which no distinction is drawn between human potential and bureaucratic potential, and management acts pastorally.”

This management-as-government style is becoming systemic, and may reflect the defining quality of Clintonism, Wieseltier laments. “This Administration has a gift for saying nothing, and passionately.”

Meanwhile, “the righteousness of the Clintons is a little creepy.”

It’s puzzling why Wieseltier spends so much time harping on Hillary instead of Bill. Also, his polemic does not leave sufficient space for what any sane Angeleno must see as a hard fact: We may be a nation of individuals, but the matter of disparate groups, or tribes, or communities “getting along” has become a survival issue.

Still, this is an invigorating read for anyone who senses meaninglessness in the “politics of meaning.”

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An article in the July/August Mother Jones meshes interestingly if imprecisely with the New Republic piece.

In MoJo, Richard M. Levine says President Clinton has become the nation’s first president-as-talk-show-host.

This happens, he argues, because the powerless citizenry is presently fixated on the talk-show medium as quick-fix therapy: “Those of us who can’t act ourselves can watch others seeming to act--voyeurs watching exhibitionists in a pantomime of power.”

Talk shows, he says, “are a kind of interactive, therapeutic democracy (much like Clinton intends his presidency to be) . . . “

But, while the nation ate up the Clinton-as-Donahue campaign, there are liabilities to the talk-show presidency, he says. There will be trouble, for instance, “if Clinton, with his support-group-facilitator talents, his confessional predilections and therapeutic nostrums, tries to make us feel good without actually doing better.”

After all, Levine says, “Talk shows are machines for using up and spitting out celebrities, and it won’t take too many presidential sax riffs before Clinton becomes just another third-rate lounge act.”

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Required Reading

* First things first: Joe Queenan deserves to be dipped in butter flavoring, sprinkled with Milk Duds, and forced to watch an endless loop of “Cool World” while seated beside Pauly Shore.

That said, let it also be acknowledged that Queenan’s “Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler,” in the August Movieline, is the funniest piece of un-PC magazine work since P. J. O’Rourke accompanied a bunch of Nation-magazine-reading Marxists on a tour of the Soviet Union when it was still intact.

The premise is simple: At Movieline’s request, Queenan watched 10 movies at various cinemas. And at each showing, he blathered, shouted out inanities, and/or crinkled bags of potato chips while hapless moviegoers attempted to watch.

Queenan seems born for this role as the witless moron. During a screening of “Alive,” that heartwarming ode to cannibalism, he bellows: “Could someone please pass the A-1 Sauce?” and “Eat Vincent Spano first.”

The moral of his story is that moviegoers, like most modern citizens, have become cowering wimps to society’s bullies and boors.

Let’s hope his article--provided it’s true--results in a massive class-action suit by aggrieved moviegoers.

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* Readers who are easily susceptible to feeling foolish, take note. Donning the 3-D sunglasses provided in the August Sky & Telescope is scientific as all get-out.

More than mere gimmickry, the sort of stereographic images of Venus in the magazine help geologists reconstruct the details of the planet’s evolution.

Besides that, the 3-D pictures are totally awesome.

(Sky & Telescope, $27 for 12 issues, one year, 800-253-0245.)

Esoterica

Even snobs who consider the title International Tattoo Art oxymoronic will have to concede that this slick, well-produced, bimonthly treats the subject artistically.

Sure, it dutifully reports on the infinite variations of snakes, evil clowns, suggestive flowers, dead rock stars and screaming death skulls that folks sport across the range of anatomy.

But there are also thoughtful interviews with members of the “tattoo community” (all right, pipe down, you members of the “when’s-this-’community’-bunk-gonna-stop community”) and photo essays that elevate even the most crass buxom babe tats.

Aficionados will be riveted by the seemingly endless catalogue of full color tattoos, many extraordinarily intricate.

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Others also will be fascinated. But they’d probably be more satisfied if the publication were less neutral, if the photos were accompanied by some sort of explanation.

An outsider might like to have certain questions answered. For instance:

Yo, dude! Why did you have a flaming tiger tattooed on your shaved head, and a snarling eagle with wings spread scrawled across your nose and cheeks?

Or, to another model: Have you pondered the psychological implications of your decision to have your entire back tattooed with scenes from a carnival freak show, including a graphic illustration of a geek biting the head off a live chicken?

The magazine does, however, answer the most frequent question asked of the tattooed.

In fact, one inksmith had the answer tattooed in an appropriate location.

Now when some dope asks: “Does it hurt?” he just pulls down his lower lip. Inside is emblazoned the answer: “HELL YES.”

($29.95 for six issues, Butterfly Publications, Ltd. 462 Broadway, Suite 4000, New York, N.Y. 10013)

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