A conversation with Michael Lerner

Njeri: How do you mobilize a critical mass of Americans, significantly in despair and alienated, to act in their own best political interests in the face of an intransigent government?

Michael Lerner: From my standpoint, the critical fact is that most people are in pain in this society, and that pain stems from the ethos of selfishness and materialism. It permeates the economic order. That creates a consciousness that is oriented toward "me first" and finds its expression in the terms of a best-selling book of the 1980s, "Looking Out for No. 1." And that is reinforced by the bottom-line consciousness of the marketplace that tells us that productivity and efficiency are to be judged solely by the degree to which institutions maximize wealth and power.

So, when people live in a society in which that is the dominant consciousness, it has tremendous consequences for the rest of their lives. And those consequences are, first of all, manifested in the epidemic crisis of huge numbers of people who feel very insecure about loving and caring relationships. They don't often understand that this is a political issue. You know we have a 50% divorce rate. But even those able to sustain families feel that at any moment they could collapse, because there is a marketplace consciousness in relationships. People treat each other as though they are replaceable commodities. They don't know whether their partner has made a good exchange. Maybe they'll find a better exchange relationship later in life, maybe next week. They feel similarly about friendships. People experience their friends as less there for them than in the past.

Njeri: The market knows the price of everything and the value of nothing?

Lerner: Right. Similarly, there's the whole way of looking at the world from the standpoint of rip-off. How do I get as much as I can for myself without regard to the consequences for others. From the top, corporations feel that it's perfectly appropriate to rip off the resources of a planet without regard to the future sustainability of the environment or the planet itself, to the bottom, where a small section of poor people think it's OK to rob you in your house or on the streets. Now, the Right came forward and articulated all of this pain that people were feeling in the form of a pro-family perspective, an anti-crime perspective, an articulation about the ethical and spiritual crisis in American society. They were correct in noticing this, but they blamed it all on the African Americans, feminists, gays and lesbians, Jews.

Njeri: You're saying they scapegoated the convenient "other"?

Lerner: Exactly. But they got away with that because liberals didn't even notice the pain that so many people are in. How do you mobilize people to challenge this kind of a social order? You have to address this pain that [the majority of] people are in. And they are getting hurt by the very ethos of selfishness and materialism that is also hurting the poor. So the key is to be able to link the pain of the poor with the pain of middle-income people.

Now, the Right says: We want is an alliance between the ruling elites of the society and middle-income people. And the way we do it is to screw the poor. What the liberals want is an alliance between poor people and middle-income people. But the way they try to do that is by saying: We'll do it on the basis of what people really care about--money. That is mistaken in my view. Not that people don't care about money, but that's not the central issue for most people. During the Depression, but not today.

Njeri: You're saying they want their humanity acknowledged in the most profound sense?

Lerner: They need loving and caring relationships, a spiritually and ethically grounded world. And if they don't get it, for the reasons I've just talked about, then they face crime, an ethical crisis, family dissolution. They face a lack of love in their life, and that really does matter to them.

So what the liberals did, they came forward and said: We'll give middle-income people another economic entitlement. We'll expand the economic realm for them. And they'll see that having an expansive public sector can deal with some of their economic needs as well. And then they'll be in favor of having that expanded public sector in place and support it when it comes to the poor. But that doesn't work, because the ruling elites turn around and say: Wait a second. We can get you a better deal, because these liberals are only able to carry out their plan by raising your taxes. We can do it by lowering your taxes, putting more money in your pockets and cutting these poor people out altogether, [deleting] the whole social support system.

Njeri: How, in practical terms, do you organize people to implement an agenda that comprehends people's need for value when the very people targeted, you assert, are alienated and in despair? And how does it fit in with the multilayered strategy that you and Cornel West say leads to structural change?

Lerner:. Look at how the women's movement did it. Because what we're talking about here is changing the dominant paradigm of the society, not winning the next election. You're talking about a big change in the way people think. And we happen to have a model for that in the feminist movement. In the last 30 years, something that seemed at least as intractable as the ethos of selfishness and materialism, namely the patriarchal structure of American society, has been changed. Now, most people don't even recognize the need to overcome that ethos. So it was also the case in 1966 that most women did not perceive their oppression as oppression based on being a woman. In fact, the whole matter of woman as a political category was brand new and seemed to break all of what people understood to be the normal way of thinking about politics.

I can tell you there's a fundamental need for meaning and human value. What I can't tell you is how we're going to get to a point where there's a mass movement. But I can tell you first steps. We have to make visible to each other all the people who already wish there were a different bottom line in the society but who don't believe it's possible. We [the Institute for Labor and Mental Health, which publishes Tikkun] are going to create a national summit on ethics and meaning that will be the public act of bringing people together physically. We are also trying to organize regional summits.

Njeri: This is separate from the summit for blacks and Jews?

Lerner: Right. Now we didn't call it a summit for blacks and Jews. We're saying it's a conference of blacks and Jews. The national summit is meant to bring together not just blacks and Jews but people from all kinds of different groupings.

A second part of that is the blacks and Jews campaign. One thing that has made people feel despair is seeing those who were already part of the liberal or progressive agenda splitting off from each other--particularly the two groups that are the backbone of the liberal and progressive social-change movements, blacks and Jews, at each others' throats for the past several years--or decades. At least, that's how they are perceived.

Now in my view, that has always been wildly exaggerated--true for a segment of both communities, but the vast majority in both communities still do feel aligned with each other and act that way. And I say "act that way" most concretely, because in the last election 78% of Jews voted for liberal Democratic candidates, and only blacks had a higher percentage.

Njeri: So the first practical step is to make like-minded people more aware of each other.

Lerner: Right. At the summit and the conference of blacks and Jews. And the next step is the creation of small groups, like those of the women's movement. Because you can have an event for a day or two, but you need to have ongoing activity in which people really begin to rethink their lives. Blacks and Jews ust meet with each other as Cornell and I did over the course of the past six years. But there will be others oriented toward the problems of the ethos of selfishness and materialism.

Njeri: Will you be suggesting topics for exploration that relate to this ethos?

Lerner: For example, how different would your relationship with other co-workers look if we were able to talk honestly because we trusted other people to be there on our side, rather than being involved in a competitive struggle for self-advancement? Or fear that something we said might be used against us at some future time? That's a whole realm of discussions just around the world of work. These ideas about small groups came out of 10 years of work as a psychotherapist in which I was running groups like this.

Njeri: You seem hesitant. Are you reluctant to give me specific therapeutic examples?

Lerner: Yes, because there has been a lot of stigmatization of therapy. And I don't want to communicate that I think the problem is individuals who need to be fixed up. So I'm reluctant to make it seem that what the politics of meaning boils down to is just therapy.

On the other hand, I did develop these therapeutic techniques. Part of them were ways to make it safe for people to be part of this process. I'm interested in working with the sectors of the population that are not already therapy-oriented. Because if you're gonna really make change in the society, you have to reach far beyond the sectors of the society that are hip to that kind of language. And that's what we did with the politics of meaning in these small groups we ran in Oakland. We screened out people who already had some kind of progressive political consciousness or psychologically sensitive consciousness. We had occupational stress groups in which people learned skills about how to overcome stress at work and in their family life. In talking about stress, people realized that they were not the problem. The sources of stress were in the environment. And saying you need coping skills is very different than telling someone you need therapy.

We discovered in our workshops that people wanted to serve the common good with their life. They wanted to contribute, do something of higher purpose. And they were in jobs where they felt like they weren't serving anybody but their immediate boss, or sometimes not even that. They were only serving to maximize somebody's wealth and power. So the exercise in the group is to listen to other people's self-blame stories and help them recognize that it's not their fault they're in that situation. The jobs themselves rarely give people the opportunity to use their intelligence and their creativity to serve a higher purpose they believe in.

Njeri:. In the context of these past Oakland workshops and the ones you envision for the future, did you connect them to efforts to change the broader social environments in which people existed?

Lerner: Oh, we did. These people who came to our groups often were either members of unions or, after it, formed unions. And they got together with other workers in the workplace and began to address changes they wanted there. Even when they hadn't succeeded in changing the workplace, there was a reduction of self-blame and an increase in their sense of self-worth. And it has a tremendous impact on their physical and emotional health.

Njeri: Let's recapitulate here.

Lerner:. Well, Stage 1 is the mass events. And I'm imagining these summits on ethics and meaning taking place over the course of the next five years in every community in every major region.

Njeri: Yearly? More often?

Lerner:. Yearly, and culminating in a weeklong event in the year 2000 as sort of a national week of atonement, healing and transformation.

Njeri: So Stage 2 are these groups. What's Stage 3?

Lerner:. Stage 3 is the concrete activities of these groups. [One important example of this is] a sustained campaign against media cynicism. That is, talking to individuals and confronting individual people who work for the media at every level, including those who work in Hollywood.

Njeri: Image manufacturers?

Lerner: Yeah. Challenging the way the media reinforce the ethos of selfishness and materialism by projecting the notion that this is just common sense that people would only be looking out for themselves. That this is just what is reality and, hence, discounting anything else.

I have a classic example of this right in front of me with this book tour Cornel and I just took. The New York Times did not do a single story about this whole tour. Neither did most of the major media. Yet, we were going from place to place and the places would be packed--a thousand people, half of them African Americans, young African Americans, not the ones that you would meet in your church or the stereotypical ones who would be making nice.

Njeri: What do you mean by making nice?

Lerner: I mean, not the upper-middle class. I'm talking about young, much younger people. And class-wise, it was not just the upper-middle class coming to these events. It was astounding.

Njeri: It was reported that you encountered some hostility from African Americans at Howard University in Washington and the Afrocentric Esowon Book store in Los Angeles.

Lerner: Well, there is a section of the black community that remains very angry at the way that they are being treated and have unfairly deflected that [anger] onto Jews.

Njeri: You want to finish what you were saying about media cynicism?

Lerner: We were talking about a critique of the media. I had this confrontation with Sidney Sheinberg [who, until July, was the president and CEO of MCA, Inc., over this issue]. He was very incensed after a speech I gave and said: "We give money for all kinds of good causes." But while they're often generous with their profit, their movies and TV shows enforce the notion that human beings can only be motivated by material self-interest.

After my speech, a lot of the people who worked for Sheinberg came up to me privately and said: "You're so right. And not only that, but we won't let our kids see the stuff we're making."

Njeri: Are you arguing for censorship?

Lerner: If we're successful, Hollywood will dedicate some of its money to putting out movies that have a different message, one that validates the possibility of caring and loving relationships. But not in the mindless romantic form that everybody knows to be unreal, that appeals only to those who are out of touch with reality or want to be.

Njeri: You and Cornel seem to differ about the degree to which healing is a necessary part of a multilayered strategy to bring about progressive social change.

Lerner: There's a little tension sometimes as to how much we're gonna emphasize this dimension. At the same time, I think we both understand the truths of what each other is saying. But Cornel has to deal with a lot of people who are in immediate pain, for whom this sounds like a luxury. And a lot of my argument is that it's not a luxury. Many people ask me: "How can you compare the pain of poor people, or those who are homeless, with the pain of middle-income people suffering from the ethos of selfishness and materialism, which expresses itself in their insecurity in loving and caring relationships. These are not the same pains."

My response is, you're right. If I could wave a magic wand, the first thing I would do would be to end homelessness and hunger. But I don't have a magic wand. And liberals who frame the issue this way, the traditional Left, have failed, because they don't have a majority on their side that is giving them the power to deliver it.

In other words, it's both ethically wrong and politically wrong not to acknowledge the pain of the middle class. It's ethically wrong because the right kind of ethics in the society is one where we do care about every other human being. And if their pain is less than somebody else's pain, it doesn't mean it's not real pain. We should care about every human being, because every human being is created in the image of God. Every human being embodies that spirit that deserves to be cared for. That's No. 1. But on a second level, it's also politically crazy not to. Because unless you pay attention to that pain, you will not be in a position to deliver anything to poor people.

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