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Rabbi Michael Lerner

Closed Hearts, Closed Minds

Not infrequently, I hear people in academic or progressive circles making political analyses whose sub-text is something like this: "Why are Americans so stupid? Can't they see that they were lied to by President Bush about Iraq and that his tax reductions have actually made things much worse and caused a huge budget deficit which will impact their own retirement funds in the long run, and in the short run will cause massive cutbacks in social services which they need?"

We could, of course, respond at the level of these charges by saying, "No, people are not stupid. They know and are somewhat annoyed that they've been lied to by an Administration determined to eliminate Saddam Hussein, but they are also still quite happy that Saddam has been eliminated from power, as I am also, because they recognize that Saddam was a horrendous dictator whose oppression of his own people might have continued for a very long time without U.S. intervention. I still do not support the intervention, however, and I expect tragic consequences from the way it was carried out. And I don't support the continuing oppression of the Iraqi people by the U.S. forces and their puppets among the Iraqi people. I believe that other means would have produced even better ends, but we still understand why people would be happy about the overthrow of Saddam and hence more ambivalent about a total condemnation of the Bush intervention. Similarly, although  the Bush tax cuts are having a terrible impact on American society, I can understand why people resent high levels of taxes when the government actually uses their taxes in ways that are invisible to them, and which do not seem to provide real improvements in the quality of their lives. It's not as if the government in the years when Democrats controlled both the Congress and the White House used their tax monies to actually solve the environmental crisis, provide health care, end crime, or end homelessness and hunger. Why shouldn't they feel good about getting some of that money back for their personal use, since its use for collective purposes seems misguided and wasteful? And, when it comes to social security, people do understand the efficacy of that program and do fight to maintain it--they are selective in their support for tax cuts."

Fine, you might say, but why don't people see through these arguments to hear the better and more rational arguments made by people in the anti-war movement and TIKKUN that show that the invasion of another country to get rid of its rulers is not a smart way to build a world of peace, nor is cutting social services likely to lead to a greater sense of security or safety in our daily lives?  How can people not see the human suffering that is caused when we legitimate violence as a way to achieve our political goals, no matter how noble, or the human suffering caused by budget cutbacks of education, health care, elderly care, and other vital services? Most of these arguments, on either side, miss the central point: The reason that people have closed their minds to these arguments we make is that their hearts are closed. And the reasons for that are not usually directly connected to the specific political issues being debated. The issues are almost never the issue.

 Cute theory? No. It is a conclusion we at TIKKUN reached as a result of painstaking empirical work as social scientists and psychotherapists. For many years, I was principal investigator for a massive psycho-social research project funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Our organization, the Institute for Labor and Mental Health, ran groups and interviewed over ten thousand middle income American working people, and in the course of this study came to recognize that their political attitudes were changing as a result of their interpretation of their own lives and the alternatives they faced within it.

 (You can read a more detailed account in my book, Surplus Powerlessness.)

The first thing we discovered is this: Most people have bought into the ideology of the Meritocracy. They believe that America is a society where "you can make it if you really try," and hence they end up blaming themselves for not being enough (smart enough, clever enough, persistent enough, attractive enough, ruthless enough, charming enough, or fill in the blank when you tell your own self-blaming story). It is this personal failure that explains why they personally have not been more successful. These self-blaming stories are an integral part of the consciousness of most people in this society, no matter where they are in the class hierarchy. (We even found college presidents engaged in self-blaming to explain why they weren't the Secretary of Education or in some other position of power.) And because they blame themselves, instead of feeling that they have the right to challenge the social order with its inequalities of power and wealth, they direct their anger against themselves, and feel terrible about themselves.

Ironically, the way that liberals and progressives fought for equal rights for minorities tended to increase this self-blaming for everyone else. While we at TIKKUN totally support the impulse behind affirmative action programs, the ways that they were fought for often unintentionally conveyed the following message: "You whites, or you men, have already had the benefits of a fair marketplace of employment in which you could make it if you really tried and were competent. But these others, the groups that we are now championing, didn't have the same fair opportunities that you did, so now we need to devise programs to compensate them for what they didn't get and you did." It would have been better if those whites who objected to affirmative action had done so straightforwardly by saying: "Wait a second, we didn't have a 'fair' anything--we entered a class structured marketplace which only rewarded some of us and left the rest of us, no matter how hard we worked or smart we were,  in unfulfilling jobs." But this class consciousness was absent, so instead of challenging the ideology of the meritocracy, they ended up resenting affirmative action.  Here is why: Many people felt that the assumption of the liberals was right, that they had had a fair chance, and that they had blown it. And that made them feel even worse about themselves, which caused them to resent the liberals and the left though they couldn't consciously say quite why. But when they expressed their hesitation in the form of opposition to affirmative action, they were greeted by a barrage of "you're a sexist" or "you're a racist" that immediately put them on the defensive, made them feel even worse about themselves, and simultaneously created a huge level of resentment against the leftists and liberals who were inflicting these accusations on them. What a relief it was for many of them when the Right began its backlash against "political correctness," thereby allowing many of these people to feel better about themselves

TIKKUN was right there, urging the Left to rethink the affirmative action issue in light of these dynamics. We too wanted equality, but we suggested that a better way to achieve it would be to challenge the entire framework of "meritocracy." Rather than accept the criteria of merit being used in this society, usually derived from elevating the needs of the corporations for a certain kind of worker into some kind of transcendent value for everyone, we argued that the wrong things are being valued and measured. We argued that society needs a New Bottom Line of love and caring, ethical/spiritual/ecological sensitivity, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation. We said, "Create institutions that value these characteristics, and use them as the criterion for definitions of efficiency, productivity, and rationality, and you will find that those talented in this way are more evenly distributed across class, sex and racial backgrounds." We currently reward people who can serve narrow technocratic enterprises, when we should be rewarding those who are best at developing a more loving, ecologically sane, spiritually aware, community-oriented world-- those who will build a saner society for us rather than the kinds of people who are currently getting into the elite colleges and being told that they have proven their merit. What was needed, we argued, was to change the criterion of merit.

But there was yet another dimension to what we discovered. People have a deep hunger for a different kind of world than the one we live in. Most people, we discovered, are not like those portrayed daily on television and the movies--ruthless self-seeking maximizers of their own advantage who don't care about anyone else. Instead, the picture is more complex. Most people have a kind of dual consciousness, or two voices in their head. One is a voice that very much wishes to live in harmony with others, cooperating with others, receiving and giving recognition to others.  There is in most of us a deep yearning for a world based on love and caring, generosity, social justice and fairness, ecological harmony and peace. Most people wish to make a contribution to building this kind of world, and feel that their lives have meaning to the extent that they can do so, either on a personal or a communal level. They desire lives that have this kind of meaning, a meaning that transcends the dynamics of the competitive marketplace and connects them with a higher purpose for their lives.

Yet there is also another voice inside almost everyone: a voice that speaks in the name of their parents and teachers and the larger society, which tells them that these desires are "unrealistic" because the world is actually structured in accord with a ruthless struggle for power and money, and that if they don't develop within themselves the personality traits and skills to succeed in this struggle that they will find themselves getting screwed by others who are ruthlessly pursuing their own self-interest. Cooperation and love, they are taught, are beautiful ideals best left to church, synagogue, or mosque, but in the real world they will encounter most people driven by self-seeking needs and they had better do the same.

In this struggle, the voices of liberal politicians are often perceived as voices in favor of the technocratic reality of the capitalist marketplace, with its insistence on criteria of merit and values judged by material well-being. When President Clinton and Vice President Gore advocated for more money for education, it was combined with new testing that would insure that students were in fact learning the skills that would make "us" successful in the international marketplace of the future. There was never a suggestion that there was anything missing in the criteria of success. What Clinton had in mind was simply this: We are richer than everyone else, and in order to stay that way, we need to make sure that our students have the appropriate skills. Similarly, the Democratic Party’s passionate defense of globalization was largely in these terms. They wanted to set terms of trade in ways that would generate the greatest economic benefits for the United States, and we could only do that by participating in the particular international trade agreements that we've created through the World Trade Association.

No wonder, then, that people who don't feel that they are going to be particularly successful in this kind of struggle of all against all sometimes feel uncomfortable with the message that the meaning of their lives will be measured by how much wealth, power, or fame they are able to accumulate. There is for most people, and has been for a long time, a crisis of meaning in their lives. This leads them to be particularly open to two major avenues that the Right has tended to champion: Religious fundamentalism and chauvinist nationalism.

The good part of what religious and nationalist communities have to offer is that they provide an alternative system of values to the capitalist market. Your value as a member of our community, people are told, is not dependent on whether you've made a lot of money or achieved fame. You are valued not because of what you've accomplished, but because of who you are as a being.

This is a very good message. And many people who get attracted to a right-wing framework are attracted because of something good in them, not something bad. The problem arises when many of these religious and nationalist communities take a second and more destructive step: They devalue those who are not part of the community. "You are valuable because you are saved as a Christian (substitute here any other religion), but those who are not Christians are not saved, and they in fact are causing a problem for our world." Or "We value you as an American, but foreigners, including the immigrants or non-citizens among us, are a danger and a threat."

It is this experience of demeaning of the Other that has led many people to rebel against those religious or national communities and become strident liberals or lefties. The liberal and Left critiques are usually correct—the intolerance commonly associated with these communities does often have very hurtful effects. But what the Left fails to understand are the rational core of needs that are not being addressed in the larger society which are addressed, albeit in distorted form, in these communities of meaning.  Instead, the Lefties position themselves as though there is no higher framework of meaning beyond fighting for everyone's "rights" as individuals. Of course we at TIKKUN support all those struggles, but we've also discovered that the struggles for rights are not sufficient to provide a transcendent meaning to life. As these struggles get translated into the "realistic" language of the courts and the legislative arena, they are articulated primarily in terms of the individual fulfillment that each person desires for herself or himself, which unconsciously reinforces a picture of the world as an aggregation of isolated individuals in competition with each other for goods, and protected from each other by "rights."

Perhaps the moment when the shallowness of a "rights" orientation to the world, and its implicit individualism, becomes most striking is when dealing with issues around death. It is certainly true that 9/11 raised huge fears in the American public, and much of that fear concerned the lack of predictability, stability, and continuity that some people have allowed themselves to believe could be temporarily achieved through immersion in the consumer culture and the struggle for success in American life. Most of us have had to deal with destruction of this myth when we've faced death as individuals. But now, after 9/11, the entire society had to face it as a society. What could provide a sense of meaning and purpose to life if it could end so senselessly for people at the height of their careers and success?

Without all the standard paraphernalia, with crisis facing us, there was for many a momentary opening of the heart in the weeks immediately after the tragedy. For a moment there was an unfreezing, as people were moved by the kindness and generosity shown by firemen and policemen, by strangers pouring out into the streets to help in any way they could, by spontaneous gatherings to mourn and talk and work through what it all meant. With the heart momentarily unfrozen, new ideas popped up, and there was for a short time even some consideration about changing our relationship to the rest of the world, considering what we might have done that would provoke such anger, and how to live in the face of death and uncertainty.

But as my friend Peter Gabel points out, that spiritual/psychological/political space had no container and no recognized leadership to give it voice. So there was no way for people to publicly articulate to each other that there was something profoundly right about the idealism that was surging forth into public space. And into the vacuum of self-doubt stepped the ideologues of the Right with a program to make sense of everything by pushing it back into the container of "Evil Other" that must be combated, and by reviving American nationalism and the security it promised through its ability to militarily dominate and reshape the world in our image. America would be the source of transcendent value, and all that each of us had to do was to give President Bush a blank check to proceed. We could then be part of a new "we" that this nationalism engendered.

My point here is NOT to put people down for following this path, but to say to those who want an alternative: We need to provide another framework of meaning and purpose for life that does not require either a belief in other-worldly compensations or in domination and control over other peoples.

That framework, a liberatory frame of meaning, has already been part of the spiritual traditions of the world. These spiritual traditions have often been co-opted into frameworks of domination and demeaning of others, but they can today be renewed in undistorted ways. In my book Spirit Matters, I talk about this as an "emancipatory spirituality," which is a spirituality that insists on the value of every human being, rejects all demeaning of the Other, and affirms the unity of all human beings, the centrality of social justice, peace, and ecological responsibility, and affirms a life of pleasure.    

"Pleasure," the neo-conservatives may scoff. "That is the whole problem with all of you on the Left. Your whole philosophy is just a flimsy excuse for the narcissism that has led you to evade community and seek endless individual satisfactions with no sense of social responsibility or family values."  But the inclusion of pleasure in a vision of emancipatory spirituality was already anticipated by John Stuart Mill in his recognition of distinctive human pleasures. So even if some segments of previous counter-cultures have sought to turn the demand for a pleasure-enhancing society into an excuse for maximizing sexual conquest, drug abuse, and other forms of self-indulgent narcissism, the intention of the demand for pleasure is actually a demand for a different kind of society. In fact, the great spiritual-religious wisdom traditions of world philosophy have all taught some variant of this message: The deepest human pleasures come from living in a world based on justice, peace, love, generosity, kindness, and celebration of the universe and service to the ultimate moral law of the universe (whether learned through revelation or through reason). Meaning for life can come from being part of a community aimed at healing the pain and cruelty that has been passed down from generation to generation in the psychic structures, and embedded also in the social and economic arrangements, of class societies, so that we can in fact have a world based on love and caring.

The desire to build such a world is a constant theme in the collective unconscious of the human race. If the forces of thanatos, of hurtfulness and cruelty, are temporarily in ascendancy, it is only because most people have despaired about the possibility of building the world they really want. That's why the most important political task is to affirm the highest values of a vision that gets labeled "utopian," but is in fact the only path out of the self-destruction of the human race that is currently taking place as national conflicts divert our attention from the increasingly destructive environmental consequences of the globalization of capital.

It is recognizing the hunger for a different kind of world that explains the underlying dynamic that fuels the development described by Jonathan Schell in his article in this issue of TIKKUN. Schell notes that, counter to all the voices of cynical realism, in fact a new kind of power has been growing in the past few hundred years, manifesting in non-violent struggles, and that those non-violent struggles have actually been tremendously effective in changing the nature of the world we live in. Schell does his best to avoid labeling this power "spiritual"—perhaps fearful that he will be identified with the anti-political and anti-intellectual themes that sometimes emerge in contemporary spiritual movements. Yet the ontological ground for the success of non-violent movements is, I believe, the underlying hunger for a world based on mutual recognition, caring, love, and generosity.

It would be a huge advance in contemporary politics if some progressive force could overcome its antipathy to the language of spirit and begin to talk unashamedly about the need to build a world based on mutual trust, mutual caring, cooperation, generosity, ecological responsibility, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation and the preciousness of every human being. Such a movement could begin to unthaw the frozen consciousness. 

Yet no matter how powerful the ideas, when the heart is closed, the mind will be closed as well.

This is where the power of art, religious symbols, a spirituality separated from the demeaning of the other, and music become potentially liberating. It is in their ability to unfreeze the heart that these become central to the possibility of a new kind of liberatory movement.

But what truly unfreezes the heart are deeds of solidarity and caring, when people are willing to take risks for each other and for their ideals. This was what was so moving about the early days of the civil rights movement, when blacks and whites, who could have lived their lives without involving themselves in the lives of people whose rights were being denied in Mississippi and Louisiana and Alabama and Georgia and other Southern states, began to risk (and in some cases lose) their own lives for the sake of helping others. Similarly, students risked being thrown out of college or university for the sake of defending the rights of others. I remember witnessing and being deeply moved by an example of this during the Free Speech Movement. After seven leaders were suspended for engaging in a disruptive sit-in at the Administration building, hundreds of other students showed up at the dean's office and turned in their registration cards, demanding to be suspended since they had participated in the same demonstration. These kinds of actions broke through the manipulated consciousness that had taught us that nothing but self-interest governed the behavior of others, and therefore we should avoid taking risks for our ideals. Watching people willing to care for each other in such a deep way broke through the hardened hearts and from there it became temporarily possible to open our minds as well.       

We need some variant of this kind of activity to break through manipulated consciousness--not a mechanical re-enacting of the 1960s, or the 1930s, or of any past upsurge of the spirit of hope, but rather a new variant that addresses the current levels of people's despair and mutual distrust.

I offer one possible first step: Let's create a united fund to build housing for the homeless in the United States, and to rebuild homes on the West Bank and homes that U.S. bombing unintentionally destroyed in Iraq--and do that by asking every Democrat, every liberal, every progressive, and every spiritual person to take all of their tax refunds from this and every subsequent round of tax-rebates and put it into a joint building-for-the-homeless fund. Let’s make that the badge of honor for anyone associated with our social movement--that they have given the entirety of their refund to a community purpose, to a single united Fund for a Caring Society. That act, if taken by millions of people, would do far more to break through the manipulated consciousness than all the political campaigns and demonstrations. (They are also important. But to really reach and influence public consciousness, they will need to stop repeating the slogans of the past and begin to talk explicitly in a language that affirms love--breaking through old expectations and left/right dichotomies, and insisting that a progressive politics can also be a spiritually grounded politics.)

To apply this thinking in another sphere, let's consider Israel-Palestine. The Geneva Accords being launched by a cross section of Israeli and Palestinian leaders is the most hopeful development since the launching of the Oslo Accords ten years ago. Yet like previous moves toward peace, this new breakthrough could be undermined not only by acts of terror and by indifference from the governments in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Washington, D.C. but also by too narrow a vision, and too technocratic a perspective.

Most Americans are familiar with the breakdown of the Camp David negotiations in the summer of 2000. President Clinton, hoping that a miraculous outcome would give him a final achievement to deflect attention from a presidency that had become a laughing stock after the Monica Lewinsky affair, ranted at the Palestinians for refusing to sign on to what Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak described as, "the best offer the Palestinian people would ever receive." What we heard little about was that negotiations continued at Taba that Fall, and that the negotiators came close to an agreement just before the election of Ariel Sharon in February of 2001, an event that caused the cancellation of the official negotiation process.

The good news is this: The chief negotiator for Israel, Yossi Beilin (at that time the Israeli Minister of Justice and the man who had been given major credit for negotiating Oslo), and the chief negotiator for Palestine, Yassir Abed-Rabbo (the Minister of Information at that time), continued to meet and negotiate even after their respective governments no longer were officially sanctioning the talks. And two months ago, with the informal support of the Swiss, they reached an accord which bridges all the major gaps between the two parties. 

The Geneva Accord provides for a return of Israel to the pre-67 borders with minor border modifications that allow Israel to incorporate 3 major settlement blocs, including the majority of Israeli West Bank settlers, and a swap for equal amounts of Israeli land that will become part of the new Palestinian state. The rest of the Israeli settlers will be resettled within the pre-67 borders of Israel.  It provides for compensation both for the property and for the pain of Palestinian refugees, and funds for their resettlement, but does not provide a "right of return."  And it provides a detailed plan for joint cooperation to protect the citizens of both Israel and Palestine from terrorism, and an international force to provide supervision and defense from external aggression. Jerusalem would be shared between the two states, with the Wall under Israeli sovereignty and the Temple Mount controlled by the Palestinians. It is balanced and reasonable to both sides. Recent polls reported in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz indicate that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians support the Accord.

Unfortunately, Ariel Sharon does not agree. While the Palestinian Authority has let it be known that the Geneva Accord correlates with what they would settle for as the most painful yet acceptable terms (they give up not only the Right of Return but also land in the West Bank and they agree to demilitarization), the settler-oriented government of Israel's Likud party has little interest in creating a real Palestinian state that would require abandoning settlements and returning Israel to its pre-1967 borders. Sharon has attacked the Geneva Accord and refuses to consider negotiations based on them.

As always, Sharon can count on the passive support of the Bush Administration. By now the scenario is familiar: The United States makes a public protest, takes some weak-kneed action to slap the wrist of the right-wing Israeli government, and then returns to business as usual, pouring billions into the Israeli economy and military. Just last week that scenario was played out in regard to Israel's construction of a huge wall that extends throughout the West Bank, effectively incorporating into Israel a major part of the territory that the Geneva Accord (and previous U.N. resolutions as well) acknowledged to be part of Palestine. The State Dept.'s whimper this time took the form of a reduction of a few hundred million dollars in an eight billion dollar loan guarantee--small enough so that even Sharon's biggest supporters merely shrugged their shoulders with a silent "so what?"

The United States could make a major difference, but only if it gives unambiguous signals to both Israel and Palestine that they must immediately conclude a final settlement agreement based on the Geneva Accord. Once both parties agree to ratify the Geneva Accord, a Road Map that was virtually out of business could restart, this time with a chance to succeed because the parties would know where the map was intending to bring them.

None of this will happen unless voters in the United States insist that any candidate for the nomination for President and any candidate for Congress take a strong stand in favor of the Geneva Accord. Candidates should be made to tell us what their strategy is to mobilize American power and influence to get the parties to sign on to Geneva and then implement it. Absent such a discussion, and absent a decisive use of American power, the Geneva Accord could become another critical opportunity that was missed. That's why we at TIKKUN have been urging Americans to join our national campaign for the Geneva Accord, and we are asking people from every Congressional district in the U.S. to come to Washington D.C. on April 24-27, 2004 for a Teach-In to Congress in support of Middle East Peace (more information on this and on the Core Vision of the TIKKUN Community is available at

But the problem is that the proponents of the Geneva Accord are not getting the response that they deserve. Part of the reason for this is that they frame the support for the Accord in narrow and technocratic language. In Israel, the Accord supporters have argued that the Accord is the one way to preserve the Jewish character of the State of Israel, rather than arguing that it embodies an ethos of compassion, generosity and repentance that are manifestations of what is best in Judaism. The people in leadership positions imagine that if they can show that they are tough-minded, rather than softly idealistic, their proposal will get a better hearing. But the result has been that Ariel Sharon has come up with an alternative way to preserve the Jewish character of the State: By partial withdrawals from the Arab population centers while incorporating into Israel (behind a massive "security" wall) large sections of the West Bank. If the name of the game is simply security and enhancement of Jewish population, the right-wingers can come up with at least a plausible alternative that embodies a more repressive attitude. 

I embrace the Geneva Accord, and the TIKKUN Community is working to support it, but with a very different kind of discourse--one that insists that it is only a possible tool, but that the goal is a more loving and generous world, and that this must be judged by the degree to which it contributes to the level of hope that we can build such a world. The possibility of sustaining peace depends on creating that kind of hope--and progressive political programs are only sustainable to the extent that they contribute to building such hope. Otherwise we get the scenario of the Clinton years: Many good programs established, but always at the cost of abandoning a larger vision and instead playing on the terrain of right wing ideology. The outcome: Once that right-wing ideology gained enough support, a right wing regime took over and is at work dismantling all the progressive accomplishments. So being "realistic" requires being idealistic--because no amount of concrete accomplishments will ever be sustainable unless they are accompanied by the creation of a rise in the levels of hope and commitment to a world based on love and generosity. Building that hope is the goal of the TIKKUN Community, and it needs to be the goal of anyone who wishes to save our planet from destruction.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of TIKKUN Magazine, author of Healing Israel/Palestine (North Atlantic Books, 2003), and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco. He is also the chair of the national inter-faith peace organization The Tikkun Community He can be reached at

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