Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2006 

A Public Policy of Meaning

By Peter Gabel

How can we frame traditional progressive platform issues in a way that gives them the spiritual reverence they deserve? Here are some examples of how we can begin to do this.

1. Health Care: According to a spiritual progressive worldview, health care is about caring for each other's health and the health of each other's families, not insuring each other's bodies. But you can't convey that compassion by just saying, "I'm for universal health care," or "I'm for single payer health care." I hate the term "single payer health care," because even though I'm in favor of it, the language itself doesn't express the idea of protecting one another against physical illness, against loss, against being alone—of feeling that we are all equally deserving of human recognition and affirmation.

We must be able to argue for health care in a way that carries this higher and deeper meaning. I don't have a second's doubt that we would have universal health care if leaders emerged who spoke to the issue in this way, because it would draw people toward what they want the most—to be taken care of solely on the basis of their humanity, to care for their children, and to participate in caring for others, with others.

2. Social Security: The liberal line on Social Security was like its line on affirmative action, "Mend it, don't end it." Remember that one? Did that really grab you? Do you think Martin Luther King, Jr. would have gotten behind "Mend it, don't end it"? That's not the same as "Black man and white man, Jew and Gentile, Protestant and Catholic, all walking together," is it?

Thus, in the case of Social Security, the position that "There's enough money, our seniors don't have to worry," is really not a position. It's not a way to talk about one of the greatest government-based experiments in human history, in which our society as a whole demonstrated that we would care about each other—intergenerationally—through a government program. We need to focus on the profoundly idealistic meaning of Social Security and the way that it spiritually connects us, and inspires us to create of a better world. Do you see the difference between this approach as opposed to only talking about whether there's enough money in the lock box?

If we don't speak to it, then the idealist becomes George Bush, who talks about, "the ownership society: everyone will be able to invest their own money. You won't be dependent on government bureaucrats." Remember that? Bush hasn't won that argument. But he seemed to be proposing some kind of meaning, some kind of idealism connected with investing your own money and the ownership society that we can all be a part of and connect by being owners together. The Democrats, on the other hand, could not speak to the loving impulse that's at the core of Social Security. Speaking to it would have decisively affected the national conversation about the purpose of government entitlement programs, and the goal of establishing a community of meaning and social connection among us all.

3. Education: A spiritual progressive educational platform is not just about expanding access to public education, and having standardized testing for all. In reality, children are the carriers of their parents' highest ideals and hopes. We need to advocate for an education platform that ensures parents that these values will be spoken to in their children's experiences. That they're going to learn how to overcome bullying in their schools, and learn about conflict and how to overcome it in a way that connects people to each other and creates a loving environment in the schools; that treats openness to nature, and a child's relationship to nature as central element to what education should be.

4. Foreign Policy: The way to address the threat of terrorism is to recognize the humanity of the Muslim peoples. That means—as Michael Lerner has spoken about so eloquently—treating them with love and generosity. That means instituting a global Marshall Plan to rebuild poor areas in the Middle East without anything in return for it, since we have the wealth to do it. That's different from the "stop-the-war" position. It's more than "stop the war." It addresses the realities of mutually paranoid relationships based on distorted non-recognition of each other's humanity." And having an affirmative economic, cultural and spiritual program to bring into visibility the humanity of the other and show them generosity of spirit.

If the United States engaged in a systematic attempt to do that, it would draw away people who are humiliated and impoverished and who are quite naturally attracted to nationalistic fantasies. If people are disgraced and degraded, they are going to get very angry, and they're going to join with people who treat them with dignity and respect. Hamas does that. I don't agree with the Hamas's policies, but I understand the reasons why Palestinians elected Hamas; it offers a humiliated Palestinian people a sense of pride, a sense of worth, and a sense of meaning for who they are as human beings. We have to treat them with the same level of respect, and not demonize them.

When you treat people as the carriers of demons, you're projecting your own hollowness out onto them, out of fear that they're going to expose you for being hollow. Whereas moral presence, treating the humanity of the other in an authentic and grounding way, is a means to draw people to you, to reduce their level of rage, and to push closer to the margins those who advocate violence and counter-violence.

There are many other ways in which we must respect the humanity in others. We need a senior's policy that doesn't treat older people as wasting assets who need to be propped up with insurance benefits, one that instead treats them as worthy of respect, of elderhood. There's a small country-wide program underway called Story Corps, in which young people document the stories of older people, creating a DVD file that preserves the memories, heritage and life experience of the older generation. That is a spiritually progressive senior's policy, as opposed to one that only focuses on their insurance benefits. You want your insurance benefits, but you don't really want to live out your life alone in your house as a wasting asset. That's not sufficient way to recognize what elders authentically carry in their humanity.

What I'm saying is that we can apply these principles to every single issue that's of importance to us. Think about how the positions you take intensify the experience of social connectedness—authentic social connectedness.

Peter Gabel is associate editor of Tikkun.


What we all have in common is biophilia—the love of life. Life is not something neutral. We're here to fall in love with life; to make love with life. How do we move a culture, a civilization, a politics, from a domineering consciousness to a partnership consciousness where life can truly flourish and celebrate itself through us and the other creatures?

We should begin with awe because from awe flows reverence and gratitude. And when we've got that energy going again from every level—awe, reverence and gratitude—we have begun the necessary reinvention of our species.

—MATTHEW FOX, Founder and President Emeritus of Wisdom University

Source Citation

Gabel, Peter. 2006. A Public Policy of Meaning. Tikkun 21(5): 33.

tags: NSP, NSP Proposed Legislation, US Politics  
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