Can this family be saved?

In their new books, Michael Lerner and Mary Pipher offer strategies to protect the American family from the assaults of commerce and modern life. But their imaginations aren't up to the challenge.

Published May 14, 1996 3:23PM (EDT)

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its
own way." Think about Tolstoy's celebrated opening line for "Anna Karenina" and you can't help sensing its subtle pessimism. How could any real families -- these unfathomably complex aggregations of human life and experience -- be alike? We know our families are all unique; therefore they must all be unhappy.

Now think about what might happen to Tolstoy's formula if you flung it into the melee of today's political debates. Conservatives would denounce it as a slur on the traditional family. Liberals would protest that it denies happy families their unique cultural differences. And everyone would want to know exactly what Tolstoy meant by "family," anyway.

The latest wave of left-oriented intellectuals writing about the family offers a new twist on Tolstoy's line. They're arguing that it's the unhappy American families these days that look alike: stressed by working too long hours, isolated from their relatives, strained by the disappearance of communal institutions and bombarded by bad media. In books like Michael Lerner's "The Politics of Meaning" and Mary Pipher's "The Shelter of Each Other," these writers are trying to reclaim the rhetoric of family values from Republicans and the religious right. They hold that to fix families today, we must fix the wider culture that assails them -- or at least help them resist the assault of drugs, delinquency, divorce and (most implacable of all) Disney.

They're not just opportunists applying an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" strategy in the era of the Gingrichian Contract with America; they offer a useful and sometimes powerful critique of the hypocrisy of conservatives who denounce "selfishness and materialism" in private life while promoting it with their public policies. But when it comes to offering a specific idea for change, these thinkers lose their fire. You could call their program Tofu Family Values -- not simply to make fun of it, but to recognize that it is both undeniably healthy and undisguisably bland.

Lerner is a therapist and student of theology who edits Tikkun magazine and who emerged, blinking, into a media spotlight when the Clintons briefly embraced his "politics of meaning" rhetoric in 1993. After Hillary Clinton kicked off her health-care reform plan with a speech identifying a "crisis of meaning," she got blasted by the press, and that was pretty much the end of the White House's flirtation with Lerner's ideas.

Lerner evidently feels betrayed by his erstwhile patrons, and in a lengthy epilogue to "The Politics of Meaning" he details how Bill Clinton blew one opportunity after another in his first term by caving in to the Washington establishment and the media instead of articulating a clear, progressive vision of community that might mobilize everyday Americans. It's the only part of "The Politics of Meaning" in which passion seeps into Lerner's prose.

Lerner's central idea is that "the deprivation of meaning in daily life is at the root of many of our individual and social problems." While traditional liberals cling to a legalistic framework of individual rights, the right keeps winning votes by "addressing our meaning-needs." Conservatives have learned how to stroke people's "meaning-related" anxieties -- yet their get-government-off-our-backs program simply abandons the family to the vagaries of the free market, where it becomes raw meat in a competitive grinder.

"The Politics of Meaning" calls on us to abandon cynicism and hopelessness, to "transgress the reality police" who tell us things can never change, and to try to imagine a different "bottom line" in our society "that values ethical, spiritual and ecological sensitivity and the ability of people to be loving and caring" over profits. Proposing "a movement whose goal is to nurture our souls, not to grab power," Lerner declares, "I insist on the possibility of possibility." It's a shock when you finish the book and realize he hasn't once quoted John Lennon's "Imagine."

Lerner is a smart debater, and he's very good at protecting his left flank from the typical objections progressives have raised to the traditional family. His family values are neither patriarchal nor intolerant. But the deeper you read in "The Politics of Meaning," the clearer it becomes that, to Lerner, "meaning" is never going to progress beyond the boilerplate phrases he pastes throughout the book, like "ethical, spiritual and ecological sensitivity and the ability of people to be loving and caring." "Meaning" here is an abstraction into which readers may project their own "hunger" and "pain."

Like many other critics, Lerner complains about liberalism's moral vacuity: "A just society, according to liberalism, does not seek to promote any substantive aims of its own, but rather enables its citizens to pursue their own ends," and that's not terribly inspiring for people who feel "meaning-needs." Yet Lerner is too steeped in liberalism himself, and too unwilling to appear authoritarian, to fill his word "meaning" with any content. Instead, he writes, "A politics of meaning does not seek to create a particular meaning system, but it does seek to create social and economic arrangements that will be friendly to meaning-oriented communities rather than harmful to their central concerns."

That sounds awfully like a marketplace all over again, with the abstraction of "meaning" substituted for the abstraction of money. And the more detail Lerner adds, the greater the resemblance grows. He tries to sketch a society that offers "spiritual and material incentives for individuals who acted cooperatively and for corporations who were environmentally sensitive." Schools would teach empathy and "moral achievement," and college entrance exams would test for it. Business and government projects would be evaluated by a "social audit." High-school students would compete for places in a high-prestige national service program. Is this a "meaning-oriented society" -- or government by brownie points?

Lerner is too intelligent not to know that morality is something people fight over a lot more readily than they agree about -- but that awareness is just too inconvenient for his ideas, so he ignores it. As a Jewish thinker, he writes of the Bible as a sort of moral bedrock -- one taproot of the "God-energy" present in all the great religions of the world. But how do you sort out the Bible of "love thy neighbor" from the Bible that requires adulterers to be stoned to death? Does the umbrella of "loving and caring" begin at conception, or is that a matter individual women should be allowed to work out themselves? These are the kinds of issues wars get started over, yet in Lerner's framework they are simply different "meaning systems," and government's role is to step aside and let "meaning-oriented communities" work things out.

To be sure, much of what Lerner is talking about makes gut-level sense; who's against "caring and loving" in general? It's when you get into specific programs to "promote caring and loving" that you risk sounding ridiculous. Anticipating readers' disbelief, Lerner repeatedly admits that his ideas are going to appear ludicrous and unworkable to people raised in our materialistic society. Yet he never finds the kind of images and stories to make his "meaning-oriented society" vivid. Just as, in his view, liberal churches' "boring and lifeless energy" drives worshipers into the arms of more stirring conservative preachers, so his own flabby rhetoric may drive even a sympathetic reader to long for some spry right-wing wit -- smugness, arrogance and all.

"The Politics of Meaning" is astonishingly devoid of color and life, and when it does grab at a picture meant to inspire, it winds up with a banality -- like the following description of the "meaning-based society": "Picture it as one on which people will be so excited to be meeting one another and having the opportunity to spend time together, that we will resemble playful puppies, joyfully exploring and celebrating one another's existence."

What's depressing about "The Politics of Meaning" is how little its language connects with the great tradition of visionary writing on the left. Lerner writes as if he were the first thinker to urge us to imagine a society based on some other value than money. If he is aware of previous exercises in this direction -- from classics like William Morris' "News from Nowhere" to contemporary works like Lewis Hyde's "The Gift" -- he makes no use of them. "The Politics of Meaning" is full of the language of political debate but devoid of the faces and words of actual people. Lerner talks of "the prophetic voice of the politics of meaning," but he never finds such a voice in himself.

The people who ought to be filling Lerner's pages are all huddled together in "The Shelter of Each Other," psychologist Mary Pipher's prescription for "Rebuilding Our Families." Pipher, whose "Reviving Ophelia" was a popular study of the plight of adolescent girls in our culture, chronicles the precarious state of family relationships among her clients. But instead of following their troubles back to sources in childhood trauma or inner conflict, she blames our social institutions for most of their problems. Long hours at the workplace keep parents away from each other and their children, while the kids absorb unhealthy messages from their movies, their TV commercials and even their classmates. The pervasiveness of our media have turned the American home into a "house without walls," unprotected from the gales of popular culture.

To readers who might have grown up amid suburban conformity, finding salvation by claiming nooks and crannies of pop culture for their own, Pipher's perspective is a little alien. If one experienced family as a stifling prison, a "house without walls" might sound like a fine thing. But Pipher argues persuasively that knocking down those walls winds up benefiting corporate profits far more than it frees captive spirits. Though she doesn't ever label herself a liberal, she's plainly not signing on the Contract with America's bottom line.

Pipher's is a skeptical, no-nonsense voice as solid as the Nebraska plains that surround her community. There's nothing terribly new in her case-studies. But there's a consoling practicality in the way she breaks ranks with the therapeutic norm and looks beyond the individual psyche to explain family problems. She understands that the flipside of every New Age-style exhortation to "do your own work" is the suggestion that your problems are all your own fault, and she sensibly points out that many of the worst problems families face today are inherited from their cities, their schools and their television sets.

But though she declares that "The cure for cynicism, depression and narcissism is social action," her advice to the families she counsels tend to lead away from public engagement. Families today, she insists, need to get together more often to eat meals, tell stories and play games; her most frequent Rx is for more time outdoors. Good recommendations, no doubt -- but they seem to encourage families to flee uncaring institutions rather than try to change them.

Pipher offers folksy wisdom for protecting families from society, but she never looks beyond to imagine a society that we might not need protecting from. "The Shelter of Each Other" may prove a helpful handbook for family self-defense, but as a vision of a better world it's disappointingly thin.

Sure, imagining different ways of organizing society is hard work, with little immediate payoff and a pretty lousy historical track record. But if you're standing up as a liberal or a progressive, that's the job description.

Lerner complains that the "savvy"-worshipping media are too eager to jump on any public figure who dares express an idealistic thought. Yet one can share his distaste for cynicism without embracing his explanation for it: "The cynical journalists and intellectuals who belittle the meaning-needs, and who ridicule contemporary movements seeking spiritual renewal, may themselves be the most oppressed, because so many of them are victims of internal voices that require the denial of their own need for love, caring and recognition."

Maybe in critiquing Lerner's work I'm just revealing my own oppression and need for "love, caring and recognition." On the other hand, maybe it's possible to hold books like "The Politics of Meaning" to the same idealistic standards they propose to apply to our public life. What's cynical about that?

Happy political movements are all alike; every unhappy movement is unhappy in its own way. The latter can always benefit from a little skepticism. And the former almost certainly don't exist.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

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