SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

Hillary Clinton vs. the cynics: The new cultural war

Published June 24, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Bob Woodward's latest scoop has the political and media establishments snickering: Hillary Clinton, he reveals in his upcoming book about the 1996 presidential campaign, has held conversations with Mahatma Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt. The First Lady, reported the celebrated muckraker, sought inspiration from these historic figures with the assistance of Jean Houston, co-director of the Foundation for Mind Research. The Washington establishment has fixed on this juicy Woodward morsel as one more sign of White House wackiness. But what is more revealing about this latest Beltway brouhaha is how wide the gap is growing between America's cynical political culture and its spiritual culture.

This "Hillary, meet Mahatma" flap is only the latest skirmish in a new cultural war that has far deeper implications than
the debate over school prayer or Hollywood values. The Left vs. Right cultural
battle is largely over: conservatives and liberals alike have reaffirmed the
family and condemned violence, drugs and teenage promiscuity.

But the new cultural war -- pitting what sociologist Paul Ray calls 44
million "cultural creatives" against a curious coalition of liberal and
conservative opinion-makers and traditional-minded citizens -- is just
beginning. The confluence of a new spirituality based on authentic spiritual
experience rather than old-time religious beliefs, and a personal growth
movement emphasizing honesty about personal feelings, is discomfiting
traditionalists on the Left and Right.

Pat Buchanan and Kay Graham, Bob Woodward and George Will, William
Kristol and Jeff Greenfield, Newt Gingrich and Richard Gephardt, may disagree
on the role of government. But they share a common disdain for people who
seek to "get in touch with their feelings," listen to their inner voices,
meditate, or, like Jean Houston, practice visualization and other
techniques to expand their thinking beyond conventional norms.

Hillary Clinton is taken seriously, whether loved or hated, when she sticks
to politics. But let her venture into the new spirituality and she is made a national laughing-stock by a media and political
elite uncomfortable with the expression of authentic personal feeling or the
deeper existential issues which drive our lives.

This is unfortunate. The nation as a whole would benefit if our
opinion-makers meditated more and pontificated less, spent more time in
nature and less in offices, broadened the national conversation beyond the
mechanics of politics, and focused more on genuine feelings and less on polling statistics. Continued media trivialization of
the new spirituality makes politicians more reluctant to engage in the kind
of personal exploration which leads to the inner peace, compassion and moral
courage we so badly need in our leaders.

There is, of course, a great deal of flakiness in the new spirituality,
including fake gurus who exploit their followers and a lack of concern for the real-life suffering of the
poor and dispossessed. The media provides a valuable function in exposing
such excesses.

But press cyncism goes too far. Most of the new spirituality is no less valid than
the assertions of traditional religions which are treated with such respect
in the halls of Congress or pages of our national magazines. The Catholic
communion wafer or Jewish phylacteries are no more provably sacred, after
all, than crystals or a statue of the Buddha. It is unclear why the majority
of Americans who believe in angels are not ridiculed, but a Jean Houston who
talks with her dead father is. And whereas pederastic Catholic priests are
considered a deviation from the norm, the misdeed of New Age leaders are
treated as if they were the rule.

The truth is that the new spirituality is, on the whole, one of the most
positive developments in America today. It expresses a heartfelt desire by
tens of millions of Americans for a more peaceful, loving and honest
society. At its best today's new spirituality focuses on what unites us, our common
humanity, in stark contrast to a political and media machine that profits by
exploiting petty differences and heaping invective on political opponents.
The new spirituality promotes a concern for future generations, as opposed to a politics and media characterized by permanent
negative campaigns, two-year election cycles, and the kind of short-term
sensationalism that sells advertising.

As a result, the new spirituality and personal growth movement is on the rise. While
"cultural creatives" comprise perhaps only 25 percent of the overall population, they
comprise a far higher percentage of baby-boomers. And as 77 million boomers
increasingly confront their mortality in the coming decades, while today's
seniors pass from the scene, the influence of the new spirituality will grow.

The press should continue its watchdog role over New Age
leaders and movements. But by ridiculing Hillary Clinton's efforts to find inspiration and enlightenment, the media
both dishonors the authentic spiritual experience of millions of Americans,
and perpetuates the cynical and materialistic thinking
that may well spell our doom. Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi would tell us no less, if we had the wit and imagination to listen
to them.

Fred Branfman interviewed Jerry Brown in issue 18 of Salon.

Civil rights movement: R.I.P?

In a time of crisis, Jesse and other black leaders are unheard


Affirmative action is rolled back. Black and minority districts are thrown out. And in a throwback to the days of Jim Crow, black churches throughout the south are being torched. Throughout all this, there have been no marches on Washington (except for racist Louis Farrakhan's "Million Man march," which most of the traditional civil rights establishment sat out), no sit-ins, no mass protests. There hasn't even been a clearly articulated statement from the Congressional Black Caucus, nor, for that matter, from any of the major civil rights organizations or leaders. Or so it seems.

Is it that white society is simply tired of black protests? Is it that the media simply pays less attention? Or is the civil rights movement itself essentially dead? In search of answers, we talked with Marshall Frady, a journalist who has covered the civil rights movement for over 25 years. Frady, who has written biographies of George Wallace and Billy Graham, is the author of the just released "Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson" (Random House).

As a white Southerner, as well as a veteran observer of the civil rights movement, what do you make of the recent wave of black church bombings?

It has a certain deja vu, hallucinatory quality about it. During the 1950s and '60s, the primeval days in the South, it was a very common occurrence to strike at black churches, which are the heart and the heartbeat of those communities. Then, it was an organized, coordinated campaign. Now, and even more disquietingly, it seems like more of a spontaneous combustion, or a chain combustion. This is alarming -- that the old resentments and the old rancors, the old fears and the old malignancies, still linger that pervasively. And are still smoldering.

Why are they still smoldering?

Whites in these communities have had to confront directly, and live directly with desegregation -- or at least structural desegregation -- and it has not endeared them to it. It is a backfire to the progress that integration has made.

In the past, incidents like this -- and the Supreme Court's redistricting rulings and the affirmative action setbacks -- would have had an instant, galvanizing effect on the civil rights movement. There have been meetings at the White House, and press conferences, but one doesn't get this sense of urgency somehow.

It's a more diffused, unfocused and torpid time. There was a time when the civil rights movement had energy and life, because the moralities were so plain, so clear, and absolutely elemental. But this is a strangely nebulous time presided over for the most part by leaders who are managers.

By managers, who do you mean?

Clinton. But it's also true that the civil rights movement is wheezing, at best. The response to the burning of the churches in the south has simply not been that cohesive or coherent. I've been asked several times, "where has Jesse been on this issue?" Well, he's been down to some of these towns where churches burned, like Effingham and Greeleyville. But it has gone absolutely unremarked and unnoted.

But why? If by default alone, he is the successor to Martin Luther King. It wasn't so long ago that he ran a strong race for President. Is he overexposed? It's almost like he's like Martin Sheen, who shows up at every single protest, no matter how picayune, and Jesse seems to be doing the same thing.

One of the liabilities of his sort of ministry -- and it has been a ministry -- is that it's a circuit-riding evangelism. He's an evangelist, not an organizer, an exhorter who operates in a guerrilla fashion, from crisis, to tension, to crisis. After a time, absolutely, the perception sets in that he has become a kind of ambulance chaser of current history. And it has certainly produced a resistance now, a reaction, from the media. It's like, "here comes Jesse again." A lot of his friends, those close to him, are concerned that he is evolving, at least in people's perception of him, into triviality.

Was he also a victim of the changing attitude to the civil rights movement -- that it had become just another self-serving interest group, stuck in liberal orthodoxies?

I think the phenomenon may be larger than that: a general backwash in spirit and belief after those enormous social exertions of the '60s -- civil rights, the Great Society, the War on Poverty -- and the notion that the government could do good. What Matthew Arnold talked about in "Dover Beach" -- the withdrawal to naked shingles of cynicism and anger, and lower notions about how the human spirit was. This pervasive mood produced Nixon and reached its consummate climax with Reagan. There was a cultural, national disenchantment.

Is that still strongly felt?

I tell you, you make the rounds of these radio talk shows (laughs) -- and perhaps a particular species tends to call in -- but, boy, the mood seems terribly brackish and overcast. And with a real absence of any warmth of mercy and compassion. It's astounding. There was one call in Boston that has haunted me. The caller said that at the place where he had worked previously, he had been really concerned and aware about the plight of black America, to the degree, he said, that his co-workers would call him "N-lover." But then he said, "Now I'm just getting so tired of them, whining, making demands, never satisfied, only thinking about themselves; I'm getting so tired of it. I can't stand it. And the next and only thing I want to read about Jesse Jackson is his obituary."

That is really tragic, but I think it's not unsymptomatic, even put in those harsh terms, of a national distemper -- an inversion to one's own neighborhood, to one's community, one's own tribe. And it is calamitous, at least for what King's vision of what the American community could be -- one common, egalitarian American family, a peaceable kingdom. That prospect has been surrendered. I know it's become a dog-eared cliche these days, but, doggone it, we still have this fundamental American malaise, this malign fog, of race. And so many in the black community are caught in these generational repetitions of minimal hope, and feeling surrounded by a kind of contempt.

But are we then just left to hand-wring? Jesse Jackson has made impassioned speeches about the biggest threat to the black community being that "we are killing ourselves." Doesn't he need to say that more often and more loudly -- especially with the moral authority that your book says he still has in the black community?

He does a lot more of that than meets the general eye, and the media eye. In high schools, before PTA groups, in churches, again and again, he evangelizes that "we are killing ourselves; we may have been pushed into this situation centuries ago, but we've got to stop thinking about that. Even if the effects continue to be true, we'll just stay trapped in it if we continue to fasten on ourselves as victims." He preaches this constantly, and far more than is generally understood.

Does he get on better with Clinton now than he did in 1992?

Jackson is still very wary of him. In the wake of the Sister Souljah affair, he said, "I can work with him but I know who he is now. He's immune to shame, and if you get right down there in him, you find absolutely nothing -- nothing but an appetite." He still entertains that feeling about Clinton. There is an almost chemical antipathy between them. But Clinton, and the people around him realize that Jesse still represents a huge constituency, and they have been somewhat solicitous of him. That's why they had Jesse fly down with him to Greeleyville. I don't know how high profile he will be on the campaign trail; that will largely depend on how much Clinton needs the constituency that Jesse represents. Clinton would certainly prefer not to have to do it, but if Dole closes the gap, then he will have to deal with Jesse.

Clinton is probably much more concerned about Colin Powell than Jesse Jackson these days.

You saw that very boorish and graceless reaction by Jesse to Powell's rise in Henry Louis Gates's profile in The New Yorker. Normally, he is very supportive of other black politicians on the rise. But he has to feel that Powell is now being cheered through an opening which Jesse had a lot to do with opening. In the '88 primaries, he broke that barrier -- the simple unthinkability, such an eccentric notion -- of an African American approaching such high office. The prospect suddenly did not seem quite so rare or gamy. Colin Powell gained greatly from that.

And we haven't seen the last of him.

Absolutely not. He will be entreated to join the Dole ticket in ways that I suspect even he has not contemplated. It will be a scheherazade of overtures and entreaties. And no matter how transparent, it could be the one stroke that could save Dole.

Quotes of the day

No 21-gun salute?

"It was like a presidential motorcade. It was bizarre. I won't say it wasn't overkill. He was totally unimpressed."

-- Sacramento County, Calif. sheriff's spokesman Sgt. John McGinness, on the security surrounding the arrival in Sacramento of accused Unabomber Theodore J. Kaczynski, which included the closing of off-ramps, six accompanying security vehicles and 20 California Highway Patrol motorcycle officers. (From "Unabomber Suspect in Sacramento," in Monday's San Francisco Chronicle.)

Boys II Men

"We've got to quit coddling these violent kids like nothing is going on. Getting some of these do-gooder liberals to do what is right is real tough. We'd all like to rehabilitate these kids. But, by gosh, we are in a different age."

-- Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) who supports congressional legislation that would end the compulsory separation of adults and juveniles in jails and prisons. (From "Republicans Challenge Notion of Separate Jails for Juveniles," in Monday's New York Times.

By Salon Staff

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