Removing the tumour of the soul

The most interesting chapter in Hillary Clinton’s account of the 2016 election What Happened? is not her depiction of election night or the debates against Trump. It’s not mostly about the election at all, ‘Love and Kindness’ is thirty pages of reflection on the meaning of life, both individual and American. It’s easy to be cynical in politics and particularly easy to be cynical about Hillary Clinton, one of the most demonised politicians in the modern world, the ultimate ‘establishment politician’. The one thing no one has ever suggested about Mrs Clinton is that she is not a thinker, a self-described ‘wonk’, to her opponents she is a calculating politician, to her admirers a at times overly professorial but nevertheless sincere political advocate. Inevitably that tendency to reflection goes beyond policy documents and into the wider meaning of the world we live in.

In ‘Love and Kindness’ Clinton describes the profound chiming with her thinking of a 1991 magazine article written by Lee Atwater, a Republican political operative who had masterminded successful GOP election campaigns in the 1980s but who was in 1991 dying of brain cancer before the age of 40. In the article Atwater describes an emptiness at the heart of American life, a meaninglessness  – “this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society-this tumour of the soul”.

To Clinton, in the richest, most powerful country on earth what was missing “was a sense that our lives were part of some greater effort, that we were all connected to one another and that each of us had a place and a purpose”. Such words could of course just as easily be uttered by Lenin, Stalin or Mao to different ends Clinton than was seeking, but they go to the heart of what fills the vacuum when unchallenged and dominant religious doctrine and observance declines in influence. Religion has always traditionally served the purpose of giving purpose. It goes beyond religion, the vacuum exists in a society where traditional communal lives are vanishing, where, the in many ways beneficial, personal mobility has is greater than ever, but a sense of belonging never weaker.

The Atwater article led eventually to Bill Clinton’s ‘new covenant’, a campaign, in Hillary’s words “rooted in the values of opportunity, responsibility and community” and in 1993 it inspired a much derided speech by Hillary Clinton in Texas where she talked of the need for “a new politics of meaning” and “a new ethos of individual responsibility and caring”.  In her speech to students at the University of Texas Clinton described a society hollowed out by the social and cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s and the economic and technological shifts of the 1980s and 1990s. Change was inevitable, she said, but if people could “reject cynicism… try to see other people as they wish to be seen and to treat them as they wish to be treated; to overcome all the obstacles we have erected around ourselves that keep us apart from one another”. Such words are universal and have been uttered from pulpits and school assembly platforms for generations. They hold even more meaning today in an age when people are ever more physically isolated from one another, when digital communication continues to replace human interaction, the pace of change has only sped up since the early 1990s.

The reaction to Clinton’s speech was telling of the cynicism so pervasive in political culture, a far from new phenomenon, browse any historical newspaper, read the letters of Roman politicians… If you take her at her word, and I do, the speech was a largely spontaneous and unguarded moment and reaction to the grief caused by her father’s final journey towards death after a major stroke. The loss of close loved ones are the times that rock our entire existence, the big picture moments in life that stop us in our tracks. Typically as grief gradually lessens and we are slowly released from the vice of gut-wrenching agony life tends to get back on the road and the wide, bleak, pain-induced landscapes fade away. But when they are most vivid is when we get closest to the meaning of it all, that to live is also to die. The frailty of existence.

Of course, by 1993 it could fairly be argued the Clintons had already done much to invite cynicism, and there is a grain of truth to the New York Times Magazine’s description of the speech as “easy, moralistic preaching couched in the gauzy and gushy wrappings of New Age jargon”. And yet, and yet… Is it so wrong for politicians, leaders, for anyone to try to grapple with the search for meaning in life?  It is easy to mock, easy to be embarrassed by it, but to engage with it is much harder.

Clinton’s search for meaning, for “a new ethos of individual responsibility and caring” led her at least in part to the conclusion in her book It takes a village.. [to raise a child] that “our challenge is to arrive at a consensus of values and a common vision of what we can do today, individually and collectively, to build strong families and communities”. That sounds an awful lot like organised religion. To some Republicans it sounded like “crypto-totalitarianism”. It is certainly language that could be adopted by a totalitarian regime, but that does not mean they have exclusive ownership of it. Still, I’m not sure I share Clinton’s conclusion that a consensus is needed, one of the beauties of the world is its diversity and lack of consensus. However, most of us in liberal democracies and beyond do subscribe to a belief in common values of freedom, democracy, compassion etc.

As Clinton describes, her journey led to her call for more “love and kindness” in the 2016 campaign, a redaction from her previous arguments for a “new politics of meaning”, but the core is the same. But as before, the message fell on deaf ears. To her the anger and despair caused by the lack of meaning and alienation ‘trumped’ her message and led to the 2016 election result. Anger channelled was the more potent force. Maybe, as she muses, she was the wrong messenger. Now, in her view we need “radical empathy”, going well beyond issues of race into filling the “emotional and spiritual voids that have opened up within communities, within families, and within ourselves as individuals… Grace and meaning and that elusive sense that we’re all part of something bigger than ourselves.”

Beyond calling for it Clinton doesn’t really elucidate how it is achievable, at least to my reading, except that it takes collective will. But how to find that will? Does anyone have that answer? In a secular age is it even possible? Or is this far more than a modern problem? I’m not sure. Although I have noticed in the truly devout a form of serenity, and a kindness towards others and communal spirit. Yet, the rational secularist cannot trick their brain into adopting a belief system to hold in their heart. Much has been made of human progress in the last few centuries, but perhaps for all the benefits we have lost something precious and regressed in one critical way – we have lost the meaning of life. Can it be rediscovered? Is that what politics, like all life, is really about?

The simplest response to all this may be an eye roll, maybe that is a happier route than going down the rabbit hole into who knows what wonderland.

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