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  • Hillary Clinton’s Politics of Meaning SpeechUniversity of Texas, Austin April 6, 1993
  • Hillary Clinton (bio)

(original editor’s note: A month after Michael Lerner’s March/April editorial argued that the United States needed a politics of meaning that would address the psychological, ethical, and spiritual crisis of American society, a few weeks after Washington Post columnist William Raspberry dedicated his March 25 columns to praising Tikkun’s politics of meaning as articulated in Lerner’s editorial, and the same day that the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed piece by Lerner based on these same themes, Hillary Rodham Clinton made the following speech in Austin, Texas. Because no transcript was available, we have made selections from notes transcribed from a tape of her speech, and we have shortened the speech by skipping paragraphs or by adding transitional phrases.)

Vol. 8, No. 3. 1993.

We are at a stage in history in which remolding society is one of the great challenges facing all of us in the West. If one looks around the Western world one can see the rumblings of discontent, almost regardless of political systems, as we come face to face with the problems that the modern age has dealt us.

And if we ask, why is it in a country as wealthy as we are, that there is this undercurrent of discontent, we realize that somehow economic growth and prosperity, political democracy and freedom are not enough—that we lack meaning in our individual lives and meaning collectively, we lack a sense that our lives are part of some greater effort, that we are connected to one another. This isn’t very far below the surface, because we can see it popping through the surface—the signs of alienation and despair and hopelessness that are all too common and cannot be ignored. The signs are in our living rooms at night on the news. They are on the front pages; they are in all of our neighborhoods. …

All of us face a crisis of meaning. Coming off the last years when the ethos of selfishness and greed were given places of honor never before accorded, it is certainly timely to ask about this problem.

This problem requires all of us to play a role in redefining what our lives are and what they should be. We are caught between two great political forces. On the one hand, we have our economy—the market economy—which knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing. That is not its job. And then the state or government which attempts to use its means of acquiring tax money, of making decisions to assist us in becoming a better, more equitable society. We have political and ideological struggles between those who think market economics are the answer to everything and those who think government programs are the answer to everything—but neither is adequate to address the challenge confronting us.

What we must do is break through the old thinking that has too long captured us politically and institutionally, so that we can begin to devise new ways of thinking about not only what it means to have government that works again, not only what it means to have economies that don’t discard people like they were excess baggage that we no longer need, but to define our institutional and personal responsibilities in ways that answer this lack of meaning.

We need a new politics of meaning. We need a new ethos of individual responsibility and caring. We need a new definition of civil society which answers the unanswerable questions posed by both the market forces and the governmental ones, as to how we can have a society that fills us up again and makes us feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. …

Part of the great challenge of living is defining yourself in your moment, of seizing the opportunities that you are given, and of making the very best choices you can make. That is what this administration, this President, and those of us who are hoping for these changes are attempting to do.

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