Third grade can be tough for husky-gened boys with dual penchants for strawberry-scented redheads and other boys. Elementary schoolyards can easily become home base for meanness and reductionism, two proclivities that inhabit most eight-year-old bosoms.
Those same third graders easily immerse themselves in the rhetoric of love: in the clear and unambiguous enunciations of who is and is not deserving of one’s love. Implied in such proclamations is ownership of love, that it is somehow off limits to those not included in the normative society of lovers. In my 1983, love and hate coupled and grew alongside the concepts of “opposites” and “revenge” with as much ferocity as long division and times tables.
In the intervening three decades, I’ve learned that “opposites” are odd constructs and that there are far more nuanced spaces available between love and hate. Hate should stand on its own in a different dialectic made for mean third graders (or for presidents with a similar level of maturity for whom “revenge” also endures in its pettiness).
And then we all grew up and, by the time we reached adolescence – or our early twenties, at least – we realized that everybody was capable of love. Everybody was capable of being loved.
In my early twenties, I found my first love – a ginger boy, bucking two third grade trends at once – giving form to the theory of everything that flowed from the wellspring of affection. If I could turn a redhead (or maybe, oppositely, be turned), anything was possible: romantic love had become real and accessible to all – even me!
We’d learned that love could be many things: brotherly, romantic, affectionate, Jesus-like and unbounded. But a strangeness happened on the way to equality. Love was co-opted as a political term – stripped of its intrinsic joy: A slogan meant to divide rather than multiply.
While a whole new generation was reaching out for validation, love became re-acquainted with hate, but in a sinister way. There was, as if in third grade again, no space between the two. If one could not love, we were re-trained, one must hate: The childish dialectic made for powerful memes and demagoguery.
Pulling on heartstrings is a partisan tool nearly as popular as loosening federal purse strings. In, perhaps, the most wonderfully powerful precedent for gay marriage advocacy, an activist honed in upon Loving v. Virginia in which the 1967 SCOTUS declared, “Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival.” They were right and concurred nine to zero. The Supreme Court struck down bans on interracial marriage as the template for rights-fighting. Whether the surname of its star was an accident or not, “loving” became the battle cry that has echoed ever since.
As well-intentioned, yet horrendous-in-practice policies like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and Defense of Marriage gained traction, the push from the activist-left was to claim “love” as a rally.
In response, confused families of men and women fought to maintain the tradition of love that their kind had owned for millennia. “Loving” made sense, but the new evolution of love raised discomfort and ire – they called it hate. Legislation like Prop 8 in California and the spate of similar initiatives confirmed the reaction. There was no room among the lovers for incrementalism.
When gay politics adopted love and marriage as its betrothed rallying cries, how could anybody respond rationally without seeming callous or heartless? If love, it turned out, is owned by one’s political foes, what does one have left? Or right?
And so it was that “the right,” guided by an odd mix of laissez-faire and Christianity was denied its partial ownership of its signature, Jesus-inspired emotion. That expression of adoration between a mother and her child, between a husband and wife, between a messiah and the forgiven was appropriated. More specifically, it was confiscated. “Loving” became a rhetorical banner draped over everything we had left.
Unlike “democracy,” “rights,” “constitutionality,” and even “equality” itself, “love” snuffed out its opposition. If one did not evolve quickly enough on the love agenda, they were filled – in a third-grade way of bifurcating a simple, un-nuanced world – with “hate.” At the same time, the right – for so long in control of love’s body of rhetoric – seemed to nail it up on a cross of dramatized schoolyard martyrdom: “Fine, we didn’t want it anyway.”
And that is how the right lost love.
Once deprived of love, the right was left, clearly and unambiguously, with anger, and hurt, and resentment. And so, when a firebrand straight-talker emerged as a political leader, even though he spoke about trade and immigration and straight-talking itself, a slice of America heard a strategy for reclaiming its piece of love.
In order to save it, may we redistribute love? Populists and progressives – even traditional conservatives – should agree on this. Love does not need hate to define itself; it only needs love. This Valentine’s Day, let’s decouple them and stop acting like a bunch of third graders.
This Valentine’s day let’s return to multiplication tables and deny division. Let’s just love and let love.