There was a time, in a white-dominated, male-regulated, tone-deaf, Protestant version of America, when “love” was patient and kind, not envious, boastful or proud. It did not dishonor others, self-seek. It was not easily angered and kept no record of wrongs. Love, in those days, did not delight in evil, but rejoiced in truth. Love, the objects of power were told in Bible study classes, “always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
That America was a myth, a whitewashed ignorance to myriad other kinds of love.
For a narrow swath of the American population with outsized power, those who were lucky enough to know this brand of love, it was controlled as much like a commodity as it was the basis of civilization. When traded, like wheat or oil, among this band of love-rich mercantilists, its value was known and relatively constant — codified as it was in the letters of St. Paul to the Corinthians during the first century. Love was, to the systemic power structure, unchanged; it undergirded families, neighborliness, and faith.
It was placed and maintained within a black and white dialectic: its foil was constructed with hatred. The absence of love — even if denied to a group — became hate. It made for an easy paradigm to preserve.
That love, however, was off limits in its purest form for many people in America. It was lorded over, a treasure in certain hearts, open only to the closed club of other authorized lovers. It was sometimes granted as crumbs to those who weren’t entitled to enjoy their own wedding cakes; it was celebrated by broom-jumping and closet-organizing. Institutional manifestations of love, like marriage, adoptions and cotillions, were denied behind crusty placebos like separate-but-equal and demagogued congressional acts. When full enfranchisement in love’s bounties seemed within reach, Jim Crow and SCOTUS stepped in. As recently as 1967, the definition of love in America maintained the black and white boundaries that had been ensconced in archaic, racist laws. In 1967, Loving v. Virginia placed a prism upon the stark line of love’s body. In 2015, Obergefell used the same prism and laid claim to love’s booty. No longer was the love between black and white Americans off-limits. No longer loved among men a disease to be healed.
In the 60 years since Loving, as America has become more inclusive, so too has the singularity of love’s definition been shattered. Love has become more accessible even as the meaning of love — the ownership of love — has changed hands. Love has been transformed by the market, estranged from simple human interactions and played out as theater. At best, love in 2017 is a fiduciary exchange. At worst, it is a cynical swapping of meaningless spittle. Sandwiched in between, optimists might hope, there is a subdued, “maybe.”
Much of this love transformation is a sign of the times, a signal that a singular god has passed and that his only begotten son is but one of many daughters and sons and brothers and mothers and fathers who’ve sacrificed for others. As we have opened up the opportunity to more diverse groups within the American experience — as we’ve tinted it with browns and rainbows — so too have we accessorized love with the fables and dreams of others whose voices and kisses have screamed out for equality. Along the way, love has taken on new meanings and has become empowered in a technologically dynamic, increasingly borderless, post-WASP world. Witness love’s transformations.
Love has become a political term. In its drive to wrest power from the ensconced power structure, love has been claimed by activists as a symbol of freedom. Love, once shared among lovers in churches, at dinner tables and in bedrooms, now finds itself a rhetorical tool used to protest for visibility. Love is not merely personal anymore. It’s cloaked in red, white and blue on bumper stickers and invoked by activists who have evacuated the word love of its singularity as an interpersonal experience. It’s become a rallying cry, mixed with marches and lunch counters indiscriminately like salt and pepper upon something that should sate all on its own. While the outcome has been to expand access to love, the publicity of the word seems to have come at the expense of the actual expression — or feeling — of love. While it gets plenty of lip service, it is infused of late with more anger and less kindness.
Love is no longer the opposite of hate. Instead, it is the opposite of indifference. Love/hate might have been an easy binary to maintain in 1967, fresh out of war and having been met with a world in which an East versus West dichotomy also was emerging and about which straight white men could argue with other white men about pittances like charity, daily bread and safety nets. Soon, as voices across the unbounded prism colored that discussion, the nuances between hatred and indifference became more clear. Yet battles remained to be fought within America. Called to action, fighters for love-the-opposite-of-indifference challenged the status quo. Nothing could be worse than not caring, not acting. The battle for the rights to be fully equal meant visibility and unambiguous enfranchisement — not simply between two people — but in the village of lovers. Of course, without a stark opposite in hatred, love became more nuanced as well: a natural evolution expedited by love-infused discourse: freed intercourse.
The meaning of hate has changed. Since indifference displaced hate, our collective perception of hate has been conflated with indifference because of the shifting norms around the definition of love. Thus, activists use the rhetoric of hate interchangeably with indifference. Doing this dismisses the evil behind hatred. In 2017, it is equally “hateful” to not vote as it is to murder. Speech is viewed as equal to violence. Although technology has affected the sinister power of words to express hatred, it can at best merely incite violence. The link between speech and violence is real, but the two are not synonymous. While the metaphoric value can’t be discounted, the actual mixing of these two words dilutes both and further distances love from its originalist meaning. Thus, in 2017, we find ourselves talking about love and hate instead of actively practicing one and resisting the other.
Love means different things to different people. And so what is that meaning? Is there hope for love to complete a loop and reconnect with St. Paul’s definition? Or, in truly poetic American fashion, can the leavens of secular proclamations of love further enrich our understanding of a word, “love,” with arisen poetics? Can diverse groups arrive at their own specific versions of what had previously seemed universal? Every culture in the world has love, and every culture has expressions that capture the spirit of what love is:
“Radiate boundless love towards the entire world—above, below, and across—unhindered, without ill will, without enmity.”
— The Buddha
“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”
“When one is in love, a cliff becomes a meadow.”
— Ethiopian proverb
“I am grateful to have been loved and to be loved now and to be able to love, because that liberates. Love liberates. It doesn’t just hold — that’s ego. Love liberates. It doesn’t bind. Love says, ‘I love you. I love you if you’re in China. I love you if you’re across town. I love you if you’re in Harlem. I love you. I would like to be near you. I’d like to have your arms around me. I’d like to hear your voice in my ear. But that’s not possible now, so I love you. Go.’”
— Maya Angelou
And, so, maybe the lamentations of love’s passing are overbaked. Perhaps love becomes better — not merely different — in its appropriation. We aren’t living in 1967 — nor 1867 nor 1997 for that matter — anymore, after all. Maybe our conception of love is a potent solution to our politics, not merely a withering misperception of them. Maybe we achieve a more universal spirit of love, infused with kindred spirits across time and across cultures. Maybe we had to follow host through the desert of love’s isolation from St. Paul to Obergefell. Maybe love hasn’t changed so much after all.
Maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda and the bumper stickers are right: Love is love is, simply, love.
info: Jason Leclerc is a poet, blogger, film-maker and political columnist and is the author of “Momentitiousness.” Learn more about him at momentitiousness.com.