PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
VALENTINE’S DAY TAUGHT POLITICAL LESSONS
The other day I was trying to write a column about the American appointed to sell off Iraq's state-owned enterprises at bargain prices. But the darn column just wouldn't come together.
Eventually, I realized the problem. Here I was, writing about just another political outrage. But it wasn't just another ordinary day. It was Valentine's Day. So I gave myself a little personality inventory. You can take it too. Only three questions:
1. Which would you enjoy thinking about more?
a. The latest outrage perpetrated by your government
b. Your most cherished memory of a moment of romantic love
2. How many articles have you read in the last month about outrages perpetrated by your government?
3. How many articles have you read in the last month about the joys and heartbreaks of romantic love?
Now compare yourself to the latest research findings. This inventory was administered to a national sampling of news-conscious progressive citizens, people like you who read sites like commondreams.org regularly. On question 1, 89% answered b. They would rather think about a cherished romantic moment than Bush's lies or Haliburton's cheating or the one out of five American children in poverty.
Yet the average number of articles on government outrages in the last month was a whopping 27.4. The average number of articles on romantic love was a paltry 4.1.
Well, I'm just kidding. There wasn't any such research. I made up the numbers. But I bet you found them quite believable. We usually don't read about what makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside. We read about what makes us feel pissed off.
OK, I know. You are politically aware and responsible. You could be reading Psychology Today or Dr. Ruth. But you can't read everything. And it's more important, you say, to read The Nation and The Progressive and commondreams.org. Yet you probably admitted, in question 1, that you would rather focus on your love life, if you had the choice.
So why is there this disconnect between love and politics? Why don't The Nation and The Progressive and commondreams.org regularly give us thoughtful explorations of a subject that most of us find indispensable, and often central, in our lives?
You might say, "They are political. Romance is outside their subject area." But that only tells us how narrow and constricted our idea of politics has become. The American Left has moved toward a politics of indignation only, a politics that can hardly see beyond combating the latest evil done in our name with our tax dollars.
Politics and personal love were once much more closely conjoined. In that mythical time we call "the '60s," politics was about creating a new kind of world. The same vision of a better life we get in the arms of a lover was supposed to be carried over into our collective efforts to make a better life for all. The personal was political, and vice versa. Valentine's Day was just as political as May Day or the 4th of July.
Then something happened. Maybe it began during the Reagan presidency, which brought so much that was so outrageous. It seemed like we had to fight as hard as we could just to keep political life from slipping over the edge into total insanity. It didn't get much better after that. And of course, the George W. administration has given us more than ever to fight against.
But few of us oldsters have forgotten the vision of communal love that once inspired us. And many of those too young to remember "the '60s" still get it, intuitively. None of my columns of righteous indignation ever got as much response as one I wrote months ago about the radical joy of taking a walk. I wrote: "What makes us truly human is our ability to imagine, to feel beauty, to take pleasure, to love. We could create a society where most of the moments of everyone's life are filled with joy, not anxiety. Carefree joy would be the norm because life would be all about imagining, loving, feeling beauty, and taking pleasure. Every social institution would aim to promote and enhance those most basic human experiences."
If you are lucky, you spent Valentine's Day with someone who reminded you that love is the most basic experience, the one we cherish above all others. Most of us are politically engaged because we want a world where everyone can love to the fullest. To get there, we need plenty of outrage. But lately, it seems, the outrage is getting out of hand. It is filling the Left too often with harsh and brittle feelings, leaving too little room for the softness of love. That's what I finally remembered on V-Day.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the best we ever had when it came to expressing our righteous indignation. But he loved most to talk about love. He loved to explain that the Greeks had three words for it: eros, or romantic physical love; philia, the love of friends; and agape, the self-sacrificing love that gives all to others.
As a good Christian, Dr. King praised agape above all. But he certainly knew the joys of eros, and of philia as well. In the "beloved community" he called us to create, these three kinds of love would work together. Their synergy would be the wellspring of political life.
Dr. King is gone. But his values and vision can live on -- if we take good care of them. So I'll be back next week, to vent some indignation about the U.S. economic pillage of Iraq. But between now and then, I hope you will spend some time reading and talking and thinking about the joys of love. Maybe you can even bundle up, take a radical walk with someone sweet, and share the political and personal joys of love. No need to wait a whole year for another Valentine's Day.
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