Sarah Pessin

America’s Love Problem: How Oprah’s Call to Friendship Feeds Bannon’s Call to Racism (or: On Three Strains of Liberal Lovesickness)

Love and Politics, Symposia

We have a call to responsibility regardless of whether you love or respect or agree with or feel in any way comfortable with your neighbor. It is the call to protect your neighbor even if you hate her.

We live in the grips of an American love politics in which our civic goal is tacitly understood as striving for love, and in which striving for love is tacitly understood as striving for philia (i.e. friendship, or perhaps even the familial affection of storge). In spite of Martin Luther King Jr.’s insightful expression of relief that God has asked him to love (in the agapic Christian sense) his neighbor, not to like (i.e. become friends with) her, American liberalism has managed not only to tacitly set a theological goalpost (“love thy neighbor”) as a civic strategy, but has further mistaken agapic love with like: Among those on the left, there is a civic mood of “hoping that we can all become friends.” This “philiac hope” for friendship is problematic (because tacitly theological) and impractical (because overtly ineffective); it is also dangerous in its ability to increase hatred up to and including violence. Our love politics is, in other words, sick; what we have on our hands is a lovesick politics. And it comes in three liberal strains.

Lovesickness on the Left: Oprah’s Call to Friendship

The widespread liberal civic desire to love everyone—in the philiac form of hoping to be friends with everyone—can be seen in Oprah Winfrey’s 60 Minutes follow-up to a Fall 2017 conversation among 7 Americans who voted for Trump and 7 who voted against him. Winfrey describes what led to the follow-up episode:

…Members from opposite sides of the divide actually became friends, organizing outings and talking every day in a private Facebook chat group.  All of that made us want to go back.

Throughout the segment, including towards the end when participants reflect on what they had gained from the experience, one finds intertwined positive themes: Deep hope associated with the possibility of understanding one another—up to and including Winfrey’s own framing emphasis on the possibility of actually becoming friends.

There are, however, at least 3 ways that such a love politics can lead to violence. In what follows, I identify each as a strain of liberal lovesickness.

1) Strain 1: Same-Making as Virus, or: Keep Talking Till We Agree (with Me); “Be My Friend” as Hidden Civic Allergy to Difference

In our various tacit and overt calls to love one another, we dangerously (even if unwittingly) cultivate an environment in which we are not well practiced at sitting with civic discomfort. Focusing only on current neighbors (“fellow Americans”) for the moment (and leaving aside a host of further ethical questions about who does/not get to become our neighbor in the first place—including critical questions about how to include more immigrants and fewer neo-Nazis within the overall parameters of a properly functioning, agonistic American democracy), a desire to befriend the neighbor is often linked to a desire to understand the Other. But as Levinas emphasizes in his critique of same-making as a totalizing allergy to difference (e.g. Totality and Infinity, 47, et al.), this quest to know my neighbor conceals a consumptive desire to make my neighbor into myself, to assure myself that the Other is “just like me” or at least enough like me to make me comfortable. In its unifying and same-making desire, liberal philiac hope at once hides and cultivates an allergy to difference. But that kind of allergy can inadvertently foster violent ends: Linked to universalizing forces (e.g. the goal of keeping religious attitudes and garb “private” and out of the “public” sphere, as one finds in many Rawlsian and Habermasian contexts), liberal philiac hope invites violence in two ways: (1) it makes of the liberal hoper a totalizing silencer of difference (as per Levinas), and (2) it can also foster resentment, up to and including violence, in neighbors who don’t appreciate having their differences filtered out of the civic square (as per Mouffe’s Agonistics, e.g. 121).

Here, lovesickness is the malady of consumptive, imperialistic same-making which starves our capacity for true receptivity and allows minoritized Others to be silently silenced. Of the three strains of lovesickness on the left, this is the one most analogous to a virus which directly infects.

2) Strain 2: Idealization & Abstraction as Immuno-Suppression, or: Where Hitlerism Rushes In

Philiac hope is also too idealistic for the civic playing field. Whatever the value (and to be sure, there is value) in friendship at the interpersonal level (and, if one is so inclined, at the theological level), it is not a good civic strategy. We can either say that the friendship bar is too high to qualify as a foundation for our messy engagement with people living radically different forms of life, or (relatedly) we can say that such a bar is too abstract: In his essay on the Philosophy of Hitlerism, Levinas worries that liberalism’s overly disembodied (ideal, abstract) tendencies can so starve people’s need for embodied motivation as to pave the way for fascisms which eagerly step in to nourish that need through racist calls to blood and soil. As he hauntingly notes, in such a context “if race does not exist, one has to invent it” (69).

Applying this insight, we might note that while it is true that enemies often can and do become friends, pinning our civic hopes on that is too dangerously dismissive of embodied negative feelings of disrespect and discomfort (and even hate). Abstract, disembodied calls for Trump supporters and opponents to become friends are dangerous (qua civic strategy) because they insist on denying our embodied negative moods. And ironically this kind of denial can tend to open—not close—the door to racism (an illustration of what we will see below is Levinas’ further insight that embodied logic does not tend to generate the expected outcomes of abstract, idealized thought—including, we might add, abstract, idealized hope).

Hoping that we become friends—including aiming to deny deep agonism—as part of a civic strategy is not only measurably impractical, but (in spite of its best intentions) can—because of its over-idealized, disembodied (indeed, body-denying) approach—help open a door to more hatred up to and including the use of violent force. In this regard, we need to think more about how to cultivate non-violent civic outcomes in light (not in spite) of embodied negativity. This will undoubtedly involve something absent in a liberal politics of consensus-seeking, viz. the agonistic political acknowledgment that uncomfortable struggle with my neighbors will always be part of the equation in a pluralist democracy.

Here, lovesickness is the malady of daydreaming of the Messiah while Bannon inspires your neighbors to wear their racism as a badge of honor (a point to which we will return). As compared with the first strain of liberal lovesickness, this lovesickness is less like a virus that directly infects and is more like an anemic or immuno-suppressive ailment which disposes the body to infection by diseases from outside.

3) Strain 3: Liberal Exposure to Racist Degradation as Untreated Cell Hijacked by Cancer, or: On the Limits of the Logic of “Love and Protect”

Another way that liberal love politics opens the door to increased violence is by cultivating a civic logic of “love and protect.” In the grips of philiac hope, this takes the specific form of “I am civically called to protect the ones I like,” or (relatedly) “I protect the ones with whom I agree—or with whom I could at least come to agree.”

The logic of love and protect cultivates violence in ways directly related to the problems of same-making and idealization above. Furthermore, when the logic of love and protect is deployed within a racist context, it can actually manifest as the embodied mood of “If I don’t like you, I don’t have to protect you” up to and including the embodied mood of “If I don’t like you, I can kill you.”

While the first strain of lovesickness acts like an infection straightforwardly, and while the second strain creates a hospitable environment for infection (even acting as a vacuum that encourages infection to rush in), this last strain is the equivalent of the untreated (unfortified, unmedicated) cell in an already infected, cancerous context. Left untreated, a cell in a cancerous context can, in spite of its own structures (and in spite of its own goal of health), be hijacked and perverted by cancer and can in this way help cancer grow. To better see how this analogy describes liberalism’s logic of love and protect in its American context, we will need to turn to racism on the far right.

Cancer on the Right: Bannon’s Call to Racism

Directly and plainly opening the door to increased hatred and violence, Bannon recently issued a call to embrace the charge of racism as a badge of honor. On our sickness analogy, racism is a vile cancer. And while to be sure (1) racism is a cancer that needs uprooting, and (2) liberals (at least current day ones) are actively invested in that uprooting, it is important to nonetheless emphasize that (3) liberals have to recognize the role of their own love politics in helping that cancer strengthen and spread: Not only can liberal love politics (like an immuno-suppressive disease) unwittingly clear a path for that cancer to take hold, but its logic of love and protect can—within the petri dish of American racism—actually strengthen and grow the very cancer that it aims to destroy. In particular, the logic of love and protect can, within a racist thought-regime, actually degrade into (and in this way, cultivate more) racism by turning, in the heart of the racist, into the embodied feeling that “if I don’t care for you, I am not civically responsible for you.” While Bannon’s call to racism might appear a simple rejection of the liberal (and we might add, religious) logic of love and protect, it is not. We ought, on the contrary, diagnose Bannon’s racism as stemming from, feeding upon, and further cultivating a degraded form of that very logic.

Here we are well instructed to take guidance from Levinas’ reminder that embodied moods do not follow formal rules: Sharply contrasting embodiment (and its enjoyment, labor, dwelling, and desires) with a range of formal, idealist, and ontological abstractions, Levinas identifies embodiment as the site of concrete paradoxes, starting (e.g. at Totality and Infinity, 116) with the body’s being at once independent of and dependent upon its surroundings. As site of paradox, embodiment—the daily reminder that formal solutions will often not play out without illogical remainders—can break formal rules. Sometimes, as with the example of body’s simultaneous in/dependences, this signals the grounds for life. But sometimes this signals the grounds for death: Under the sway of racism, embodiment can not only degrade logic, but can do so with a visceral conviction that defies logic with a torch.

It is in this sense that a logic of love and protect can (in spite of its best intentions) feed Bannon’s call to racism. In an illogical manifestation not simply of embodiment but of sick embodiment, the racist body manifests the classic fallacy of “denying the antecedent,” taking in the conditional logic of Love →Protect (“If I like you, then I take it as my civic responsibility to protect you”) and illogically moving to ¬Love →¬Protect (“If I don’t like you, I don’t have to protect you” up to and including “I don’t like you, so I am justified in killing you”). In sick embodiment, the racist transforms a politics of love into the visceral, motivating feeling that he is only responsible for the ones he likes (and is like). Under the sway of Bannon’s call to racism (to mention just one of many overt and tacit calls to racism in contemporary American politics), an abstract love politics can not only increase feelings of hatred but can motivate annihilatory forces of expansion that erupt as violence.

Here, the primary malady is the cancer of racism. But in that context the third strain of liberal lovesickness emerges as an ailment in need of equally urgent treatment. Liberals need to acknowledge that within a racist American context, their call to love and protect easily degrades into the embodied, motivating mood that we are not responsible—and are justified in not feeling responsible—for neighbors we don’t like. And while this degradation specifically takes place within a racist context on the far right, once incubated, the violence can spread on both the right and the left.

To be sure, racists ought to be held accountable for their racism. But those of us (on the right and left) operating with a love politics of philiac hope need to recognize that we are unintentionally contributing to that cancer’s spread. In a cancerous context, we need to fortify our politics, and the logic of love and protect is precisely not the way to do it.

A Starting Word on The Cure: Responsibility, not Love or Friendship

The cure for liberal lovesick politics—and with it, the promise of release from both its direct totalizing tendencies as well as its indirect tendencies to cultivate and feed racism—comes in the form of a Levinasian politics rooted in responsibility, not love. What we need, in other words, is a call to protect your neighbor even if you never become friends with (and even if you hate) her. While the racist ignores responsibility by preaching hatred, the liberal—in her deep desire for love and friendship—can not only (in spite of her best intentions) function as a dual site of totalizing (its own form of violence) and disembodied idealizing (an invitation to racist violence to rush in), but can also wind up feeding the racist’s own violent sense that he is not civically responsible for neighbors with whom he is not friends. In our various lovesick politics, we are failing—in our varying right and left civic discourses, and in our varying denominational religious contexts—to robustly inspire paths for thinking and feeling our way directly from “I don’t like you” (and even: “I hate you”) to “I am called in responsibility (as an American citizen and/or as a human and/or in some other capacity) to protect you anyway.”

We need in this spirit to think more about the mood required for a functioning agonistic democracy (as I have tried to start to do in my “From Mystery to Laughter to Trembling Generosity”). And we need, in like spirit, to create wider and deeper repositories of civic (and religious) discourses to help us move directly from not liking our neighbors to being responsible for them, without the civic hope or goal of first becoming friends. I don’t need to be your friend in order to be responsible for you; I am responsible for you in virtue of your being my Other, period. Civics works better when responsibility is decoupled from the philiac hope for friendship. Indeed, it is precisely in this spirit that Connolly (e.g. in Identity/Difference [1991] and Why I am Not a Secularist [1999]) calls us to “agonistic respect,” not love or friendship; and it is arguably also in this spirit that Levinas (e.g. in “The Ego and the Totality” [1954]) reflects on the absolute lack of fit between love and the goal of justice in a civic space: While love is a bountiful opening between “the two” (lovers, friends, parents and children, etc.), it is not the kind of relation that can ground a socio-politics; in soldering a space of two, love is unqualified to open us onto the space of the third.

America’s lovesick politics is killing us. The first step is admitting we have a problem. The second step is looking to responsibility for a cure.

Love and Politics

Symposium Essays

Andrew Vink

Can Neoliberalism Allow for Love?

In a world where the market is the foundation, can there be love in politics?

Monica Miller
Christopher Driscoll

Complicating Love with Kendrick Lamar & Cardi B

If we are to attend to, much less celebrate, the difference between the who and the what – as we hope to do in our work – then love may be more trouble than its worth.

Sean Hannan

Love and Violence in Augustine and Arendt

How can community be grounded, if neither in force nor in love? To find out, we must reckon with Arendt’s reading of Augustine, for whom love and force were intimately intertwined.

America’s Love Problem: How Oprah’s Call to Friendship Feeds Bannon’s Call to Racism (or: On Three Strains of Liberal Lovesickness)

We have a call to responsibility regardless of whether you love or respect or agree with or feel in any way comfortable with your neighbor. It is the call to protect your neighbor even if you hate her.

Elaine Padilla

In the Belly of the Colony

Is this nation ultimately facing a precipice of desoulation? Or could this also be the dark abyss out of which to ensoul itself rather than to continue erecting the towers of indignity that proudly shadow its border-history?

2 thoughts on “America’s Love Problem: How Oprah’s Call to Friendship Feeds Bannon’s Call to Racism (or: On Three Strains of Liberal Lovesickness)

  1. Interesting thoughts, but how to you translate the call to love of enemy into a call to skip relationship but acknowledge responsibility? The current advocates of incivility would seem to subscribe to the “love and protect” model, which psychology does tell us reflects the shadow side of empathy, and I suspect your call to responsibility is based not in any sense of love but in the presence of imago dei in my Other.

    It’s true you cannot practically be in relationship with everyone you oppose. But it’s also true for me as a Christian that Christ called us to enemy love, without ever excusing us from it if our enemy was our oppressor or privileged in our systems.

    Responsibility is a good end, but how does enemy love fit in your prescriptive framework?

  2. Thank you for this! My sense of responsibility comes from a Levinasian framework and is a sense of obligation that exceeds even most frameworks of imago dei (although I agree with your sense that imago dei brings with it a less philiac sensibility). It is a starting sense of obligation that informs (and as such precedes) relationships. But yes, in my longer work on this, I am working through how this kind of mood can function as an actual site of motivation and action for civic relationship with neighbors.

    As for love of enemy- a few starting thoughts:
    The line from Martin Luther King Jr. about loving not liking that I invoke in the opening lines–he actually makes that claim in the context of reflecting on ‘love your enemy’, so I am blending neighbor and enemy together. And I would say I am blending those together for this reason:
    Within an agonistic mindset, there is value in thinking through civic solutions with a sense of ‘my neighbors’ that views them more in terms of ‘enemies’ and less in terms of ‘friends’; part of the problem is that our current American civic models are so deeply informed by a range of universalist tendencies (related to love and friendship) that it is hard to even state this in clear terms such that a reader would not say ‘Yikes- is she urging me to hate my neighbor?’; I am not; but within an agonistic thought-space, I am urging us to recognize that there is a violence in always seeing your neighbors as ‘kind of like me’ (and I don’t necessarily literally mean your next-door-neighbor, but your civic neighbors within the country, up to and possibly including your next-door-neighbor); your neighbors carry deep differences from you (think even of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, etc.); a litmus test for whether one is erasing that difference (and instead constantly viewing everyone in terms of yourself) is if one has no feelings of deep discomfort with one’s neighbors at all. That is a fine sign that one has never actually been receptive to the real reality of one’s neighbors and has instead been in relationship with, well, oneself… So only in this sense, I am saying that it is a good thing to feel some of the kind of discomfort in the civic space (i.e. ‘with one’s neighbors’) that one might more readily identify with the feeling one has around enemies than with the feeling one has around friends.

    *
    I would add that much more must be said about how (a) in my emphasis on enemy over friend, I am *not* aligned with Schmitt (too long to get into here, but a key part of my project), and (b) I am not advocating a civic space in which we are AOK with hate speech, racism, or other ‘enemy’ behavior of [some of our] neighbors–there is, in other words, a strong limit on how the responsibility I am calling for works in a civic space (or in other words: there are different kinds of enemies), and my larger project addresses these limits.
    *
    Lastly, I would strongly value the opportunity to be in dialogue with you (and others!) about Christian love, in this sense: As a Christian, do you take the lived experience of love to be the same or different in each of the following three cases: I love my friend, I love my neighbor, I love my enemy; separate from (though related to) the theological underpinnings, does that love ‘feel’ the same, and if not, what are the different ways they feel? (This is importantly related to my project, and because I am not Christian (and because I believe that this is a phenomenological matter to which I do not have direct access and regarding which more study will not answer my question), I will benefit tremendously from anyone willing to talk about this with me).

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