No doubt, sometime in the not too distant future, trump will acquire a distinctive meaning as an eponym. What that meaning will be depends on how the Trump presidency turns out—or, more precisely, on how the public ultimately responds to the crisis that it is.
They say the spoils go to the victor and that history is told from the perspective of the conqueror, not the conquered; so, too, do eponyms bend in the direction of historical reception. If the expurgated version of Shakespeare put forward by Thomas Bowdler had been well-received, then to bowdlerize a text would connote a successful editing and remaking of it, rather than a ruinous alteration and diminishment of it. Someday, we may well bemoan the trumping of American democracy, if our cherished political ideals of liberty, justice and equality are perverted to accommodate corporate interests and religious fundamentalism or reinstate white supremacy, and if the public institutions designed to safeguard women, consumers, workers, the environment, the poor, the elderly, children, immigrants—all of us—are dismantled in the name of libertarianism, narcissism or capricious fiat.
Shakespeare famously asked: what’s in a name? It turns out, an awful lot.
Those protesting Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency often brandished the slogan “love trumps hate” on posters, banners and t-shirts. It did not sit well with me. In using the verb “trump,” it seemed to give power to the name Trump. Obviously, the intent was to communicate that love is a more powerful force than hate and to equate the “hate” side of the slogan with Trump and his racist, sexist, xenophobic, deliberately inflammatory speech. Clever as it was, the insertion of the word trump nonetheless seemed to expand the power of the name Trump, rather than undermine it, simply by its centrality and repetition.
But the prominence of the word or name was not the only thing that chafed. I was also bothered by the precariousness of the claim. It is just not obviously true that love trumps hate.
Though love is at the center of Christian theology, an enormous amount of hateful rhetoric, exploitation, war and death—many styles of crusade over many centuries—have been enacted in the name of Christianity. Racial hatred has often been celebrated and promulgated. Misogyny is prevalent and destroys the lives of many women who offer only love in return for the abuse and denigration they withstand. We say “homophobia”—literally fear of homosexuality—but, often enough, that fear is tangled up with hatred, and that hatred is used precisely to denounce homosexual love.
I am not sure that love trumps hate. I hope that love will triumph, but this hope is a slender thing, and political resistance to the current assault on our ideals and institutions requires something forceful and robust.
The slogan chafes because it is not clear how love can be politically activated, how love can be effectively mobilized to defeat hate. Love has been cast as a feeling, and a rather fickle one at that. Even when love is represented as enduring and selfless, it has usually been reserved as an emotion fit only for the most personal and intimate of our relationships with our spouses, partners, children, parents and closest friends. It is difficult to see how it can be made politically efficacious.
It is this problem—the difficulty of making love into a political reckoning—that was on my mind as I read bell hooks’ All About Love: New Visions. It is convenient to think that this moment of our cultural history, the Trump years, constitutes a new and sudden crisis that calls for a surge in political responsiveness and social consciousness. It is a crisis, but it is not so sudden as it appears to some.
Published in 2000, All About Love speaks to the erosion of the promise of American ideals—already apparent nearly two decades ago. hooks points to the adverse effects of capitalism, patriarchy, racial divisiveness and religious intolerance; and to the commercialism, consumerism, obsession with sex and vapid forms of spirituality that placate us or distract us from our national demise. hooks does not make political reform her straightforward objective in this book, let alone partisan politics; rather, the commentary on the cultural forces that are destroying American communities and draining our lives of opportunity, substance and joy emerges from her examination of the meaning of love.
Her angle is more personal than it is political—the text is geared toward helping individuals learn to love—but we know that the personal is political. And so does hooks.
What is the meaning of love? To define love, hooks insists foremost that love is matter of action, not feeling. hooks defines it by the kind of action it requires: “When we are loving we openly and honestly express care, affection, responsibility, respect, commitment, and trust.”
hooks elaborates on each of these aspects. She draws upon personal experience, related with admirable candor and a wide range of literature to support her observations; her sources include psychology, feminist theory, philosophy and spiritual teachings from various traditions. The delivery is not scholarly or academic. Rather, the aim is to integrate a wide variety of ideas both to reveal the cultural zeitgeist of the late 1990s and to subvert it. hooks writes as one who has weathered sorrow and loss and worked toward liberating insights she wishes to share with others. Her unapologetic cultural criticism is woven into a text proffering a gentle wisdom.
As a feminist, hooks explores the ways in which our socialization into gender norms works as an obstacle to enacting love. Whether or not the feeling of love is present, the expression of love—the actions that are constitutive of love—are thwarted by powerful gender dynamics, especially in heterosexual relationships and in families. Among these is the idea that men are encouraged to receive love—from women—but not taught how to offer or reciprocate it. She observes that masculinity, in our culture, is associated with dominance, not with love.
To be a man is to compete in the world of men—whether that be in sports, business, the arts, the academy or politics. In these worlds, love is not the guiding ethos. By contrast, the lives of women are built around the promise and virtues of love; they are made to become loving wives, mothers, daughters, caretakers. While men pursue their interests and follow their ambitions, women, molded by love, are supposed to find fulfillment in selfless devotion to others.
Viewed in this light, the double-bind that afflicts women who attempt to enter worlds dominated by men is plain: to be real women, they must be loving, but to be real politicians, to take the one case, they must be keyed to competition and domination, not love. To the extent that women succeed at the feminine gender role, they will be deemed inadequate to the masculine tasks of leadership. To the extent that women succeed at the masculine tasks of political leadership, they will be castigated as ugly, unattractive, uppity, not nurturing, bad mothers, unlikeable, cold, selfish, ambitious—not real women at all.
This double bind hounded Hillary Clinton throughout her public life—as First Lady, Senator, Secretary of State and a presidential candidate. When protesters held up their “Love Trumps Hate” posters, they not only made Trump’s name central to their message—they effaced Hillary’s presence and potential.
Where were the posters that said “Hillary is for love,” or “Love Hillary” or, simply: “Hillary, not hate?” These slogans could not be mustered or popularized—because they would have made Hillary’s name more prominent, thereby making her more prominent, and because they advocated love.
The cultural logic in play here really comes down to one and the same thing: To espouse a politics of love is to admit defeat (remember, dominance, not love, is the ethos of politics); and to support a woman as a woman is to admit defeat (remember, real women love, not lead).
I am not saying that the posters or the slogan did all the work in the campaign. It is not an over-simplification; it is a crystallization. I am saying that the slogan and its deployment in protesting Trump’s candidacy for President reveal the public’s deep investment in misogyny.
Even when love was summoned to do political work—“love trumps hate!”—it had to be distanced from the woman whose candidacy was the only real alternative to Trump. “Hillary, not hate” might have been a better representation of what was at stake, but the misogyny at work meant that Clinton was already associated with hate. She was hated.
To support a woman as a woman is to admit defeat. I want to think about that a bit more. So many people asked, prior to the 2016 primaries, whether it wasn’t sexist to vote for Hillary Clinton “because” she is a woman. I want to think about that “because” and how it operates. As soon as a female candidate’s gender is brought up as a possible reason to vote for her, it is treated as suspect.
The idea that supporting a female candidate because she is female, one reason among many, is eclipsed by the reductive phrasing and by the very insistence on asking the question. Now, gender is viewed as the only reason one might support the female candidate. And if gender is the only reason, well—the rhetorical machinery keeps grinding—isn’t that sexist? And isn’t the whole point of feminism not to be sexist?
My blood boiled every time I had to listen to this speciousness— in person, on the radio, on TV, everywhere. Acknowledging that electing women is important to rectifying the longstanding political under-representation of women allows that gender is one reason—and one very valid reason—to support a female candidate. It does not mean that it is the only reason, or that it is sufficient reason, or that it is the most important reason, or that other reasons might not outweigh it.
No one was asking whether voting for Trump was voting for him “because” he is a man. Yet, no doubt, millions of people saw Donald Trump as a viable candidate just because he was a man and the only competition was a woman. (And I do mean “just because.”)
There is no way to do the experiment that would prove the point. We can’t go back in time, and we can’t control the variables. But it is hard to believe that the American public would have voted for a man who lacked military experience, had no record of public service, had never held political office and could barely put together a complete sentence on issues of substance if the competition had not been a woman, but a man, with the same resume as his major opponent.
We can also run the thought experiment a different way: Imagine if Hillary Clinton was running against another woman who had the same resume as Trump. Imagine if her opponent had inherited money, built golf courses, married three times, bragged about adultery and manipulating men—squeezing them, literally, by the balls.Imagine that her opponent was a woman who did all those things and had no military experience or history of public service, had never held office and could barely put together a sentence on an issue of substance. (Not to mention the bad hair.)
In this scenario, Hillary Clinton wins by a landslide. But this scenario is unimaginable. The public would never allow Ms. Trump to become a contender. Gender is sufficient to account for Trump’s win, no matter how many other factors were in play—and there were lots.
Working women all over America know that gender is often sufficient, as we have often worked twice as hard for less pay and half the recognition, and seen our male colleagues promoted above us again and again. We know. But the “because” language is beguiling, and many men and women used it to second-guess their own support of Hillary. Add the media’s perverse insistence about those damn emails, and, well, let’s just go ahead and inaugurate Trump.
Any man is better than the most qualified of women. It is a message that many women have personally heard. It is a reckoning with that many of us have been forced to experience.
Writ large, it devastated us.
But even the above thought experiments about how a female candidate fares in competition with a male miss the larger point. For most of our American history, we elected men “because” they were men—our laws and policies foreclosed political office to women. Even after women had equal opportunity under the law, centuries of patriarchal thinking functioned to limit their political chances.
In 2016, if you said that you were voting for Hillary “because” she is a woman, you were accused of sexism. In truth, to vote for a candidate “because” she is a woman is simply to recognize the legacy of the historical exclusion of women.
It’s not sexist to want to see women represented in positions of leadership. For centuries, men held public positions “because” they were men, and they were happy to lean on that “because” as justification. The difference is that our “because”—the feminist “because”—functions to include, not to exclude; to bring new voices to the forum, not to silence half the population.
The feminist “because” is not ignorant of the history of patriarchy and that masculine “because,” which was a matter of law, policy and grievous sexist tactics. Today, that masculine “because” continues to exert power through denial of its existence and relevance.
Patriarchy, misogyny, the double-bind and the denial of these realities—if the politics of love is associated with the feminine, what hope is there for it? How can love become politically potent under these conditions?
hooks’ discussion of love offers some possibilities. To transform a culture suffering from lovelessness, many of her suggestions focus on the transformation of the self. If individuals gain a deeper understanding of what love is, of how to enact it, of its value, society will be transformed. By seeking to live in accord with the value of love, we will reject patriarchy, racism, consumer culture and violence.
hooks stresses that love requires honesty, but observes that “patriarchy upholds deception,” encouraging men and women to present a “false self” in the quest for the romantic love promised by our culture as the source of fulfillment for women and of emotional support for men. For ordinary people, dishonesty about the self leads to unsatisfying relationships, failed loves. But more than this, hooks claims that “men use lying, and that includes withholding information, as a way to control and subordinate.”
She is thinking here primarily of interpersonal relationships, where dishonesty is a weapon or tool used to sustain patriarchal power over individual women. But the link between love, honesty and power can be extended to the larger forum. As Trump’s reckless speech veers often into lies, and as he continues to audaciously withhold information, we see the chaos and distrust engendered by his dishonesty, and how effectively it consolidates his power.
If love will defeat hate, truth will have to surmount the tidal wave of falseness that threatens to obliterate our national discourse.
Both men and women are liable to dishonesty, yet there is a well-documented gender issue here, too. Women are often discredited as speakers. We are not only interrupted, cut-short, talked over and dismissed—we are disbelieved. And the more our speech challenges the patriarchal status quo, the stronger will be the effort to discredit us. It is one of the ways misogyny operates: When women speak truth to power, we are called liars, and when we produce the evidence to support the truth, we are ignored or called hysterical, or crazy, or bitches.
One of the remarkable things about the #MeToo movement is that it showed the ground shifting in favor of believing women’s claims about sexual harassment and assault. That the shift was discernible goes to show how entrenched was the idea that women could not be trusted to speak truthfully about such experiences.
Sadly, only a few months into the #MeToo movement, the backlash had begun. The same old suspicions of women’s motives were given a new airing. The movement was charged with having gone “too far.”
I bring this up merely as an example of the general phenomenon in which women are disbelieved. If hooks is right that love requires honesty—and if, by extension, a politics of love requires public vigilance with respect to truth-telling—we are going to have to make some progress when it comes to listening to women.
Women have a lot to say, and about far more than their experiences of sex crimes and sexual misconduct. We have a lot to say about healthcare, education, reproductive rights, childcare, eldercare—the facets of American domestic policy that affect us most directly. We also have a lot to say about international diplomacy, environmental policy, economics, the military—about the core values at stake and the policies and laws that promote them.
We need more women in office “because” we need to hear their ideas. For a politics of love to be effective, it cannot discredit half of the population on account of their sex.
hooks is clear that her discussion of love is supposed to have political import. Citing predecessors such as Erich Fromm, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thomas Merton, she writes: “loving practice is not aimed at simply giving an individual greater life satisfaction; it is extolled as the primary way we end domination and oppression.”
Transformations at the personal level can yield sweeping cultural transformations. But how does the politicization of love work?
In addition to practicing honesty, hooks urges that we need to spend more time with people we love, even if it means less time at work and less material success. We need to do work that we love, rather than jobs that we hate. We need to reject consumer culture and the lies it perpetuates—for example, that our happiness depends on buying more stuff. We need to learn to value loving commitment and not treat people like disposable objects. We must reject the mass media that “perpetuates an ethic of domination and violence” and insist upon cultural representations that provoke us to imagine loving community. We need to resist the propaganda of fear that turns us against strangers, against those we don’t yet know. We must fund social services to support others, rather than investing in “violent imperialism.” We must “surrender our attachment to sexist thinking in whatever form it takes in our lives.” We must encourage and enable men to practice love by promoting their involvement in family and childcare. We must be more generous and more forgiving. We must embrace solitude, as it offers a vital opportunity to develop self-knowledge.
Although I find all of these suggestions about the practice of love valuable and worthy, many of them will be slow-moving. Cultivating honesty, generosity and forgiveness; overcoming sexism, breaking habits of consumption and fear—these are all individual achievements that require emotional labor and the time required for emotional growth.
Maybe the tortoise of love can win the race against fast and fiery hate. Maybe.
Encouraging a healthy relationship to solitude in order to be able to engage the self in this love-inspired transformation means turning off the ubiquitous social media that have dramatically reshaped our minds since hooks published her book. I fear that our inner selves have already been co-opted by our hand-held devices. For many people, daily life is experienced as a constant stream of digital commerce—videos, social media, music, games. When most of your daily experience is literally mediated by for-profit media, the idea of communing with oneself may seem quaint. What’s worse, addressing one’s self may feel so alien, so uncomfortable, so frightening that one clings even more tightly to one’s phone. Something as simple as encouraging solitude and self-knowledge starts to seem politically radical.
hooks’ other suggestions about how to make love a personal-cum-political ethos are also radical. Working less in order to devote more time to loving relationships, for example, would require from many middle-class families a radical reorientation of their lives. The decreased family income might mean selling their homes, or foregoing car ownership, or being unable to send a kid to college. These are not easy sacrifices. But perhaps if we supported affordable housing, public transportation and free college tuition, such sacrifices would be lessened. Perhaps such “progressive” ideas could be re-packaged as part the politics of love. Hate traffic? Love Trains! Hate student loans? Love free college tuition! Hate your mortgage? Love community housing!
Still others of hooks’ ideas would require masses of people to stop consuming popular culture since it perpetuates images at odds with the politics of love. Another hard sell. Hollywood continues to churn out depictions of an apocalyptic future in which good can only overcome evil through the intervention of superheroes and high-stakes, high-tech warfare. The American public seems hooked on these extremely masculinist and violent images of how good can be achieved. (Even the female superheroes typically work in the same destructive modes, within the same narrative assumptions.) By contrast, our collective appetite for stories of community, creativity, peace and cooperation is weak.
If the politics of love is to take root, we will need not only to spurn these absurd fantasies of triumphant violence but to generate compelling counter-narratives of international diplomacy and domestic goodwill—enacted by men and women using realistic, achievable methods. A recent, real-world drama provides a push in the right direction: The rescue of twelve boys and their soccer coach from a cave in Thailand required an enormous cooperative, international effort. Imagine if we humans applied such a spirit of resolve and cooperation to addressing global poverty, climate change, sexism, racism and healthcare! The politics of love will have to ignite our imaginations along these lines.
As hooks notes, love and compassion are facilitated by understanding others. If love is most naturally a part of our most intimate and personal relationships, it is because we usually know best the people closest to us. To extend our loving concern to others who are unfamiliar or culturally distant, we will need to acquire understanding through a long-term educational investment.
To counteract the culture of fear that prevents us from loving others—of different races, ethnicities, religions, national origins—we should insist on a more comprehensive educational curriculum that includes exposure to different cultural histories, languages, religions and ethnicities. This should not be “elective.” It should be a vital part of our educational system, beginning in elementary school and continuing into post-graduate work. The future of our polity necessitates that our citizens be educated to accept our own national diversity and prepared to participate intelligently in the global transactions that frame economic, political and environmental policy.
It looks like hooks’ ideas about love might be recruited to political ends—both in the actions of individuals and in public policy and cultural production. Clearly, the effort required to mount a successful politics of love is enormous. If hooks is right that in our culture love has primarily been associated with women—their emotional labor, aspirations and work in caregiving jobs—then mounting a politics of love is a doubly challenging task.
We have to get love into politics—and we have to get women into politics.
This brings me back to Hillary Clinton. In a January 2016, campaign-season interview with BuzzFeed News, she summed up her life’s work as being “about love and kindness” while Trump fomented fear of immigrants, racial hatred and sexism. During that campaign and in many before it, a woman who had been a public servant for decades was portrayed as selfish, ambitious, untrustable—and a man whose whole life had been a vulgar display of self-serving greed and ego was widely lauded, or at least not utterly denounced.
Yes, there was something deplorable going on. If the 2016 Presidential election was a test of American political sensibilities, it showed that we were not ready for a radical politics of love. But seeing the alternative—a politics of fear, greed, and hate—may reset the dial.
I hope that soon trump will come to mean “to fall into disgrace due to shameless ignorance and egotism.” hooks believes a politics of love is not only possible, but “crucial to our survival as a nation.” I hope that we, as a nation, have the courage to enact it.