Columns / Discourse / September 30, 2015

The politics of love

“What is it that you crave to hear?” she asked me. We were having a philosophical conversation in a coffee shop just outside the San Telmo marketplace in Buenos Aires. A few minutes before, a musician had come in with an oboe and everyone in the restaurant stopped their chatter to listen. After this interlude, during which a middle-aged couple got up and did a short tango dance between the tables, the oboist walked around and passed his hat. I didn’t give him anything; I had given 10 pesos to a guitar player from Brazil on the city bus a day ago.

This is how busking works in Argentina, where those of us in the Knox Buenos Aires program have been for the last month or so. The college may be right that study abroad is the best decision you can make here; the amount of care that you receive on the Buenos Aires program is probably five times greater than a regular term at Knox, but for practically the same amount of money.

(And now, I sit back and wait for my check from the Stellyes Center).

In the coffee shop, I had been talking with Iliana, a friend I met last January through my youth climate justice network. She was about to leave Buenos Aires after having stayed in Argentina for several months, doing a different study abroad program.

I had shared with her a moment from an organizing workshop I attended a month ago in Philadelphia at the U.S. Social Forum that Ricardo Levins Morales led. (I have the audio from the workshop, and can send it to anyone who is interested). One of the things Levins Morales talked about was the importance of truth-telling in social justice work. He said, “storytelling is telling people what you want them to hear, so they’ll do what you want them to do. Truth-telling is knowing what people crave to hear, so you can set them on fire.”

I was strongly influenced by the workshop as a whole. When I shared that particular moment with Iliana, she asked me: “What is it that you crave to hear?”

I’m still working on the answer.

I believe that a politics and philosophy of love is one of the things I crave to hear the most. Perhaps this springs from the time in my life when, recovering from severe depression, I read the works of spiritual authors like Mikhail Naimy, Byron Katie and Paul Ferrini as I came home to a more stable and self-loving place inside myself.

At a certain point, however, my growth process closed off. I later found it very hard to share that kind of dynamic of energy with my close friends and family; I also found it difficult to bring it into my political organizing.

I think that is a very important task. I can recall the first time I saw the Cornel West quotation that “justice is what love looks like in public.” To be truthful, I was a little confused by that quotation when I saw it. Later on, however, I read bell hooks’ essay “Love as the Practice of Freedom” in which she wrote “without an ethic of love shaping the direction of our political vision and our radical aspirations, we are often seduced, in one way or the other, into continued allegiance to systems of domination.”

I’ve always been impressed by bell hooks’ candid memories of the times in her personal life that gave her a bearing on the world around her. Her style of writing stands out to me as a very honest one — one that makes space both for public compassion and truth-telling.

My desire to think, talk and hear more about love in my organizing comes from my desire, as Henry David Thoreau said, “to strike at the root of evil rather than to hack at its branches.”

Often, the things that we fight come in through the back door and cause us to fight ourselves. Sometimes this self-fighting looks like activism that focuses more on getting other people to change their language habits than on inviting them to join transformative projects for change.

Catalyst Project, an Oakland-based organization based on resistance to white supremacy as an essential strategy in organizing for a democratic society, is an example of inspiring work being done to shift to a more powerful and love-oriented way of organizing. I have learned a great deal from reading their online literature collection – their focus, incidentally, is on moving white people toward sound anti-racist action.

There is always a temptation to think of love as a Band-Aid rather than a healing process or a revolutionary catalyst.

“People should love each other more” is one example of Band-Aid thinking. Asking people to be more love-oriented before we listen to them is another example of Band-Aid thinking. Opening to love is a process that begins with acknowledging the existence of deep wounds, which is never comfortable. It’s in confronting the things that we least wish to confront that we will experience the most change – if we are ready for it.

Leland Wright

Tags:  bell hooks buenas aires columnist Leland Wright politics u.s. social forum

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