“Dear MoveOn Member,” began an e-mail sent out by the progressive PAC the evening of Kerry’s concession, “we’ll admit to being heartbroken by the outcome of yesterday’s election.”
By the time I got MoveOn.org‘s message, I’d gotten scores of others, and they generally read like this: “My heart aches,” “This feels like a breakup,” “I’m utterly broken-hearted,” “I don’t remember feeling like this since my wife left me” and (my favorite), “The atmosphere in my office today feels like everyone was dumped on the way into work.”
Politics is frequently characterized as a science or an art, or even a game, but seldom as a love affair–so why, in the aftermath of last week’s elections, did so many progressives turn to the metaphor of heartbreak? One possible explanation is that “heartbreaking” and all of its various iterations were just synonyms selected at random from the universe of equally morose adjectives: miserable, wretched, despairing, depressed, abject, inconsolable.
I don’t think that’s it, though; I think our use of the language of heartbreak was deliberate, and suggestive. Most of us who are old enough to vote are also old enough to have had our hearts broken, and so we know whereof we speak. We are familiar with the emotional progression: the shock, the disbelief, the deep and disorienting anguish of an anticipated future falling away. We recognize the particular way that heartbreak, for all its immensity, inheres in minutiae–in a T-shirt, a voice mail, a notation on a calendar. We know that it will look in on us while we are brushing our teeth or going for a run or trying to read before sleep (or not sleeping at all, insomniac); that if it seems to abate briefly it will return just as fast, dropping a dark scrim over our day.
So we progressives are heartbroken, metaphorically. The function of a metaphor is to explain one thing in terms of another thing–typically, to clarify an abstract concept by comparing it to something concrete. So what are we to learn about our politics from our sudden resort to the metaphor of heartbreak?
First, there is this: Despite all the “Anybody But Bush” rhetoric, this election was not just about the left’s abhorrence of George Bush. (If there is a potential causal relationship between hatred and heartbreak, it is that the latter can lead to the former, not vice versa.) Nor was this election about our love for John Kerry, heaven knows, although many of us believed that he would be an honest and able leader.
What we loved, of course, was our country. And not just loved it, as it turned out: loved it desperately, to the point of heartbreak. Not that you would have known this from the language used by the left before the election. For a long time now, progressives, myself included, have been afraid of the language of love of country, for a number of pretty decent reasons.
First, we choose not to forget that many of the things we love most about our country–its liberty and bounty, for example–were won at the expense of other people’s liberty and bounty, not to mention their lives, and that these goods continue to be inequitably distributed today. Second, we refuse to embrace a love that does not permit of criticism. “Love it or leave it” has to be the stupidest sentiment ever borne into immortality on the wings of alliteration, yet it has never dropped below a low murmur in the American political chorus; these days, in the shadow of war and ever-increasing official and unofficial sanctions on dissent, it threatens to reach its highest pitch since the Vietnam War. Finally, we have seen how love of country slips so easily into xenophobia, and we turn from any patriotism that ignores or injures the 95 percent of humanity beyond our borders.
The right has capitalized on our squeamishness by creating and maintaining the myth that the left, especially the far left, “hates America.” That claim, when it is used to discredit honest criticism, is craven and despicable. It is both failure and foolishness on the part of conservatives to love their country blindly, to maintain that criticism is equivalent to treachery, to bluster about the superiority of the United States with the boorish chauvinism of schoolyard bullies. But we on the left have failed, too–not only to express convincingly that we love our country, but also why we love our country.
I do love my country. I love its freedoms, which on the whole are manifold and robust; I love the independence and imagination it encourages; I love, sometimes, its boldness and brashness. I love its landscapes, the understated, kid-friendly Ohio of my childhood; the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest where I am most profoundly at peace; the New York City skyline outside my window right now, a condensed and brilliant universe. I love the fact that subcultures flourish here, and I’m grateful that I can flourish among them as a Jew, a lesbian, an educated woman, an intellectual–all identities that would be denied or imperiled in other times and places. Most of all I love the astonishing chutzpah of the experiment: the fact that I am bound by all that ineffable American-ness to people in Louisiana and Alaska and North Dakota, that by its virtue I have something in common with those I otherwise might have very little in common with at all.
I don’t think I’m alone on the left in loving these and many other things about the United States. And yet, somehow, we have managed to lose both sides of the love coin; we stand accused of loving trees and fags but hating our country. This is our own fault. If, for example, we were willing to point out that trees and fags are part of our country, willing to lay claim to the physical territory of the land and the moral territory of respect and forbearance mandated by a nation as enormously varied as ours–well, right there we might have the beginnings of a viable alternative vision of America. Like the right’s vision, which has been so carefully built up over the past forty years, ours must connect broad values–equality, liberty, empathy, generosity, ambition, curiosity, honesty, greatness–with concrete policies to decrease poverty and bigotry (two things you would think didn’t exist in the United States, based on the rhetoric of this past election) and promote universal healthcare, an educational system both equitable and outstanding, just and genuine economic growth, and real, long-term national security.
Instead of defining that vision, we have scrabbled desperately for a tiny patch of space inside the right’s increasingly narrow-minded nation, abdicating our real job of providing a countervailing ideal. We have forgotten that we are supposed to have a dream, and as a result, we now have a nightmare. Like many progressives, I look at another four years of the Bush Administration and see a widening gyre: more war, more terrorism, more corruption, more governmental secrecy and inaccessibility, more religious fanaticism, more poverty, more debt, more international isolation. I see a political ethos of greed, secrecy, divisiveness and cronyism, and a cultural ethos that makes moral failings of this country’s bedrock principles–reasoned dissent and respect for difference. I look on all of that and I understand why much of this nation is heartbroken.
And yet, strangely, it is ultimately in that heartbreak that I find some measure of hope. Heartbreak is, after all, evidence of the existence of love, and our current grief is a kind of emotional sonar, a way to measure the previously hidden depth of our dedication. We need to begin acting on that love and dedication. In many ways, the timing for doing so could not be better. The right, having monopolized the discourse of love, has lately turned to the idiom of hate. “Our enemies hate us,” our President tells us at every opportunity–our President who was elected through a campaign of hate-mongering that has left the country shocked at its own divisions. The moral high ground is vacant; if we can stand up and articulate a vision of the nation we love, if we can show how expansive both that love and that vision are, we can claim it. More important, we can invite others to come share it.
It’s hard to write convincingly about love in any context, and none more so than in politics. Sincerity always threatens to schmaltz over into sentimentalism, and the possibility of naïveté, that pretty, flimsy daisy in the gun barrel, lurks everywhere. And yet I do not believe that love is an impractical underpinning for a politics. In fact, I believe it is a necessary one: more salutary than fear, more effective than reactivism (a lesson that should be clear to everyone on the left by now) and, as we know from its other incarnations–the irresistible red-wine allure of a crush, the enduring commitment of lovers, family, friends–more potent than just about anything.
I am not talking, here, about using love strategically (and, at bottom, cynically) as a way to sell the vision of the left to a few more million people in Ohio or Florida. I’m talking about using it to fundamentally revise–or, if you will, re-vision–the work we must do. I am talking about using it not only to see where we must go (and where we must not go), but also, importantly, to feel it. It’s true that people yearn for hope and direction and that wise politicians provide both, but articulating a genuinely inspiring vision of the future is not just spin: It is our only hope of ever getting from here to there, or of even getting close. W.H. Auden put it best: “we must love one another or die.” Too many already have.
In Metaphors We Live By, the Berkeley linguist George Lakoff categorized the different metaphors we use to understand love: as a collaboration (“We’re working on our relationship”), as a journey (“This marriage is going nowhere”), as unity (“She’s my better half”), as madness (“I’m crazy about him”), as magic (“She’s bewitching”).
Love is all of those things: collaboration, journey, unity, madness, magic. Those words also describe with remarkable accuracy how I felt about working with other progressives over the course of these last many months. I’m unspeakably sad that our efforts failed insofar as the election goes; but I am glad that they stunned us back into what should be our native tongue–into talking about how deeply we love and care about our country and its people. I am ready, already, to stop talking about it in terms of heartbreak. I’m ready to get back together.