Type “why is Valentine’s Day” into Google, and the three top search suggestions come up as follows: “why is Valentines Day celebrated,” “why is Valentines Day important” and “why is Valentines Day bad.” Follow any of these threads for any length of time and it becomes clear that our collective answers have thus far been inconclusive. But while St. Valentine’s shoddy martyrology and the dismal February snow may cast doubts on the holiday’s provenance and advisability, it’s hard to deny that the celebration of love resonates strongly with many of us – even if the festival’s precise dimensions prompt feelings of anxiety, frustration and rage.
In radical scenes, Valentine’s Day is typically repudiated for being a gross and cynical corporate exercise. Nevertheless, the mass attention devoted to love on this day should be approached as a political opportunity. At the very least, it should prompt us to consider what we might want the term to mean as we struggle collectively to change the world.
It’s no longer surprising to recount how capitalism abducts our desires to imprison them in commodities. But when the desire is love, and the commodities are grotesque cardboard abominations, it’s hard not to conclude (pace Adorno) that writing poetry after Valentine’s Day is barbaric. Be this as it may, people en masse continue to be seduced by the Valentine’s Day industry. Along with the Romantics (whom Marx held to be their “legitimate antithesis”), capitalists themselves have acknowledged that love is serious business. According to one recent report, Valentine’s Day was estimated to have contributed more than $18 billion to the US economy in 2013. That sum, accumulated in the span of a single week’s excess, is comparable to the annual contribution of Wisconsin’s food and beverage industry to the Gross Domestic Product.
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It’s impossible not to be struck by both the enormity of our collective desire for love and the absolute inadequacy of the available means for its realization.
Little wonder, then, that many of us flee the marketplace to find a less-cardboard version of love in the horizontal embrace of community. But while such impulses are commendable, they can’t match the juggernaut that turned Valentine’s Day into an impenetrable storm of swirling pink confection. Capitalists may not have a monopoly on love, but they’ve certainly managed to shape our habits. Even outside the market, love has become fundamentally acquisitive.
Craigslist may not be a catalogue of our best moments, but it certainly provides a telling snapshot of our most honest ones. Throughout its posts, it’s impossible not to be struck by both the enormity of our collective desire for love and the absolute inadequacy of the available means for its realization. A recent survey of “Missed Connections” was enough to confirm my worst fears.
Alongside the lovesick M gushing malapropism to assure the bookworm on the Astoria-bound Q train that she was “unimaginatively beautiful,” I found the following guy buying drinks for the ladies at the Charleston: “If I ever buy someone a drink, they always keep talking to me,” he insisted. Nevertheless, “you kept giving me side-glances, but that was all. My guess? You’re VERY shy and need someone to be persistent.” Tormented by the looming holiday, and in response to the whole bleak scene, one brave W issued an urgent appeal: “write me love letters.”
so its february and that most annoying of days is around the corner. except what if it wasn’t annoying? what if it were thoughtful and careful and wonderful and a chance to tell someone, a stranger even, a beautiful and romantic sentiment. …
Even when acknowledging the dread particular to this “most annoying of days” (even when confronted with the grotesque dimensions of our still-imperfect efforts), we still search out paths for beauty, romance and sentiment. Sooner or later, we admit that we’re reluctant to renounce them despite all that’s been done in their name. One of our greatest challenges, then, is to save the desire for loving connection – a desire as big as Wisconsin – from the inadequacy of the candy coating in which it’s encased.
Prying the desire from the object is like splitting the atom; it has the power to release a tremendous energy that can be channeled into social transformation – but only if we recognize our common cause with the rose-wielding sucker armed with a box of chocolates.
Love in the Trenches
In their recent issue devoted to the theme of love, the feminist stalwarts at Shameless magazine contended that it was “the most radical topic” they could write about. Nevertheless, as Editor Sheila Sampath confessed in her introductory remarks, the obviousness of love’s importance to radical struggles did nothing to change the fact that it remained “by far” the hardest topic to address.
In light of this difficulty, radicals often have preferred to sidestep analysis in order to embrace slogans and images that conduct a hasty marriage between love and our longing for social justice. How else are we to explain the profusion of heart motifs that exploded in the activist visual lexicon at the beginning of the 21st century? Why did the heart seem to become our movement’s ascendant sign, and how did this icon that previous generations had surrendered to Hallmark (or ensnared in the cruel grip of a thousand barbed-wire tattoos) become as important as the star had been to previous insurgencies?
I will be the first to concede that Sapon-Shevin’s image was inspiring. Still, it begs the question: What is the connection between loving and fighting?
For anarchist feminist author and punk icon Wendy-O Matik, “radical love” is best understood as a spiritual pursuit. In her words, such love is “an opportunity to save the planet, heal Mother Earth, connect with the cosmos, and work towards … creating a sustainable community.” For this reason, the concept has “a sacred global interconnection” at its core. A polyamory advocate and regular workshop facilitator catering to “intimate revolutionaries & relationship anarchists,” Matik recently concluded a radio interview by noting that one of her main objectives was to help people become “more enchanted with the world.”
In the face of the disenchantment that overtook the globe with the rise of dark satanic mills, these sentiments are both noble and explicitly anti-capitalist. But sentiments are not strategy, and honesty compels us to acknowledge the ease with which re-enchantment has historically been enlisted to buttress a soulless status quo.
Che Guevara famously asserted: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.”
The tremendous value of Wendy-O Matik’s workshops should be acknowledged. After all, committing to honest communication while breaking the possessiveness straightjacket is likely to greatly improve people’s intimate relationships. But while these skills may help us to become better people (and while they may even help us to be better fighters in the struggle against injustice), they are not the means by which that struggle can be conducted.
If radical love of this sort leaves our revolutionary aspirations unfulfilled, where else might we turn to discover the connection between loving and fighting? A quick glance at the archive reveals that revolutionary thinkers often have felt compelled to address this question in the very midst of tumult. In his important 1965 dispatch from Algiers, Che Guevara famously asserted: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.” Even today, the letter remains beautiful and insightful. And, although he probably had not intended it, something important about the libidinal source of the revolutionary’s “great feelings” might be gleaned from its innuendo-laden account of Castro’s relation to the people.
At the great public mass meetings, one can observe something like the dialogue of two tuning forks whose vibrations interact, producing new sounds. Fidel and the mass begin to vibrate together in a dialogue of growing intensity until they reach the climax in an abrupt conclusion crowned by our cry of struggle and victory.
Far from home and probably a little lonesome, it’s easy to forgive Che’s literary indulgence. What’s less forgivable, however, is the regularity with which his “love” maxim gets cited without acknowledgment of the specific meaning he assigned to the term. “Perhaps it is one of the great dramas of the leader that he or she must combine a passionate spirit with a cold intelligence and make painful decisions without flinching,” he writes. “They cannot descend, with small doses of daily affection, to the level where ordinary people put their love into practice.“
This doesn’t mean that such “daily affection” is irrelevant. On the contrary, it is the practical expression of people’s desire for greater connection. For this reason, the revolutionary does not repudiate these desires; instead, she works to complete them by devising a more perfect object resolution. What would make your daily affections great?
Transposed into the present, we might conclude that, even though the revolutionary’s own “great feelings” do not wallow in the Valentine’s Day trenches where “ordinary people put their love into practice,” they must nevertheless take these trenches as their field of operations.
Love, Peace and War
In 1964, Martin Luther King went to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Accepting the award “on behalf of a civil rights movement which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice,” King underscored his refusal to “accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction.” His optimism was unrelenting: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. … I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow.”
Fifty years later, “unconditional love” has itself become the target of “mortar burst and whining bullets.” In December 2013, an American drone ostensibly aimed at taking out insurgents struck a wedding party in Yemen, killing 17 people. Met with stern condemnation by the international community, the action was but the latest in a long series of US attacks against civilians celebrating love. In the four short months between July and November 2008, both Wech Baghtu and Deh Bala become mass graves as dozens of Afghans were slaughtered by US bombardment while attending weddings.
What are we to make of the fact that imperial power can’t tell the difference between a wedding and an insurgent deployment?
If these events force us to call King’s optimism into question, they also demand that we take a hard look at the intimate connection between love and war. What are we to make of the fact that imperial power can’t tell the difference between a wedding and an insurgent deployment? The tendency to underscore the innocence of the slaughtered is overwhelming. But what might we learn if we viewed these airstrikes not as one of imperial power’s “regrettable mistakes” but rather as one of its most inadvertent but powerful insights? Can we imagine how even a wedding, if emancipated from its current social form and pushed to its logical conclusion, might constitute a threat?
As far as intellectual exercises go, I will concede that this one is taxing. The coalitions forged in marriage tend to be conservative, to wed their participants to the reproduction of a perpetually impoverished reality. Historically, the state has been so certain that marriage cemented the status quo that, in his infamous 1965 Report, even a brass-tacks bureaucrat like Daniel Patrick Moynihan felt confident endorsing the fiction that black marriage might curb the spread of poverty – and, subsequently, insurrection – in America’s ghettos.
But while marriage has tied love to the social pacification project, it’s equally true that relationships formalized through solemn commitment (regardless of the number of people involved) can be the cornerstone of anti-imperialist struggles as well. It’s therefore not surprising that, even though his ultimate objectives were antithetical to Moynihan’s, Malcolm X shared his adversary’s commitment to strong social ties.
As mentioned previously, St. Valentine’s martyrology is riddled with inconsistencies; however, it’s significant that – in some versions – he faced persecution for marrying second-century Romans against the wishes of the emperor, who maintained that such bonds detracted from the state’s martial focus. The lesson is clear: Bonds of love forged on the horizontal plane pull people away from the empire and its demands.
Paulo Freire noted how “the act of rebellion by the oppressed (an act which is always, or nearly always, as violent as the initial violence of the oppressors) can initiate love” by restoring the humanity of the oppressor.
To be sure, such bonds are forever imperiled by the seductions of privacy and seclusion. However, if the desire that compelled the bond can be kept from settling into the constraints of an imperfect resolution, love itself can become a violent, transformative force.
In the midst of El Salvador’s armed struggle, liberation theologian Oscar Romero described how “the violence we preach is … the violence of love.” The formulation remains shocking in its incongruity right up until the moment it’s properly understood. For his part, Paulo Freire noted how “the act of rebellion by the oppressed (an act which is always, or nearly always, as violent as the initial violence of the oppressors) can initiate love” by restoring the humanity of the oppressor.
“Tremble to the cadence of my legacy,” Sappho booms in Rita May Brown’s second-wave classic The Hand That Cradles The Rock. “An army of lovers shall not fail.” Sappho is addressing the Sacred Band of Thebes, an elite core of 300 male soldiers whose esprit de corps was matched only by the depth of their erotic love. Instinctively, radicals recognize the importance of building such an army. What remains less clear, however, are the means by which to rescue the tremendous outpouring of “everyday affection” on Valentine’s Day from the inadequacy of its cardboard resolution. How might we “combine a passionate spirit with a cold intelligence” to ensure that, when our collective heart bursts, the explosion is bigger than Wisconsin? When it comes to radical love, there is no greater question than this.