Song of Myself
So how does a left-wing punk rock girl end up as the Editor-in-Chief of the Yale Free Press? One small part of the story involves Stephen King, Lauryn Hill, and self-love—the one issue on which the mainstream Left and Right agree.
Jesse Jackson, the Ayn Rand Institute, and countless conservative Christian schoolteachers all raise an unending hymn of praise—a Song of Myself. It was a part of our curriculum in the third grade. Our project folders proclaimed, “I am soMEbody!” The Left calls it “self-esteem” and the Right calls it “self-interest,” but the words mean the same thing.
Both terms, and the political beliefs which gave rise to them, reflect the optimistic Enlightenment view that neither love nor justice requires sacrifice, duty, selflessness, or even discomfort. It is the belief that people are essentially good and commonsensical. Thus the greatest good (for the greatest number) can be achieved by pursuing our own happiness: The moral things are also, happily enough, the things which please us. Some say this is because we have constructed “morality” to justify our wants; others think we are just lucky, or that God has provided for this coincidence of duty and desire.
But the source of the coincidence doesn’t make much difference. No matter why it happens, the point is that self-interest leads to self-fulfillment leads to both a just society and romantic love. On one side of the political divide, we attain self-fulfillment through levying taxes and legalizing no-fault divorce (making marriage the only contract in which either party can default at any time), and on the other we must simply work and consume and let the invisible hand give us a nice massage. But the end result is the same: There is no escape from selfishness, and no reason to desire such an escape.
When we speak abstractly, we can convince ourselves that this is true. We can talk about self-actualization and self-fulfillment and all the rest of the cosmetic words. We can say that we gain pleasure and autonomy from being in love, or from seeking social justice, or we can posit that love and justice result naturally when we seek pleasure and autonomy. But both claims assume that our wants are good, that we are whole beings and not battlegrounds for warring wills and desires. They assume that we can condition ourselves to want only good things, or that we only want good things in the first place.
We all know people who prove these claims wrong. We all are people who prove these claims wrong. We all know men who are deeply in love and find it excruciating to realize how unworthy they are of their beloveds, men whose imperfections wound them even when they are loved in return. We have all experienced situations when the just action is the most painful option—and when we choose that painful action, we do not always get “paid” for our sacrifices by some Cosmic Workmen’s Comp fund.
Moreover, when we do delight in the people we love, it is because of
what they are, not because they cause some increase in our self-esteem.
As Lauryn Hill sings, in a song dedicated to her son, “Now the joy of my
world is in Zion”—not, “Now the joy of my world is in pleasure and autonomy.”
Love returned may increase our self-confidence, and the very existence
of the beloved is a cause for joy (and terror, that there may come a day
when the lover is alive and the beloved is not), but these benefits to
the self are not the important things about the experience of love. The
important thing is how much we are overwhelmed by the splendor of this
other person. Seeing that splendor can terrify us or cause us despair even
as we delight in it; inevitably, it lowers our self-esteem, for we judge
ourselves by the standard of the beloved. We are ruled by the ones we love;
Ambrose Bierce’s definition of marriage, “A master, a mistress, and two
slaves, making in all, two,” is only the plain truth.
We feel this horror when we see Jimmy Stewart staring at Kim Novak in Vertigo, and when we read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. The men in these stories appear to love a woman or a son profoundly. When they are endangered, sick, or unhappy, the men suffer as if they themselves have been wounded. And this is the problem, the source of our horror: For if we love someone because she is a part of us, we will betray her and use her whenever her desires conflict with our own. Hitchcock and King dramatize this betrayal.
But what has it got to do with current American politics? If such men can exist, we should take that fact into account when we make our political and moral decisions. If love for the self’s sake is a betrayal of the beloved, we should take that fact into account as well. And there are men and women who have done exactly that in their approach to politics.
“Charity is personal”
A few examples: The Left (with the exception of some radical feminists) agrees with the view that eros must be freely given, but believes that it should be costless. Costless eros is the ideal of the proponents of no-fault divorce, sex outside of marriage, et familiar cetera. Mainstream libertarian types often believe that caritas and eros are both costless—by pursuing self-interest we can both end poverty and create stable families. Some prominent right-wing Christians seem to believe that love of God, an expression of agape, is costless—they talk more of sins which don’t tempt most people, like homosexuality, than of sins which do, like adultery or callousness to suffering and poverty.
The Left claims to be the party of compassion. But what compassion (literally, “suffering with”) turns out to mean is actually compulsion. Our “compassionate” response is predicated on self-interest. Thus we do pay taxes, which, after they have been leeched by bureaucrats, eventually reach poor people in the form of welfare checks or housing subsidies or Medicare; but we pay because if we don’t we’ll get in a lot of trouble. We do (sometimes) act with circumspection rather than crassness in the workplace; but we do it not out of modesty or respect but because we could be fired for sexual harassment if we don’t. In every sphere, what’s voluntary is replaced by what’s not—even in completely trivial matters like eating fattening foods. Everything that is moral must be legislated. (The Left faults the religious Right for this tendency, but the only difference is that the Left believes in different metaphysical truths.)
In his Pensees, Pascal writes a note which could stand as a scathing indictment of the self-interested solution to the problem of poverty, whether through markets’ magic or state-mandated compassion: “Man’s greatness even in his concupiscence. He has managed to produce such a remarkable system from it and make it the image of true charity.” If this could work, it might be a good thing; but it can’t work for the same reason that it is not good. The “image of charity” is only a mirage—if we aid poor people because it is to our benefit, then we will stop aiding them when they begin to annoy us, or disturb us, or threaten us. Many people are comfortable paying taxes, and thus providing a poor woman with food from afar, but fewer are willing to be courteous or loving to her when she is angry or terrified or otherwise in our faces. Nothing can make us treat people more vulnerable than us as human beings except love freely given.
And now we are told that this love is unnecessary, since we can pay people to dole out the checks. Many conservatives have written that extensive welfare programs corrode the sense of responsibility in the people who receive state aid. Fewer have pointed out that these programs also corrode the sense of responsibility of everyone else. Once we have voted, or at best sent a check to the United Way or dropped a twenty in the collection basket, we have done our job. If the welfare office is a site of degradation, frustration, and anger—well, that’s not my department.
There have been, and there still are, those who believe that love and justice cannot be gotten easily. These people usually also share the belief that the three kinds of love named earlier are connected; this is one implication of a terrific moment in Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness.
Day was the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and of the newspaper by the same name; the movement refused to accept state aid for its houses of hospitality, where poor people were welcomed without condescension or distaste, because as co-founder Peter Maurin said, “Only in times of great crisis, like floods, hurricanes, earthquake or drought, does public authority come in. Charity is personal. Charity is love.” This vision of love can be summed up in the cry a friend used to hawk her newspaper: “Read the Catholic Worker! Romance on every page!” The idea that charity could be romantic—even though, and even when, it is painful—is foreign to most political positions. We need this romance more than we need anything else.
If charity is love, it cannot be compelled. The modern welfare state practices the equivalent, in the realm of caritas rather than eros, of forced marriage. It is the equivalent also, in caritas rather than agape, of forced conversion. It is an attempt to take love rather than give it.
—Eve Tushnet, Editor-in-Chief