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Love's Repair

About the author
Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. His books include The Art of Listening (Berg, 2007), Theories of Race and Racism (Routledge, 2001)
The tumbling doo-wop harmonies of Love’s in Need of Love Today provide a sonic backdrop. Stevie Wonder sits at the piano ready to perform at the televised America: a tribute to heroes concert, aimed to raise money for the victims of the World Trade Centre bombing. Beneath the melody he offered a lesson in the register of a whisper:

When you say that you kill in the name of God, or in the name of Allah, you are truly cursing God for that is not of God.

When you say that you hate in the name of God or Allah, you are lying to God for that is not of our Father.

Written almost thirty years ago this prophetic tune could have been inspired by the disaster of 11 September. It opens in the form of a radio announcement. The “serious news” is that “hate is going around breaking many hearts”. The suicide bombers were doubtless motivated by rage. Yet they were neither cowardly nor motivated by blind hate. Within the al-Qaida death cult, hate is drawn into the vortex of spiritual and worldly love.

As those domestic airships were transformed into incendiary birds of prey, the hijackers anticipated not a wall of death, made of steel and glass, but a window passing through to the threshold of divine salvation. Perhaps, the “world’s disaster” that threatens us now is that we are moving into an era in which the narcissism of identity and loathing are locked into a spiralling and tragic relationship.

In the 21st century hate speaks the language of divine love and everyday justice – and this is not just confined to the perpetrators of the events of 11 September. The racial nationalists, white fundamentalists and patriotic zealots of today also claim that they do not hate anyone. They merely profess self-love, the pursuit of ‘justice’, and the desire to preserve and cherish their ‘civilisation’ and history.

On the sleevenotes of his 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder described this song as part of his philosophy of “love mentalism”. His prime calculation was that love + love – hate = love. But more than this, Love’s in Need of Love Today suggested another lesson. Love itself – our impulse to feel affection, empathy, desire, commonality and even loss – is in need of “love’s repair”.

John Berger has written that “the opposite of to love is not to hate but to separate”. As the Towers turned into vapours of ash, Marx’s haunting prophesy “all that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profane” took on a deadly ring of relevance. Contained in the advancing grey clouds of devastation were millions of pieces of paper. A friend told me that whole files of documents were carried to the rooftops of Manhattan perfectly intact. These pages were inscribed by many hands. On the paper, fragile traces of life were held suspended in the envelop of annihilation, as if carried by spectral messengers trying to find their way back. There was no way home, only separation.

The impulse to make victims into heroes has been strong in the wake of these events. Many acts of bravery and selflessness were performed in the midst of this carnage. But as Primo Levi warned, abjection does not ennoble its victims and the crown of heroism does nothing for the dead. Rather, this enforced martrydom gives license to vengeance, not just for America but for all those nations who claim these losses for the cenotaph of Western civilisation. It does not honour the dead to deify them, rather it offends their memory. Were they not made of the same compound of vice and virtue, of strength and frailty as the rest of us?

Our obligation to them, rather, is to take precisely the “precautionary measures” invoked by Stevie Wonder. This involves creating an ethical prophylactic for Love itself.

Every news report carries cognisance of further death and destruction in Kabul and beyond. The fleshy-mouthed politicians who speak the language of justice casually need to look at themselves with a reflexive sense of justice. It is not just that love is in need of restoration but all the maxims of political life demand repair from debasement. This regeneration must be centred within the conscience of the core principles – freedom in need of freedom, democracy in need of democracy and of course love in need of love.

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