A Place for Love? – Philip McKibbin and Adam Custins

A Place for Love?

essay by Philip McKibbin, photographs by Adam Custins

‘This is no place for love,’ writes James Baldwin in Nothing Personal, his 1964 collaboration with photographer Richard Avedon. Together, they present a portrait of a United States of America deeply at odds with itself and its promise of a better world.

As with most of his works, Baldwin was writing his essay for a national readership, rather than an international one. Today, however, his words speak to any of us:

‘[W]e are unbelievably ignorant concerning what goes on in our country – to say nothing of what goes on in the rest of the world – and appear to have become too timid to question what we are told. Our failure to trust one another deeply enough to be able to talk to one another has become so great that people with these questions in their hearts do not speak them: our opulence is so pervasive that people who are afraid to lose whatever they think they have persuade themselves of the truth of a lie, and help disseminate it; and God help the innocent here, that man or woman who simply wants to love, and be loved.’

This impression reaches me in New Zealand in 2019 with correspondence from Adam Custins, a friend, a photographer, also reporting from the U.S. ‘This May, a Texan friend was driving from San Diego to Austin,’ Adam wrote, ‘and she invited me to bring my cameras and see the South West. The plan was for her to collect me in LA, and make the drive in four days. For me, this was an opportunity to see with my own eyes what is on the news.’

Salvation Mountain, California
Salvation Mountain, California

It was a 12-hour flight from Auckland. After an overnight stay at Venice Beach, his friend picked him up and they headed into the desert: through Coachella Valley, via the Salton Sea, and past Salvation Mountain. ‘For all the implied spirituality, I found them pretty soulless,’ he wrote. ‘But this feeling was unseated as soon as we drove over the California-Arizona state line.’

Abandoned art installation, Salton Sea, California
Abandoned art installation, Salton Sea, California
Abandoned art installation, Salton Sea, California
Abandoned art installation, Salton Sea, California

Adam and I first met in 2017. He had read an article I had published with the Guardian on the Politics of Love. He wrote to me saying it had resonated with him, and perhaps we could chat? I had only recently started sketching this theory of politics. As well as affirming the importance of people, the Politics of Love extends beyond us to non-human animals and the natural environment. It imagines a world where values shape policy and guide our actions. Two years later, I would publish a book, Love Notes: for a Politics of Love, with Lantern in New York; but when Adam emailed me, I was still at the beginning of my journey.

I met Adam in his photography studio in Grey Lynn, one of the leafier suburbs of Central Auckland. Over coffee in his apartment, we talked about love. He said he was interested in the ways in which love had been manifesting in fashion – millennial pink, pussyhats… I was a high school teacher at the time, and I was reminded of one of my colleague’s hand-printed tees: ‘Get your patriarchy out of my pussy!’ I told Adam I was determined to develop the Politics of Love as a theory, one which presented a genuine alternative to the politics of today, but which avoided the charge of superficiality by offering coherent answers to the most challenging questions. ‘We’re coming at this from different perspectives,’ he said. ‘You’re looking at Plato, and I’m looking at Instagram.’ (Well, I thought, it’s been a while since I read Plato, but, no, I’m not looking at Instagram.)

We talked about Trumpism – a problem that baffled us, and which was all the more worrying because it was unfamiliar. We simply did not understand what was going on. Why had the U.S. yielded to the influence of a man who – from afar, at least – seemed to eschew the values of decency, fairness, and responsibility, and whose sexist, racist speech clashed so violently with what we had grown up believing the U.S. was committed to: freedom, justice, and equality? What social and cultural forces were at work over there?

Now, Adam was in the U.S. to see for himself…

Although he grew up in New Zealand, he has spent much of his adult life in the U.S. He has lived in the country under four presidents: Clinton, the younger Bush, Obama, and Trump. Most of that time was spent in California and New York – but it wasn’t enough. He had traveled the length of California, and ventured into the desert as far as the Salton Sea; but on the East Coast, he had only been from Maine to Baltimore. ‘So my real understanding of middle America has been zero, except for fly-overs and brief stopovers,’ he wrote.

Once again, he found himself in unfamiliar territory, a migrant in the U.S. ‘My friend reminded me that the law was different in Arizona, to behave and buckle up. Instinctively, I glanced over my shoulder to see who was watching. Like imagining God… all seeing.’ Arizona is one of the most conservative states, Adam informed me. How could it sit next to one of the liberal states and get along? ‘In some ways, I guessed, they didn’t.’

The Hotel Congress, Tucson, Arizona
The Hotel Congress, Tucson, Arizona

Tucson is the color of burnt Earth, he explained, and the buildings are air-con boxes, hermetically sealed. ‘Only the cars parked outside implied human life.’ He stayed at the Hotel Congress, and it was there that it occurred to him that he hadn’t seen another person of color since crossing the border, apart from tourists and people working in service. ‘Suddenly I realised that segregation by state was a real thing,’ he wrote. ‘You don’t need legal apartheid; you just need to make life so difficult for minorities that they want to leave, and ensure that conditions appeal to white people so that they desire to live there.’ In the hotel courtyard that evening, as country-western music played, locals began to arrive. The cowboy-hat-to-bare-head ratio was marked. ‘Under a big tree, in the hot night air, we sipped cold drinks, and I wondered, “Am I supposed to resonate with this music? Is country music the intrinsic sound of the white American? Is this what the white soul sounds like?”’

Not long after Adam and I met in 2017, he returned to New York to live. We corresponded from afar. Shortly before the white supremacist terror attack in Christchurch, which ultimately resulted in 51 deaths, we spoke over Skype. He told me that even though most New Zealanders believe ourselves to be well-versed in American politics, we don’t understand the reality of life in the U.S. under Trump and the threat his politics pose to its citizens and the world. The day after the terrorist attack – news that reached us as if from the U.S. – he messaged me, saying that he was appalled but he wasn’t surprised to learn it had happened in Canterbury. Racism, he said, had taken up residence there long ago.

However, the topic that infused our conversations – from the moment he first reached out, to our most recent email – was love. How might we realise the Politics of Love, and what would it mean for U.S. society? New Zealand is very small, Adam cautioned me: if these ideas are going to have an impact, I would also need to think about the U.S.

Las Cruces, New Mexico
Las Cruces, New Mexico
Tex-Mex snack, on the road to Austin, Texas
Tex-Mex snack, on the road to Austin, Texas

One thing that interested him was which presidential candidate had a real chance of beating Trump and defeating Trumpism. He would tell me about Pete Buttigieg: ‘articulate, succinct, and charming in a clear-cut way, who challenges the conservative right being a vet, a married gay man, a mayor, and an ex-McKinsey man’; and, later, Andrew Yang, ‘the Left’s version of Trump’, who has campaigned on the promise of a Universal Basic Income, and whose presence on stage is what sets him apart. (Did he think either was likely to win? Not exactly. What made them stand out was that their politics contrasted with Trump’s, and they with the mould that Trump broke when he was elected.) Meanwhile, I was reading about Marianne Williamson’s conception of loving politics, which she presents in her book A Politics of Love: A Handbook for a New American Revolution. While it was always clear to me that she would not succeed – a politics of love will never realise its potential while its proponents rely on its spiritual appeal – she used the language of love to articulate an alternative for the U.S. That, at least, was something truly significant.

Adam and I caught up early in 2019, while he was briefly back in Auckland. We met at his studio, then walked to a nearby café to talk. He confided – again – that he still did not understand what the Politics of Love had to say about U.S. politics, or how it might help the nation to overcome its ‘politics of hate’. I retraced the Politics of Love as I envision it, and reminded him that I don’t have all the answers. I said that the more I read and think about the problem, the more it seems to me that the political crisis in the U.S. reduces to fear and distrust. I told him that I deliberately avoid the phrase ‘politics of hate’. For one thing, I don’t think it is especially accurate. (Love has many opposites: indifference, fear, distrust, ignorance, greed…) Also, it is polarising: if we want to engage people in loving politics, we need to engage them as people. The word ‘hate’ can be dehumanising, and too often it is dismissive: it allows us to justify violence toward others without considering the needs motivating their actions. If anything, the phrase ‘politics of hate’ is antithetical to the Politics of Love as I understand it – it is unloving. Adam told me that on his return to the U.S., he intended to see a side of the nation that he had not seen, and to meet its people.

What followed was despair: anger, sadness, and depression.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico
White Sands National Park, New Mexico

‘Our route plan was to hug the America-Mexico border, so taking some B roads, I could see Mexico in the distance for much of this section of the drive. Beige, dry desert. Rocky, scrubby, with cut-outs from dried-up rivers. This was hard country.’ Adam asked his companion what they would do if they encountered any migrants. She told him they couldn’t stop. ‘We’ll get arrested – it’s happening to Americans. We can’t risk it. I know it’s hard.’ ‘I felt physically uncomfortable with this instruction,’ Adam wrote me. He compared the law – this injunction against helping people in desperate need – to a crime against humanity.

They were following a quiet highway when they encountered them. Coming out of a bend, they saw three migrants: a man, a woman, and a child who Adam believes was a girl, ‘maybe thigh-high’. They tumbled out of the bushes and onto the road, evading whatever it was that lay behind them. ‘The child had lost a shoe and was carrying a large, empty water bottle, like a gallon Poland Spring bottle. I knew it was empty by the way it bounced around in their hand.’ Not far away, a car and trailer carrying a covered speedboat was parked, and the family was running towards it. ‘Was this a trafficker? A friend? Family? A good Samaritan?’ ‘We can’t stop,’ he was told. ‘We flashed by the scene. I sat silent in the car.’

To discuss U.S. politics with Adam is to consult the conscience of the world. When he messages me, it is with bafflement, hopeless. When he implores me for answers, it is almost prayer-like: How can things possibly get better? I tell him history teaches that things do get better; I say I believe that they will. As Williamson writes in her ‘handbook’:

‘Surely the abolition of slavery at one time seemed like a hopeless cause. Surely women’s suffrage at one time seemed like a hopeless cause. Surely ending racial segregation at one time seemed like a hopeless cause. Hope springs eternal because life springs eternal…’

I wholeheartedly believe that the Politics of Love can articulate a way forward, which is why I work to articulate it. But that’s only part of my truth. Another part is that I worry. A lot. About the climate crisis, mostly. And about the ways in which we are wilfully ignorant. (An especially egregious example is our use of animals in agriculture: such abuse is an affront to love, and our supposedly ‘humane’ treatment of other animals betrays our so-called ‘humanity’.) I don’t say this to Adam, because I believe that he will only hear despair, and that he will form the mistaken conclusion that I don’t believe in the Politics of Love.

What I do tell him – again – is that I don’t have all the answers. I know this doesn’t satisfy him, but it isn’t meant to. It isn’t a plea for him to ‘go easy’ on me. Nor is it false humility. I genuinely believe that inclusiveness and collective deliberation are integral to the Politics of Love. If this project succeeds, it will be because we are able to come together and construct our future collaboratively. I don’t have all the answers. All I have is love.

But beyond Adam’s despair, there was also understanding, and trust.

While he was at the Congress, he had met an older couple, ‘in their 50s or 60s’, who had come to listen to the music. The man had been a rodeo champ for 20 years; the woman was German by way of Texas. As well as ranching, they imported and distributed leather from Latin America. (Cattle hides from Brazil and Argentina are more sought-after as the cows graze in open spaces, whereas U.S. hides are typically damaged by barbed-wire fencing.) Adam was upfront with his new friends: he admitted that he was a liberal, but told them he had come to the South to see for himself and learn the truth. The cowboy smiled. ‘Well, that’s great!’ he said.

‘Trump is a business genius,’ he began, ‘but a wall is not the answer. It will push all the problems to the ports of entry.’ ‘Is there a real problem with illegal immigrants?’ Adam asked. ‘Has there really been a spike recently?’ The cowboy spoke carefully: ‘Yes, there has been a spike, but only since Trump has made it harder. There has been a rush, but it’s always been this way. For decades. The thing we need to stop is the drugs, specifically fentanyl and heroin. We don’t care about marijuana. The cartels will do anything to get the drugs across. For example, they are using cannons to fire the drugs over the wall in El Paso. There are tunnels everywhere. The other day I was on the ranch with some local workers from across the border, when a black SUV sped past us through the desert,’ he continued. ‘The ranch hand looked at me and said, “Please don’t react. Don’t take a photo. Don’t report them. We know who they are, and they know who we are. If you do anything, we and our families will be killed.”’ He doesn’t worry about migrants, the man explained, but he does worry about cartels. ‘We’ve found caches of AK’s and grenades out in the desert.’

He went on: ‘In our community, we leave our homes unlocked so that migrants can come in and refill their water bottles as they pass when we are not home. Not once has anything been stolen or anyone hurt.’ They depend on each other, he said. ‘We rely on our neighbours to borrow farm equipment, or graze on each other’s land. We have a very symbiotic relationship. Our neighbours just happen to live in Mexico.’

It was then, Adam wrote, that he realised neither the Left nor the Right had been telling the whole story. ‘These people were smart, traveled, open-minded, and welcoming. They wanted me to understand their world.’ He tried to imagine what a wall would do to their lives. ‘The dissociative experience of one day looking out on an infinitely-long, high barrier, instead of a beautiful landscape stretching to the horizon… Your southern neighbours would become strangers. You’d be forced to change farming patterns established for generations. Your microecology would be cut up and left to heal around concrete and steel.’ Most people think the border wall is a ploy, rather than a plan Trump intends to pursue. ‘But what I object to,’ Adam wrote, ‘is what it does to our minds. It sets up a “them and us” mentality. It heavily suggests that division and nationalism are stronger than connection and diversity.’

Connection and diversity are concepts that help to elucidate my relationship with Adam. We see things differently, of course: we’re two different people. Even though we both recognise the need for loving politics, we have very different experiences informing that understanding. He is older than me by 15 years, and as such, he remembers things that I do not. He has lived experience of the Cold War – something which was all but over by the time I was born, and which I learnt as history in high school – and he remembers having nightmares of atomic annihilation as a child. ‘Thankfully, apocalyptic fear gave way to 80’s hedonism and then the 1987 financial crash, and by the 90’s we’d forgotten about dark days until 2001.’ The collapse of the Twin Towers returned him to that state of fear.

For me, however, 9/11 was entirely unprecedented. I remember sitting in front of the T.V. as a 13-year-old, thinking, ‘Who attacks America?’ The notion that the U.S. might feel threatened had never occurred to me; it was wholly new. And my understanding of nuclear conflict came as legend. I was brought up on stories of New Zealand’s resistance to nuclear weapons. Our former Prime Minister David Lange (who I met once as a child in Māngere, at Burger King – my mum insisted we go over and say ‘hello’) had famously led our country’s anti-nuclear movement. At the Oxford Union, he declared: ‘There is only one thing more terrifying than nuclear weapons pointed in your direction, and that is nuclear weapons pointed in your enemy’s direction’. At Mātauri Bay, we saw the memorial to the Rainbow Warrior, bombed in Auckland’s Waitematā Harbour by the French government in retaliation for protesting nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean – a symbol of passive resistance in the face of international injustice. And we had stood up to the U.S, who would neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear warheads on their ships, denying them passage through our waters; as a consequence, our country was deemed a friend but not an ally.

As influential for Adam was his experience of racism. His father escaped Chinese communism for New Zealand at the age of 5. ‘While my understanding of Cold War politics was rudimentary and geographically removed,’ Adam tells me, ‘my experience of “the other” was first-hand. As the only Asian-looking child at an all-white school in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, I learnt the mechanics of racism as it’s handed down from parent to child. New Zealand at that time was overtly racist. Inequalities were engineered and maintained. Being treated as something “different” but knowing you’re fundamentally the same and just wanting a “normal life” like everyone else (the white kids) was frustrating and irritated that feeling that if we just got to know each other we would all get along.’ Whereas my experience of racism has – again – been of a different quality. I am of Pākehā (European) and Māori descent. From a Pākehā point-of-view, I am 1/32nd Māori. My Māori worldview, however, teaches that my Kāi Tahu whakapapa (genealogy) makes me wholly Māori, as well as being Pākehā. I pass as white – to such an extent that as a child, I was not recognised as Māori. Growing up, I didn’t see myself as Māori, and I resisted the few mentions of my Māori ancestry. My white privilege was to me as invisible as air, which is to say that my experience being on the receiving end of racism was nil. (Unless, of course, you consider being divorced from one’s indigenous culture as a result of ongoing colonial violence lived experience of racism.)

I agreed with Adam’s judgement that the injunction against helping ‘illegal immigrants’ (that is, other people) constituted a crime against humanity. The way the U.S. government has been treating migrants appals us; but then, it is appalling to many citizens, too. It conflicts with the notions of freedom, justice, and equality – all of which can be understood as loving, and all of which are integral to the Politics of Love.

In her book, Williamson repeatedly emphasises the U.S.’s historical commitment to creating a better world:

‘The Old World was based on social inequality, and the New World, at least in theory, was to be based on social equality. The very idea of such a radical departure from the past was revolutionary. In the words of Thomas Paine in 1776, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”’

This story is an important one, because it serves as a reminder of the necessity of social equality, which is a prerequisite for justice, and without which love is impossible.

But what goes unacknowledged when it is told is that such a commitment is present, in equal measure, in other parts of the world – New Zealand, with its egalitarianism, is one of them – and that many of the social problems that pervade U.S. society, such as racism, are grappled with in other communities – New Zealand, again, included. To suggest that the values that this story celebrates are exclusively ‘American’ is problematic. Those ‘American’ values that are worth celebrating are not only American – just as the U.S. is not the only American nation. The values that we should celebrate, such as courage, faith, and security, are loving values, and they are universal. Which is to say, the problem is not that the U.S. values the wrong things; rather, its pervasive nationalism prevents a large number of its citizens from acknowledging the firmament to which its greatest values belong, and from appreciating the international community of which they and their nation are part.

In a speech to the United Nations, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (who made headlines worldwide following the Christchurch terror attack for moving to ban semi-automatic weapons, a feat which was effectively accomplished within one month) called on world leaders to reject nationalism. In response to Trump’s community-corroding sloganeering, she suggested that nations should strive to do and be good for the world. She spoke of values, asking ‘What if we no longer see ourselves based on what we look like, what religion we practice, or where we live, but by what we value?’

There is something deeply unloving about American exceptionalism, or the notion that the U.S. is fundamentally different to other nations in a way which makes it superior. It is arrogant, and it is dishonest: it cannot abide the colonizing violence on which it was founded, or the many mistakes that have been made in its name. The U.S. assumes for itself an untenable place in world politics – a position which contradicts its opposition to tyranny and its commitment to democracy, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’. The Politics of Love would see it relinquishing that conceit. This is not to say, however, that this new vision of politics rejects the notion of responsibility. The idea that we should strive to set a positive example for others to emulate – as the U.S. has at various points in its history – is one that the Politics of Love advocates. Nor is this vision of politics incompatible with self-love, including the love that communities give to themselves. The U.S. has contributed much to the world, and there is a lot of which it can be proud. When I consider the influence it has had on my thinking, it is clear that the Politics of Love would be unimaginable without the example of leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. or thinkers like Audre Lorde and bell hooks. A healthy community identity would recognise the value of such contributions; but rather than allowing those to feed a sense of superiority, it would celebrate them for what they contribute to inclusion and the collaborative expansion of shared community.

As I have developed the Politics of Love, much of my inspiration has reached me from the U.S. But not all of it. Kaupapa Māori theory, indigenous theory from New Zealand, also shaped the ideas it incorporates. And while I look with hope to certain U.S. leaders – especially Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders – I also look to New Zealand politicians, such as Green Party leaders James Shaw and Marama Davidson; Golriz Ghahraman, the first refugee elected to our Parliament; and Chlöe Swarbrick, our youngest MP. I aspire to be international in my thinking, and, given the globalised nature of intellectual discourse, for me this partly involves affirming the contribution that my own country can make to this conversation. Integral to this has been exploring and affirming my own indigenous heritage, along with the diverse Māori cultures, knowledges, and histories of our nation. New Zealand is still grappling with our colonial past and decolonizing our present, but I believe this process is one area in which the rest of the world might learn from us.

Eventually, Adam made it to Texas. As he was being driven through Austin, he noticed a lot of Native American place names. He asked his friends – Texan locals – about the relationship between the settlers and the indigenous people. After a long pause, one responded, ‘There isn’t really any relationship.’ ‘Why not?’ Adam asked. The answer: ‘There aren’t any indigenous people in Texas.’ ‘Did they all leave?’ Adam pushed. ‘Migrate?’ ‘Well… no,’ his friend replied, ‘they were all killed.’ As I read those words, I wondered, How can a nation stand on emptiness? How can anybody – let alone an entire people – be convinced that such injustice ungrappled-with will lead to anything other than injustice everywhere?

Texas is big, Adam told me. They drove for two days across it, ‘and that wasn’t the whole width.’ He found it beguiling: ‘I felt the pull of the South West. The big wide open spaces. The infinite horizons. The mirages that look like distant oceans.’ He imagined riding his horse into the sunset. ‘For someone who grew up surrounded by seas, such landlocked landscapes seem at first inhospitable. But just like an ocean, I could imagine casting up on an island and pitching camp under a starry sky; but in this case it would be a faraway desert or plains campsite, maybe on the shoulder of a mountain.’ He imagined a feeling of security – being anchored to the infinite land. ‘You could be a man alone. Independent. (And yes, I would want the security of gun ownership for protection from wild animals and who knows what if I was living that life.)’ The geography of the South West echoed the character of its people, he reported, in a way that city folk cannot grasp until they have been there.

The boarder wall, as seen from Del Rio, Texas; beyond it, Mexico is visible
The boarder wall, as seen from Del Rio, Texas; beyond it, Mexico is visible

‘After days on the road, my head was full and my body tired,’ Adam wrote. ‘I had two days in Austin. While I digested what I’d seen and heard, I experienced a slice of Austin life. I spent a lazy afternoon on my friend’s 100-year-old ranch. Along the river that coursed through the property, the family had built homes on the bank. Each was in a different architectural style from successive decades. I noticed how quiet it was on the ranch. We toured the land and stood on the high points. The landscape stretched away, and it felt timeless. I felt very lucky to be someone from such a foreign and faraway place like New Zealand to be a guest in such a private place. This was a treasured place. It reminded me of the affinity many indigenous people feel about land in New Zealand. But with irony.’

From my standing-place, in New Zealand, it appears that things across the Pacific in the U.S. are getting worse, not better. I experience the despair that assails Adam more than I would like to reveal to him. And as I re-read Nothing Personal, I find it remarkable that so little seems to have changed in half a century. At the end of his essay, Baldwin – knowing, as a Black man, ‘how many times one has to start again’ – writes of change:

‘For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have.’

Finally, he re-affirms the importance of community:

‘The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.’

There remain among us those who believe that this world can find love. (‘For I do not for an instant doubt, and I will go to my grave believing, that we can build Jerusalem, if we will,’ Baldwin writes.) And we will work for it, hopeful that more people will join us…

Adam continues to ask me how we can realise the Politics of Love. I tell him: I think it has to do with values – such as honesty, respect, and understanding – and allowing love to guide us. The Politics of Love is possible. But it won’t just happen. Love is a journey that each of us must embark on and all of us must share in. If we do succeed, it will be because we are able to listen to each other, and because we choose to trust in togetherness. When we are truly united, we will be working for a better world for everyone, everywhere.

Philip McKibbin is a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand, of Pākehā (NZ European) and Māori (Ngāi Tahu) descent. His book Love Notes: for a Politics of Love is published by Lantern. In 2018, he co-organised ‘The Politics of Love: A Conference’ at All Souls College, Oxford. www.philip-mckibbin.com

Adam Custins is a New Zealand photographer. He studied photography at the Brooks Institute in California, and has spent much of his adult life in the U.S. He has exhibited independently as well as with others, and he has published widely. He shoots almost exclusively with analogue film and Polaroid. www.adamcustins.com

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