Animal Matters Podcast: Kōrero with Philip McKibbin

Animal Matters

Animal Matters Podcast

Kōrero with Philip McKibbin, on the Politics of Love

In this interview with Will Appelbe for SAFE’s ‘Animal Matters’ podcast, Philip McKibbin discusses the Politics of Love and its implications for non-human animals. Listen below, or follow this link: https://share.transistor.fm/s/bccafbc2

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. He co-organised ‘The Politics of Love: A Conference’ at All Souls College, Oxford. www.philip-mckibbin.com


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Love, Politics, and Veganism – Carla Alicia Suárez Félix and Philip McKibbin

Love, Politics, and Veganism

Carla Alicia Suárez Félix and Philip McKibbin

This article was originally published in Love Notes: for a Politics of Love (Lantern Books, 2019).

‘Love’ has re-entered our political vocabulary. In Aotearoa New Zealand’s 2017 general election, the Green Party campaigned on love, with co-leader James Shaw declaring, ‘I’m proud to lead a party that stands for the politics of love and inclusion, not hate and fear’; and when it formed a coalition with the Labour Party, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the government would be ‘empathetic’. In Mexico, after a devastating earthquake in 2018, people banded together in solidarity with one another, against the lack of love shown by the government. And in the United States of America, a #LoveArmy, led by Van Jones, rose to resist the hate that allied itself with Donald Trump. Worldwide, ‘love’ is being used to promote inclusivity—to rally people for gay rights, as we saw with the slogan ‘Love Wins’, and to resist discrimination directed against women, ethnic minorities, and refugees.

One area of concern still receives little attention, however, and that is animal welfare. This is remarkable for several reasons. More than 70 billion animals are raised for food every year (that’s around 10 times as many animals as there are people living on the planet), and the vast majority of these live their lives in appalling conditions. On top of this, our use of animals is having a catastrophic impact on the natural environment. Animal agriculture is among the leading causes of climate change. So far, politics has failed to address this.

The Politics of Love gives us hope. It is a values-based politics, which expresses values such as kindness, responsibility, and trust, and it is actively inclusive, affirming the importance of people, and extending beyond us to non-human animals and the natural environment. That love should inform politics has precedents in the kindness we show one another in our daily lives, as well as in feminist, civil rights, and LGBTQI movement.

When we think about our treatment of animals, it is difficult to see how it could be considered loving. The seriousness of the problem is especially evident when it comes to our use of animals for food: the poultry industry, which every year rears more than 50 billion birds—the vast majority of whom are raised in appalling conditions—for meat and eggs pales only in comparison to our inhumane treatment of cows, who are repeatedly impregnated so that they produce milk, only to have their calves torn from them at birth. But the problem extends far beyond our diets: most of us wear animals: on our feet, around our waists, on our wrists; and we use them in a variety of other ways: as parts and ingredients, for testing, for entertainment, to carry us, and to carry our things. This not only causes suffering; it involves the subordination of other sentient beings.

And when we think about love, it becomes very clear that all of this is unacceptable. Love is a way of orienting oneself, or a political community, to the larger world. It can be thought of as a combination of care, concern, and commitment, and it is inclusive of all. Our understanding of the concept is informed by bell hooks, who characterises love as anti-racist, anti-sexist, and opposed to all forms of domination. In her book All About Love, she declares, ‘Domination cannot exist in any social situation where a love ethic prevails.’ Peter Singer’s work on animals helps us to see that our treatment of them constitutes another form of domination. In Animal Liberation, he states that unless you also oppose speciesism, ‘no basis remains from which you can, without hypocrisy, criticize racism or sexism.’

Love ‘moves toward’ suffering—it concerns itself with it—as loving values such as compassion and mercy help us to see. To ignore the suffering of animals would, then, be unloving. To continue to insist that we have a right to subordinate other sentient beings would be inconsistent with a conception of love that rejects all forms of oppression. When this is understood, it becomes clear very quickly that something must change.

This change must start with our diets. Since Carol Hanisch published her paper ‘The Personal Is Political’ in 1970, most feminists have asserted that the personal is, indeed, political: issues that are generally understood as personal, such as domestic work, reproductive decisions, and child-rearing, involve power relations, and for this reason should be understood as political. In her article, ‘The Personal is Political: Feminism and Anti-Speciesism’, philosopher Catia Faria extends this slogan to include what we eat. When we think about all of the implications of this ‘simple’ decision, we realise that it is not merely a personal choice: it has huge implications for the environment, for people, and—most significantly—for other sentient beings. In order to mitigate these harms, we must resist animal agriculture.

Vegetarianism is not enough. It is true that the suffering involved in meat production is abhorrent, and that by transitioning from an omnivorous diet to a vegetarian one an individual can drastically reduce the amount of suffering she enacts. Simply by ceasing to eat pig meat, for example, she will avoid contributing to the unnecessary suffering of these remarkably intelligent, highly social animals. However, the suggestion that by cutting meat out of her diet she is no longer complicit in animal suffering is false. A diet that no longer contains animal flesh, but includes, for example, eggs, dairy, and gelatine, still involves unnecessary suffering. If she is truly committed to avoiding unnecessary suffering, this individual will transition to veganism—a diet that eschews all animal products.

As millions of vegans worldwide are demonstrating, fears that we cannot thrive—let alone survive—without eating animal products are unfounded. Numerous organisations, including the British Dietetic Association and the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, now recognise vegan diets as suitable for every age and stage of human life. We can nourish ourselves without engaging in the unnecessary harm that animal agriculture requires.

However, vegan diets do not completely avoid harm. Lori Gruen, a prominent ecofeminist, reminds us that even vegan diets necessitate the suffering and death of sentient beings. She writes:

‘Living today, even for vegans, involves participating unwittingly in the death of sentient individuals. […] We harm others (humans and non-humans) in all aspects of food production. Many are displaced when land is converted for agricultural purposes, including highly endangered animals… Animals, birds, and insects are killed when fields and plants are harvested. Though it is hard to calculate the harms to human and other animals from climate changes as a result of greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector, it is impossible not to contribute to these harms and still eat. Vegan diets are less harmful than those that include animal products, to be sure, but the harms and deaths occur nonetheless.’

Rather, veganism involves a commitment to avoiding harm wherever possible. Recognising the moral centrality of veganism is necessary if we are to avoid domination. As Alice Walker has written, ‘The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.’ Veganism is the best way to resist speciesism—and it is much more than a personal decision. Understood as part of a loving political movement, it can help us to realise a less discriminatory and more fair society for all. Veganism, not vegetarianism, then, must be understood as the ‘moral baseline’ to which we should aspire.

It might be thought that we should simply leave animals alone—and in some cases, this may very well be the best course of action, especially when it comes to wild animal populations whose lives are not significantly impacted by human activity. But we want to suggest that, instead, we should cultivate loving relationships with animals. Just as children often take it upon themselves to nurse injured animals back to health, and similarly to how many of us have developed loving relationships with companion animals, we should develop loving ways of relating to animals. These relationships will take many forms, but they should demonstrate care, concern, and commitment. Veganism, with its commitment to reducing suffering wherever possible, can be understood as one facet of a loving orientation toward the non-human world.

As we have mentioned, love is not indifferent to suffering. Instead, it works to alleviate it. This is an area in which our spiritual traditions give instruction. Many diverse traditions advocate compassion for non-human animals. Perhaps the best example of this can be found in Jainism. In this tradition, all life is considered sacred and inviolable. Mahâvîra, a Jainist teacher, claims in the Âkârâṅga Sûtra that:

‘All beings are fond of life, like pleasure, hate pain, shun destruction, like life, long to live. To all life is dear. […] All breathing, existing, living sentient creatures should not be slain, nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor driven away.’

Jainism even has a ritual for repenting transgressions, which involves asking for forgiveness from all living beings. The idea that we should show compassion toward all forms of life is, then, not exclusive to veganism; it forms an integral part of longstanding human traditions. Nor is it sentimental; compassion is an act of love toward life itself.

Another spiritual figure who advocated compassion toward non-human animals was Mahātmā Gandhi. He preached non-violence, and insisted that the key to this was abandoning our own comfort for the sake of others—including non-human animals.

Gandhi promoted what we would now call a vegan diet (the word ‘vegan’ had not been coined then). And in the conclusion to his Hind Swaraj, he expressed his opposition to vivisection, or performing experiments on living animals. Gandhi thought materialism led to a lack of morality. Today, we can see that our so-called ‘progress’ has been built on the corpses of nature—humans’ and non-humans’. Gandhi, like Te Whiti o Rongomai before him and Martin Luther King, Jr. after him, showed us that non-violence can be more persuasive than violence. He believed that violence and evil are mutually reinforcing, and that non-violent resistance was the way to fight evil.

The Politics of Love does not exalt self-sacrifice. It does, however, insist that we act against injustice. We must work to be just ourselves, and we must stand up to the injustice of others. We can do this by refusing to participate in harmful practices (for example, by refusing to drink cows’ milk), by actively supporting the development of alternatives (for example, by switching to plant-based milks), and by engaging in other forms of strategic action aimed at exposing and overcoming exploitation (as, for example, Farmwatch—who conduct covert, often illegal, surveillance of farms, and who sometimes rescue animals—does in Aotearoa New Zealand).

Significantly, the Politics of Love gives expression to loving values, such as mutuality and moral courage. These can guide us as we work to realise love individually and collectively—and it is values like these that lead us to veganism.

We believe that different forms of discrimination are interconnected, and that they must be addressed together—which is to say that we look at speciesism through the lens of intersectionality. For example, we think that feminism without veganism is incoherent. Anti-sexist movement risks being undermined by speciesist ideology if we as feminists do not also condemn the oppression of non-human animals. In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, bell hooks writes:

‘Individuals who fight for the eradication of sexism without supporting struggles to end racism or classism undermine their own efforts. Individuals who fight for the eradication of racism or classism while supporting sexist oppression are helping to maintain the cultural basis of all forms of group oppression.’

We know that some people will take exception to our assertion that you cannot be truly anti-sexism without also being anti-speciesism—just as some people still believe it is possible to be anti-racism while holding on to sexist ideas. We know that this claim will upset some people; we understand that it is confrontational. We make it deliberately, because positive change will not occur without confrontation. As feminists, we stand in solidarity with those people who are struggling against gender oppression. Our intention is not to minimise the work that has been, and is being, done to promote gender equality; rather, we are arguing that the feminist project will not fully succeed while other forms of oppression remain unchallenged.

Our argument is confrontational in another way. Some people find it offensive to compare human suffering with that of non-human animals. Marjorie Spiegel, in her book The Dreaded Comparison, writes on human and animal slavery:

‘Comparing the suffering of animals to that of blacks (or any other oppressed group) is offensive only to the speciesist; one who has embraced the false notions of what animals are like. Those who are offended by the comparison to a fellow sufferer have fallen for the propaganda spewed forth by the oppressors. To deny our similarities to animals is to deny and undermine our own power. It is to continue actively struggling to prove to our oppressors, past or present, that we are similar to our oppressors, rather than those whom our oppressors have also victimized. It is to say that we would rather be more like those who have victimized us, rather than like those who have also been victims. Let us remember that to the oppressors, there is often very little difference between one victim and the next.’

As feminists, we understand the importance of confrontation to advancing social change. When women gained the vote in Aotearoa New Zealand in 1893—among the first in the world to do so—this success was attributable, in part, to confrontation: persuasion, protest, and petitions. As we continue to struggle against oppression, we must resist the cultural amnesia that characterises domination and privilege. We will not apologise for being confrontational, because we understand it as positive and necessary.

Importantly, this confrontation must be non-violent. The Politics of Love recognises that constructive dialogue and action are superior to violence, which causes suffering and often reproduces dominant hierarchies. We must ground our resistance in non-violence—regardless of whether it is for humans or non-humans. A contemporary example of non-violent resistance is the Black Mambas, an all-female, anti-poaching, paramilitary patrol. These women, recruited from local communities in South Africa, protect rhinoceroses and elephants from poachers, armed only with pepper spray and handcuffs. Every month, they spend 21 days patrolling on foot or by jeep at dawn and at dusk, looking for traps and footprints and listening for gunshots and other suspicious activity. This resistance group has contributed to a 76% reduction in poaching since 2013.

Increasingly, animal advocates are recognising the need to highlight the connection between our exploitation of animals and other forms of exploitation. In his excellent book Growl, Kim Stallwood writes:

‘Long a moral crusade, animal rights now needs to be a political movement as well, embedding itself fully within other social justice movements and drawing inspiration, support, and knowledge from the other activists. Advocates need to engage in these other struggles, not merely because it’s the ethical thing to do, but because we need to show that our struggle is the struggle of these other social movements and their coalitions as well: that animal rights is their fight, too. We’ve long expressed our bafflement at how other social movements fail to ‘get’ that animal rights is a social justice concern. We need to show them that animal rights is also about fighting food insecurity, protecting the environment and biodiversity, and opposing sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice.’

Some people mistake concern for animals as being against people. Far from being ‘anti-people’, the Politics of Love affirms the importance of people. It recognises the parallels between the way we treat animals and how we treat each other. As Carol Adams has written, ‘incorporating animals into the dialogue and activism of social change doesn’t eliminate humans from concern; it just reassembles the players by disempowering that human/animal boundary that enforces oppression.’

The Politics of Love holds that people are, essentially, noble. We believe that most, if not all, people want to be good, and actively strive to do the right thing. We think that, just as most of us don’t want to be racist or sexist, when they appreciate the connection between these forms of oppression and speciesism most people won’t want to be speciesist either.

In his little book How to Love, Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh argues that when we hurt others, often it isn’t because we intend to hurt them, but because we are unskilful:

‘Very often, our mistakes come from our unskillfulness, and not because we want to harm one another. I think of our behaviour in terms of being more or less skillful rather than in terms of good or bad. If you are skillful, you can avoid making yourself suffer, and the other person suffer.’

Veganism requires us to develop what we might think of as ‘loving skills’—that is, skills which enable us to act in loving ways—including, for example, the ability to select vegan products, which involves knowing what to look for, and the capacity to prepare nourishing vegan meals. It also requires us to develop sensitivity to the suffering of others (which might also be thought of as a loving value).

Importantly, the Politics of Love is understanding. It does not hold our past mistakes against us. Informed by the values of understanding, forgiveness, and humility, it seeks to contextualise harmful behaviour, recognising that there are many factors informing our capacity to love.

Lori Gruen makes a related point in explaining her stance on veganism:

‘Though most of us can readily eschew animal parts in our own diets, ecofeminists are mindful of the violence perpetuated in many gendered, racialized, and colonial contexts as well as the realities of a changing climate and thus forgo top-down, absolute universalizing judgments that everyone, everywhere should see “veganism as a moral baseline.” Instead, most ecofeminists argue for “contextual moral veganism” that recognizes both the moral centrality of a vegan diet and contextual exigencies that impede one’s ability to live without directly killing or using others.’

The Politics of Love is not blind to the circumstances in which we live our lives. Rather, it is forward-looking, focusing on creating conditions under which we can express love. Unfortunately, many people feel threatened by veganism, because it implies a moral judgment, and because its steadfast opposition to harmful practices is often mistaken for a condemnation of the people who participate in those harms. The Politics of Love does not seek to condemn people, and it is not interested in punishment. Rather, it asks us what we will do now, for love, to make our world a better place for all of those who share it.

Carla Alica Suárez Félix is a Mexican philosopher and activist. She is the organiser of the Circle of Antispeciesist Studies in Querétaro, and she works on the following topics: speciesism, animal exploitation, bioethics, feminism, ecofeminism, ethics, deconstruction, and posthumanism.

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. He co-organised ‘The Politics of Love: A Conference’ at All Souls College, Oxford. www.philip-mckibbin.com


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We Are All Animal Lovers – Kim Stallwood and Philip McKibbin

We Are All Animal Lovers

Kim Stallwood and Philip McKibbin

This article was originally published on www.kimstallwood.com

Would you describe yourself as an ‘animal lover’? It isn’t difficult to find people who say they love animals. Many of us have cats or dogs, or both. In the United Kingdom, for example, almost half of households have pets. Very often these animals are thought of as family members. And a lot of us enjoy watching television programmes like David Attenborough’s that bring the wonders of the natural world into our homes. Yet most of those who call themselves ‘animal lovers’ knowingly participate in animal cruelty – by eating meat, for example. Children easily appreciate the inconsistency here, but most adults still make excuses for their behaviour.

At the same time, many people in the animal rights movement reject the term ‘animal lover’. Not only do they claim not to love animals, a lot of them say they don’t own animals, either. When they do share their lives with animals, it’s usually with rescued animals who they think of as companions rather than pets. They feel that the word ‘love’ devalues the work that they do, and they insist that it’s possible to respect animals’ rights and work to make their lives better without feeling any affection for them. ‘Love,’ they say, doesn’t come into it.

It was partly in response to the label ‘animal lover’ that pioneering animal ethicists such as Peter Singer and Tom Regan adopted an overly-rational approach in their work – one which has since been critiqued by ecofeminists, who instead emphasise relationships and explore our interconnectedness with nature. Some philosophers even argue that ‘love’ is the wrong motivation for justice. In his book Animal Liberation, Peter Singer writes:

‘No one, except a racist concerned to smear his opponents as ‘nigger-lovers’, would suggest that in order to be concerned about equality for mistreated racial minorities you have to love those minorities, or regard them as cute and cuddly. So why make this assumption about people who work for improvements in the conditions of animals?’

The term ‘animal lover’ has been used to denigrate people who display affection or concern for animals. Those who care about animals are often characterised as abnormal – as the term ‘crazy cat lady’ illustrates. While tropes like this exist for women, men’s affection for animals is confined to the image of the pitiful singleton who lives with his cat and no one else. (There’s also the country man and his dog, but he’s typically understood as unaffectionate; he may enjoy the dog’s company, but he doesn’t express that joy.)

‘Real men’ aren’t supposed to care about animals – but our own experiences reveal that the opposite is true. After years of campaigning for animal rights, Kim discovered that he could also love animals when he was adopted by a homeless chihuahua called Boobaa who welcomed him into his heart. And during an especially painful period in Philip’s life, when he had to move back into his parents’ house, he formed a close friendship with their cat, Minnie; that relationship taught him that animals can have complex personalities, and that some are even capable of empathy. We know that our experiences aren’t unusual. Lots of people – girls and boys, women and men – have loving relationships with other animals, and do everything they can to make them happy.

Booba
Kim discovered that he could also love animals when he was adopted by a homeless chihuahua called Boobaa

The idea that we shouldn’t care about animals has its basis in notions of superiority and inferiority – the same hierarchical logic that holds that men and boys are more important than women and girls, and that ‘white’ people are more important than non-whites. As Alice Walker writes in her preface to Marjorie Spiegel’s book, The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, ‘The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.’

The term ‘animal lover’ is particularly problematic, because – as Singer’s quote suggests – it echoes the term ‘n*****-lover’, a racist insult that has been used to disparage those who defend human rights. The term ‘n*****-lover’ isn’t very common today, but historically it was used in a variety of colonial contexts around the world, such as Aotearoa New Zealand, where it was aimed at Pākehā (Europeans) who defended Māori rights.

Some people argue that we shouldn’t draw associations between our treatment of animals and racial oppression, because comparisons between certain ethnic groups and animals have themselves been used to oppress people, but as Spiegel writes:

‘Comparing the suffering of animals to that of blacks (or any other oppressed group) is offensive only to the speciesist; one who has embraced the false notions of what animals are like. Those who are offended by the comparison to a fellow sufferer have fallen for the propaganda spewed forth by the oppressors. To deny our similarities to animals is to deny and undermine our own power. It is to continue actively struggling to prove to our oppressors, past or present, that we are similar to our oppressors, rather than those whom our oppressors have also victimized. It is to say that we would rather be more like those who have victimized us, rather than like those who have also been victims. Let us remember that to the oppressors, there is often very little difference between one victim and the next.’

In their book, Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters, Aph and Syl Ko further explore the relationship between racism and speciesism, arguing that the two are inextricably connected. As Syl explains in one of her essays, ‘Racism is simultaneously anti­-black and anti-animal, as seen by racial ideology’s elevation and celebration of “the human” and “humanity” particularly as Western and white.’ We will not dismantle racism or speciesism if we do not address these connections.

The conviction that some of us are more important than others, and the belief that it’s okay to hurl abuse at people for caring about others – whether those others are human or non-human animals – are harmful ideas, and we must resist them. We think it’s time to embrace the term ‘animal lover’. We want to transform the label, and infuse its meaning with a commitment to animal rights. Love is something that all of us have in common – those who call ourselves ‘animal lovers’, and those of us in the animal rights movement. All of us care about animals, even if we express our love in different ways. And every day, more of us are becoming animal activists: initiatives like ‘Meatless Monday’ are growing in popularity, and more people than ever before are adopting vegetarian diets and vegan lifestyles, often citing our horrendous treatment of animals as the main reason for making a change.

The Politics of Love can help us to think through our relationships with other animals. Love can be thought of as an orientation, or ‘attitude’ – as, that is, a way of relating to the world we share. The Politics of Love elaborates this relationship: it affirms loving values, such as compassion, truth, and justice (all of which are affirmed by the animal rights movement), and it upholds commitments, such as its commitment to non-violence.

Even though it isn’t always viewed as such, our treatment of other animals is a political issue. To love animals is political. Politics is a dimension of ethics – it concerns its relational aspects – and as feminists have long maintained, ‘the personal is political’. What we eat is political, in the same way that who’s cooking dinner tonight is political – especially if we’re eating others! When we understand this, we see ‘choice’ as yet another privilege.

What does love have to do with this? Love is something that all of us view as important. As such, it can unite us. Focusing on love helps us to see that compassion is a value that all of us share – even if we don’t express our compassion very well, or are reluctant to acknowledge its basis in love. All of us want to express our compassion for animals, whether our love for them sprang from strong affection or from a deep respect for their rights. The Politics of Love urges us to come together, and it supports us in doing so.

Importantly, the Politics of Love also gives us direction. As well as allowing animal activists to see that our work is, in fact, loving, it can extend our concern. We have both experienced this: Kim’s relationship with Boobaa gave his activism a depth that it previously lacked, and Philip’s relationship with Minnie helped ensure that he didn’t ignore other animals while he was developing the Politics of Love. Simultaneously, it enables those who call themselves ‘animal lovers’ to see that more is required of them than just attending to the needs of their companion animals, or speaking out against the abuse of animals that they like such as dogs, while ignoring similarly abusive activities like rodeos and circuses. Significantly, the Politics of Love asks not only that we care about animals’ suffering, but also that we care about them – just as it asks us to care about each other, as beings who have intrinsic value.

Minnie
Philip’s relationship with Minnie helped ensure that he didn’t ignore other animals while he was developing the Politics of Love

In her book Living Among Meat Eaters: The Vegetarian’s Survival Handbook, ecofeminist Carol J. Adams suggests that those of us who don’t eat meat should understand meat eaters as ‘blocked vegetarians’, as vegetarians who are somehow stuck. This allows us ‘to restore to meat eaters the humanity their own actions sometimes deny.’ This strategy enables us to view them positively, learning from our interactions with them – rather than being discouraged by the rude and frustrating behaviour that meat eaters sometimes exhibit. She writes:

‘Viewing meat eaters as blocked vegetarians also gives us a place to stand, and a fulcrum. We truly are the mover rather than the moved. We are inviting them to us, not trying to conform to their agenda. In addition, we are optimistic: we believe in the possibility of change. We did it. Craven we may once have been, but we overcame our fears and cowardice. That is why we can believe in change for others: we were once there.’

The Politics of Love develops this strategy, but it recognises that vegetarians and vegans can also be unskilful in love. It asks that we treat each disagreement as an opportunity to learn. It is important that we do this from a place of humility: each of us has something to teach, and even more to learn. If those of us who identify as ‘animal lovers’ commit to learning from those in the animal rights movement, and if those of us in the animal rights movement make a similar commitment, we will nurture a caring world for everyone.

Even though those who will benefit most from our strengthened love are non-human animals, we too will be better off because of it. The Politics of Love can free us to be our loving selves. With its intersectional commitment anti-racism, anti-sexism, and anti-classism, and its determination to dismantle all forms of oppression, this vision of politics critiques patriarchy and with it those conceptions of masculinity that teach us that men can’t care about other animals, as well as sexist stereotypes that encourage us to believe that caring about other animals renders women ‘crazy’. Animal liberation is human liberation.

There are, of course, people who neither particularly enjoy being around animals, nor work for their well-being. What of them? Love asks us to actively extend our circle of concern, and it challenges us to recognise those who our privileges allow us to overlook. Importantly, it teaches us that speciesism is similar to racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of hierarchical thinking, and it urges us to understand that in order to overcome one of these, we must struggle against them all. It requires us to see that respecting animals’ rights is not optional – any more than, say, respecting gay rights is optional. It is not possible to respect rights without loving, because respecting rights is, inherently, an act of love.

It is time to embrace our love of non-human animals. In doing so, not only will we better express our compassion, but we will also be able to love more fully. All of us will benefit from this – but those who benefit most will be the animals, who will be, and feel, loved by us, and who will have a much lesser chance of being victims of human cruelty.

We are all animal lovers.

Kim Stallwood is an author, consultant, and independent scholar in animal advocacy and the academic field of animal studies. His book, Growl: Life Lessons, Hard Truths, and Bold Strategies from an Animal Advocate with a foreword by Brian May, is published by Lantern. He became a vegetarian in 1974 after working in a chicken slaughterhouse, and he has been a vegan since 1976. He lives in the United Kingdom and, and often works in the United States. He is a member of the board of directors of the Culture and Animals Foundation. www.kimstallwood.com

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. He co-organised ‘The Politics of Love: A Conference’ at All Souls College, Oxford. www.philip-mckibbin.com


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In Solidarity – Kathleen Lynch and Philip McKibbin

In Solidarity

Kathleen Lynch and Philip McKibbin

Wherever we look, we see distrust and violence. Oppression is everywhere: racism, sexism, ableism, and speciesism appear to be entrenched. And we have brought our planet to the very edge of climate catastrophe. Our social, political, and economic structures are not equal to the challenges before us – in fact, they are complicit in the injustices shaping our lives.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos last year, Oxfam presented its Time to Care report. It highlighted the stark polarisation in global wealth: the world’s 2,153 billionaires own more wealth than 4.6 billion people, and the 22 richest men in the world own more wealth than all of the women of Africa. It called on governments to build ‘a human economy’, one which is feminist, and which values care and solidarity above profit and wealth.

The Politics of Love, underpinned by an ethic of care, radically conceived, could move us toward social, species, and environmental justice. It does not simply propose an intervention; it imagines a reality beyond the deep-rooted structural injustices of today. We believe that politics needs to engage with principles of love, care, and solidarity, so that people can recognise the suffering of others and learn to feel as well as to know. Solidarity is what will enable us to make progress against the forces that are dividing us. It will allow us to realise the Politics of Love.

We have seen examples of solidarity in recent years. In Ireland, for example, there were marches and protests in all the major towns and cities against the privatisation of water during the austerity era. These culminated in a Right2Water campaign from 2014-2016, leading to a climbdown by government so that water remained in public ownership. And even more recently, in Aotearoa New Zealand, in a show of support for tangata whenua (the Indigenous people), tens of thousands of people – Māori and non-Māori – have demonstrated at Ihumātao, halting the planned development on culturally important Māori land.

What, exactly, is solidarity? Solidarity is a political principle that recognises our interdependence and reaffirms our mutuality. It also allows space for our differences. Solidarity represents a commitment: it aspires to enduring togetherness. It supplants values of self-interest and distrust with hope and possibility. It generates a different way of thinking in politics, beyond separateness, competition, colonisation, and aggrandisement.

Neoliberalism is the dominant ideology of our times, and it operates to undermine solidarity. It is premised on giving primacy to the market in the organisation not only of economic, but of political and social life, as well: the norms of the market provide the ethical framework for decision-making. It is allied with patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism. And it is careless. It represents us as atomised, selfish, and in competition with each other; as such, it is antithetical to relations of care. This is reflected in many public policies, including, for example, the failure to provide accessible, high-quality publicly-funded childcare and care for others who are vulnerable, especially in old age; the lack of affordable housing and public transport, which forces people into long hours of commuting at high cost to ourselves; and the growing rate of casualised and zero-hours contracts which cause anxiety and leave us (especially young people) unable to plan our personal lives, due to lack of income and housing security.

When we allow market values to dictate our present and decide our future, we risk abandoning the project of individual and collective responsibility and ‘depoliticising’ politics itself. A sort of fatalism emerges, where we learn to wait passively for a pre-ordained future, one that is ‘beyond our control’ – but this ignores the obvious fact that we are the makers of history, and that politics is in our hands. If people are to engage in politics, politics itself must speak to us as ethics: in ways, that is, that appeal to our relational and moral selves.

So, we must transcend neoliberalism. How can we do this? First, we must rethink our understanding of ourselves. The story that neoliberalism tells us about what we are like is untrue. We are highly interdependent, both individually and collectively. And we are able to give to others and contribute in many ways, not all of which are best understood in terms of labour, finance, or economics. In acknowledging our interrelatedness, we will reclaim and vivify politics. Second, we should affirm and uphold loving values, such as care, generosity, and gratitude – values which remind us that it is with and through others that life is meaningful. These values can guide action and inform policy, and they will help to ensure that the Politics of Love remains resilient. And third, we must repudiate the competition that undermines unity: we must replace the logic of possession and consumption with trust in love, care, and solidarity. This includes undoing competition between individuals, which sees us fixating on power, money, and status; but it also extends to market competition. The idea that for one of us to succeed, someone else must fail is false. We should celebrate and enable cooperation as a core principle of social, political, and economic organising. This process begins with educating our children in the theory and practice of cooperative principles.

Solidarity consists in action. It is not enough simply to feel and think, we must also act. What, then, might we do? When we engage in loving dialogue – listening to each other, as well as communicating honestly and respectfully – we demonstrate our commitment to one another, and to our common concerns. We should also seek out ways of connecting. In their essay ‘Disabling of the QTPoC Future’, in the book The Solidarity Struggle (2016), for example, Ngọc Loan Trần makes connections between queer and disabled people:

‘For me there is a commonality that exists for queers and disabled folks: there is no body that is truly fit for this ableist and capitalist system. There is no body that exists (and not due to ableism alone) that is fit, on a human level, to be perfect or enough. [It is important to acknowledge] that none of our bodies are enough within the state or systems of oppression. Disabled bodies, queer bodies, fat bodies, bodies or color, femme and feminized bodies face the violent forces that desire us to be able-bodied, heterosexual, skinny, white, and masculine…’

In making this connection, they suggest how we might make further connections – connections which will allow us to be together, and for each other, in all of our diversity. And we must show up for one another: we should recognise that others’ moral worth rests on the same foundation as our own and relate their struggles to those we experience.

Importantly, solidarity can extend beyond us as human beings. It involves ways of being that respect our connections to the natural world. We see this in the animal liberation movement, which affirms that we, too, are animals. It is also evident in Indigenous worldviews, which understand us as being part of nature. A Māori worldview, for example, conceives of people in terms of relationships, the most fundamental of which are to the natural world. Ways of being that are in solidarity with the natural world imagine us as integral to it, rather than above it, or separate from it. It is love which allows us to act on this understanding. When we realise that we are not the only ones threatened by climate change – when we understand that other animals, ecosystems, and the planet itself are also worthy of love, and that they are threatened, too – we will be in solidarity with the rest of nature. Then, we will be able to work with natural systems, in ways that are non-dominating, to avert climate catastrophe.

The Politics of Love reimagines our relationships. However, it also recognises that political resolutions to injustices require major structural and institutional changes, especially to the dominant neoliberal capitalist model of our time. Solidarity would see us democratising public and private institutions, creating secure non-exploitative forms of employment and wealth ownership, building nurturing welfare systems, fully resourcing caring love and solidarity work, collectivising natural resources, and regulating industries that threaten our health and environment – re-creating our world through collective action. These are changes from which all of humanity, as well as other species and the planet itself, will benefit.

Solidarity enables us to affirm the importance of that which seems separate to us. Significantly, it challenges the binary distinctions that divide us on grounds of race, nationality, religion, and gender – as well as those which hold ours to be the superior species, and which teach that we are distinct from nature rather than part of it. It urges us to recognise that we are all in this together. When we unite in solidarity, we will realise the Politics of Love.

Kathleen Lynch is a Professor in Education and Professor Emerita of Equality Studies at University College Dublin. She played a leading role in establishing the UCD Equality Studies Centre and the UCD School of Social Justice. She is lead author of Affective Equality: Love, Care and Injustice, and New Managerialism: Commercialisation, Carelessness and Gender. Her new book, Care and Capitalism, will be published in 2021 by Polity Press.

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. He co-organised ‘The Politics of Love: A Conference’ at All Souls College, Oxford. www.philip-mckibbin.com


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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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