Preemptive Love Isn’t Really Love

By Rinku Sen Jan 20, 2009

The part of today’s swearing-in that remains clear, hours after the event, is a line from Elizabeth Alexander’s poem. I’m not a big on poetry – I’m too plot-oriented and speedy, and the stillness required to enjoy most poetry generally escapes me. I nearly went to sleep when she started in on love — what a cliché! But then, this gem that perfectly tapped the source of all my fidgeting in the midst of this undoubtedly amazing political moment. Alexander called for a particular thing: Love with no need to preempt grievance. Haven’t most of us experienced that other kind? Preempting grievance means that from the beginning, there’s an understanding, spoken or tacit, that we will not speak of any harm, we will not express affront. We must not reproach, complain or resist. This is the kind of love that undergirds abusive marriages and secretive families. It gives birth to miserably tense holidays in which we carry ourselves so rigidly that we can’t eat, laugh or play tag football. This kind of non-love isn’t just a private thing. It can be the way of nations and governments also. As I was writing The Accidental American and reflecting on the dismal immigration and civil rights record of the nation since 9/11, a prominent economist told me the question I would have to answer as I peddled the book: "Rinku, why do you hate this country so much?" This is the kind of love that conservatives will demand from us in the next period. The kind that says, as the Hudson Institute does, that all racism has ended, so there’s no need for affirmative action. The kind that says, as former Education Secretary Bill Bennett did the day after the election, "Black men have no more excuses." Sometimes even liberals and progressives, perhaps unwittingly, will reinforce the silence. Loving Obama, loving this moment in our political history might well lead us to censor ourselves with reminders of how many problems he inherited and how many people are out to kill him. What a dilemma! Our ancestors had to confront this same definition of love – when Japanese Americans protested internment, when Black soldiers fought for equal right after WWII, when Puerto Ricans worked to get the US military out of Vieques. So many examples. None of them with the backdrop of a Black Presidency. The power to preempt doesn’t belong to all of us – only to, well, the powerful. Think of it as an act of war that prevents you from fighting back. The idea that something productive may live at the other end of that struggle never occurs to the one in power, only to the aggrieved. This preemptive kind of love isn’t really love at all – it’s just obedience. You can’t have an obedient people and an engaged people at the same time. So, I’m going to take the poet at her word, and hold the President accountable to her implication. I’m going to move ahead assuming that he’ll feel the love, without no need to preempt our grievances.