I love the Beatles song “All You Need Is Love.” When I find myself in times of trouble, that song is right up there with “Float On” by Modest Mouse and “You Get What You Need” by the Rolling Stones on my “Let It Be” playlist. These songs teach happiness by sublime resignation. You can’t always get what you want — life isn’t fair — and you may drive your car into a cop car. Shit happens — and there’s nothing you can do that can’t be done — you’re no hero — but life is just fine if you can remember that we’ll all float on and, in the end, get what we need. Which is love, love, love.
What beautiful nonsense.
Okay, on one level this is obviously not nonsense. When faced with a difficult situation it can be helpful to remember that we can choose to take things in stride rather than get upset about them. After all, Hamlet says, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” while Tristram Shandy opens with the Greek epigram, “We are tormented by the opinions we have of things and not by things themselves.” The Beatles’ song similarly promulgates this worldview by focusing on the individual: while there is “no one you can save that can’t be saved,” there is hope that “you can learn how to be you in time. It’s easy.”
The nonsense here is that this line of thought is being used as the backbone of a social movement. Considering the patently individualistic nature of all of the above quotations, this seems stupid, and it is.
I was at my first Pride parade recently, near a stand with two announcers naming each float and group as they walked by, and “love is all you need” was a recurring phrase of appreciation and encouragement. This seems to reflect a lot about the gay movement. There is so much emphasis on identity, on loving everyone equally because all we need to do is love people. Let them get married and let them join the army and everything will be fine. The much-mocked alphabet soup of queer identifications (LGBTQ etc.) suggests the extent to which we are focused on affirming everyone’s different identities and professing to love them for their differences.
Of course, this is an incredibly important step in the process. We do need to be able to accept everyone for their different identities and to love all people equally. Gay people do need equal access to all institutions of society, even those such as marriage and the military which are less than perfect. Further, the personal impact of feeling like you can be yourself cannot be overstated; again, the “love is all you need” philosophy makes a lot of sense at the individual level. But this is not just a movement of individuals. There is more to winning equality than having the right frame of mind. Love is not all we need.
When everything is about love, people’s world views get dangerously divorced from economic and political realities. Goldman Sachs is supportive of the gay community and so GLAAD finds itself speaking well of a company that is largely responsible for so much of the economic turmoil of the past five years. When a gay person is reduced to an identity, he or she feels pressure to support an organization that, as a citizen, he or she never would. (We also see the danger of identity politics in the discourse about illegal immigration: undocumented immigrants are treated as “illegals,” and the integral role they play in our economy remains unseen.)
The narrative that love will solve all our problems has its uses, but I worry that it will stifle this civil rights movement like it has stifled previous ones. In the sixties, the liberal class abandoned the economic issues of workers and labor unions and became more concerned with identity — with the cultural equality of blacks, for example, rather than the economic equality. After all, MLK’s message was much easier to swallow than Malcolm X’s. We started to think that as long as there were black people on TV — hell, even a black president! — that blacks must be doing okay. But we’ve become trapped in discussions of a “post-racial” America even as schools become increasingly segregated, thus preventing black children from the precise equality of opportunity that the civil rights movement was supposed to win. Similarly, the gay movement has expended its energy in the dangerously apolitical fight to allow gay people to violently colonize foreign countries as their authentic selves instead of worrying about the fact that only twelve states and the District of Columbia protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Yes, I cried when I saw the Father’s Day JCPenney ad featuring two dads and their children because that represents astonishing progress, but it also makes me aware of how profitable the gay movement is becoming for corporations. Gay people are increasingly treated as consumers who can mollified by an ad campaign and a CEO treating them like human beings. Yes, good for those companies, but we should remember that they stand to gain from such attitudes; this is as it should be, but they’re not sacrificing anything for us.
Love is not “all you need” because the truth is that you don’t always “get what you need”; I would have a hard time telling a homeless woman to just change her attitude. Love has been and will be an integral part of any civil rights movement, but we must remember that it alone is not enough, that we cannot stop here. We will only “all float on alright” from adversity when we all meet that adversity adequately equipped, with enough resources to see us through, and that goal requires not just cultural but also economic and political changes.