What drives white nationalists? Love. | Opinion

Southern Secessionists
Members of the Ku Klux Klan are escorted by police past a large group of protesters during a rally in Charlottesville, Va.

Pete Tefft, a white nationalist who was part of the violence in Virginia in August, responded to critics by claiming that “fascism is just loving your family and doing what’s best for your nation.” And that is a fairly standard response from white nationalists. Love is ostensibly what drives their ideology and actions, their marches and rallies, their politics and personal choices. They do what they do, they’ll declare (and quite sincerely), because they love. And that is the entire problem.

For a city like Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love (and Sisterly Affection), determining exactly what we mean by love — as a political and social community — is no trivial matter.

White supremacists have learned to love in just the ways we all have — partially, imperfectly, and exclusively. They imagine that it is their responsibility, their right, and even their God-given duty to reserve their love for those they consider most like them. It is a more virulent, offensive, and frightening expression of love than we have been used to seeing in public, especially since the 1960s, when the civil rights movement was fairly successful at demonizing explicit displays of racial hatred, but it is not, in some ways, an atypical version of how we’ve all been taught.

We love “us,” which means the only question, then, is who counts as the “us” worthy of our love. The idea of “race” has convinced many Americans that we can portion out love, affection, and caring in ways that line up with this biologically faulty social category.

The American body politic has long understood “us” and “them” in racial terms. Economist Glenn Loury argues that if the inner-city’s issues linked to poverty were considered “our problem” and not “their problem” by white suburbanites, there would be much more urgency to fix the terrible circumstances of our urban poor. A similar contention animates current claims that mainstream news and governmental responses to the opioid epidemic have been much more merciful, humane, and holistic than reactions to the scourge of crack cocaine have ever been.

If we reserve love for versions of “us,” we are left with a range of bankrupt responses to “them” that can go from indifference (if “they” have no impact on the people “we” care about) to fear (if “we” think that “they” might be able to hurt the ones “we” love) to full-throated and unabashed hate (if “we” believe the damage “they” can wreak on “us” has already been done).

This is a weak and feeble kind of loving, and the person who can kill others without compunction is only its most brainwashed and strident adherent. In a sense, we’ve all inherited this paltry, defensive, and protectionist brand of love, woefully limited and far less than lofty.

The point isn’t about moral equivalency here. I don’t buy the idea of “value pluralism,” a term made popular by philosopher Isaiah Berlin, if it means  white supremacy has a legitimate place in American society. However, I do think we give ourselves far too much credit if we don’t recognize the Trojan-horse versions of hate embedded in the overly circumscribed and self-destructively partial ways in which we all practice love.

I was in China when the Virginian violence erupted, which also felt like a strange place to be given the escalating rhetoric between Washington and Pyongyang. I also happened to be learning how to write the Chinese character for love (爱) when I got news about the racist who purposefully drove his car into counterprotesters. And one of the most important things I was told about that particular character is that it includes all eight strokes that Chinese writers have at their disposal, signifying its aspiration to be all-inclusive and even universal.

The question is, can we be convinced to love more universally, more inclusively, and more expansively? Can we teach ourselves to love better and without culturally concocted limitations that are both irresponsible and antisocial? What I try to convince my social work and social policy students, my future nonprofit leaders, each and every semester is that their jobs entail learning how to love bigger, to love healthier. I tell them their lives and the lives of the people they will work with as professionals depend on it.

Tell me whom you purport to love, where and how you draw your line around your own version of “us,” and I can predict your policy proposals, political behaviors, and most intimate personal investments more effectively than any big data algorithm ever could. And it will also be clear if you’ve convinced yourself that violently attacking some vilified and phantom “them” is your own heartbreaking expression of love.

John L. Jackson Jr., dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice, is working on a book and documentary series about the links between love and social justice. deanjackson@sp2.upenn.edu