“All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need”
“I love Jewish people, but I also love Nazis.”
— Kanye “Ye” West
I have had moments in my life when I’ve wondered why we can’t all just love one another. There is an absolutely awful song from the 1970s called “The World Song,” which is about the entire world getting together, ending its many conflicts, and just making sweet music together.1 I genuinely think it may have some of the worst lyrics ever written. (“Africa could take the bass with the Asians / Melody promotes our East-West relations / Russia and the USA would be singing / Everybody’s bells and hearts would be ringing.”2)
In our own time, the closest analogue of the “World Song” that comes to mind is the mural painted last year in Australia (and sold as an NFT, because of course it was), depicting a Ukrainian soldier and a Russian soldier forgetting their differences and hugging each other:
Local Ukrainians were deeply upset by the mural, and it’s not hard to see why. To them, it was like recommending that an assault victim and their assailant should just set their differences aside and hug things out. It was spectacularly naive and insulting, implying that after seeing their cities and towns bombed, with horrible incidents of sexual violence and the killing of sheltering civilians, the appropriate Ukrainian response would be to embrace Russia rather than resist. I think many Palestinians would probably be equally annoyed by a mural encouraging them to hug IDF soldiers.
Still, I do understand the spirit of the “World Song” and those graphics of children of all cultures holding hands around the world. From the outside, conflict can appear so needless. It is sad and tragic that Russia and Ukraine, two countries with much in common, are engaged in a hideous war that does not look like it will end soon and could even conceivably spiral out of control and spark a world war. Many Russian soldiers are clearly fighting a war they don’t have much interest in and were lied into, and obviously Ukrainian soldiers would prefer not to have to be fending off an aggressor, so it would be nice if we could live in a world where these soldiers could lay down their arms and treat one another as brothers. Unfortunately, the world we actually live in has state power concentrated in the hands of maniacs who use ordinary people as little chess pieces in power struggles, forcing them to tear each other apart for the sake of the rulers’ geopolitical goals.
I certainly think we should aspire to create a world where there is no armed conflict and everyone in the world sees everyone else in the world as part of a vast community of siblings. I am an unabashed utopian and a proponent of forgiveness, kindness, and mercy. But I also recognize that being naive about the sources of conflict can be cruel, and can implicitly take sides even while pretending to maintain neutrality.
Kanye West’s recent comments on Nazis show the reductio ad absurdum of an approach that says “I love all sides.” West has been called a Nazi sympathizer, and he is. (It doesn’t get more literal than “I like Hitler.”) But his official position is that he loves both Jewish people and Nazis, and when he was kicked off Twitter for posting a swastika, he had actually posted a swastika inside a Star of David accompanied by the text “YE24 LOVE EVERYONE.” Of course, this was reported as posting a swastika, because nobody knows what the hell a swastika inside a Star of David is supposed to mean, and nobody can take seriously the claim to “love Jewish people” if it is accompanied by a claim to also love those who murdered six million Jewish people.
There is a certain strain of thinking that views love as unambiguously positive and hate as unambiguously negative. Thus a person should be trying to love everybody and minimize the amount of hate they feel. “Hate” is associated with bigotry, violence, and war, while love is what gets us to the multicultural utopia of the “World Song.” The person who shows universal love is embodying the spirit of Jesus Christ, who felt no hate and forgave all.
It is not quite right, however, to say that Jesus just loved everybody unconditionally and felt nothing but positive feelings. He certainly didn’t behave particularly warmly toward the money-changers in the Temple, when he overturned their tables, drove them from the place, and said they had turned a house of worship into a “den of thieves.” Instead, Jesus demonstrated that loving humanity also requires us to deplore certain things that people do, perhaps even to hate them. You might “hate the sin, not the sinner,” but you certainly don’t just feel mushy positive lovey-feelings all the time. You take a stand for what’s right.
“Hatred” is a strong emotional aversion to something. Sometimes hatreds are mindless, or based on prejudice, fear, or silly grievances. But the problem is not hatred itself. To have negative emotional feelings about things is natural and, I would argue, in many cases good. In fact, I worry about people who don’t feel any hate at all. You don’t burn with rage when you see children being taken from their parents’ arms? Apartheid doesn’t make you angry? You don’t bristle when you see George W. Bush smirking (and handing Michelle Obama a piece of candy) after getting away with causing hundreds of thousands of horrific violent deaths? How can you not have strong negative emotions about these things? How can you be so unmoved? I am convinced it would be a better world if more people hated injustice, and I think that people who see themselves as neutral and won’t take sides are one of the biggest reasons why the worst things that people do to each other end up continuing.
All of which brings me to the popular podcaster Lex Fridman, who hosts one of the most listened-to programs in the country. His interviews with people like Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, Elon Musk, and Joe Rogan have received millions of views on YouTube. Fridman makes much of his willingness to interview those on all sides, and presents himself as curious and neutral. During a public spat between climate activist Greta Thunberg and men’s rights activist (and accused rapist) Andrew Tate, Fridman promised that he would interview both of them on his program. Announcing an interview with Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara, Fridman said, “I’ll talk with both the left and the right, always with compassion and backbone. The attacks will come. That’s life. Love you all,” followed by a heart emoji. He also wants to interview both Putin and Zelenskyy (though he has not yet suggested getting them on together and encouraging them to hug out their differences).
Fridman presents himself as both a passionate intellectual (his profile picture shows him in front of a blackboard with an equation on it) and an exponent of the Love Everyone philosophy. When people criticize him, he does not (to his credit) descend into Twitter warfare, but turns the other cheek and gives friendly messages of love that make his interlocutor look like an asshole. Some representative comments show his commitment to the love-over-hate philosophy:
- “Hate is a poison that destroys the mind. Choose love.”
- ”Politicians and the media often turn people against each other. Resist it. Choose love.”
- “I’m not right-wing or left-wing, no matter how much either side attacks. In the end, we’re one. I love you all.”
- “I’ll never give in to cynicism. Love you all [heart emoji]”
- “I’d rather be full of love than full of knowledge, though one helps grow the other.”
- “Here’s my conversation with Ye aka Kanye West…I believe in the power of tough, honest, empathetic conversation to increase the amount of love in the world.”
- “Humanity is facing the threat of nuclear war. Conversation between leaders from a place of strength, empathy, wisdom, and love is the way out.”
- “Fun suggestion @elonmusk: Let me run Twitter for a bit. No salary. All in. Focus on great engineering and increasing the amount of love in the world.”
- “If I say stupid things, please forgive me. Love you all!”
- “Curiosity + Love –> Progress”
- “Love is the answer”
Fridman is not an idealogue and seems genuine in his desire to empathetically understand leftists (he has also interviewed Richard Wolff, Steve Keen, and Noam Chomsky) and to be fair to all sides (he has hosted a debate between “skeptical environmentalist” Bjorn Lomborg and climate journalist Andrew Revkin. But as with Rogan, it is hard to avoid noticing a certain lack of balance. There are far more right-leaning “intellectual dark web” types than leftists (people like Peterson, Shapiro, Douglas Murray, Glenn Loury, Bret Weinstein, Niall Ferguson, Michael Malice, and Musk), and vastly more men than women. Fridman was recently mocked on Twitter for releasing a 2023 reading list that mostly focused on high school English class classics like Animal Farm and Brave New World, but what struck me most was the total absence of Black writers. Fridman wrote that he was considering adding 12 Rules for Life to his great books education, but did not appear to have considered reading a page of James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, Maya Angelou, Ralph Ellison, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Samuel R. Delany, Nella Larsen, Octavia Butler, Zora Neale Hurston, or Angela Davis. Those who present themselves as neutral and open-minded often have implicit unacknowledged biases, and the importance of excavating and understanding those biases is one reason I think critical race theory makes an overwhelmingly positive contribution to human thought.
Unfortunately, someone who listens to Fridman’s podcast will get their understanding of critical race theory from the ignorant white supremacist pundit Douglas Murray, who (in Fridman’s spirit of open-mindedness and empathy) is not challenged on any of his shoddy scholarship or false assertions. Fridman’s commitment to warm relations with everyone means that a toxic racist is not treated confrontationally. When Fridman interviewed Kanye West, he did challenge West to treat people he dislikes as individuals rather than as “Jewish,” but his cordial approach meant West was mostly just free to rant without getting a serious grilling that would have exposed his Nazi sympathies. (When a different interviewer raised slightly more serious objections to West’s anti-Semitism, West stormed out of the studio. My own position is that if an anti-Semite isn’t angry at you by the end of the interview, you have likely done a bad job interviewing them.)
Examining the Fridman podcast is an excellent way to see how the posture of neutrality actually fails to adequately challenge falsehoods and toxic beliefs. When you interview a racist like Douglas Murray, there is a moral responsibility to raise the most serious objections to his work and not let him get away with presenting a more reasonable version on air than the version that appears in his published writing. There is also a responsibility to tell the truth about critical race theory when an interviewee lies about it. Likewise, while I’m all for debates between climate denialists and climate experts, if the denialists’ falsehoods aren’t exposed, the audience will go away less informed than they came in.
I somewhat admire Fridman’s relentless positivity and good cheer in a world full of nonstop nastiness. It’s refreshing and rather beautiful to see someone respond to insults with a Christian spirit of forgiveness and cheek-turning. (By Christian I mean doing as Jesus did, not as Christians tend to do.) But all Fridman’s stuff about how “love is the answer” and how he prefers “being full of love” to “being full of knowledge” does not impress me, because I don’t think love means anything if you won’t take stances against cruelty and in favor of justice. Marianne Williamson, herself a great believer in the power of love, explains this clearly and correctly in her book A Politics of Love:
“A politics of love…takes a stand. False positivism has no place in our personal lives or in our political lives either. There are certain issues that call upon us to be as passionate with our no as with our yes…There’s nothing negative about naming things that need to be named. There’s nothing negative about yelling ‘Fire!’ when the house is burning down.”
Williamson’s love for humanity leads her to demand reparations for slavery and universal healthcare, because she has genuine compassion for people and spends effort trying to help make sure they have good lives. Fridman’s “not right wing or left wing, but love” is hollow, because his love is not exercised in the service of reducing the amount of cruelty and violence in the world, and thus becomes meaningless branding that makes him look good without making moral demands on him. (Like challenging his friends Musk and Rogan over their promotion of dangerous false information.) I am all for love, but love of the Williamsonian kind. A Politics of Love is sharply critical of the military-industrial complex and the Bush administration’s lies about Iraq, because Williamson understands that peace requires demilitarization of the world and love for Iraqis means calling out those who invaded and destroyed their country. She knows that if we are ever going to all sing the “World Song” together, we will first have to recognize and dismantle oppressive power structures. Martin Luther King, Jr., another exponent of the power of radical love, similarly understood that living his professed values required him to denounce both the Vietnam war and capitalism. King spoke of how love could actually lead to terrible things if it wasn’t coupled with a penetrating intelligence that knew right from wrong, and said history showed that a tender heart needs to be coupled with a tough mind, or else “goodness and conscientiousness will become brutal forces leading to shameful crucifixions.”
Those who truly love humanity don’t just talk about how much they love people. They join social movements to improve the conditions of the worst off. They don’t sing the World Song. They work to change the world.
That work can certainly include conducting interviews. I do believe in the social value of podcasting. But interviewers must challenge people to defend their views and expose lies, misinformation, and injustice no matter what (or who) the source.
Amazingly, this is not even the worst line. That would be: “And if the ragged gypsy danced with the soldier / think of all the things the soldier could learn.” ↩