I love you ... but don't think I mean it
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You've probably heard these very strange words if you tune into African-American discourse either on the radio, at the corner barber shop or the beauty parlor: "I love you [fill in the blank], and there's nothing you can do about it."
Last week when the Rev. Al Sharpton and talk show host Tavis Smiley got into a very heated argument on the radio, Mr. Smiley resorted more than once to a variation of this phrase: "I love you, Reverend Al, and there's nothing you or anyone can do about it."
Judging by the intensity of their back-and-forth, no one in their right mind would think Tavis Smiley truly "loves" Al Sharpton, or vice versa, even though the phrase was repeated several times for emphasis. If this is "love," it sounds like the kind that will soon need a restraining order.
Before the week was over, former White House green jobs czar Van Jones used a similar phrase to describe his "love" for Glenn Beck, the talk show host who led the media campaign that forced him to resign.
"To my fellow countryman, Mr. Glenn Beck," Mr. Jones said to a smattering of applause and laughter at the NAACP Image Awards last Friday.
"I see you and I love you, brother," Mr. Jones said while accepting the NAACP Image Award. "I love you, and you cannot do anything about it. I love you and you cannot do anything about it. Let's be one country. ... Let's get the job done."
Not to be outdone, Glenn Beck tweeted a response to Mr. Jones' declaration of undying affection: "I love you too, Glad to all live in one country. Will it be the founders' country ... ?"
Who started this pernicious trend of saying you love someone you really can't stand? While it's true that Jesus insisted that we love our enemies, he regularly referred to the Pharisees and the Sadducees as "vipers' brood," "white-washed sepulchers," and, during less charitable moments, "children of the devil."
In context, what Jesus seemed to be discouraging was the hate that usually accompanies the recognition that someone is an "enemy." He wasn't endorsing the manufacture of fake sentiment and positive lip service. That would be hypocrisy.
The chronically misunderstood Apostle Paul may have to take the fall for this one. In Romans, an epistle usually credited to Paul, he writes: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."
No matter how you cut it, that passage feels like it endorses a passive-aggressive response to an enemy. Somehow, it isn't hard to imagine Van Jones smiling while Glenn Beck's head bursts into flames.
While not exactly up to Machiavelli's nasty standards, showering an enemy with words of love -- but not necessarily deeds -- is a tactic the warrior Sun Tzu might have understood and sympathized with.
As with many interesting linguistic trends that catch on in the wider culture, this one seems to have started with black folks.
I've heard variations of this theme for decades, but it usually goes something like this: "Child, I'm gonna love you no matter how ugly you get with me, so you might as well pull that bottom lip in."
I've know I've heard the actual phrase "I love you and you can't do anything about it" long before Van Jones or Tavis Smiley used it, but I can't document its existence prior to last week through a Google search.
Perhaps talk show host Steve Harvey riffed on it or it floated into the mainstream via a Tyler Perry movie, or Oprah or even Jeremiah Wright, but it didn't start with Smiley or Jones. That's impossible.
By the time Mr. Smiley used it last week, it was already close to being a cliche. It certainly sounded trite and old-fashioned, like a once-slick comeback people pull out of their back pockets to use in the event of an unpleasant encounter with a former friend.
On Monday, a friend and colleague with a much keener memory for pop lyrics than I'll ever have dredged up a 1974 song by the Average White Band that could be the source.
The chorus to the AWB's "Nothing You Can Do" conveys the sentiment nicely: "Cause there's nothing you can do / could make me stop / lovin' you, baby / nothing you can say / could make me break away."
A more likely source of the phrase is a book by David Mangan, a leader of the Catholic charismatic renewal movement that caught fire at Duquesne University in the 1960s. (I only know this because I cribbed the information from Amazon.com.)
Mr. Mangan's 2008 book is called "God Loves You and There's Nothing You Can Do About It: Saying Yes to the Holy Spirit."
Wherever the phrase originated, we probably haven't heard the last of it. Of all the uses or variations of the phrase I've heard, I think Glenn Beck's sarcastic tweet in response to Van Jones has the virtue of being the most honest about the person's intentions.
First Published March 2, 2010 12:00 am