Locks for Love (And other idiosyncrasies)

A few weeks ago a story from Paris amused me. It seems Parisians are tired of lovers weighing down bridges in Paris with locks that symbolize their everlasting love. The Parisian bridges are not the only bridges around the world where couples “lock their love” together with a tangible manifestation, but they are probably the most famous. The locks are so numerous on one of the bridges that parts of the railings have fallen off from the weight of the locks. Recently, some Parisians have organized to attack the locks with bolt cutters in an attempt to “save the bridges”!


The story piqued my interest as I fondly recalled the August my wife and I spent in Paris in 2013. Paris is everything everyone has ever said about it: charming and breathtaking and inspiring. But I will never forget the morning in Paris that my wife and I crossed the Quai des Tuileries. As I looked up and saw the thousands of locks attached to a bridge, I stopped in complete puzzlement. As a neophyte cosmopolitan  I had never heard of the practice of couples attaching locks to a bridge railing to represent their undying love. After my wife explained the meaning of the multitudinous master locks, I doubled over with laughter.  I couldn’t stop.

As a teacher of world cultures, I am used to taking a detached view of the cultural norms and peculiarities of peoples from around the globe. In the process of introducing my students to the behaviors and beliefs of various cultures, they have recently discovered the foibles of child marriage, female genital mutilization, and “re-virginization” surgeries in the Middle East and Africa; the mania for investing in empty apartments in China, the plastic surgery obsession in Venezuela and South Korea, the wishful thinking of Europeans regarding the plans of Vladimir Putin in the Ukraine, and the destructive belief in religious purity in Pakistan.

Not that the United States does not have its own self-destructive practices. We Americans waste millions of hours a year waiting in traffic.  We remain fervently addicted to fossil fuels despite their extraneous costs.  We idolize athletes and other entertainers while eschewing learning.  We defend a drinking age of 21 regardless of its role in binge drinking and when “adults” ages 18-21 can defend their country, be legally liable for signing a contract, and be executed for certain crimes. And we stubbornly cling to the notion that the proliferation of firearms will make us safer in all contexts even as we wait expectantly for the next mass murder, domestic violence shooting, or child misusing an uzi.

While these cultural practices and beliefs are more serious than my encounter with the “locks for love” on the bridges of Paris, the latter remind me that cultural idiosyncrasies are universal human adaptations. People from all corners of the globe have placed their faith in the symbolism of the locks; they are not the work of one ethnic group or nationality.

And why do people use those locks? Do people really want to symbolize forceful attachment? Are  emotions so fickle that they need a physical device to “bind” their partner? Do they have so little faith in their relationship that they require a padlock to fasten feelings mechanically. Of course the “lock lovers” believe that the locks are a sign of their devotion and intend to remain bound together. Whether all of those relationships remained as fast as the locks is beside the point. They represent all too human desire for permanence. After all, people are human too.

Barbarians at the “gate”.

Most Americans have  heard of ‘Deflategate”.  The New England Patriots supposedly reduced the air in footballs to make them easier for their quarterback, Tom Brady, to throw. What puzzles me is why the media designated this incident as a “gate”. What qualifies an event as a “gate”,  and more broadly why does the media keep using the suffix at all?

Anyone with a basic knowledge of U.S. history has heard of Watergate, the 1970’s plan by lieutenants of Richard Nixon to wiretap the Democratic national headquarters at the Watergate hotel and apartment building in Washington, D.C. The plot was part of a larger plan of CREEP (Committee to Re-elect the President) to manipulate the 1972 election so that President Nixon could face the weakest Democratic candidate possible. The plan worked.

A cursory internet search reveals literally dozens of “gates” from all over the world. There was “Tunagate” in Canada, involving the sale of tainted tuna. Mexico had “Toallagate”, implicating the Presdent’s residence for the high cost of bathroom towels. The UK endured “Pastygate” which comprised the attempt by the government to tax pasties, inexpensive snacks consumed by average Brits. And Florida witnessed “Fangate” when Republican candidate Rick Scott refused to show up for a political debate after Democratic opponent Charlie Crist had a small fan placed on the podium. And who  could forget “Wienergate” which exposed U.S. representative Anthony Weiner sexting his…..oh, you get the picture.

Why the western media’s obsession with attaching the suffix “gate” to any issue that might involve secrecy, dishonesty, or bad behavior? Has the media lost its power to report the news in a compelling fashion? Does the voting public  have such an attention deficit that the media needs to use a well-worn shorthand to get their attention, like trying to flash a Pavlovian red light?  Does using the suffix “gate” give a shout out to the public like, “Hey morons, pay attention; this is serious?”

And there really are some frivolous examples. Why should an affair by the wife of Ireland’s First Minister, Iris Robinson, be termed “Irisgate”? Or “Hairgate” after a haircut given to President Bill Clinton? Or “Mammygate” when the wife of Kansas City’s mayor called one of his secretaries, “Mammy”?

If using the suffix “gate”  is so important to provoking the public’s attention, why not use it for really serious social concerns? Why not “the U.S.-electoral-system-is-controlled-by-an-oligarchy-gate”? Or “the future-world-economy-is-not -going-to-produce-enough-jobs-gate”.  Or “financial-markets-will-crash-because-the-middle-class-does-not-make-enough-money-to-support-the-economy-gate”? Or “electronic-technology-is-helping-us-lose-our-ability-to-coin-imaginative-language-to-characterize-events-gate”?

It reminds me of another group of people who had trouble making themselves understood. Ancient foreigners who came into contact with the Greeks earned the opprobrium, “barbarians”, because they seemed to echo the syllable bar….bar…..bar….bar. Poor foreigners. They simply spoke a different language, and the Greeks could not understand them. At least those foreigners had an excuse. Today’s muddled media and confused consumers have to fall back on the “gate”, despite our information-saturated world. Now I know how the Greeks felt.