Back in 1984, when I was a sophomore at Rutgers University, an English professor told me I had a “working-class name.” The professor, a WASP passing Jew – he had all three degrees from Harvard, wore a bow tie, and had a generic Anglo Saxon name that had quite obviously been in his family for only a generation or two – was an expert on French post-structuralism. Watching him unmask Jane Austen as a sly apologist for slavery and colonialism was a high point of my undergraduate education. He prided himself on his ability to deconstruct popular culture. Yet he had fallen for one of the most common misconceptions of the Reagan era. He believed the working-class was white. The man who had eviscerated Jane Austen had been intellectually mastered by Bruce Springsteen.
Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up
Born in the U.S.A. is a controversial song. People on the left will tell you that Springsteen, a liberal Democrat, wrote it to protest the war in Vietnam. Conservatives from Ronald Reagan to Sarah Palin have traditionally played it at their rallies. They’re both wrong, and right. Springsteen, like most people who have gotten rich and famous in the film or music industry, is a master at having it both ways. On the page, the lyrics express a profound disillusionment with American nationalism. Aesthetically however, with its chant of USA USA USA, and its pounding, relentless, beat, the song is a patriotic call to arms. Springsteen, who broke through in the 1970s fronting a racially integrated rock band that featured the improvisational saxophone work of Clarence Clemens, had taken a step backwards. Unlike Jefferson Starship, which became a laughing stock with the hilariously awful We Built this City, and like Neil Young, who had a come back in the late 1980s with the slippery, ambiguous Rockin in the Free World, Bruce Springsteen had mastered the art of “selling out” in the Reagan Era. Write left and perform right. If you can get conservatives dancing to the beat of your music, I guess the rationalization went, perhaps you can sell them on your liberal ideals.
The effect of Born in the U.S.A. was profoundly reactionary. Even in the 1980s, the “working-class” was more black and Hispanic than white, more female than male. A “worker” was not the Irish or Italian bro working on his muscle car. It was the Dominican maid waiting for the bus, the Filipino nanny forced to live abroad and take care of some rich American’s kids in order to send money back home to her family in Manila, or the Mexican day laborer waiting at the Home Depot for a chance to cut someone’s lawn at below minimum wage. A more honest, but obviously less commercially viable song would have had a chorus more along the lines of “Fuck the U.S.A. Fuck the U.S.A.” Springsteen, to his credit, would return to the openly left, “folk” aesthetic he had explored in the earlier album Nebraska. He would sing about migrants, gay men with AIDS, and blacks gunned down by the police. He would earn the enmity of the police unions, a badge of honor for any true artist. Now in his 60s, he has fully thrown himself behind the campaign to boycott North Carolina until they repeal a draconian law to prevent transgender men and women from using public restrooms.
As you, my fans, know I’m scheduled to play in Greensboro, North Carolina this Sunday. As we also know, North Carolina has just passed HB2, which the media are referring to as the “bathroom” law. HB2 — known officially as the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act — dictates which bathrooms transgender people are permitted to use. Just as important, the law also attacks the rights of LGBT citizens to sue when their human rights are violated in the workplace. No other group of North Carolinians faces such a burden. To my mind, it’s an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress. Right now, there are many groups, businesses, and individuals in North Carolina working to oppose and overcome these negative developments. Taking all of this into account, I feel that this is a time for me and the band to show solidarity for those freedom fighters. As a result, and with deepest apologies to our dedicated fans in Greensboro, we have canceled our show scheduled for Sunday, April 10th. Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry — which is happening as I write — is one of them. It is the strongest means I have for raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forwards.
In contrast to his forthright opposition to to repression of transgender and LGTB people in North Carolina, Bruce Springsteen has not released a statement condemning Israeli apartheid. He probably won’t actually play the rumored concert in Israel. It’s a common tactic for Israeli public relations. Announce that a well-known American musician will defy the boycott, try to generate buzz for the as of yet unscheduled concert, then use the controversy to attack the BDS movement. Springsteen will probably just find some polite way of turning down the invitation. He will not, however, help organize anything like the video put out in 1985 by United Artists Against Apartheid, a rousing protest where dozens of American and European musicians vowed never to play Sun City. The Bruce Springsteen of 2016, like the Bruce Springsteen of 1984, knows what line not to cross. He’s a liberal Democrat, not a radical leftist. For an American liberal, gay, lesbian, and transgender victims of discriminatory bathroom snooping laws and black victims of police brutality fall inside the “circle of empathy.” Palestinians do not.
In 1984, you could talk about the working class, but the working class was always white, racist, and probably voted for Reagan. In 2016, you can talk about gender and race, but if you don’t want to be called a “Berniebro,” you’d better not talk about class. On January 20, 2017, when Bruce Springsteen and Beyonce inevitably play at the inevitably lavish inaugural parade for President Hillary Clinton – and you know they will, right along with the cast of “Hamilton” – the corporate media will inevitably present it as a great triumph of racial inclusiveness. President Clinton, we will be told, has sent Donald Trump back to the reality show where he belongs. Token gestures of appreciation will be made for the strong run made by Bernie Sanders in the primaries. He will be credited with “pushing the race to the left.” We will be treated to long discussions about what Vice President Julian Castro means for Hispanic Americans. Single payer health care and free tuition at public colleges and universities will be buried forever. Unlike me, an early Generation Xer, most children of the millennial generation will never get to sit in a sophomore year literary theory class at a great state university and hear an Ivy League graduate deconstruct Jane Austen. A college education will be out of reach for all but the chosen few. People lucky enough to get a real education won’t get a real education. To be a student even at an elite university like Harvard — especially at an elite university like Harvard – will be more like taking a corporate internship at Goldman Sachs than like Berkeley in the 60s. There will be draconian restrictions on speech, on who you can sleep with, on how you can dress. Preventing “cultural appropriation” will be a priority. Health care for adjunct professors will not. The rest of us, like Orwell’s proles, will be free to say what we want. Nobody will care. The brief opportunity to build a social democracy people cheered on in 2016 will be erased as completely as the “Occupy” movement was in 2012. My last name, which clearly identifies me as “white,” will no longer be considered “working-class,” but a sign of “privilege.” Those Filipino nannies, Dominican maids, and Mexican day laborers will be just as invisible in 2017 as they were in 1984. The Palestinians will be just as fucked.