More thoughts on the Springsteen/Jeep Super Bowl commercial

I think most Americans liked it:

But there have been critics and some of them have found their way to my social media feeds. 🙂

Some do not like the ad’s Christian nationalism. (The chapel has a flag and a cross). This is a fair critique and anyone who reads this blog knows I take this criticism seriously. Last week I wondered about the differences and similarities between Barack Obama’s Christian nationalism and Mike Pence’s Christian nationalism. As I wrote in 2011 about Martin Luther King Jr., and developed more fully in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, there is a kind of Christian nationalism that has informed many of our nation’s great reform movements. So yes, liberals also engage in Christian nationalism. A lot of Springsteen’s songs reflect this theme.

Most critics, however, are upset about Springsteen’s use of the term “the middle.” Conservatives remember Springsteen’s criticism of the Bush administration and his political support of John Kerry, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden. Those on the Left are skeptical about calls for unity in the wake of a presidential administration that incited an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Both sides believe that the word “middle” suggests some kind of moral equivalency.

I am not thrilled about the use of the world “middle” in the ad. But Donald Trump also changed the political landscape. I wonder if today Springsteen would welcome George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney, or even Ronald Reagan into a wide and expansive American “middle” that includes those on the Left and the Right? Those who occupy such a middle would be willing to engage in rational, evidence-based discourse. Such a middle would require people concerned about the future of the United States to make public arguments based on well-grounded interpretations of our founding ideals. I think many of us are exhausted by the latest round of culture wars. We are mindful of worrying illiberal trends on the Left and the Right, and deeply concerned about the state of our fractured democratic institutions. We can debate what is worse: Trumpism or the kinds of identity politics policing that occurs on the academic Left. And we must condemn moral equivalency when it needs condemning. But there are times when neither side operates on a political and cultural playing field that respects open and democratic discourse.

As some of you know, I find a nice expression of this democratic playing field in the recent Harper’s Letter on Justice and Open Debate“:

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.

Several important writers and thinkers have signed this letter, including Anna Appelbaum, Mia Bay, David Blight, David Brooks, Noam Chomsky, Roger Cohen, Gerald Early, David Frum, Francis Fukuyama, Todd Gitlin, Malcolm Gladwell, Jonathan Haidt, Adam Hochschild, Jeet Heer, David Greenberg, Michelle Goldberg, Anthony Grafton, Michael Ignatieff, Matthew Karp, Mark Lilla, Damon Linker, Dahlia Lithwick, Greil Marcus, Wynton Marsalis, Deirdre McCloskey, John McWhorter, Samuel Moyn, Olivia Nuzzi, Mark Oppenheimer, George Packer, Nell Irving Painter, Orlando Patterson, Katha Pollit, Claire Potter, Steven Pinker, Jennfer Ratner-Rosenhagen, Salman Rushdie, Anne-Marie Slaughter, PaulL Starr, Gloria Steinem, Erik Washington, Garry Wills, Cornel West, Caroline Weber, Molly Worthen, Matthew Yglesias, and Fareed Zakaria.

I don’t think many of these writers would be comfortable saying they are in the “middle,” but they all have the sensibility we need. They are committed to rational and well-argued discourse, the kind of discourse that is our best hope for moving forward.

In the end, my most significant critique of the Springsteen ad is the timing. I don’t think we are ready yet for grandiose, feel-good calls for unity. The Trump administration did some serious damage to our democracy and a lot of Americans don’t want to talk about healing right now–not as long as people are still defending the insurrection on the capitol, claiming the 2020 presidential election was stolen, electing conspiracy theorists to Congress, and engaging in a kind of lost cause rhetoric about the previous administration.

So I stand by my original comment–the one I posted on the Springsteen/Jeep ad on Sunday afternoon before it was aired during the big game: “A little too optimistic and sentimental? Perhaps. But that’s what Bruce does.”

And now I will take a short break and play “Jungleland” on my record player.