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.

January 20, 2021: From Amanda Gorman to Bruce Springsteen

In his weekly column at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Tony Norman reflects on Biden’s inauguration day. Here is a taste:

Much has been made of the final lines of Ms. Gorman’s poem delivered with what we pray isn’t a futile hope given how polarized we are: “The new dawn blooms as we free it./ For there is always light,/ if only we’re brave enough to see it./ If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

It was a stunning five-minute performance. You could almost hear the applause coming from every other house up and down our American streets. It was the proof we needed that there was no longer the automatic expectation of drooling idiocy at a political event and that room has once again been made for the presence of grace and beauty.

Not every speech or segment delivered on Wednesday was as impactful, but Ms. Gorman did establish a bar that many will seek to surpass at future inaugurations, if only as a point of professional pride. Her speech, like Mr. Biden’s, was the opposite in tone of the infamous “American Carnage” inaugural address. Both served as welcome antidotes to the overwhelming stupidity and vulgarity of political discourse in the age of Trump.

By the time Bruce Springsteen stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for a solo acoustic performance later that evening, I was already convinced that our culture was emerging from the toxic winter fine and dandy.

Mr. Springsteen broke into a fierce, but abbreviated rendition of “Land of Hope and Dreams” that leaned heavily on its Woody Guthrie influences and Gospel images to express American optimism in the face of the task at hand: “I will provide for you/ And I’ll stand by your side/ You’ll need a good companion/ For this part of the ride/ Leave behind your sorrows/ Let this day be the last/ Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine/ and all this darkness past.”

But it is the chorus, sung through clenched teeth that never fails to break my heart because of the way it captures our uniquely American contradictions: “Big wheels roll through fields/ Where sunlight streams/ Meet me in the land of hope and dreams/ This train carries saints and sinners/ This train carries losers and winners/ This train carries whores and gamblers/ This train carries lost souls/ I said, this train dreams will not be thwarted/ This train faith will be rewarded/ This train hear the steel wheels singin’/ This train bells of freedom ringin.’”

Read the entire piece here.

Bruce Springsteen will perform at an inauguration event on the evening of January 20

Obama loved Springsteen. So, apparently, does Joe Biden. On November 7, 2020, Biden came jogging out into the Wilmington, Delaware night to the sound of Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own.” The New York Times is reporting that Springsteen will perform on January 20 at a televised event called “Celebrating America.” A taste:

Bruce Springsteen, John Legend and Foo Fighters will perform during the prime-time special that will cap the inauguration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., and the actors Eva Longoria and Kerry Washington will also have roles to play in the program, the Presidential Inaugural Committee said on Friday.

The announcement added yet more stars to “Celebrating America,” an event scheduled for the evening of Jan. 20. This week, Mr. Biden’s inaugural committee unveiled plans for the program, saying the actor Tom Hanks would host while artists like Justin Timberlake, Jon Bon Jovi and Demi Lovato would perform.

Officials have said that the 90-minute event will also include remarks from Mr. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

Read the rest here.

Thoughts on Biden’s speech tonight

This morning Joe Biden became the president-elect. Tonight he celebrated. Kamala Harris spoke first and then introduced Biden.

I live-tweeted:

Harris began with John Lewis. Who is John Lewis? Get up to speed with these posts.

Harris gave a shoutout to the real heroes of this election. Democracy survived this week because of the work of these women and men:

Kamala Harris was wearing a white pantsuit, presumably to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment. Here is historian Chris Gehrz:

Kamala Harris is the first woman VP in American history. I am the father of two daughters:

There was a pro-family vibe tonight that I have not seen since Obama:

Biden came out looking fit and ready to go. And yes, Springsteen was involved!

I wrote a piece about this Springsteen song back in 2012:

A great day for educators, especially those of us who study and teach in the humanities. Jill Biden is a professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College. She plans to continue teaching during Joe’s presidency. One of our own is in the White House!

There was a lot of historical references–direct and indirect–in tonight’s Biden speech:

And some American civil religion:

Biden wants to bring the country together. He will have his work cut out for him:

In addition to Ecclesiastes, Biden referenced this popular Christian song:

And yes, this was sung at my wedding in 1994.

Evangelicals liked this song too, Kevin! 🙂 It was a fixture of the evangelical “praise song” movement:

It was a good day for the United States of America

Song of the Day

“We Take Care of Our Own”:

Back in 2012, I wrote a piece about this song at my old Patheos column:

What is this experiment that we call the United States? What did Thomas Jefferson mean by the phrase “the pursuit of happiness?” What is the promise of America?

For many, the American creed is about individual liberty. Citizens of the United States are free to worship without government interference. They are able to consume freely to satisfy their material wants and desires. They climb the ladder of success with unrelenting ambition.

While this commitment to freedom and liberty has been an important part of our national history, it has often been balanced with the willingness of Americans to sacrifice their self-interested pursuits for their neighbors and fellow citizens in need. The Founding Fathers called this “republicanism.” Christians call it “living out the gospel.”

In popular culture there is no one who understands this tension between individualism and community better than Bruce Springsteen. As a young artist in the 1970s and 1980s, Springsteen’s music celebrated the American dream as defined by individualism. He encouraged us, in the wildly popular “Born to Run,” to break out of our “cages on Highway 9” in pursuit of a “runaway American dream.” And maybe, if we run hard enough, we will “get to that place where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun.”

On the same album as “Born to Run,” Springsteen urged us to get in our cars and drive “Thunder Road”—a two lane highway that “will take us anywhere.” The final words of the song are telling: “It’s a town for losers, I’m pulling out of here to win.”

Such a vision of the American dream, filled with cars and roads and freedom, is selfish. Springsteen understands the human condition. He also understands the American condition.

But as “The Boss” grows older, his music has taken a decided turn away from youthful individualism and toward community. For example, his 2007 album Magic included a song entitled “Long Walk Home,” a moving reflection on his figurative return to home after all those years of running away. There is a sense of new birth in the song, almost as if Springsteen has realized that the community in which he was raised offers much more than what Thunder Road had to offer. He reminds us that “everybody has a neighbor, everybody has a friend, everybody has a reason to begin again.” Perhaps those “losers” were not so bad after all. They at least need someone to love them.

At age 62, Bruce Springsteen is not done making music. In fact, he and the E-Street Band will be heading out on tour in a few months to promote their new album, Wrecking Ball. Those close to Springsteen are talking about the album’s pressing themes of economic justice, social concern, and spirituality. It is being produced by Ron Aniello, a Grammy-nominated producer known for his work with Christian artists Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer, and Jeremy Camp.

Last week, the Springsteen camp released “We Take Care of Our Own,” the first single off of Wrecking Ball. Anyone who listens to this song will hear a Springsteen-like call for an inclusive American community that will only prosper if citizens care for one another. This is Springsteen’s republicanism at its best—a call to serve others that is compatible in every way with our Divine call to live out the gospel. There are echoes in the song of our current economic hardships, hurricane Katrina, and the search for meaning amidst life’s difficulties. Such meaning, Springsteen concludes, can only be found in tempering individualism and fulfilling the promise of America by loving our neighbors.

Springsteen asks:

“Where are the hearts that run over with mercy?

“Where is the love that has not forsaken me?”

“Where is the work that will set my hands, my soul free?

“Where is the promise from sea to shining sea?”

Mercy. Love. Work. These are the kinds of virtues that are central to a happy and flourishing life. As he so often does, Bruce Springsteen calls us to something higher than our own ambitions. Christians take heed.

Donald Trump is a rainmaker

From Springsteen’s album, Letter to You:

Rainmaker: “person who produces or attempts to produce rain by artificial means.”

The Rainmaker (1954 play): “Set in a drought-ridden rural town in the West in Depression-era America, the play tells the story of a pivotal hot summer day in the life of spinsterish Lizzie Curry. Lizzie keeps house for her father and two brothers on the family cattle ranch. She has just returned from a trip to visit pseudo-cousins (all male), which was undertaken with the failed expectation that she would find a husband. As their farm languishes under the devastating drought, Lizzie’s family worries about her marriage prospects more than about their dying cattle. A charming confidence trickster named Starbuck arrives and promises to bring rain in exchange for $100. His arrival sets off a series of events that enable Lizzie to see herself in a new light.”

Here are the lyrics to Springsteen’s “Rainmaker”:

Parched crops dying ‘neath a dead sun
We’ve been praying but no good comes
The dog’s howling, home’s stripped bare
We’ve been worried but now we’re scared

People come for comfort or just to come
Taste the dark sticky potion or hear the drums
Hands raised to Yahweh to bring the rain down
He comes crawling ‘cross the dry fields like a dark shroud

Rainmaker, a little faith for hire
Rainmaker, the house is on fire
Rainmaker, take everything you have
Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, so bad, so bad
They’ll hire a rainmaker
(Rainmaker)

Rainmaker says white’s black and black’s white
Says night’s day and day’s night
Says close your eyes and go to sleep now
I’m in a burning field unloading buckshot into low clouds

Rainmaker, a little faith for hire
Rainmaker, the house is on fire
Rainmaker, take everything you have
Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, so bad, so bad
They’ll hire a rainmaker
(Rainmaker)

Slow moving wagon drawing through a dry town
Painted rainbow, crescent moon and dark clouds
Brother patriot come forth and lay it down
Your blood brother for king and crown
For your rainmaker

They come for the smile, the firm handshake
They come for the raw chance of a fair shake
Some come to make damn sure, my friend
This mean season’s got nothing to do with them

They come ’cause they can’t stand the pain
Of another long hot day of no rain
‘Cause they don’t care or understand
What it really takes for the sky to open up the land

Rainmaker, a little faith for hire
Rainmaker, the house is on fire
Rainmaker, take everything you have
Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, so bad, so bad
They’ll hire a rainmaker
Rainmaker
Rainmaker
Rainmaker

The takeaway:

  1. Ordinary Americans were hurting economically. They were “scared.”
  2. Trump came along as a figurative rainmaker. He would save them. He promised “comfort” with his “dark sticky potions.” He said that he came in the name of “Yahweh” as he crawled “across the dry fields like a dark shroud.” The evangelicals believed in him. He was God’s anointed one.
  3. People flocked to the rainmaker. They believed he was the answer to their prayers. He made promises to those who needed “to believe in something so bad.”
  4. The rainmaker is a liar. He says “white’s black and black’s white.” He says “night’s day and day’s night.” Trump tells them not to believe in what they can see. He tells them to distrust science and facts.
  5. The rainmaker is a reality television star. People come to see him smile, to shake his hand, to have their sense of victimhood affirmed. But in the end they don’t understand “what it really takes for the sky to open up the land.”

UPDATE: I failed to mention that Springsteen actually wrote this song a few years before Trump became president.

David Brooks on Springsteen’s *Letter to You*

Here is a taste of Brooks’s piece at The Atlantic:

It’s the happiest Springsteen album maybe in decades. “When I listen to it, there’s more joy than dread,” Springsteen told me. “Dread is an emotion that all of us have become very familiar with. The record is a little bit of an antidote to that.” The album generates the feeling you get when you meet a certain sort of older person—one who knows the story of her life, who sees herself whole, and who now approaches the world with an earned emotional security and gratitude.

And this:

Even in his 70s, Springsteen still has drive. What drives him no longer feels like ambition, he said, that craving for success, recognition, and making your place in the world. It feels more elemental, like the drive for water, food, or sex. He talks about this in the movie: “After all this time, I still feel the burning need to communicate. It’s there when I wake every morning. It walks alongside of me throughout the day … Over the past 50 years, it has never ceased. Is it loneliness, hunger, ego, ambition, desire, a need to be felt and heard, recognized, all of the above? All I know, it is one of the most consistent impulses of my life.”

Read the entire piece here.