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Bruce Springsteen’s Appeal to Conscience

April 24, 2012
Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen (image by GabboT, used by permission, via Flickr)

Tonight, I’ll be among the thousands of fans attending the Bruce Springsteen show at the HP Pavilion in San Jose.  As often happens before I go to a concert, I’ve been listening to the latest release, familiarizing myself with the new stuff and getting psyched up to sing along and enjoy the show.

Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball, opens with “We Take Care of Our Own,” a song with a driving rhythm and bright tone.  It brings to mind one of the Boss’s greatest hits from my high school days, “Born in the U.S.A.”  – not so much for musical reasons, though that’s part of it.

“Born in the U.S.A.” had a certain anthemic pulse and passionate insistence that belied the cynicism, doubt, and mistrust in the lyrics.  Some conservative politicians made the mistake of assuming it was a proud and patriotic song.  Patriotic maybe, but disappointed, and disillusioned.  If you don’t know the song, it adopts the point of view of a down-on-his-luck veteran of the Vietnam War.  His reasons for fighting had nothing to do with freedom or democracy.  He comes home and can’t find a job, and his refrain is simply, “Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A.”  He wanted more, expected more, deserved more, but the land of his birth finds no use for him after he puts down his rifle.

I could imagine that someone giving only a cursory listen to “We Take Care of Our Own” might make the same mistake, misinterpreting the sharp rebuke for a statement of pride.  Springsteen states an expectation, not an accomplishment.  It’s a tone I recognize from teaching: I might say “In this classroom, we listen respectfully to each person’s questions or comments” in an instance when someone has failed to do that.  I recognize the tone from parenting: “We clean up after ourselves” might be what I say, but the full meaning is, “[You were supposed to pick up all of those toys before dinner, but you seem to have forgotten that] we clean up after ourselves, [so make it right!].”

Do we Americans take care of our own?  If we’re rescuing a child who fell down a well, if we’re searching for stranded hikers, if we’re confronting Somali piracy, the answer might be yes.  We can rise to the occasion on occasion.  If you’re disabled or elderly, then to some extent, within limits, we take care of our own.

The song alludes to Hurricane Katrina as a specific example of our failure, but Springsteen suggests a broader failure:

I’ve been stumblin’ on good hearts turned to stone 
The road of good intentions has gone dry as bone

These lines remind me of debates over education and social welfare budgets.  No one opposes education.  No one wants to harm children.  But let us challenge the idea that good hearts and good intentions can retain that characterization as long as we fail to also live up to the idea that “we take care of our own.”

The song continues:

Where the eyes, the eyes with the will to see 
Where the hearts, that run over with mercy 
Where’s the love that has not forsaken me 
Where’s the work that set my hands, my soul free 
Where’s the spirit that’ll reign, reign over me 
Where’s the promise, from sea to shining sea 
Where’s the promise, from sea to shining sea 

I love the phrase “the will to see” – as there is an epidemic of willful blindness right now.  And in this critique, I can’t excuse myself.  We don’t want to see, don’t make an effort to see the effects of our failures.  I do try to listen to my colleagues who are doing the heavy lifting in the most challenging schools, working in communities and with children most affected by poverty, crime, transiency, pollution, and crumbling infrastructure.  I hear them saying that when their schools are labeled as failures, then they are also, by extension, labeled as failures.  We stigmatize the schools and the staff without providing, in the language of the song, the mercy, love, work, and promises that will help children, teachers, and schools to grow and thrive.


photo by the author

So, tonight, along with thousands of others, I’m sure I’ll join in singing “We take care of our own” – but I hope that enough people hear the full meaning of that line, which is almost exactly the opposite: we don’t take care of our own, but maybe we can summon the courage and the will to move closer to the ideal expressed in that line and in that song.

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