Politics of Boss' CD is human

Albany Times Union, 2002-12-08, by: John Massaro
I was prepared to be sharply disappointed with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's latest album, "The Rising." Because I teach a course at the State University College at Potsdam titled "Walk Tall: Political Themes in the Lyrics of Bruce Springsteen," I was concerned when a review in Time concluded: "What's missing on 'The Rising' is politics." After repeated and enjoyable listening to the album and attending recent Springsteen concerts in Cleveland and Detroit (I don't have tickets for Friday's sold-out show in Albany -- yet), I must report the album is not only a respectful, rocking and fitting testimony to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and its aftermath. It is also distinctly and beautifully political.

While the conclusion that "The Rising" lacks a political perspective is erroneous, it is, nonetheless, understandable. Politics is present in any human endeavor involving power and influence. A common but critical mistake is to conclude that it is the sole or even primary nature of politics for some to employ power and influence to achieve selfish or malevolent ends or to force others manipulatively, aggressively and, perhaps, duplicitously to do what they would not ordinarily choose to do. Power and influence can, however, also be used to attain benevolent ends as well as in assisting others to achieve goals in accordance with their hopes and dreams. People cannot only be moved to action by appealing to their demons but also to their better angels.

Refusing to pander

Springsteen's "The Rising" avoids the politics of fear and hate, the politics of threatening to harm or otherwise bully or manipulate others. In the album, he refuses to pander to the reactionary right's momentarily popular, jingoistic and macho version of the politics of vengeance and retaliation calling for the humiliation and extinction of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida and, perhaps, Islam itself. On the other hand, he does not embrace the radical left's dogmatic version of politics tracing the events of Sept. 11 to the greed, arrogance and insensitivity of United States' imperialism and unilateralism.

It appears to me that Springsteen justifiably believes post-Sept. 11 nerves are still too raw to absorb an album decisively siding with either of these political poles. To his credit, he eschews such political differences in order to emphasize our human similarities. In timely fashion, he offers the balm of the politics of love and understanding, the politics of human compassion and tolerance, the politics of the better angels that he has faith lie within the hearts of all of us. Even while Springsteen does not present a specific political blueprint as to how to achieve the peaceful and just world community he envisions, he challenges listeners to never lose sight of this worthy goal.

A caring humanity

"The Rising" features several notable illustrations of the theme of the politics of love and community, of a caring humanity. There is Springsteen's caution against pursuing a knee-jerk, vengeful reaction to return hate for hate, violence for violence, terror for terror. In "Lonesome Day," he notes: "Better ask questions before you start to shoot. Deceit and betrayal's bitter fruit." Springsteen also asks us to forget past grudges, past hatreds, past killings employed by some to promote deeds causing still more pain, hatred and death. He urges us to seek peaceful solutions by consistently reminding us of the commonality of the human spirit. Springsteen's appeal, while often invoking a deity, is not made to a God or even gods in heaven but rather to people on Earth. In the fittingly titled "Worlds Apart," he writes that we will not find the truth, the path to peace and justice, in otherworldly appeals but only "in your skin upon my skin, in the beating of our hearts." And in the bouncy "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)," he endorses the politics of togetherness, cooperation and community, forsaking the traditional politics of combat, conflict and hatred. Springsteen tells us that while there are "a lot of walls need tearing down, together we could take them down one by one."

Two people

The humanistic nature of the politics extolled in "The Rising" is evident in the album's most compelling, most significant song, "Paradise." Springsteen presents two people, one a Muslim, the other a Christian. Both have been victimized by the politics of hate. While the lyrics are, perhaps, intentionally ambiguous, it appears the Muslim is a parent, spouse or friend, left behind to mourn the death of a beloved female suicide bomber who has taken her own life and, likely, the lives of others. Springsteen then introduces the widow of a Pentagon employee killed in the Sept. 11 attack. While the Muslim and the Christian are separated by many, many miles and by different cultures and religions, Springsteen connects them through the commonality of human suffering. Neither survivor can find solace in ethereal thoughts that his/her deceased loved one is now in some version of paradise. And even when they do gain a mystical glimpse of their departed, they see their eyes not reflecting peace but "as empty as paradise."

Springsteen seems to be suggesting that the power to bring about a loving global community in which such senseless deaths do not occur rests not with appeals to dogma or even to the divine. Rather, it rests within the hearts and minds of humanity. Appeals for a peaceful, loving world community made beyond our own humanity are likely doomed to fail unless we are willing to work toward that goal together. While never denying God's love and power, Springsteen calls upon us to accept responsibility for making the world a safer, saner and just place. Notably, in the final verse of "Paradise" an anguished survivor is tempted to escape this responsibility and join a mourned loved one by drowning him/herself. He or she realizes the futility of this gesture and re-embraces life and the human condition of trying to make the best of an imperfect world.

I break above the waves / I feel the sun upon my face.

Springsteen is calling upon all of us to embrace life, our common humanity and each other. And that is political.