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Conspiracy Theory, Meet Democratic Theory

Like anyone else, I suppose, philosophers can’t turn away from train wrecks.  I don’t mean literal crashes or disasters. I mean conceptual disasters—like passionate arguments whose internal logic gives way, or ambitious theories that sit precariously on a thin veneer of (ambiguous) evidence. When it all comes crashing down, it’s ugly.  The perpetrators emerge shaken and maimed as they stagger from the wreckage.  Onlookers rush to the scene with blankets and bandages with the obvious question on their lips—“What were you thinking?”


This I predict will be the epitaph of the so-called “birther” movement in the United States, whose partisans insistently argue that the current President of the United States of America is illegitimate because he was not born in the U.S.A.  As a segment from Anderson Cooper’s show recently illustrated, this train wreck of an argument can reduce even successful elder politicians (in this case Texas state rep. Leo Berman) to something like Jon Lovitz in his ‘pathological liar’ skit.  Every time Cooper cornered Berman on his incorrect facts or his refusal to accept the abundant evidence about Obama’s Hawaiian birth, Berman tried change the subject. The only problem was that he kept changing it back to his original, hopeless claim that “we don’t know anything at all” about the president, as if the elections of 2008 were orchestrated down to the last detail by space aliens who have brainwashed everyone on earth except, of course, for Berman and his birther friends.


cover art

Bruce Springsteen and Philosophy: Darkness on the Edge of Truth

Randall E. Auxier, Doug Anderson (eds)

(Open Court; US: May 2008)

Yeah, that’s the ticket! Brainwashed, yeah!


Birthers’ willingness to keep crashing reminds us how powerful the “Born in the U.S.A” mantra can be.  It was a megahit for Bruce Springsteen in 1984, back when the birther movement was not even a gleam in Karl Rove’s eye. As John Shook explained in his chapter in Bruce Springsteen and Philosophy, there was, and still is, much confusion about what it means to participate in a genuine democracy and whether your birthplace really matters. The theorist who gets it right, Shook argues, is John Dewey—a philosopher who was born in the U.S.A., but had a global, cosmopolitan attitude toward democracy and patriotism (unlike, say, Nazi Germany’s theorist Carl Schmitt). Dewey knew that democracy requires managing conflicts between the interests of small like-minded groups of citizens that tend to think alike (like birthers) and large, pluralistic populations with all manner of irreconcilable beliefs and values. One result is that “a democratic citizen will always have a double identity, a double loyalty”—one to his or her subgroups with common interests and values, and another to the “idea of democracy itself” that safeguards pluralism and, with luck, keeps nations from collapsing into totalitarian sameness.


That’s just what some birthers want to hear, of course: “double loyalty”—to America and the space aliens! But one of the hallmarks of democracy is that you can’t control how people understand words, ideas, or songs.  Some politicians will forever think that Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” is an anthem glowing with national pride and some will insist that “born in Hawaii” means born in Kenya, or Alpha Centauri.


Adapted from “Where Were You Born, Bruce Springsteen, and What Does It Matter?” by John Shook, in Bruce Sprinsteen and Philosophy: Darkness on the Edge of Truth, edited by Randall E. Auxier and Doug Anderson, Open Court Books, 2008


A real American phenomenon was occurring in the summer of 1984. When Bruce Springsteen hit the nation’s capitol on August 25th, playing at the Capital Centre near Washington, D.C., the mainstream media really began to pay attention. Morning news shows and radio talk shows scrambled for something to say. This was Ronald Reagan’s morning in America, and the Republican Reagan was running for re-election against Democrat Walter Mondale. Media pundit George Will, a voice of conservatism and informal advisor to Reagan, went to a concert and came away impressed. The tour had moved on to Philadelphia by September 13, when Will’s column in the Washington Post proclaimed his witness to “A Yankee Doodle Springsteen.” Here were traditional American values cheerfully proclaimed, Will explained, even if he couldn’t pin down Springsteen’s politics. Tipped off, Reagan politicos asked if the song could be used for the campaign, but Springsteen refused. Reagan’s speechwriters were undeterred. While the tour was headed to Pittsburgh, Reagan’s stump speech in Hammonton, New Jersey, on September 19, included new words: “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.” A week later, as the Born In The U.S.A. tour finished up its eastern leg in Buffalo and headed to the west coast, Mondale said that his campaign had Springsteen’s endorsement. Springsteen had to deny that, as well—he was not ready to be used as a political tool. But what was Springsteen trying to say?


The storyline seemed obvious: Springsteen has decided to go to any extreme as the popular poet-demagogue, speaking up for the dumb and down-and-out. Plenty of other musicians, from rock and pop stars to country and western crooners, had their own laments for the suffering working class. But none had draped and clothed their visual image with the American flag like the Boss. This was new—and not to be seen again until more tough-looking white men, sporting cowboy hats this time, crooning glorifications of an Iraq war almost 20 years later. But the motif is the same: what better to put the fight back into a bruised and dazed citizen than prideful patriotism? The war eagle and the flag is flying, so chin up! Just the mid-1980s way of warming up the lower and middle classes during the frosts of a prolonged Cold War and an endless wage freeze. Crystal clarity in a song: working class values is American pride in testosterone strength is where the U.S.A. is at. If you were born in the U.S.A., like the Boss, you knew your identity. At least that’s what many people thought was going on with this song. But could Springsteen really be pinned down so easily?


“Born in the U.S.A.” means as many different things as “democracy” itself. Springsteen’s anthem can be understood as a plea of sympathy for the suffering of one of America’s subgroups, the Vietnam generation. Similarly, liberal democracy itself can be understood as driven by victimized sub-groups, each forced to fight for its own identity and survival. Or, from a different angle, we can view “Born in the U.S.A.” as a cry of patriotism for the pride and hopeful destiny of the American nation, the “greatest country in the world,” as its citizens are wont to remind themselves. Similarly, liberal democracy can be understood as powered by the nationalistic patriotism of all citizens, permitting the democratic process to focus on what is best for the whole country rather than on the narrow agendas of its subgroups.  At its most worrisome, we can read into “Born in the U.S.A.” a surging tide of angry nationalism that revolves around identifying “us real Americans” against “those un-Americans.” On this view, democracy might reach its full maturation as a kind of fascism, when the homogeneous majority asserts its rightful dominance over all competition, compelling assimilation or extermination.


We cannot here decide which of these interpretations is correct; in a way, they are all more like inviting questions, rather than definitive answers. And Springsteen was never a poet to give his listeners definitive answers, relieving from them any effort to think for themselves. Like earlier poets of democracy before him, such as Walt Whitman, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, and John Lennon, Springsteen throws the burden of figuring out your country back on you. Citizens of democracies, unlike any other type of citizen, are supposed to be able to handle this. If the people are supposed to rule, instead of kings or aristocrats, then they had better be able to figure out their country’s problems. Brains count more than brawn when you are part of democracy.


While not much of a poet or songwriter himself, America’s greatest philosopher of democracy, John Dewey (1859–1952) celebrated the capacity of Americans to think about their common problems. His greatest book about democracy, The Public and Its Problems (1927), still stands as the most profound defense of citizen participation in governing. Published at a time of wavering confidence in democracy, thrown in the face of communists and fascists and monarchists and militarists, this book explains how democracy must work if it is ever to succeed. Dewey confronts the problem of pluralism and multiculturalism directly. He declared that the entire point of democratic government, unlike any other form of government, is intelligently to manage diversity. If it can’t manage the inevitable conflicts between a country’s sub-groups with peaceful compromises, then democracy deserves to be discarded as useless.


Why isn’t assimilation and homogeneity the answer, as German theorist Carl Schmitt believed? Because democracy is ultimately supposed to be about freedom from oppression—if you want to enjoy the culture of democracy, you have to embrace the liberty of everyone to live freely. If you instead want the freedom to live your way, and to not have to live with someone else living life quite differently, then that sort of freedom is not democratic and you don’t want to live in a democracy. All sorts of alternative nondemocratic totalitarianisms and dictatorships can fulfill their promise that you wouldn’t have to suffer from diversity. You can live just with people just like you! Their offer may be tempting, because of the high price each person must pay for democracy: you must eventually compromise, for the good of the whole democracy, with people whose beliefs or fashions or lifestyles turn you off.


No wonder we spontaneously organize into subgroups of unified identity, Dewey pointed out. People need each other. We group together into communities for common causes, when we can benefit from group effort. All of these cooperative communities—Dewey calls them “publics”—compete for their own particular interests. Think companies, but in the civil sphere, not the economic sphere, where the “business” of democratic living gets done. Now, from this sociological explanation of what democratic culture is like, how does Dewey explain where democratic politics comes in?


Democracy involves (1) liberty; (2) diversity; (3) publics; and (4) competition. Competition can lead to violence, naturally. Here Dewey offers a vision of democracy directly contradictory to that of Schmitt. Yes, politics is about managing conflict between competitive sub-groups. But in a real democracy, ultimately committed to freedom from oppression, that competition cannot escalate into actual violence. Any political system that permits intergroup conflict to escalate into violence has completely abandoned its responsibility to govern, and any democracy that permits inter-group violence has forgotten its duty to protect all citizens from oppression. Democracy must manage conflict peacefully—and every democratic citizen knows this and is committed to this responsibility. That’s where the needed cohesiveness is found. Genuinely democratic citizens are capable of (1) respecting the liberty of all citizens; (2) respecting the diversity found across their democratic culture; (3) forming and managing publics that advance their interests; (4) competing with other publics without resorting to oppression or outright violence. The citizens are ready to be members of a democratic community in the wide sense: a “great community” of which each citizen is proud to be a member.


You can see where Dewey is going: A democratic citizen will always have a double identity, a double loyalty. Loyalty to one’s communal subgroups, yes; but also loyalty to the idea of democracy itself and to one’s country that tries to be a democratic community. Democratic politics is about that difficult compromise. Sure, I can fight for the interests of my subgroup even if that harms many other subgroups and maybe the good of the country as a whole. But that is not the democratic way. It is always true that sometimes I have to think like a victimized member of a suffering sub-group. I just can’t stand by and watch my livelihood and my way of life die a slow death from neglect. But sometimes I have to think like a citizen of the country, too.  I must try to imagine a way that my life can change for the better in some way that also contributes to the welfare of many others too, maybe for the good of the whole country.


This is not utopian dreaming—democratic citizens have been doing this for centuries. The social and political progress made by democracies is the cumulative work of millions of ordinary people. As democracies begin to cooperate together for global benefit, a cosmopolitan level of community emerges as well, so that people can feel a loyalty to the global community too. America is a great poem, as Whitman declared, a dramatic narrative of all the stories of the American people woven together. If you can sympathize with Springsteen’s narrative of a real American experience, your loyalty to the U.S.A. is entirely justified. It matters where you were born, and being born in the U.S.A. is a huge responsibility. Citizens who try to live up that responsibility deserve to be proud Americans.


John Shook is Director of Education and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, NY. He writes a column for Free Inquiry magazine and is co-editor of Transformers and Philosophy.


George Reisch is the Series Editor for Open Court's series Popular Culture and Philosophy. He also edited Pink Floyd and Philosophy (2007) and co-edited Monty Python and Philosophy (2006) and Radiohead and Philosophy (2009).


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