How do conservatives reconcile their cultural tastes with their partisan politics? I don’t mean generally, because generally the answer is they don’t think about their media consumption any more than your average liberal. I mean specifically, that is, when they do consider how the media they consume intersects with the beliefs they profess, what happens? Thanks to Andrew Breitbart, we now have a daily glut of valuable insight into what it is to be a conservative for whom music, literature and film don’t nadir after Beethoven, Shakespeare and Bogart. Admittedly, some of the revelations are old hat, as with Breitbart’s confession of how certain conservatives really feel about the working poor:
Whoever cast the Boston grotesques that littered the film, my hat’s off to you. These profoundly ugly people really created a backdrop that made you want to root for the kid not to be found and brought back to her natural origins.
But most of Big Hollywood is so awesomely counter-intuitive Walter Benn Michaels wouldn’t touch it with your ten-foot pole. Exhibit A: Evan Sayet’s post on Bruce Springsteen’s secret conservatism, in which he claims
that, while Springsteen the multimillionaire, rock star with the mansion in Beverly Hills may be a Liberal, Bruce Springsteen the poet is one-hundred percent Republican.
Those of you currently reading Dante in your sophomore English classes take note: Sayet someone out. Not that I need to tell you this, but the Commedia is written by Dante the Man about Dante the Pilgrim as narrated by Dante the Poet. The Poet is the fiction’s conceit—the character who remembers and recalls what happened after he found himself per una selva oscura—and is not to be treated coextensive with Dante the Man. I invoke Dante here because Springsteen, like Dante, is frequently confused for his narrators by people who should know better. No one reads “Caliban upon Setebos” and mistakes the theological musings of Prospero’s deformed manservant for a definitive statement of Browning’s philosophy; whereas with Springsteen, every word his narrators utter is an expression of his personal beliefs even when he opens with a lyric like “[m]y name is Joe Roberts.”
By these lights, Springsteen the Poet is a conservative because Joe Roberts believes a “man [who] turns his back on his family, well, he just ain’t no good.” As that belief plugs neatly into the fallacy whereby family values are conservative values are Republican values, Springsteen the Poet would’ve been besotted by Sarah Palin and voting for John McCain. If that sounds simple-minded, you likely won’t be impressed by Sayet’s Sowell-lite philosophizing: liberals believe “man is born good and then corrupted by the institutions of society,” whereas conservatives believe “man is born with a dual and conflicting nature—capable of good and evil and everything in between—requiring cultural forces to help him tamp down the darker side and cultivate the good within.” By these druthers, any song in which options are weighed lilts conservative; any song that narrates the selection of the correct option must, therefore, be the product of a conservative mindset. A song like “Imagine” is liberal because if there are no countries and no religions there is nothing to kill or die for—that is, without some system of belief around to adjudicate the merits of a decision, no choice is any more or less meaningful than any other. Do what feels right replaces do what is right, and since doing wrong feels so right why don’t we do it in the road? To Sayet’s mind,
Springsteen . . . holds the diametrically opposed—Conservative—vision of man’s nature:
Two faces have I.
One that laughs, one that cries.
One says “hello,” one says “goodbye.”
One says things I don’t understand.
Makes me feel like half a man.
Since Springsteen recognizes that his feelings are conflicted, far from seeking the destruction of the civilizing forces, these are the things he specifically turns to for guidance:
At night I get down on my knees and pray
I want to make that other man go away.
Couple of points to make here: first, Springsteen is a recovering Catholic; second, Springsteen is a recovering Catholic. Has Sayet never met a recovering Catholic before? Because Tunnel of Love may be the quintessential statement of recovering Catholicism in the latter half of the last century. Just ask Walker Percy. Pick as many cherries as you like—and Sayet loves cherries—you cannot turn Springsteen into an organization man:
Fairly early in Springsteen’s career, in the song “Badlands,” the Conservative poet takes a moment to contemplate what will bring him happiness in life. He then runs through the usual possibilities, from losing oneself in his work to the accruing of fabulous riches, only to decide in the end that is “Faith that can save me.”
Strangely, Sayet fails to quote the song’s most famous lyric:
For the ones who had a notion,
A notion deep inside.
That it ain’t no sin
To be glad you’re alive . . .
Except, were Springsteen the Catholic Sayet wants him to be, it would be. Catholic’s have this funny idea about babies and the taint of sin—life is a journey, see, from sin to salvation, and this journey starts the moment you find yourself in una selva oscura . . . but I’m not here to quibble about Catholic doctrine. I concede that Springsteen’s thought was shaped by his Catholic upbringing. I’ll even concede that the confessional métier imparted by a Catholic upbringing makes for some fine art. However, I steadfastly insist that writing songs in which your narrator feels conflicted does not a conservative make. Misunderstanding fairly straightforward lyrics, hower . . .
Springsteen sees the constraints of the Constitution as good, right and essential:
See that flag flying over the courthouse?
It says certain things are set in stone.
Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t.
The combination of Catholic imagery and American iconography stand in stark contrast to the Neo-Liberal Lennon whose Utopian dreams require the dismantling of these things—of all codes and creeds beyond doing what feels good at any moment
Sayet correctly identifies Springsteen’s reverance for classical American iconography, but he misses the entire point of the song. Those words are not spoken by the narrator—they don’t even appear in the song, actually, but I’m not here to nitpick about misquotation—they are spoken to the narrator by his father. In “Long Walk Home,” Springsteen’s narrator returns to the town where he was born and finds it in disrepair. The local grocery and barbarshop are still there, but they’re manned and patonized by “rank strangers.” The diner is dust. The veteran’s hall stands “silent and alone.” Then the narrator recalls what his father told him:
My father said,
“Son, we’re lucky in this town.
It’s a beautiful place to be born.
It just wraps its arms around you,
Nobody crowds you, nobody goes it alone.
You know that flag flying over the courthouse?
Means certain things are set in stone.
Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t.”
You don’t need my crack skills as a professional interpreter of words to recognize what Springsteen is up to here: the town through which the narrator currently walks, with its shuttered businesses and lonely veterans, resembles the town his father described in name alone. Via a simple grammatical exercise, this point can be made abundantly clear. Since the father’s statements were made in the past, I will put them in the past tense:
My father said,
“Son, we were lucky in this town.
It was a beautiful place to be born.
It just wrapped its arms around you,
Nobody crowded you, nobody went it alone.
You know that flag flying over the courthouse?
Meant certain things were set in stone.
Who we were, what we would’ve done and what we wouldn’t have done.”
The last line clunks something awful, but the point should be clear: he doesn’t believe in the permanence of community or the continuity of shared cultural values. The song documents how fragile the order his father cherished actually was. The narrator wouldn’t return to his hometown and note that “it’s gonna be a long walk home” if “home” possessed the timeless virtues Sayet attributes to it. What we have here, then, is a succinct example of the conservative break from reality:
A town falls to shit.
A person notes that the town fell to shit and remembers what his father told him the town was like.
A conservative comes along, examines the town, declares the father correct and attributes the sentiment to the son.
“You and me, Bruce,” the conservative tells the son. “We’re alike.”
“I’m not Bruce.”
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Whatever. All that matters is you’re really just like me.”
“I don’t think what you think I think,” he replies.
“But you just—you just now said—you talked about how wonderful your hometown is.”
“Wrong! I was listening. You spoke in the present tense.”
“I remembered in the present tense.”
“You remembered how great this town is.”
“IS IS IS!”
“IS IS IS INFINITY NO TAKE BACKS!”