“I don’t know if our democracy could stand another four years of his custodianship.”
by David Brooks
Contributing writer at The Atlantic and columnist for The New York Times.
This is a moment of tumult, anger, hope, and social change. At moments such as this, songwriters and musicians have a power to name things and help us make sense of events—artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Janelle Monáe, Tom Morello, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen.
It’s been 20 years since Springsteen wrote “American Skin (41 Shots),” a powerful song about the police killing of a black man. I thought it might be a good idea to check in with Bruce, to get his reflections on this moment and on music in this moment. Here’s a slightly edited transcript of our conversation, which took place on June 9.
“…at the heart of our racial problems is fear. Hate comes later. Fear is instantaneous. So in “American Skin,” I think what moves you is the mother’s fear for her son and the rules that she has to lay down so he can be safe. It’s simply heartbreaking to watch a young child be schooled in this way.
I want to understand the structural issues, personal issues, social issues that are pressing down hard on the people I’m writing about and still living among. That’s where what I’m looking for resides. And so that’s kind of where my politics really began to develop, out of concern for my own moral, spiritual, emotional health, and that of my neighbors.”
If you look at the long narrative, like a half century ago when I was 20 or in 1968, when I was 18, you would say there have been great improvements—the civil-rights movement, the Voting Rights Act, the Obama presidency. Of course, there’s a constant pushback to whatever progress gets made, by a reactionary element. But I feel that that’s smaller now than at any time in the past, and it’s diminishing. It’s folks who see themselves being left behind by history and losing status, and it’s forces within the Republican Party and in society that are intent on keeping the power balance of the nation in one place, when that’s simply going to be impossible.
The Democrats haven’t really made the preservation of the middle and working class enough of a priority. And they’ve been stymied in bringing more change by the Republican Party. In the age of Roosevelt, Republicans represented business; Democrats represented labor. And when I was a kid, the first and only political question ever asked in my house was “Mom, what are we, Democrats or Republicans?” And she answered, “We are Democrats because they’re for the working people.”
But I reference my Catholic upbringing very regularly in my songs. I have a lot of biblical imagery, and at the end of the day, if somebody asked me what kind of a songwriter I was, I wouldn’t say I was a political songwriter. I would probably say a spiritual songwriter. I really believe that if you look at my body of work, that is the subject that I’m addressing. I’ve addressed social issues. I’ve addressed real-life issues here on Earth. I always say my verses are the blues and my choruses are the gospel. And I lean a little heavier on the gospel than the blues. So I would categorize myself as ultimately a spiritual songwriter.
‘Since oney is what it is, I do not deny that you may be worthy of all praise if you light your cigarettes with it. That would show you had a deep, pure sense of the ontological value of the dollar. Nevertheless, if that is all you can think of doing with money, you will not long enjoy the advantages that it can still obtain.’
-Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island
Even where totalitarianism has not yet completely wiped out all liberty, men are still subject to the corrupting effect of materialism. The world has always been selfish, but the modern world has lost all ability to control its egoism. And yet, having acquired the power to satisfy its material needs and its desire for pleasures and comfort, it has discovered that these satisfactions are not enough. They do not bring peace, they do not bring happiness. They do not bring security either to the individual or to society. We live at the precise moment when the exorbitant optimism of the materialist world has plunged into spiritual ruin. The result is an agony of ambivalence in which each man is forced to project upon his neighbors a burden of self-hatred which is too great to be tolerated by his own soul.
-Thomas Merton, The Living Bread
In that place where there are shadows may I bring light. – St. Francis
‘The lies we tell are like toys,
easy to break. Like gardens
where we play hide and seek,
and, in our excitement, make a sound
so people will know where to look.’
-Rilke, Collected French Poems
We reject the assertion, promoted today by success-mongering bull terriers in business, in government, in religion, that humans are goal-seeking animals. We believe they are creatures in search of proportion in life, a pattern of grace. It is balance and beauty we believe people want, not triumph. The stories the earth’s peoples adhere to with greatest faith–the dances that topple fearful walls; the ethereal performances of light, color, and music, the enduring musics themselves–are all well patterned.
We feel cold.
Our goal is simple, we want our country to flourish.
Eric Liu believes that we are on the precipice of a civic awakening. Even prior to the US presidential election, he watched as global movements rose up against established hierarchies and institutions. This inspired Liu to compose a guide for citizens who sought to create real, lasting change. The result was his new book, You’re More Powerful Than You Think.
Protests and marches are only the beginning of a movement. Truly knowing how to wield citizen power requires a deeper understanding of power itself.
Around the planet, great numbers of everyday citizens
are pushing back against concentrated, monopolized,
“Online activism is necessary, but completely insufficient,” Liu said. “What we’ve got to do to revive the body politic and to revive civic life is to use digital means for analog ends.” He mentioned the Tea Party model, a grassroots effort started on social media that made waves in congressional elections.
Despite their distinct cries, movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and Black Lives Matter had one thing in common: they were the product of decades of radical inequality. “Around the planet, great numbers of everyday citizens are pushing back against concentrated, monopolized, institutionalized power,” Liu said. This will not be an easy fight. Those with power are unlikely to concede willingly. Changing the game will require leveraging the power of citizens who stay awake and show up.
Ben Haggerty/Macklemore: I was in Seattle. And it starts there. It starts with that moment of observing police brutality happening, again, with no accountability — and me stepping into a protest with a lot of baggage, feeling out of protest shape, when there’s this moment of injustice and I am feeling so compelled that I need to do something, yet also stepping into that space in my own head of, “Should be here? Is there something that I’m going to get called out for, being here? Am I going to distract more than actually do any good by being present here?” And all of these questions that I had.
Jamila Woods: Yeah, I think hearing that verse was one of the most intriguing parts of the song to me. The protests I’ve attended, I’ve seen and experienced some tension between white activists, or even [just] white people attending protests, who don’t necessarily have a moment of introspection — who maybe are just taking up airtime, you know, destroying things or just doing things that are distracting from what the protest is actually for. To me, I feel like it’s an important thing not to just consider yourself an ally by showing up, but to really investigate what your role can be in a productive way. And that comes from authentically engaging with the people — the black people — who are leading the protest.