10 August 2012
Springsteen debunked, Marcuse vindicated?
A highly amusing takedown of the Bruce Springsteen cult by Leon Wielseltier appears in the latest New Republic and on the magazine's website. While Wielseltier's description of latter-day Bruce as "Howard Zinn with a guitar" may not seem like a putdown, or even inaccurate to some people -- but I thought that was Pete Seeger! -- his dismissal of the great man's credibility as a protest singer is persuasive. That's not because I think the writer is right about Springsteen's current music or his ideas -- I don't really listen to the stuff anymore -- though I would question how truly someone of the musician's vast wealth and global mobility can empathize with the common people he claims to sing for. He could well be an American Bono by now, for all I know. What struck home for me was Wieseltier's invocation of the seemingly-forgotten Herbert Marcuse and his assertion that rock 'n roll music in general "prove[s] that Herbert Marcuse was right." Marcuse, a German emigre who taught in California, was a popular radical thinker of the Sixties and Seventies; you can find plenty of paperback copies of his One Dimensional Man in the older used bookstores. His big idea was that capitalism flourished in a culture of "repressive tolerance." As Wieseltier summarizes the idea: "There will be no revolution in America. This society will contain its contradictions without resolving them." Tolerance undermined militancy in Marcuse's view. It gave the deprived and the oppressed the solace of personal freedom and self-expression. The concept seemed plausible to me even if you didn't buy much else of what Marcuse was peddling. Wieseltier departs from Marcuse by writing "Marcuse's mistake was in believing that this is bad news. It is good news, because we will be spared the agonies of political purifications." Such is the sentiment of someone incapable of imagining, or refusing to imagine, the necessity of some sort of purification -- a conventional sort of liberal who accepts a messy pluralism out of fear of all alternatives. Some apprehension, to say the least, is always justified; when some mighty force rises up to cry "NO!" it may refuse more than is strictly justified. But is it really a healthy society or culture where no one or no group is indignant enough to rise up so? Is it not somewhat panglossian to presume that there are or can be no circumstance in your society, apart from an invasion or a blatant, violent usurpation of power, that could rightly compel such a rising -- one presumably different from what Springsteen sings about? In any event, Wielseltier's invocation of Marcuse inevitably reminded me of the controversy back in the 1980s when Springsteen complained about Republicans using "Born in the U.S.A." at their rallies. It's certainly stupid of them to think the song a patriotic anthem simply on the strength of its chorus, but the easy co-optation of would-be protest music by establishment interests who simply liked the beat and the few words they could make out clearly illustrates both Wieseltier's point about rock -- pop rock, at least -- and Marcuse's overall observation about the inadequacy of "freedom of expression" in the face of certain injustices. My point isn't to recommend abandoning freedom of expression as an ideal or an existing thing worth defending. But we should bear in mind that any uprising against injustice is going to be accused of actually or potentially violating somebody's freedom. Maybe someone should write a song about that.