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In some respects, it was surreal. On the other hand, it’s only to be expected this election season. Either way, it made me shudder.
With the elections mere days away, John Kerry has been darting back and forth across the country like a rabbit on speed, proffering little in the way of a different future with his obscenely "I’m more like Bush than Bush" rhetoric (and policies to match). His anthem of choice? "No Surrender" by Bruce Springsteen.
It first dawned on me after watching Kerry, joined by Bill Clinton, step down from a speech in Philadelphia, where Clinton criticized Bush for not putting more cops on the street (a rather sick irony to any resident of West Philly, considering that the city’s police department is the only one in the country to be brought up on charges by the US Justice Department!). In the increasingly Orwellian scene, I heard a strangely enlivening, hopeful sound. A sound oddly contradictory to the gray, lack-luster, botox injected dog and pony show that we’re used to seeing in Kerry’s speeches. Yes, it was true. This was the sound of Springsteen throwing his hat in the Anybody But Bush arena being blasted out of the speakers.
It’s a stark contrast to the last time the Boss involved himself in any election campaign. Twenty years ago, Springsteen put the kibosh on the use of "Born in the USA" during Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign. The irony had obviously been lost on the Reagan camp when they threw in Bruce’s quintessential anthem of American working class plight; about a young man sent to the jungles of Vietnam only to return to an America that cannot offer him a job or a future.
But now, with the veritable political vacuum that is "ABB" dictating what is and isn’t possible until November 2nd at least, the Boss has joined the "Vote for Change" tour with Bonnie Raitt, REM, and Pearl Jam (who vocally endorsed Nader in 2000). "No other election I can remember has had that kind of significance to me," said Springsteen in a press conference on October 1st, "I realized that this is the time. I can’t sit this one out if I meant the things I’ve been singing about these 30 years." The objective for this group of musicians who have all voiced their opposition to war, racism, and economic inequality: replace Bush with Kerry on election day.
Bruce’s music has undoubtedly been a weather vane of hope for working class people for as long as he’s had a microphone in his hands. Whether it was chronicling race riots in "My Hometown," telling the story of having your dreams ripped away in "The River," or lending his haunting voice to the Philadelphia soundtrack, his songs have given hope to downtrodden people in times when no one else was (namely the 80s). But is this recent move really consistent with what has always been (and will continue to be) Springsteen’s core politics?
Kerry, of course, is for the same war as Bush. He’s for tax cuts for the rich, just like Bush. He’s for the PATRIOT Act. His voting record on health care is shoddy at best, as is his record of union support.
So my question is what will Bruce (who hasn’t voted since 1976) say to his working class fan-base if and when Kerry gets in? What will he say to the young man in "Born in the USA"? The poor youth who has a rifle shoved into his hands (this time to go and kill the Arab man) the same way Bush is now. What will he say when the young man comes home and tries to get a job at the local refinery only to be met with a hiring man who says "son, if it were up to me"? What will he say when the kid goes to a VA hospital shut down by a budget hamstrung by Bush’s (and now Kerry’s) war?
The fact is that Kerry is cut from the same cloth as the rest of the American ruling class who are so good at perpetuating the cycle of poverty and disenfranchisement that the Boss articulates so well. As for "No Surrender," Bruce’s lyrics about poor kids trying to escape for a few minutes in the tunes of a jukebox ring empty in Kerry’s ears. As a young man who spent his summers hobnobbing with the Kennedys on their yacht, John Forbes Kerry (JFK?) wouldn’t be caught dead near a small industrial town, let alone the jukebox joints that its kids would go to after school.
All this is precisely what made it so painful for this loyal Springsteen fan and anti-ABB’er. The Boss’s stubborn refusal to vote for thirty years, while it may seem like he doesn’t care, has been (I’m willing to bet) for the same reason that a majority of working people don’t vote. Because no matter what party is in office, we get the same thing. More wage-cuts, more welfare reform, more slashes in healthcare, more scabs on our picket lines, more wars for the rich. Kerry doesn’t deserve a song by this brilliant tribune of working people any more than Reagan did.
Ultimately Bruce is still, and will probably always be, on our side. He continues to openly oppose the occupation of Iraq, and his lyrics continue to give a voice to the voiceless. But his endorsement of Kerry (while understandable and, in many ways, commendable), is misguided, and is part of the bigger climate that is crippling the left’s ability to re-build our unions and an anti-war movement. Therefore, I would like to extend an invitation to the Boss himself. Bruce, if you’re out there reading this, I ask of you, implore you, to rethink your pick for the elections. If you think you can’t sit this one out, which I agree with, then you can do better than war-monger number two. If you want to endorse a candidate who matters, endorse Ralph Nader! Come on, Bruce! You’ve built a career on being a rebel and saying things that some people don’t want to hear. Do it again! Maybe you can help the push to build a genuine alternative in this country. One that won’t send us to die for oil, and one that will let workers have a voice. It’s not too late! You still have a few days!
I’m sure Ralph has a space open for you onstage.
ALEXANDER BILLET is an actor, writer and socialist currently living in London. Back home he is a member of the International Socialist Organization.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org