There was something about the confluence of events in the last few weeks that set a perfect stage for the magic of a Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama pairing on a podcast.
*Rolls out welcome mat*
First, a rewind.
As Texas dealt with a recent winter weather catastrophe that cost and jeopardized lives, I was disgusted and flabbergasted with the behavior of so many people. Sure, some of those people were Republican politicians in Texas who are supposed to be leaders but instead turned out to be the snakes we knew they were.
But I was more disappointed in a lot of Democrats. As I scrolled social media and came across post after post from Texans who were actually suffering and scared and needing to express themselves, one Dem after another scolded them for how they (presumably) voted. On one Twitter thread I saw a person dealing with no heat, electricity or water respond that she’d voted blue, only to have people challenging why she lives in a red state in the first place.
What the hell is wrong with you people?
She and so many others, sitting in makeshift tents, cuddling with babies and pets to stay warm (alive), no way to leave on icy roads, wondering about the status of nearby elderly relatives, getting low on food and water. You can’t find empathy somewhere in you instead of lashing out with some middle school-level, knee-jerk political retort?
Have we become Trumpsters now? Fuck empathy. Who’d you vote for?
I know politics were and are at play. I’m smart like that. But do we not consider context anymore?
If you and I are having a conversation about the crisis in Texas, but I’m in New Jersey and you’re in Illinois, sure, let’s dig into some politics. But if I’m in a dialogue with a person using their precious phone charge to communicate from a flooded, cold house, is that the time to question their vote?
These must be the same people who, when they find out someone is dying of lung cancer, the first place they go is – is he a smoker? Instead of, maybe, “Oh my gosh, that’s awful. Is there anything I can do? How can I support you at this time?”
If all of that didn’t gin up enough angst for a February where I’m reading Caste and am more disturbed with each page I turn (more on that later) and the fact that I can’t even go out for a proper lunch, we had the death of Rush Limbaugh. With apologies to all the other humans targeted by the late radio personality in his many years of staining our airwaves, this is the line from his obituary that set my teeth gnashing:
“Last year, as the Covid-19 pandemic swept the nation, Mr. Limbaugh pushed dangerous lies, at one point likening the coronavirus to the common cold,” read The New York Times.
Had he passed away a year ago, it would have barely registered on my radar. But this blatant lie from his mouth to the ears of my elderly parents has caused me great personal stress in this pandemic.
I’ve written about it before, probably feverishly in late 2020 as I missed holidays with family. I thought that was the big hurdle. But this ongoing feeling my parents have that COVID-19 has been overblown by Democrats was born somewhere in the mix of Limbaugh’s bombastic ignorance and the cable news they watch. The story goes that the former president was in fact victimized by this pandemic and Democrats weaponized it.
Oh, what about the 500,000 dead Americans, you ask?
Statistics. In no way are they associated with the former president, who did a fine job uniting us behind the common cause of safety and health. What else could he have done?
God, I could punch a wall.
Dirty snow outside my window. Limitations up in my grill. And, to be clear, I’m one of the lucky ones in all of this.
See what I mean?
Come on in, rock icon and former President. Enter my cozy living room.
What’s that you ask? Oh, yes, yes, I am very much interested in eavesdropping on your conversation. I’m already picturing you just 50 miles or so from here, North Jersey to Central Jersey, talking away an afternoon in a legendary guitar-filled studio.
It’s important to note that what I would normally be doing instead of this is reading more of Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. My book club – formed in the wake of George Floyd’s death — is discussing it this week and I need to keep reading, but the information it’s dispensing is painful and I need to do it in doses. I’m getting angrier with each turn of the page, wondering why I didn’t know until now that the Nazis in Germany modeled their behavior on the American treatment of slaves.
“The Nazis were impressed by the American custom of lynching its subordinate caste of African-Americans, having become aware of the ritual torture and mutilations that typically accompanied them,” Wilkerson writes. “Hitler especially marveled at the American ‘knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.’”
That makes me breathless.
I welcome a Springsteen-Obama interruption. The podcast is called Rene
What I hear out of the gate is Obama setting the tone, summarizing the last three years, and then noting that unifying America has become a dominant theme in a lot of his conversations lately. That includes conversations with Springsteen, who has become a friend.
Then, amidst topics like childhood, home, manhood, music, culture, and race, I start to hear strains of my own thinking and experiences of late. Springsteen begins to talk about racial strife in the 60s and now.
“In America, you know, we have loved black people and brown people when they’re entertaining us, but when they want to live next door we remain a tribal society, you know?” Springsteen says. “It’s part of our tragicness that continues, obviously, to this day, you know.”
When he then talks about the importance of “deconstructing the myth of the melting pot” it resonates with me because this is what I have discovered in my reading since June. I think of the James Baldwin quote from I Am Not Your Negro, how we “made a legend from a massacre.” He was referring to the tidy picture painted by westerns.
In the second episode of the podcast, Springsteen has me nodding along when he says he’s been reading Baldwin since George Floyd’s murder. Ah, we’re kindred spirits. That’s why his use of language around his understanding of race issues rings familiar to me – it’s Baldwin-esque.
“Is the country ready to deconstruct its founding myths, its … its mythic stories, its mythic history?” Springsteen asks.
As Obama intimates, we haven’t had a reckoning. It is indeed debunking myths and legends we all grew up with that is required to move us forward.
“What we discovered during these conversations was that we still share a fundamental belief in the American ideal,” Obama says in the podcast introduction. “Not as an airbrushed, cheap fiction or as an act of nostalgia that ignores all the ways that we’ve fallen short of that ideal, but as a compass for the hard work that lies before each of us as citizens to make this place and the world more equal, more just and more free.”
I sit here afraid for the non-whites among us in the current American climate, but also hopeful after listening to the rock star and the former President.