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Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Born Again American

posted by on January 3 at 13:27 PM

In the summer of 1988, I walked into a huge sports stadium outside of Harare, Zimbabwe to watch a concert that had as its summit Bruce Springsteen on the stage.

Nearly 100,000 Africans were in the Chinese-built stadium, the situation was noisy and chaotic, and when Springsteen finally appeared, around 11 pm, I was certain he wouldn’t perform “Born In The U.S.A.” to a crowed of people who were mostly born (and never been out of) Southern Africa.

It was the first song he performed.

Not only that, there wasn’t a drop of irony in his voice or manner. Not only that, the crowd went nuts at the declaration “BORN IN THE USA.” Everyone (from Mabvuku, from Tafara, from Gweru, Mapondera, Mutare—from everywhere corner of Zimbabwe) sang with Springsteen. They were all “BORN IN THE USA.” No pop singer from Japan, or Israel, or Iran, or Russia, or even the UK, could have done such a bold thing: sing a song about where they were born to Africans and succeed in having the Africans sing along and indentify with a kind of birth, a country, a way of life that’s far in actuality from their own.

One had to admire American power, which was then a soft form of imperialism. There were no army bases in Zimbabwe, the president was supposed to be a Marxist and the country on the long road to socialism, and yet everyone here wanted to be, recognized themselves as part of, what Richard Wright famously called in Black Boy “the American spirit.” Being an American was not about being in a nation but being an idea of who you wanted to be. All that it took to be an American was wanting to be one. Desire was everything, not the soil, not history, not race. By the means of this desire, the world was ruled, ordered, made understandable by the American ideal. Watching that concert made this theory a fact. But that was then—1988.

After Bush, after his distaterous wars, his political corruption and international indifference, it’s hard to imagine that Springsteen (or someone who has achieved his level popularity in the present time) could take to the stage today and sing that song with the same results, reception, understanding. This is precisely the power that America has lost in the world, and it’s hard to see how it can repair the damage Bush has done to its once-powerful image. And if America hopes to be at the forefront of other, competing national ideals, models, images—and it must be at the forefront if it hopes to sustain a leading position in the global economy—then it has to reconstitute this soft form of power (which all political thinkers—be they in antiquity or in today—know is the greatest form of political power) from what it is now: a death and blood machine in the Middle East.

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The song "Born in the U.S.A." is a ballad about a veteran of the Vietnam war, not a self aggrandising declaration of patriotic allegiance.

Posted by David Summerlin | January 3, 2007 1:35 PM

The Dixie Chicks could take a stage anywhere in the world (outside the US south)and be loved.................

Posted by yippie | January 3, 2007 1:46 PM

Exactly why we need another Ronald Regan. Eight years of his policies got you that moment Chuck.

Posted by You_Gotta_Be_Kidding_Me | January 3, 2007 1:50 PM

David—it may have been ironic, but of the millions of people who bought the record, how many people "got it?" I think Springsteen is brilliant, but he's a patriot through and through, whatever the third verse of Born in the USA suggests.

Posted by Matt Davis | January 3, 2007 2:24 PM

Interesting to learn that Southern Africans can have dodgy taste in rock music, too.

Posted by 11x11 | January 3, 2007 2:45 PM

The only remaining elements of America's once mighty empire are its economy (partly via its currency) and its "death and blood machine". Soon the currency will be gone with the out-of-control national debt, the currency will collaspe, the economy will be in shambles and the only thing left will be the death machine.

The American empire is fading fast and remembering its past is all we will have soon.

Posted by Andrew | January 3, 2007 2:59 PM

Well that (6) should fill every Liberal hart with glee!

Posted by You_Gotta_Be_Kidding_Me | January 3, 2007 3:10 PM

YGBKM, are you for real?

Do you really believe that "liberals", people who believe in secular society, social justice, tolerance for all religious belief, rights for gay folk, scientific understanding of our worl and so on are really *cheering* the demise of these American ideals at the feet of an ill concieved oil war?

That might be even more obtuse than the nuts who believe liberals are cheering on islamic radicals.

Posted by golob | January 3, 2007 3:44 PM

The song is an exultantly bitter acknowledgement that the U.S. was also a "death and blood machine" in Southeast Asia. Subtlety and complexity fitting so awkwardly into this world as they do, the song was misused by Ronald Reagan, aped by car company commercials, and assumed to be something it was not by anyone who never listened to the lyrics. Not that Charles' observations also are incorrect: they are not. The same America that napalmed Vietnam was also on its streets, fighting its fascist police, and dreaming of equality and justice. The CULTURAL America, of Walt Whitman and rock and roll and Muhammad Ali inspired a tortured patriotism inside and outside the country. What of that is left? What are YOU doing?

Posted by Grant Cogswell | January 3, 2007 3:46 PM

I remember watching Reagan on TV when he blithely name-checked "Born in the USA". I though "Ooops, SOMEbody, some speech writer, never bothered to listen to the lyrics. This will go down as one of the great moments of Reaganesque cluelessness." But within a day or two I realized that no, the fact is almost NObody ever bothered to listen to the lyrics, and, sure, the song represents American triumphalism to so many people it might just as well BE about American triumphalism.

On a related topic, someone recorded a deft parody (was it maybe Cheech of Cheech and Chong?) called "Born in East L.A." about a native-born Angeleno who gets "accidentally" deported to Mexico. One of those cases where the parody catches more of the original point of the song than would a careless listening to the original version.

Posted by Eric | January 3, 2007 4:26 PM

Thank you for the wonderful story. Please let the chimps in the news dept know that real writing is not dead at the stranger...but only when they attempt it.

Posted by StrangerDanger | January 3, 2007 4:51 PM

Was it Too Live Crew who did Banned in the USA? that was awesome.

Posted by longball | January 3, 2007 4:57 PM

Wasn't that his most popular song at the time? It seems like it would have been pretty foolish for him not to perform it.

Posted by keshmeshi | January 3, 2007 5:12 PM

mudede strikes out.

Posted by rodrigo | January 3, 2007 6:09 PM


First, a belief in secular society, social justice, tolerance for all religious belief, rights for gay folk, scientific understanding of our world and so on are not the defining characteristics of the Liberal movement. Read your Oakeshott, Burke and Goldwater and you will find that those principals are not the exclusive property of Liberals. The defining qualities of Liberalism you were looking for could more accurately be summarized as the redistribution of wealth and an omnipotent nanny state.

Second, If you long for the return of “America's once mighty empire” (or even lament its “passing”) you are out of the mainstream of Liberal “thought” which evidence overwhelmingly indicates agrees that an international community not subject to US dominance would be much improved, and that a US subject to international dominance (the World Court, UN and International Law) would in turn be much improved. You’re not forgetting to Blame America First™ (and white males second) are you? Careful, they might revoke your membership…

Posted by You_Gotta_Be_Kidding_Me | January 3, 2007 6:24 PM

It would be easy for Americans to regain the favor of the world. Americans just have to take the war criminals out of their government and put them in prison instead.

When we leave Iraq is really a secondary question.

Posted by Richard Jensen | January 3, 2007 10:27 PM

And what are YOU doing, Cogswell? Fucking off to Portland and Mexico City while boo-hooing that Seattle didn't buy into your urbanist pipe dream, that's what.

Posted by Cogswell was Born to Run | January 3, 2007 11:24 PM

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