While reading the Wall Street Journal not so long ago, I came across an article and two opinion pieces that, each in their way, told a story far different than one rendered in Bruce Springsteen’s forthcoming album, Wrecking Ball.
At first listening, Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” chugs along with some of the best of the Boss’ rock anthems. But the song’s lyrics convey a deeply cynical despair about our nation’s charitable nature. Springsteen says we in the United States simply don’t do enough to tend to the less fortunate. And, in his Albert Schweitzer meets Florence Nightingale way, he invokes our nation’s predominantly Judeo-Christian heritage.
In “We Take Care of Our Own,” Springsteen lyrically conjures God’s sacrifice of Christ for humankind’s redemption. “I’ve been knocking on the door” – a nod to Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” – “that holds the throne,” presumably the one occupied by God. “I’ve been stumblin’ on good hearts turned to stone/The road of good intentions has gone dry as bone.” Never mind that Springsteen inadvertently forgets it’s the road to hell, not heaven, which is paved with those good intentions.
“From the shotgun shack to the Superdome/We yelled ‘help’ but the cavalry stayed home/There ain’t no-one hearing the bugle blown.” In this verse, Springsteen conveniently ignores the churches, faith-based relief agencies, private companies and millions of individuals who opened their hearts and wallets to help those impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Listening deeper into the song, the audience may discern biblical allusions – the cavalry representing the location where God sacrificed his only Son, and the bugle no one hears belonging to Gabriel. In other words, for all of our religious talk in the United States, according to Springsteen, we simply don’t put our money where our mouths are.
Springsteen’s manager told Rolling Stone that his new LP has “social overtones” and a “very pronounced spiritual dimension.” The magazine cited another source who confided that the rocker “gets into economic justice quite a bit.”
But is Springsteen’s “economic justice” based on sound “spiritual” footings?
In the issue of the January 30 issue of the Wall Street Journal, Rabbi Aryeh Spero writes: “[T]he Bible’s prescription of equality means equality under the law, as in Deuteronomy’s saying that ‘Judges and officers … shall judge the people with a just judgment: Do not … favor one over the other.’ Nowhere does the Bible refer to a utopian equality that is contrary to human nature and has never been achieved.”
If Springsteen missed the Rabbi’s essay, he might’ve read Warren Kozak’s opinion piece in the Journal, which appeared on the same page. Kozak writes that the “U.S. government spends close to $1 trillion a year providing cash, food, housing, medical care and services to poor and near-poor people. Of that figure, about $111 billion is spent on food in federal and state programs.” Kozak quotes 2009 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, which reveal that nearly 50 million U.S. citizens are classified as poor. However, the Census Bureau also finds that 96 percent of poor parents assert that “their children were never hungry” and 83 percent “of poor families reported having enough food to eat, and 82 percent of poor adults said they were never hungry at any time in 2009 due to a lack of food or money.”
One hopes these statistics, in part, answer Springsteen’s closing questions in “We Take Care of Our Own”: “Where the eyes, the eyes with the will to see/Where’re the hearts that run over with mercy/Where’s the love that has not forsaken me/Where’s the work that set my hands, my soul free/Where’s the spirit that’ll reign, reign over me/Where’s the promise, from sea to shining sea?”
If not, perhaps the following facts may reacquaint Springsteen with the spirit of American giving. Left unmentioned in Kozak’s essay are the results of the 2010 Charities Aid Foundation global survey, which, like many other suveys, singles out the United States as one of the most generous nations in private giving and volunteer activity. Of the 150,000 citizens from 153 countries surveyed by the Gallup organization, 65 percent of Americans donated money; 43 percent of Americans volunteered their time; and 73 percent of Americans helped a stranger.
Maybe Springsteen doesn’t read the Wall Street Journal, or avoids newspaper opinion pieces altogether. Had he read a straight news story in the same issue of the Journal, however, he may have learned something new in an article titled “Charities Ended 2011 on High Note.” Journalist Melanie Grayce West reports that The Salvation Army raised $147.6 million in its Red Kettle campaign – up nearly 4 percent from 2010 and 6 percent from 2009.
Alas, this amount is still $100 million less than Springsteen’s estimated net worth. While the rocker is recognized often for his generous charitable giving – I did that too in an Acton Institute article in 2004 – it’s more than a little strange to be lectured about our “fair share” by an extremely wealthy American celebrity.
Springsteen is entitled to his opinions and all that, and, further, he is guaranteed the freedom to publish whatever agitprop he wishes — especially if it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. But “We Take Care of Our Own” just doesn’t pass muster with the information readily available on any given day in any reputable news source.
At some point in the past few decades, Springsteen began patterning his songwriting on the supposed social consciousness of folksingers Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs. Ochs once recorded an album titled All the News That’s Fit to Sing. Springsteen would perform a tremendous favor to the better-informed members of his enormous fan base – this writer included – by actually reading a newspaper.
Bruce Edward Walker writes on the arts from Midland, Michigan.