I will rise above the temptation to treat New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and his ideological allies as he treats those whom he does not like. Quite a few pundits have already had their fun with Gov. Christie, among other conservatives, while also declaring their fealty to Bruce Springsteen as if anyone cared—here, here, here, and here.
The most extensive of these articles undoubtedly is Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in the July/August issue of The Atlantic, which begins with the curious juxtaposition that Gov. Christie is “a very large man who dances at Springsteen concerts in front of many thousands of people without giving a damn what they think,” but adds in the very next sentence that the two of them are “in a luxury suite at the Prudential Center,” which is, presumably, far from the many thousands of people in the riff-raff sections.
Much of Goldberg’s piece is devoted to the fact that Springsteen has no interest in meeting Gov. Christie, despite desperate pleas from the governor and his staff. Goldberg writes:
On occasion, he’ll make a public plea to Springsteen, as he did earlier this spring, when Christie asked him to play at a new casino in Atlantic City. ‘He says he’s for the revitalization of the Jersey Shore, so this seems obvious,’ Christie told me. I asked him if he’s received a response to his request. ‘No, we got nothing back from them,’ he said unhappily, ‘not even a “F— you.’
Well, one might add that no response from Bruce—when Gov. Christie so shamelessly sought to pressure Springsteen into doing something he never showed any interest in doing for a cause (gambling casinos in Atlantic City) for which he has never expressed any sympathy—would be about the nicest response one could imagine. Someone close to the governor might want to suggest, however, that he listen more carefully to the lyrics to Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.”
Goldberg does give the reasons Springsteen might not be drawn to Gov. Christie:
Christie has cut taxes, demonized the teachers unions, and slashed spending on social services. Springsteen makes it clear he believes that the wealthy should pay to fix the tears in the social safety net.
But he also implies that Gov. Christie deserves special points for the fact that he is not particularly Islamophobic by the standards of contemporary conservatives and would prefer less harsh drug laws—though again, none of this is based on anything Springsteen has ever said or done. But Springsteen still seems actively uninterested in engaging with Gov. Christie.
What is most interesting about Goldberg’s portrait of Gov. Christie, however, is the manner in which he attempts to finesse the fact that while the governor loves Springsteen, the artist heartily disapproves of virtually everything he and his fellow conservatives seek to accomplish. Gov. Christie mocks Springsteen’s words to the crowd as “lecture time.” Gov. Christie interprets Springsteen’s words, which are about the hard times working people face and the rapaciousness of bankers and other 1 percenters in helping create the current housing and jobs crisis, as follows:
He’s telling us that rich people like him are f—ing over poor people like us in the audience, except that us in the audience aren’t poor, because we can afford to pay 98 bucks to him to see his show. That’s what he’s saying.
What’s key in that sentence are the words “like him.” Gov. Christie is insisting that everyone who is “rich” like Springsteen necessarily supports the actions of the very rich in support of their own economic self-interest; that the very fact of earning in the 1 percent—or even the 1 percent of the 1 percent—makes you an ideological ally of conservatives who seek to slash taxes for the rich and cut services for the poor and the middle class.
In fact, none of this is true. Springsteen is rich, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean he wants to live in a society run by and for the rich. Rather, he believes, like President Franklin Roosevelt, that the rich have a responsibility to lend a hand to the rest so that everyone might have the opportunity to live a life of personal fulfillment and human dignity. “Nobody wins unless everybody wins,” as he puts it. Yet Gov. Christie, who apparently cannot imagine what it feels like to be “a rich man in a poor man’s shirt,” says he “always find(s) this part very inauthentic.”
Goldberg implies that this is also true from the crowd as, sitting up in the luxury box, he judges “the indifferent reaction of the crowd” and determines that “not too many people understand, or care, what Springsteen is saying.” This may or may not be true, but it is hardly unusual since this is a rock concert and not a political rally.
Springsteen’s speech, given mid-concert, focuses on the lack of political accountability for the financial crisis in which:
… [p]eople lost their homes, and I had friends who were losing their homes, and nobody went to jail. Nobody was responsible. People lost enormous amounts of their net worth. Previous to Occupy Wall Street, there was no pushback: there was no movement, there was no voice that was saying just how outrageous—that a basic theft had occurred that struck at the heart of what the entire American idea was about. It was a complete disregard of history, of context, of community; it was all about ‘what can I get today.’ It was just an enormous fault line that cracked the American system wide open.
The speech is designed to try to get a few people thinking, and perhaps acting, and certainly donating to food banks and the lot, rather than to cheer the bad times he is describing.
Undoubtedly the most egregious aspect of Gov. Christie’s self-justifying analysis is his attempt to reduce Springsteen’s principles and politics to pure pop psychology. “He feels guilty,” he says. “He feels guilty that he has so much money, and he thinks it’s all a zero-sum game: in order to get poor people more money, it has to be taken away from the rich.”
This is actually a slander of Springsteen, who, though self-educated, has gone through a long process of reading American history, together with philosophy, literature, and political tracts as a means of connecting his political life with the feelings inspired by his music. As I noted in The Nation, Springsteen began to ask questions of himself about what really determined the contours of the lives of the working-class characters whose tribune he had become:
‘A lot of the core of our songs is the American idea: What is it? What does it mean? “Promised Land,” “Badlands,’” he would explain in 2009, decades after the transformation took place. ‘I’ve seen people singing those songs back to me all over the world. I’d seen that country on a grassroots level…. And I met people who were always working toward the country being that kind of place. But on a national level it always seemed very far away.’
As a result, he spent much of this period, as he put it, “tryin’ to figure out now where do aesthetic issues that you write about intersect with some sort of concrete action, some direct involvement, in the communities that your audience comes from.”
This is exactly the opposite reaction to hard times evinced by Gov. Christie and Tea Party conservatives, who seek to separate themselves from the masses of Americans who have been victimized by a political and an economic system tilted toward the very rich. The governor fools himself into believing, “If Bruce and I sat down and talked, he would reluctantly come to the conclusion that we disagree on a lot less than he thinks.”
This is self-serving nonsense. Nevertheless, it is one of the cornerstones of contemporary conservatism to insist that anyone who is wealthy—whether it be a Bruce Springsteen or a George Soros or this or that Hollywood star—is a hypocrite for continuing to care about those who are not.
Insist all you want, but just don’t try and drag Springsteen into it. It doesn’t work any better for Gov. Christie than it did for President Ronald Reagan. And in the meantime, may I suggest, once again, that the governor listen a little more carefully to “Atlantic City” before mouthing off and sounding like an, um, idiot?
Now, I been lookin for a job, but it’s hard to find,
Down here it’s just winners and losers,
And don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.
Not in Chris Christie’s New Jersey, anyway.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.
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