Memoirs of a Superfan Volume 15.7: Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, Marlon Riggs, and Brotherhood after the Donnybrook
By Ravi Chandra
November 2, 2020
Great and deep questions have been unveiled in the last five years. We must engage with ardor. We cannot avoid how queer, lonely and emotional the American journey is for anyone falling outside the mainstream, and even for many within it; and how terrifying it must be for some – simply to meet someone new. Both left and right are meeting each other anew. A new experience generating more safety and trust is essential for continuing our pursuit of American democracy.
By the time most of you read this, you will have more answers than I do at the time of this writing. More answers on the outcome of the election, more answers of how we are suffering and will continue to suffer in its aftermath. I live in San Francisco, and fog is my copilot.
I am in your past, a state of unknowing when anxiety stirred actions for many; avoidance for some; and hard, hard emotions for nearly all. The emotional-political situation is all too much like dealing with an invisible virus in our environment, an infectious agent that could cause your death or the death of loved ones or even people you don’t even know. I might have the disease. If the country has the disease, the disease of hatred and lies, then it could die. Someone could be carrying it and give it to me. I might unknowingly pass it to others, if I do not do everything to protect them and myself. Like AIDS, like COVID, like unburied trauma, the election is an pathogen of uncertainty, uncertainty about self, personal and communal identity, and the future, stirring up survival fears and defenses, nihilistic despair, hopelessness, powerlessness, rage. And perhaps stirring compassion, in moments and then in streams, when met with mindfulness and the deep, certain knowledge of common humanity, even when it goes astray.
What will we do about the ones who carry the disease, and don’t seem to care about the rest of us?
This keeps me up this night, too.
It helps when others see our environmental dangers. When leaders and communities have the health of the nation at the center of their attention, rather than the idea that they should get what they want, whether it’s unprotected facial freedom, instant unprotected sexual gratification, or unfettered power and control to devalue the lives and well-being of those they consider “other.” All of the pandemics I’ve named hinge on self-centeredness vs. enlightened self-interest. Enlightened self-interest requires at least a minimum of reason and compassion to recognize that one’s own well-being depends on the well-being of others.
A just-published Stanford study estimates that Trump rallies have led to 30,000 additional cases of COVID and 700 additional deaths, either among attendees or their contacts. The authors conclude “the communities in which Trump rallies took place paid a high price in terms of disease and death.” (Bernheim BD et al. The Effects of Large Group Meetings on the Spread of COVID-19: The Case of Trump Rallies. October 30, 2020) The “good news” about this, if there is any, is that a significant majority of Americans recognize Trump rallies during a pandemic are a bad idea. 58% of likely voters nationwide disapproved of them, while only 34% approved. In Pennsylvania, “58% of voters said the rallies made them think less favorably of Trump, while only 22% said they made them think of him more favorably.” (Date SV, Trump closing with breakneck pace of lie fests – even though they may be hurting, November 1, 2020, Huffington Post.)
The great tragedy of American life is that self-centeredness has to be visible and concretely harmful for it to make a dent on our national momentum. Otherwise it gets greenlit like eight friggin’ seasons of The Celebrity Apprentice. At the time of this writing, it is not at all certain that voters’ disapproval of Trump rallies during the pandemic will translate into votes against him at the polls – this is how unreal life has become. And Mr. Trump’s clear and well-documented pathogenic, toxic attitudes and actions towards migrants, children at the border separated from their parents, protestors for Black Lives, and anybody who disagrees with him has not dented his 40% job approval ratings.
If you’re in favor of Trump because your 401k has done well while he’s been president, please rename it your 401KKK.
Sure, the “both sides” argument recognizes that certainly a substantial portion of both sides see total doom in the other side’s victory. From my Biden-supporting, progressive, South Asian American perspective, a Trump victory could easily spell the end of democracy in America, or an end to America itself, a blow so severe that it’s hard to imagine a comeback. I think the other side is frankly delusional and paranoid when they bleat that a Biden/Harris victory heralds communism. Supposedly there’s only about a 5% chance of a Trump victory at the time of this writing, but I’m writing at 3 am on November 1. It’s keeping me up at night. It’s the time change, and America has been falling back for 5 years, even as we, the vanquished of 2016, have risen to unprecedented levels of engagement and activism spurred by regret and horror at what’s been uncovered and stirred by Mr. Trump and his weirdly enchanted, propagandized and seemingly brainwashed political party-cum-cult. Hindsight is 2020, and a whole lot of us want to put the last five years in the rearview mirror. But as we hopefully drive away, objects may be closer than they appear, amirite?
This weekend, Trump supporters in Texas tried to run a Biden campaign bus off the road, forcing the Biden campaign to cancel three events, for fear of violence. Brown Shirts have turned to Trump-Flagged Pickup Trucks. The “Y’all Qaeda” as George Takei put it. I am holding deep meditation that worse does not happen over the coming days, weeks and months. But the buck has never stopped with Trump, ready to blame others at the drop of a MAGA hat, so there’s no reason to expect the trucks to stop either. Any normal human being would be calling for calm and nonviolence at such a fraught time. Instead, Trump tweeted “I Love Texas” with a video of the incident. Also: “In my opinion, these patriots did nothing wrong. The FBI & Justice [Department] should be investigating the terrorists, anarchists, and agitators of ANTIFA, who run around burning down our Democrat run cities.”
No sane, responsible person is advocating arson, rioting or looting even as response to public executions of Black men and women by police, the latest victim being Walter Wallace in Philadelphia. But as even Dr. King pointed out, “riots are the language of the unheard.” Perhaps the core Trump supporter is frightened by scenes of unrest – but shouldn’t the buck stop with Trump? He has done nothing to address the real conflict – the threat that Blacks in particular face from police violence. Instead he fans the flames of artificial division between police and community, instead of working towards solutions that would address the conditions that lead to excessive police interactions and subsequent escalation. As a nation, we don’t seem to yet be on board with the defund movement – because most people don’t understand what it means, or feel the police protect them – but clearly human and civil rights are being egregiously violated. (Good places to start learning: Colin Kaepernick’s “Abolition for the People” and the MPD150 report and resources. I’m still reading and learning myself, but I am resonating deeply with what I’ve learned so far from activists who’ve thought deeply about this for a long time.
But policing issues are another clear example of a pathogen in our midst, invisible to most, leading to visible consequences to Blacks and to our concepts of a just society. We hotly debate or coldly ignore these issues while the epidemic of callousness towards Black Lives continues.
In the months leading up to the election, the president has glorified violence, much like he did in the last election, in addition to minimizing the dangers and impact of COVID19. He may be trying to fool voters in the home stretch with a feel-good, dance-on-stage-to-the-Village-People schtick, but it’s clear who he is. (Donald Trump Should Be Charged With a Crime, Psychology Today, February 24, 2016.)
An oppressive, theocratic, White Supremacist, separatist state may or may not form in what we now know as the United States of America, but it is already a state of mind, one that we must acknowledge and contend with. As ignorant, hateful, nonsensical and unreasonable as this state of mind is, as detached from the reality and necessity of democracy, liberty, equality, and the commonweal it has become, it hatches a power complex that wants expression and victory. This state of mind is the last gasp, the dying breath, of bitter, hate-filled, power hungry politicians like Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, old men and their dreamless, futureless young brethren who see no more country for White Christian men and their “Money/Power/God” ambitions alone, so would rather see no country at all. Perhaps it’s better if they depart, better if they learn again what it means to have a fortressed, feudal, walled-in, bunkered home, and see what comes of it. As it stands, this group, this state of mind, threatens the future of our republic.
I’ve been asked, we’ve been asked, to have empathy for the needs and bids for attention of those who voted for Trump and who still don’t regret it. I am asked to feel empathy for those who decided to give us the short end of the binary-choice stick in 2016, stuck it to us, and are still sticking it to us in a vain, last-ditch effort to feel some kind of smugly strutting, White Power victory with the brash, cruel, abrasive and arguably sociopathic personality of a man who has spent more time tweeting and tarring those who disagree with him than he has genuinely caring for the needs of anyone other than himself. I’m asked to feel empathy for those who decided that a reality star self-marketer was more ready to be president than a woman they psychotically and irrationally detested. I’m asked to have empathy for those who value their 401KKK more than the well-being of their fellow citizens. But this is a task I struggle with daily, as I see more evidence of their leaders’ total lack of care for Black Lives, health care, women’s rights, migrant and undocumented rights, queer and trans rights, reasoned debate, voting rights or human rights, human dignity and civil rights for all.
I’m asked to show empathy for a coalition that seems to get uglier by the day, a group that wants power without responsibility, that seems to clamor only for loudmouth airtime and hollow, pyrrhic, self-defeating, shallow, short-term victories. I’m asked to have empathy for America’s Money-Power-and-Big-Oil complex, married to empty religious delusions – The American Theocracy, as former Republican party strategist Kevin Phillips put it in his book, spawning their vigilante force, the American Taliban, their Propaganda Barbie’s and Ken’s, their unholy alliance of unchecked power that seeks to do harm, just to prove that they can. They seem like entitled rioters, wrecking havoc in the country because they know they will soon be surpassed in numbers and voting strength by the people they have screwed for 50 to 400 years, and counting.
I really have seen no evidence that Donald Trump actually cares for the working class people who support him, unmasked; the people who catch COVID, get sick, and die, from Tulsa to Herman Cain to his own White House staff, without the advantage of the treatments that have thus far sustained his vulgar, self-promoting, solipsistic life. He has done loads for the wealthy and powerful, his untaxed and seemingly untouchable Mar a Lago pals, but his claims about his policies’ effects on the economy at large are highly questionable. The Joint Economic Committee of the United States Congress found in 2016 that the economy had in fact done substantially better under Democratic than Republican presidents. But the brittle braggard Trump resists facts better than he resists the Coronavirus, though the former should have felled him long ago.
I know that most of his supporters are not sociopaths bent on total war with demographic change and people who look like me. Most of his supporters are not at war with those of us who have an ounce of compassion and decency to their name and reputation. But most of them seem to support their autocracy over a democracy that requires relating constructively with those who hold different opinions than themselves, yet share humanity. I’m asked to have empathy for those who dehumanize me with their opinions and world views, that view me as an enemy – simply because I want health care and equal protection under the law for everyone. They have been conned to believe that the practice of these rights are the on-ramp to communism.
A culture of abusive power makes compassion and common humanity its bad objects. President Trump, a bullied and abused child grown up to perpetuate abuse and bullying, is simply the leading exemplar of this pathogenic devaluation. With this devaluation, apathy and outright hostility to humanity gain prominence. Violence is tacitly or openly encouraged. Lives are threatened, and lost, for the sake of one man’s ego and one party’s power ambitions. If there are any in the Republican party, the “Grand Old Party” once led by Abraham Lincoln, if there are any left in this party that haven’t been corrupted or become complicit to corruption, I ask them to stand up and be counted. How ironic that those who vaunt individualism and resisting government control can’t even tell a sloppy dictator to behave and do at least some of the right things to preserve democracy and human life.
Are these actually the spiritual descendants of the Royalists of the American Revolution, still aching for the good old days of monarchy, and scheming for the Return of the King? Or are they scheming for a theocratic state, controlled by a cult of like- and narrow-minded Christian brethren and their subdued handmaids?
As I said, most of the supporters of Trump are not this crazy, I think. But many of them are quite ungrounded in basic principles of reason and relatedness, judging by the comment threads on my author page on Facebook, at least the ones I haven’t deleted for their sheer, obnoxious ignorance. Most of them have been twisted against truth and reality by cynical political opportunists who gin up their groundless fears, gerrymander congressional districts, and deny voting rights in order to win re-election, all the while ignoring the broad majorities that support sensible solutions for immigration, gun regulation, police reform, a woman’s right to choose, and our biggest existential threat, climate change, in addition to upholding gay, queer and trans rights.
Many of them would make very fine and helpful neighbors, or so I’ve been told. Just don’t get them started on their beliefs in a dangerous world, derived from questionable YouTube videos, Fox News, and lifelong difficulty, disappointment and despair in relating on a human and humane level with their fellow man. That last trait is something that many Americans, left and right, seem to have in common.
However, that 90% of Republicans still supposedly stand with Trump, that 40% of the population still approves of his egregious and homicidal job performance does not speak well of their reasoning or social skills. I’m a psychiatrist, trained to provide utmost empathy to anyone regardless of political beliefs, and yet I’m at a loss trying to make my peace with this group that seems to wish destruction on every trace of human values I cherish: compassion, tenderness, love, brotherhood, sisterhood, fellowship, common humanity, equality. The best I can grant is that they just want to be heard and seen in an America they think has forgotten them. This is essentially the same logic that Bin Laden and Al Qaeda used. “See us, fear us, and then destroy yourselves and your own values in an attempt to eradicate us.” In a time of uncertainty and change, the rigid fundamentalists, Al Qaeda or the American Taliban, test our mettle with their certainties and delusions.
At best, from what I can glean from the comment threads on my articles posted to Facebook, is that at least some of these people claim that Democrats are “too emotional,” and that they are rational, cool-headed, and “evolved” past soft, mushy feelings that are generated by nurture and care. These are very strange white men and women indeed, who misunderstand emotion and reason altogether, and thus dismiss anyone who is frustrated by their intransigent clinging to power motives.
In this sense, it’s a re-enactment of the child (the country) arguing their case before Tough Daddy (Republican) vs Nice Mommy (Democrat).
Child: “Daddy, can I have health care?”
Dad: “No. The first thing we know you’ll be having sex and wanting abortions. Health care is a slippery slope.”
Child: “But Daddy, I’ve got CANCERRRRR!!!!!”
Dad: “Don’t be so emotional.”
Mom: “Can’t she have just a little health care?”
Dad: “Well, ok. But only a little. And she has to pay us back from her allowance and only use the emergency room. And even then, only when her cancer gets real, real bad.”
Bull-headed, dogmatic, blindspotted certainty doesn’t fare well in a world of change and need.
During the time of COVID, deep time has landed on us, requiring us to deepen, but pushing those with limited capacities to paranoia, conspiracy theories, transmissible hate and the nihilistic fanaticism of a right-wing death cult. Christianity is in way over its head, having no significant capacity to integrate science, reason or other belief systems into its world view, instead relying on superstitions, afterlife aspirations and self-righteous entitlement. Humility to what they conceive of as “God” have become cause for demanding subjugation to anyone who brandishes a bible (or gun) and claims godliness.
Christianity has lost its soul in pursuit of its power goals in America. One minor but telling example is churches defying bans on indoor services during COVID, declaring themselves in service ‘to God, not Caesar’ as one Santa Clara pastor recently put it. I understand the desire to congregate in community, but to pitch this as a battle of religion vs. government rather than a conceivably honest disagreement about risk is highly questionable. But here again, theocracy can be rhetorically compelling. Compelling enough to draw 30,000 to a Church of Trump rally in Rome, Georgia last night, when COVID cases and deaths are spiking across the country. Attendees, many of them older and disabled, were left stranded for hours after the event because of poor logistics, in a microcosm of their Trump experience, but some claimed it was all worth it…. A clear example of celebrity fanaticism, and the need to feel belonging and some kind of righteousness against others. Perhaps a Trump rally is little more than a tent revival for those needing affiliation with people they consider like themselves, all the while uncaring about who they’re shunning, blaming and scapegoating as they gather.
Trump has outrageously claimed that “Biden hates God,” but these rallies must make him feel like he is God, and therefore anyone who opposes him must hate “God.” Indeed, he humblebragged in Arizona this weekend that he’s not the most popular man in the world – that would be Jesus. The crowd cheered.
So…. let’s compare. Jesus is popular for love of humanity? And Trump is popular for love of money and dismissal of death-causing disease? Jesus healed the sick…and Trump sickened the well? Jesus gave a Sermon on the Mount remixing Old Testament teachings for his time and offering a timeless message of peace? Trump cuts taxes on the wealthy and cozies up to dictators? Jesus said the meek will inherit the Earth…. and Trump mocks the disabled?
America, you are one strange and confused country, perhaps as confused as Wrathful Jesus, Peaceful Jesus, and Ambitious American Jesus when they get together for lunch.
Angry Jesus: “It’s your fault, you angry, self-centered, unrighteous beast!”
Selfish, Ambitious American Jesus: “No, it’s YOUR fault, you peace loving fool!
Peaceful Jesus: “Look what you did when you built your Empire!!
Selfish, Ambitious American Jesus: “Look where we’d be without this Empire I built!!!”
Peaceful Jesus, getting angry: “YEAH!!! Just IMAGINE where we would be!!!!”
Selfish, Ambitious American Jesus: Are you thinking about Buddha again? Don’t you remember, I scapegoated him as a godless atheist so that I could WIN BIG in America!!! Mindfulness and compassion, who needs those!!!! America is about POWER, baby, POWER!!!
Peaceful Jesus: What about love, man, what about love? (Thinks to self: “love your enemies, love your enemies, love your enemies… Where’s Buddha when you need him…”)
Buddha: “Speaking of fish, did you hear that just as fish are the product of water, so Buddha is the product of mind? So if you’re searching for fish, you look in the water. And if you’re looking for Buddha, then search inside your mind.”
Angry Jesus, after a pause: “See, I told you it was your fault!!! You weren’t peaceful ENOUGH to SEARCH!!!”
Yup, America and those Jesi need a therapist.
Dennis Brown sang, “Love and hate will never be friends – here I come with love and not hatred.” But blame and judgment are fast friends indeed, and as I’m approaching Election Day, it feels like a Judgment Day indeed. America and Jesus trying to get a grip on whom to judge and blame for the ills they see, or America and Jesus accepting responsibility for their imperfect humanity and (ahem) streaks of self-centeredness, and vowing and voting to do better by its people and the people of the world.
I’m optimistic that we will judge well, and improve our judgment in the weeks, months and years to come. But there’s still all this fog…
A country that has built its entire house on the foundation of power now founders on suspicions about the dangers of “losing” power to “others” (Blacks, Browns, Asians, Queers). Our country is terrified of what compassion will unearth beneath its cracked concrete poured by a visionary but significantly corrupt and hypocritical construction company called The Founding Fathers.
Are we really surprised that a country that has leaned heavily on the power principle continues to be paranoid about the loss and transformation of it? That they would see the changes of the nation as a zero-sum game, instead of a process of building and rebuilding a structure that could take us into the next centuries with the kind of groundedness that could produce actual, and not forged prosperity bought on the Earth’s and the future’s credit, a credit that will soon be literally and figuratively exhausted?
If you sacrificed emotional depth for financial prosperity and short-term political gain, you’d be having trouble about right now, and likely striking an oppressive note against anyone who reminds you of your shallow underpinnings.
Just before President Trump started his weird campy campaign strut to The Village People, I too went back in time. Several of my patients and friends had been talking over the months about surfacing memories of the AIDS pandemic. Friends lost, a community lost wholesale to death, a dismissive governmental response, and open cruelty on our airwaves, all parallels, now and then. “I lost my first boyfriend to AIDS.” “I lost everyone then.” I could feel this city crying in remembrance, and I shed tears myself. I was in medical school in the early to mid 90s, and the first dying man I saw on my first rotation had the big disease with the little name. Sign O’ The Times.
My heart broke that day, in sheer powerlessness and grief. I had classmates studying ID (Infectious Disease) who read three to five papers a day keeping track of therapies. I studied the ID of identity and culture, reading Randy Shilts, arranging for nearly one hundred people to see Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, reading the play, and thinking, feeling, and thinking some more. How could I help? In bioethics? In policy? In Family Practice? Somewhere in me, the callousness and cruelty of Roy Cohn and the gay-hatred I’d heard in the 80s on the East Coast and in the Deep South seemed to be checked at the crossroads by compassion. Compassion won the day, I think, but over a trail of 450,000 names, the American AIDS-dead before 2000.
It’s nearly the same number as the Americans who will have died of COVID before year’s end.
The war for brotherhood has cost many, many lives, and still rages in our hearts. I don’t know why, really, why something so basic and natural should be so damn difficult. Over the last few years, several people have told me they thought apathy was the opposite of love. I’ll take a generally benevolent apathy over hatred, though. “To each his own” is far preferable to the annihilatory disapproval I’ve felt in the air at significant times across my lifetime, and especially over the last 5 years. But in apathy, in the absence of deeply felt inclusion, a lot of us fall through the cracks. To some people, even a moment of loneliness conjures past traumas of alienation and rejection, even dystopian narratives of … annihilatory disapproval. The disappointment of alienation from any and all of the various iterations of love, nurturing, and the safety and belonging they provide is a great fracture in the psyche of the nation.
What percent – 40?? – might think “ this kind of love really isn’t possible, so just give us a paycheck, bub.” And when they don’t get their stub, or their 401KKK doesn’t make the grade, they don’t even know where to look to find what they’ve lost along the way.
The individualistic ethos devalues our emotional lives. Emotions are not “necessary” to capitalism or fitting into a corporate machine. The individualistic ethos demands that we all constrain ourselves emotionally, we all “self-regulate.” Contain and don’t complain. If you have emotions of disconnection, then there’s something wrong with you. You’re supposed to keep all that out of sight, in the back corner of the closet. America’s all about the ‘pursuit of happiness,’ right, and if you’re not happy and therefore wealthy, or if you’re not wealthy and therefore happy, it must be your fault, or preferably, someone else’s fault. If you’re not happy, then someone else has to be bad for you to be good.
So antagonism, competition, blame, resentment, envy and bitterness – based solely on economic contingencies – become our primary emotional outcomes, not brotherhood, common humanity and love. If society were more equitable, maybe brotherly love would flow more readily and naturally. Or maybe if we learned how to tune into love, we’d have a more equitable society.
I’ve felt those emotions too. I’m not proud of my self-centered moments, the moments when I feel I’m not getting enough of what I need in the way of love or attention. I do keep asking myself what that is all about, and tempering that self-centeredness by practicing deep relationship to my values and the people in my life. It’s only then that I can feel halfway good about the whole mess. I ring in the New Year at the Asian Art Museum every December 31st, striking a Japanese bell and letting go of whatever self-centeredness I’ve accumulated in the course of living my life. In meditation, I try to ring that bell every day.
It’s probably why I was in tears watching SPRINGSTEEN ON BROADWAY, Marlon Riggs’ TONGUES UNTIED, and CLARENCE CLEMONS: WHO DO I THINK I AM? a few weekends ago. Bruce, The Boss, spoke and sung about growing up with a typical New Jersey family. An emotionally distanced, hard-drinking, hard-as-nails father he loved, feared and was in awe of as a gentle, sensitive child; a mother who was an all-in self-sacrificing nurturer who never missed a day of work and clearly made him feel the apple of her eye; and a true brother in Clarence Clemons.
“He was elemental in my life, and losing him was like losing the rain.”
– Bruce Springsteen, on losing Clarence Clemons
I’ve always enjoyed Springsteen’s music, but I’d never been a groupie or followed his cultural journey. The movie made me want to learn more. As an artist, he’s alchemically captured the essence of an American archetype, by living it out. The outwardly stoic, inwardly deeply feeling man who’s put off by society’s failings, or functioning, as the case may be. His songs come from a deep place of longing, hope, celebration and disappointment in a life deeply observed: keening for the love of a father too tough and estranged from emotions to express love; lost and sadly riffing on a country that acts more like his father than his mother to those who are vulnerable. And with his singing, making a bigger cultural space for the vulnerability of men, and the strength and creativity that comes from awareness of it.
SPRINGSTEEN ON BROADWAY was a powerfully intimate performance that made me feel that brotherhood was indeed possible, and even inevitable, if we just spent some time together and jammed. Sure, his band had all the usual ego problems, he says, and he doesn’t shy away from describing his own perfectionistic ego, but you can just sense the loyal love they created, not shying away from the dependencies that entails, and the heartbreak that ensues from these dependencies. And when he and Patty Scialfa look in each other’s eyes, we get a glimpse of another kind of sustaining love, the kind of intimate interdependency that’s an abiding refuge from a world of significant disaffections. These days there are so many things that take our minds and attention, but this thing, this feeling, needs our presence. It brings us home.
Of course, I had to watch Clarence Clemons’ documentary next. I had never heard of the famous on-stage kiss he shared with Bruce, the kiss that would have broken the internet had the internet existed back then. David Masciotra wrote in Salon (Dear straight Springsteen fans: If you’re shocked that Bruce canceled his North Carolina show, you haven’t been paying attention, April 12, 2016)
[R]ight in the middle of Springsteen’s nut and bolts, blue collar rock ‘n’ roll show, he leads the audience to a climactic moment of ecstasy. He slides across the stage, nearly tearing apart his tight jeans, straight into the arms of Clarence Clemons – his gigantic saxophone player whose horn had a sound even bigger than his biceps – and kisses him on the lips. He holds the kiss for a few seconds. When the triumph of romantic friendship ends, they do not pantomime disgust, or turn their bond into fodder for juvenile humor. They start to dance.
I had no idea that Springsteen was a queer icon. Naomi Gordon-Loebl writes in The Nation (Things That Can Only Be Found in the Darkness on the Edge of Town: The Queerness of Bruce Springsteen, November 6, 2019.):
“Perhaps nothing is so fundamentally queer about Springsteen as the pervasive feeling of dislocation that’s threaded through his work, the nagging sense that something has been plaguing him since birth, and that he’s dreaming of a place where he might finally fling it off his back. I grew up in just about the luckiest circumstances that a queer kid born in the 1980s could ask for. My parents embraced my gender expression from the time I was a toddler, and my father cried when I came out, happy for me that I had found this piece of myself. But no amount of familial support could have shielded me from the outside world, where I often felt that I was an alien—a being who had been dropped on this planet by accident, a poor hapless soul whose spaceship had forgotten to pick her up after lunch.
I don’t know what’s at the root of Springsteen’s alienation. His recent memoir offers some clues: his distance from his father, his lifelong struggle with depression, his identity as an artist in a world that asks something very different from men. I suspect he might add that there is something fundamentally alienating about growing up American and working class. But no matter where it comes from, there is an unmistakable echo of queer loneliness in his work. ‘Everybody’s got a secret, Sonny, something that they just can’t face,’ Springsteen sings on “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” ‘Tonight I’ll be on that hill ’cause I can’t stop…. I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost / For wanting things that can only be found / In the darkness on the edge of town.’”
By these definitions, Clarence Clemons exemplified queerness as well. CLARENCE CLEMONS: WHO DO I THINK I AM? describes the racism prevalent in 1956 Virginia, where he was born. When he first went north to New Jersey, he stopped at a bar and warily asked the all-white band if he could sit in. He asked again: “You sure it’s alright?” It was and he ended up touring with them before he met Springsteen and went on to celebrity with the E Street Band. When Bruce broke that up in 1989, it threw him for a loop, but he made some incredible music, including an album composed after a life-changing trip to China, where he seems to have finally gotten the warm embrace that American society never truly offered. In Ode to China on the Temple of Soul album Brothers in Arms, we hear the er hu, plaintive and buoyant with Clemons’ sax in one of the most uplifting musical examples of cross-cultural brotherhood I’ve heard in a long while. First in consciousness, then in music and poetry, then in culture and politics, I hope. Politics is definitely the laggard in our journey, it seems, but when it fails to bring up the rear, it threatens to sink the whole trip.
Clemons found benevolence and spirituality in China. I even had the sense from the film that China became a kind of holy land to him. Though the Chinese people had no idea who he was, they welcomed him, the first Black man many of them had ever seen. But as he played his sax on the Great Wall, one Chinese man angrily asked “who do you think you are?” implying disrespect to the cultural treasure, perhaps, or even racism. Clemons takes it all in, and even uses the man’s question to further deepen his inquiry into his own identity. The question becomes the title of his documentary.
(As an aside, African Americans living in China have reported generally better treatment than in the U.S., but recently, during COVID, members of the African diaspora living in China were unfairly targeted and scapegoated as more unruly against restrictions and also as more likely disease vectors. (Cahlan S. Lee JS. Video evidence of anti-Black discrimination in China. Washington Post, June 18, 2020.) As I wrote in a previous article,
“And how quickly death anxiety turns into fear and rage at Black and Asian bodies this season… And this rage against us has always been more acceptable and palpable than Black or Asian rage against White supremacy.”
This has happened to Muslims and Sikhs in India, and poor people worldwide. So I know there are limits to blaming White Christian Straight Male Supremacy for all hatred, but it is a prominent and dangerous exemplar of the poison in our powerful country.)
Surprisingly, I’d never seen Marlon Riggs’ 1989 experimental documentary TONGUES UNTIED, though it had been in my awareness for some time. (It’s available for streaming on Kanopy, Vimeo and The Criterion Channel, which is hosting a retrospective of Riggs’ career.) The film outraged Christian fundamentalists, and led to yet another round of calls for defunding the NEA. From the film’s Wikipedia page:
Reverend Donald E. Wildmon, the president of the American Family Association, attacked PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts for airing Tongues Untied but hoped that the film would be widely seen, because he believed most Americans would find it offensive. "This will be the first time millions of Americans will have an opportunity to see the kinds of things their tax money is being spent on," he said. "This is the first time there is no third party telling them what is going on; they can see for themselves."
Riggs defended the film, saying it was meant to "shatter this nation's brutalizing silence on matters of sexual and racial difference." He observed that the widespread attack on PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts in response to the film was predictable, since "any public institution caught deviating from their puritanical morality is inexorably blasted as contributing to the nation's social decay." Riggs said, "implicit in the much-overworked rhetoric about 'community standards' is the assumption of only one central community (patriarchal, heterosexual and usually white) and only one overarching cultural standard to which television programming must necessarily appeal." Riggs stated that ironically, the censorship campaign against Tongues Untied actually brought more publicity to the film than it would have otherwise received and thus enhanced its effectiveness in challenging societal standards regarding depictions of race and sexuality.
Ignorant religious judgments about love and sexuality cause great harm, calling into question most hierarchical-and-thus-self-centered religions’ ability to reason and judge anything. Modern psychotherapists strive for non-judgmental acceptance of their patients – though even psychiatry labeled homosexuality a pathology until active protest changed that in the 1970s. In these examples, we see a fundamental human problem, of jumping to conclusions without knowing the facts, of prioritizing one’s own blinkered narrative over the narrative of the “other.” None of this is compassionate or loving, though it is powerful, if you think the capacity to devalue and harm others is “power.” Some claim objectivity, while avoiding the intersubjectivity that would bring us to true relatedness. You can only claim superiority if you claim someone else is inferior.
To those fearful of the judgment of “God” or their fellow man, ashamed of the truth of their insecurity and the unavoidable inadequacies of being human, shaming, blaming and scapegoating others becomes a cheap route to “salvation,” whether it’s in congregational popularity or political power.
I’m not sure, but this may explain a good bit of Trump and Trumperism, and the queer journeys of every feeling person who resists a dogmatic avoidance of reality.
Riggs’ film holds up exceptionally well over time, showcasing the alienation of Black gay men and the necessity of bold, even outré, affirmation of identity to break through the invisibilizing, obscuring force of a culture blindspotted to their existence. Essex Hemphill speaks Riggs’ poetry:
“I was an alien unseen and unseen, unwanted…”
“A chorus of contempt – as if we believed we were the lowest among the low…
“Easier to be furious than yearning…as much anger as water…the only way I’m granted audience…Do we turn away from each other so as not to see our collective anger and sadness?”
“Powerless, I was made tongue-tied, burdened by shadows and silence, but now I speak and my burden is lightened, lifted, free.”
Reading those lines, I can’t help but think that even the Trumpers would get it, would feel the truth of these lines. Maybe they just haven’t done their homework, they haven’t really sat down and had cause to think about what is alienated within them, because so much of their identity can act like it’s in charge, and gets scared when that’s so clearly not true.
When we’re done with all the finger pointing, we’ll have to figure out what to do with our emotional lives. I think most Americans carry around this core of alienation and disappointment, this yearning for connection and acceptance. In this way, we’re all queer, but those of us who are not actually Black or queer don’t have to risk death to be our full human selves.
We live in a country where men and women and people of all genders are uncomfortable with their tenderness, suppressing or avoiding feelings of closeness and intimacy, or reserving them for special occasions only. That’s the big wide gap we’ve fallen into, avoidance of fellowship bleeding into apathy bleeding into hostility. I think a lot of people walk around with this crazy assumption that if you smile at someone the next thing you know you’ll be sleeping with them, or they’ll rape or otherwise take advantage of you. The urban landscape is a smile desert where we all feel like perpetual foreigners. Rural areas like Rome, Georgia are much better on the smile front, but the smiles seem to stop with religious or political affiliation. (See Chandra R, Rome, Georgia: The Small Town Capital of Nice, Psychology Today, October 5, 2016.)
A Black Lives Matter t-shirt is cause for welcome or shunning depending on which zip code you’re traversing and who might cross your path. Try it sometime. I’ve gotten some cold stares, avoidance, thumbs up, and an adamant “Blue Lives Matter!” rejoinder, all in San Francisco. “No one killing any cops here, dude!” I replied.
So we carry guns or political opinions or celebrity crushes or cat videos around to give some curious pastime alternative to a deeper sense of companionship and belonging. Makes perfect sense, right? Maybe we’re slowly growing back lost ground emotionally, emoji by emoji, and someday grown men will be openly able to confess love and their needs for love without feeling like it somehow makes them less desirable to women or weak to other men. And maybe women will finally accept that men do have feelings and are vulnerable too, and that’s just the way it is. When we’re all able to share the emotional airwaves instead of trying to seek dominance and revenge, or defend against a society built around the courage of kindness and compassion – well, that’ll be the day. As Langston Hughes wrote, Let America Be America Again (America Never Was America To Me).
Hughes nails the deepest alienation that Bruce, Clarence, Marlon, and all Americans feel: the alienation from the ideals we proclaim and hold dear, the tenderness of those ideals, and the tenderness of being human, frail and still hopeful in a world of difficulty. I can’t match Hughes, of course, but I can offer this quatrain.
If we are all created equal, why do we have such different lots?
Can we do better? Can’t society give all the people a more even shot?
Not just at money, but at security, health, safety and mental well-being?
I don’t know about you, but my life is aimed at this plot.
Great and deep questions have been unveiled in the last five years. We must engage with ardor. We cannot avoid how queer, lonely and emotional the American journey is for anyone falling outside the mainstream, and even for many within it; and how terrifying it must be for some – simply to meet someone new.
Personally, I’d prefer it if they weren’t trying to drive me off the road just for being a different kind of American.