Monday, March 26, 2012

The Supreme Court and the Health Care Law Decision: Judicial Victory, Political Defeat?

The Supreme Court takes up the constitutionality of the health care law today. I'm not a constitutional historian, so I can't speak definitively about its constitutionality (though the law strikes me as a reasonable use of the commerce clause, and to find otherwise would seem to me like a reactionary reversal of 80 years of constitutional history).

The politics of the decision seem likely to be interesting, no matter what the Court decides. Ever since it was signed into law by President Obama two years ago, Republican candidates have denounced it as unconstitutional and have pledged to work to repeal it. The presidential candidates know that calling for repeal of "Obamacare" is a sure-fire applause line every time.

Politically, that won't be easy. Not only would the Republicans need to win the presidential election, they'd need to hold onto the majority in the House of Representatives and not only win the Senate, but get 60 votes to overcome a likely Democratic filibuster to thwart repeal.

In theory, then, the GOP should welcome the prospect of the Supreme Court doing its work for it. But as the old saying goes: "Be careful what you wish for. You might get it."

There is an inherent danger in trying to settle political disagreements by court decision. It is appealing, no question. If one can get the Court to declare the other side's view unconstitutional, one not only wins the immediate battle, but the war. No mere democratic majority can undo what the Court has done. Unless the Court reverses itself, that view stands. What could be better?

Well, the politics can get tricky.

No case better demonstrates that than the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857. Technically, the matter was a fairly simple one: Was Dred Scott, who had been a slave, now a free man due to having been taken to free territory?

The question could have been answered simply, by looking at that narrow question. But the Court, looking to issue a more comprehensive decision that some people hoped would put an end to the political controversies surrounding slavery--especially slavery in the territories--decided to go big. As James McPherson puts it in Battle Cry of Freedom, many Americans were "yearning for settlement of this question."

Not only did the Court rule that Scott was still a slave, it also ruled that no black person could be a citizen of the United States (despite the fact that many had been treated as such for decades) and that the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which had banned slavery in the northern territories, was unconstitutional.

The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (an Andrew Jackson appointment), is widely considered to be one of the worst, if not the worst, in the history of the Court. Taney was a southern partisan, who privately said that northerners were trying to destroy the south: "the knife of the assassin is at their throats." According to one of the foremost historians of the case, the Dred Scott decision was "essentially visceral in origin ... a work of unmitigated partisanship."

Southerners and Democrats were thrilled, thinking the decision had destroyed the Republican Party, whose position on slavery was that it should be banned in the territories--precisely what the Court had now said could not be done. The decision was called "the funeral sermon of Black Republicanism." Southerners were convinced that they had won the final victory over anti-slavery forces: "Southern opinion on the subject of Southern slavery ... is now the supreme law of the land."

But the politics turned out differently. Republicans like Abraham Lincoln seized upon the Court's opinion as a rallying cry. Far from destroying the Republican Party, it breathed life into it. It now became more important than ever for Republicans to control Congress and the Presidency, so they could nominate new members to the Supreme Court and undo that awful decision.

Perhaps more importantly, Taney and the Court, with their overreaching decision, reversed the political dynamic of the moment. For many years. Southerners had been portraying themselves as victims of northern (political) aggression. Abolitionists and other anti-slavery agitators had been attacking their "peculiar institution" for years. They could plausibly claim that the political discord in the land came from their northern enemies.

Then came Dred Scott. It had undone the 1820 sectional compromise, and in the process, wrecked what remained of the spirit of political compromise. Using the undemocratic institution of the Supreme Court, they had thwarted the political process, which Republicans could claim was stumbling in its typically awkward American way toward some resolution.

The decision, Republicans could say, showed that southerners and Democrats had no respect for or faith in the democratic process. They were simply determined to protect slavery any way they could--even if it meant hopelessly perverting the historical record, even if it meant twisting themselves into knots to justify their illogical opinion.

The Dred Scott decision was a pyrrhic victory for southerners. Three years later, the Republicans proved the "funeral sermon" was premature--they won control of the Presidency and both Houses of Congress. The case produced not an end to the debate, but rather a political backlash that ended with the destruction of the very institution of slavery that southerners were trying so desperately to save.

It would be foolhardy to predict the possible outcomes of all of the potential Supreme Court decisions in the health care case. The temptation for some members of the Court to issue a sweeping decision will be strong, but a more temperate majority may emerge. The safest thing to predict is that a decision that initially appears to be a clear-cut judicial victory could end up being a political defeat.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Bring on Your "Wrecking Ball"

I first heard the song "Wrecking Ball" several years ago, when the official Bruce Springsteen web page posted the video of its first performance at the old Giants Stadium. Springsteen wrote the song to mark the impending destruction of the stadium to make way for the new, corporately-named one that would replace it. Having seen Springsteen at that venue several times, I enjoyed the song for what it seemed to be: a novelty, tossed off quickly for the occasion, and--if not for the video--never likely again to see the light of day, like some others known only to the truly fanatical fan (e.g., "Pilgrim in the Temple of Love," a Christmas song that is decidedly not for the entire family).

After 35 years of obsessive attention to Springsteen's career, I should have known better. Even songs that initially seem to be something just quickly dashed off have a way of circling back and taking on new and deeper meanings.

That has happened with the release of Springsteen's new studio album. Not only has the song returned, but it earns its status as the title track. It is the emotional turning point of the record, the moment when Springsteen pivots from the questions, the anger, the frustration, the despair, and the depression of the first half, to its defiant, hopeful, and life-affirming second half.

This is Springsteen's most coherent, most powerful, most passionate album in years. Springsteen has always been a story teller--not just in individual songs, but in albums, even in concerts. Long time fans (at least those paying attention) can see that the set list for a Springsteen show is not a haphazard thing. While some songs come and some songs go, there is a always a discernible storyline. He always has a story to tell.

That has never before been more true of a Springsteen album. In an excellent interview he gave some weeks ago in Paris, Springsteen said the album begins with a question (do "We Take Care of Our Own"?) and pursues it throughout. The songs that follow ("Easy Money," "Shackled and Drawn," "Jack of All Trades," "Death to My Hometown," "This Depression") all examine the last several difficult years of American life with an unsparing gaze.

"Easy Money" echoes the timeless theme of Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd": "Some will rob you with a six-gun/And some with a fountain pen." In Springsteen's telling, the example set by the fountain pen men is emulated by the man with the six-gun. Musically, the violin riff echoes that in "Into the Fire," Springsteen's tribute to the firefighters who ran into the World Trade Center on 9/11 when others were running out. The contrast the music evokes--between their selfless service and the greed of "them fat cats" who "just think it’s funny"--is incredibly jarring and effective.

"Shackled and Drawn" tells the story of the working man who foregoes the easy money ("Let a man work, is that so wrong"). But it doesn't really pay off for him:
Gambling man rolls the dice, workingman pays the bill
It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill
Up on banker’s hill, the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shackled and drawn
In "Jack of All Trades," the slow cadence, the repetition of the rolling piano line, and the reassuring chorus ("I’m a jack of all trades, honey we’ll be all right") lulls the listener initially into thinking the narrator is simply resigned ("The banker man grows fat, working man grows thin/It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again"). That is, until the song explodes with rage at the end ("If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight"). This is Springsteen's warning: Americans are a patient people, but they want to see justice done.

In a musical turn that made my Irish heart dance, Springsteen seems to discover some hitherto unsuspected Irish roots in "Death to My Hometown."

Springsteen has long had a tendency to place some of his darkest lyrics in some of his most rollicking tunes, and this is a prime example. Marking the devastation left behind by the financial "vultures," Springsteen's anger reaches its crescendo:
Send the robber barons straight to hell
The greedy thieves who came around
And ate the flesh of everything they found
Whose crimes have gone unpunished now
Who walk the streets as free men now
They brought death to our hometown, boys
Death to our hometown
The uplifting music is the only saving grace left. The next track, "This Depression," seems to mark the apogee of despair. "Baby, I've been down, but never this down/I've been lost, but never this lost."

And then he defiantly sings, "Bring on your wrecking ball." Watching the performance of the song on Jimmy Fallon's show last week, I thought: leave it to Springsteen to take a song ostensibly about the demolition of a stadium and transform it into a ringing affirmation of the value of the struggle despite every setback, of the value of life in the face of the inevitability of death.

In this song, as in the album as a whole, the anger is real, the anger is earned. But the anger can be constructive, even in the face of the destruction: "Hold tight to your anger/And don’t fall to your fears." Even when "When your best hopes and desires/Are scattered to the wind," they can't tear down the things that truly matter.

In the closest thing to a throw-away on the album, "You've Got It" seems to serve mostly as a romantic/sexual interlude, a bridge to the greater rejuvenation of the subsequent tracks. From this suggestion of the profane, the record shifts to the explicit spirituality of "Rocky Ground."
You use your muscle and your mind and you pray your best
That your best is good enough, the Lord will do the rest
You raise your children and you teach them to walk straight and sure
You pray that hard times, hard times come no more
And in the end, there's the promise of "a new day coming."

Much to my surprise, the real highlight of the record was another song I already knew, and one that to me best represents the living, beating heart of Bruce Springsteen's work: "Land of Hope and Dreams."

I'd first heard the song at what was only its second public performance, in Asbury Park in March 1999. It has been a staple of Springsteen's live performances and a favorite of mine ever since.

Nearly seven years ago, I was invited to give a talk on Springsteen at Freiburg University in Germany. I choose the theme, "Bruce Springsteen's American Dreams." My argument in a nutshell was this: earlier in his writing and recording, the dream was the individual's dream of escape from circumstances, the freedom of the open road. But as he grew, the dream became a more collective one: "Nobody wins unless everybody wins." The dominant metaphor in his lyrics shifted from the car to the train.

The culmination of that shift, I argued, came with "Land of Hope and Dreams," the song he wrote originally as the set-ender for the E Street Band reunion tour. When I saw that song listed as a track on the new album, I had a reaction I suspect was shared by many fans: we know this one. A live version was released years ago, we've been hearing it in concert for over a decade. Couldn't we get a new song instead?

But once again, Springsteen's judgment proves impeccable. As the penultimate track, it is an ideal song to mark the climax of the more hopeful second half of the album.
Well, I will provide for you
And I’ll stand by your side
You’ll need a good companion now
For this part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past
Springsteen's work never denies the darkness. But it also never gives up hope for the day when you can "leave behind your sorrows," a time when the darkness will be in the past. It is by fully embracing the darkness in life that Springsteen earns his romantic dreams.

The song also contains what to me is the epitome of Springsteen's inclusive American vision:
This train... Carries saints and sinners
This train... Carries losers and winners
This train... Carries whores and gamblers
This train... Carries lost souls
This train... Carries broken hearted
This train... Thieves and sweet souls departed
This train... Carries fools, carries kings
This train... All aboard!
This train... Dreams will not be thwarted
This train... Faith will be rewarded
This train... Hear the steel wheels singing
This train... Bells of freedom ringing
This is Springsteen's America. One that says to everyone--every one--"all aboard!"

If for no other reason, the song needed to be there for the presence of the late Clarence Clemons' saxophone. Though I knew it was coming, the first notes brought tears to my eyes. For over 40 years, the Big Man was the living proof--on stage, every night--of the inclusivity of Springsteen's vision. He had to be there. And he is.

Over the last several years, Springsteen has suffered the deaths of several people close to him: bandmates Clemons and Danny Federici, as well as his friend and personal assistant Terry Magovern. What he seems to have taken from that is though the losses are painfully real, the things the people we love leave with behind with us are real too. As he said in his moving eulogy for Clemons,"Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we die." We carry the souls of the departed with us.

The last track of the album, fittingly, is a song of resurrection, which weaves together personal loss and losses of our common history. The voices in the song are of the dispossessed dead: the striking union man in 1877, the young black girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church, the immigrant crossing the river today. They have all died, but they nonetheless sing out: "We Are Alive."
We are alive
And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark
Our souls and spirits rise
To carry the fire and light the spark
To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart
To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart
We are alive
For nearly 40 years now, Bruce Springsteen has been telling the American story. There is still no one who tells it better. Bruce Springsteen's America is the one I believe in, and the one I want to live in.