Born in the USA is actually the perfect patriotic song

Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA is famous for being one of the most misinterpreted rock songs of all time. Because of its cheery arrangement and bombastic chorus that repeats the line “Born in the USA!” over and over it’s often used by Republican politicians to stir up patriotic sentiment. A closer look at the lyrics however reveals that the song is really about a Vietnam veteran who came home from a pointless war to find that factories were closing and there were no more jobs.

At least, this is the standard liberal interpretation, that the song is really a protest song. This view is even supported by the Boss himself:

But the first rule of art critique is that you should never trust the artist’s own interpretation of their art.

The first thing to notice is that, even though it’s allegedly a protest song, there is not a hint of sarcasm or cynicism, or even anger. Also, nowhere in the song is the USA directly blamed for the protagonist’s hardships. From the liberal point of view this critique is obviously implied, but from a conservative point of view this is not obvious at all.

So when small-town, hard-working, Republican-voting Americans play the song on the Fourth of July, are they simply idiots who didn’t listen to the lyrics and didn’t see the video? Or is it actually perfectly consistent with their world-view?

American patriotism isn’t simply a blind love and trust in the government. On the contrary, most right-wingers actively hate and mistrust the government, all while loving the flag. So what they really love is the Idea of America, the Promise, the Dream. And hardships, like the ones described in the song, are not necessarily proof that this Promise is a false one. In fact, hardship is an essential part of the American Dream, because only through the overcoming of hardships can an American become the proud and free, self-made man that he is destined to be.

So from a conservative point of view, Born in the USA is such a powerfully patriotic song precisely because it’s about hard times, and nonetheless being proud to be born in America. Indeed, patriotism seems too easy when times are good; loving your country only really means something when times are hard. This is why Marx dismissed the poorest people in society, the rabble, as incapable of starting a revolution: because they love their country too much, indeed, it’s all they have left.

According to Hegel, great art always shows the unity of a contradiction. In the case of Born in the USA it’s the tension between an American life filled with pain and suffering, and a love for America. So even if Bruce set out to make a simple protest song, he inadvertently said more than what he meant to say. And what makes Springsteen such a great artist is that he’s honest enough to just tell a story without foisting his own interpretation onto it, and so leaving intact all the tension and ambiguity.

P.S.: What does all this mean to the Left?

In unregulated capitalism, there is a horrible economic crisis every ~10 years that brings untold suffering to working people, and we are in the middle of one right now again. And every time, some Leftists are tempted to think that surely there is a breaking point which is almost reached, where the suffering becomes too much and working people will spontaneously stand up and revolt against capitalism. But it never happens, and will never happen like that, because suffering is perfectly compatible with the dominant ideology. So as Leftists we have the task of coming up with a new ideology that can replace the old, one which can resolve the contradiction between personal freedom and government assistance.

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