You Gotta Hand It to Us
By Mark Pontoni | Oct. 7, 2017
Some years ago, when Bruce Springsteen was trying to sort out his life he put out his “Tunnel of Love” album. It was – as I saw it – an autobiographical, gut-wrenching, and very public attempt to deal with his failed marriage, his new love, and what would be coming next.
Hidden among the many hits from that album is my favorite song: “Cautious Man.” When I feel especially hopeful about things, I listen to that song. When I feel especially uncertain about things, I listen to that song. Either way, it has a leveling effect that is almost Zen-like.
Getting ready to write this column, I spoke briefly with my editor and moaned that there were 132 problems with our country about which to write, and I was having a real tough time picking one. She chuckled and wished me luck, so I spent the next several days sorting through the many things that divide us.
Flags (both American and traitorous Confederate); Puerto Rico and the big, big ocean it is cursed to be surrounded by; immigration; school finance; racist/homophobe/Constitution-ignoring Roy Moore; U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos; North Korea; the NFL; the 1968 Olympics; white dudes telling black people how they should feel; white dudes telling black people how they shouldn’t feel; Trump supporters breaking their brains trying to explain how it’s possible they still support him; upcoming indictments on Russia; the kleptocracy of former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price (and undoubtedly others); state reps Tristan Cole and Lee Chatfield falling all over themselves to make the most outrageous and indefensible claims about the First Amendment; Michigan’s “tough nerd” signing into law more dark money for politics; and a hundred other things that clearly show our country is not as great as it was even nine months ago.
It was then that I thought of “Cautious Man,” and how a couple of lines in that song create an apt metaphor for what divides us:
“On his right hand Billy’d tattooed the word ‘love’ and on his left hand was the word ‘fear’
And in which hand he held his fate was never clear.”
“Billy” is no longer the restless young man with a young bride. Today he represents our country. He is torn between the love that should unite us as citizens and residents of this nation of dreams and the fear that haunts those who see their days as a privileged majority slipping away.
For a long time when I looked at the eyes of the young white men whose pictures captured so much attention during the Charlottesville white supremacy demonstrations, I thought I saw hate. Time and again I would look at the photos with tiki torchlight and swastikas reflecting in their eyes and wonder how it was possible that anyone could be so filled with hate. What could have happened during their short lives that would cause such complete disregard for the dignity of other humans, most of whom they had never met?
And then I went back and looked at video and photos of some of the rallies held during the Trump campaign. I watched angry white men and women with that same look in their eyes screaming at peaceful protestors, beating black men in the aisles, and in a state of hysteria, calling for either the imprisonment or execution of Hilary Clinton. I thought that, too, was hate.
Later, I was looking back over some Facebook comments about Kentucky clerk Kim Davis and marriage equality. I read vile things written by supporters of Davis, who infamously denied same-sex couples marriage licenses in 2015. I wondered what could motivate people to publicly display such horrendous thoughts about people whose only sin seemed to be that they fell in love. Again, I thought I was reading the words of hate.
Finally, while driving through town last week I encountered two different trucks decked out in the Confederate battle flag cruising the streets. I was parked on the side of the road when one drove by, and I looked at the face of the driver as he passed. The same glossed-over look of rage which called to me from Charlottesville was driving in my neighborhood. But why? What would cause someone to voluntarily advertise their affiliation to the treasonous Confederacy in a town which has a monument to the men who died fighting it? This too I chalked up to hate.
We keep hearing how much the alt-right, the neo-Nazis, the KKK, Roy Moore and Kim Davis and their ilk, former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, and all the Confederate flag wavers love America. They even want to make it great again.
It was then I realized that our country is Springsteen’s Billy. On one of our hands is tattooed “love,” and I truly believe most of us love our country. But despite how easy it would be to classify the actions of so many as hate, like Billy, our other hand says “fear.” That is the paradox we face as a country. If we truly love our country, we have to exorcise the fear that is driving us apart.
The demographic changes that we cannot stop (regardless of how high we plan to build a wall), the progress in justice and human rights that we cannot legislate out of existence, and the hope for our future that lies in the hands of the next wave of immigrants are all going to happen. Yes, even if we so fear them that we are willing to put hate on display for all the world to see.
The good news is that fear is much easier to conquer than hate. After all, we always have that other hand to look at.