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Do 'We Take Care of Our Own?'

By Amardeep Singh, associate professor of English at Lehigh University

As the confetti fell Tuesday night after Barack Obama's acceptance speech early on the morning of Nov. 7, viewers at home were treated to the familiar sounds of a campaign staple—Bruce Springsteen’s "We Take Care of Our Own.” For me it was the perfect choice: the song symbolizes the Obama campaign’s strengths and powerful core message. That said, certain lyrics in the song also raise questions for me, even as a fan of Springsteen’s work. I also think these questions might be applied to President Obama himself and his administration as we begin to think about what Obama’s second term might look like.

"We Take Care of Our Own," despite its powerful chorus, is somewhat of an unusual choice to be an uplifting anthem. Like that other great Springsteen anthem with a killer chorus ("Born in the U.S.A."), its patriotic language and tone is countered by a deep sense of tragedy and failure in the verses of the song itself. As Springsteen sings, “From Chicago to New Orleans/ From the muscle to the bone/ From the shotgun shack to the Super Dome/ There ain’t no help, the cavalry stayed home.”  Of course, the clear historical reference point here is the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which left tens of thousands of people in New Orleans stranded, without government assistance, in the wake of total devastation.

So when the chorus kicks in: "We take care of our own," there's a sense of irony. In fact, in 2005, we actually didn't take care of our own at all. The chorus is therefore partly a rebuke for that failure.

As the song progresses, it becomes less bleak and more hopeful. Lines like "Where's the love that has not forsaken me/ Where’s the spirit that will reign, reign over me" suggest we can keep from falling over the cliff into nihilism. Where is the love? Where is the spirit? Why, it's here in this song. It's in Bruce Springsteen. (And the Obama campaign wanted to say: it's here too, in our campaign, in our candidate.)

Despite its inarguable power, I do have some frustrations with "We Take Care of Our Own,” both as a song and as a political motto. As a person whose parents immigrated from India, I can't help but wonder about the nearly seven billion people in the world who don't count as "our own." Do Americans, as the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, have any obligation to those who live, and sometimes struggle, under flags that are not the American flag?  When I hear the chorus of this song, part of me is always held back from fully embracing it by its grammar.

I believe the United States has an obligation to take care of its own, but I also firmly believe in the obligation of privileged countries to try and better the circumstances of people living in poorer countries. This did not appear to be much of a priority for Obama in his first term.

Can we still get there? My hopes for the foreign policy agenda of the second Obama administration might entail: 1) restarting the stalled negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians; 2) rethinking the drone war and targeted assassinations in Pakistan and Afghanistan; 3) rethinking the zero-sum approach to "American jobs" that means that jobs, growth, and development in other countries is only registered as a loss for Americans; and 4) a serious investment in working to combat global climate change.

Some of my friends and colleagues on the left feel that Obama is no different from a Mitt Romney or a George Bush on some of these key issues. I am more upbeat about Obama. But I hope he'll go beyond the Boss as well: we take care of every one.

Posted on Friday, November 09, 2012

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