North Carolina’s HB 2: Bruce Springsteen and the Philosophy of Progress

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I grew up on Born in the USA. So many songs on that record really worked for me. It may be surprising that my favorite was actually “I’m on Fire” but there were many great songs from which to choose. Even so, I wasn’t a huge fan until I came into the adult years during which I learned to appreciate lyrics from tracks like “Human Touch”, “Jungleland” off the Born to Run record, and the entire Devils and Dust album. I absolutely love the way Springsteen captures and articulates the  human condition and spirit, not to mention the way he champions the common man. It’s a spirit he and I share. I love the way he sees the world and its inhabitants. For that matter, I love the way the more left-leaning of us see the world, too. Their perspective can at times create a much more inspiring place than what reality might otherwise suggest.

And so this brings us to Springsteen’s decision to cancel a recent Greensboro, NC concert as a way to protest the passing of North Carolina House Bill 2. I happen to support legislation like NC’s Public Facilities and Privacy Act not because I’m a conservative curmudgeon that is opposed to specific and inalienable rights as they may be defined, but because this bill would appear to be a corrective move toward recent legislation that has overreached on behalf of one group to encroach upon the rights of another group. In other words, in my opinion HB 2 and similar bills in Georgia and Tennessee represent a reaction to recent overcompensation — overcompensations, to some degree, that have admittedly prompted long overdue conversations over matters of sexuality and gender. But that’s not how such a law is portrayed in a world that runs screaming down the easiest path toward manufactured outrage. Nor in today’s world could it be.

For reference, here are a few pulled quotes from Bruce Springsteen’s official statement about the decision to cancel:

He cites HB 2 as a law that “… dictates which bathrooms transgender people are permitted to use. Just as important, the law also attacks the rights of LGBT citizens to sue when their human rights are violated in the workplace.” His use of the word “attacks” is unnecessarily strong, in my opinion. A proponent of the very same bill may say with integrity that it actually protects the rights of some.

“ …To my mind, it’s an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress.” This is the part that grabbed my attention and will drive much of this post. I’ve had trouble truly understanding notions of progress in this context for a while now.

For the sake of context, below are a few questions and answers associated with North Carolina House Bill 2. This bill does not appear to be an attack on anybody. Rather, it returns some level of decision-making to businesses and private facilities on the issue of public restrooms:

Can private businesses, if they choose, continue to allow transgender individuals to use the bathroom, locker room or other facilities of the gender they identify with, or provide other accommodations? Yes. For instance, if a privately owned sporting facility wants to allow attendees of sporting events to use the restroom of their choice, or install unisex bathrooms, they can.

Can businesses and private facilities still offer reasonable accommodations for transgender people, like single occupancy bathrooms for instance? Yes. This bill allows and does nothing to prevent businesses, and public or private facilities, from providing single use bathrooms.

Does the new bill limit or prohibit private sector companies from adopting their own nondiscrimination policies or practices? No.

Does this bill mean transgender people will always have to use the restroom of the sex of their birth, even if they have undergone a sex change? No. This law simply says people must use the bathroom of the sex listed on their birth certificate. Anyone who has undergone a sex change can change their sex on their birth certificate, apparently, which is news to me. What this does do, however, is honor a person’s commitment as opposed to allowing him or her to choose a bathroom based on momentary affinity, desire, or other motivation. Better put, you can be whatever you want, but at some point you’ve got to land the plane. Seems fair to me.

Why did NC pass this law in the first place? The bill was passed after the Charlotte City Council voted to impose a regulation requiring business to allow a man into a woman’s restroom, shower, or locker room if they choose. This ordinance would have eliminated the basic expectations of privacy people have when using the rest room by allowing people to use the restroom of their choice. This local regulation brought up serious privacy concerns by parents, businesses, and others across the state, as well as safety concerns that this new local rule could be used by people who would take advantage of this to do harm to others.

I must say that I’m not bothered at all that Springsteen would cancel his show. And it doesn’t bother me at all that he may take a position contrary to mine. I appreciate diversity, honest dialog, conviction, and passion. I do, however, take issue with the notion of progress as it relates to this topic. Here’s the question that emerges from the Boss’ decision and subsequent statement for me: Is a transgendered person’s right to use the restroom of his or her choice an indication of progress?

To notions of progress. I recently stumbled onto I’ll Take My Stand as a part of a personal research project. I’ll Take My Stand is a collection of essays written by the Vanderbilt Agrarians in the late 1930s. Don’t be fooled by its dated-ness. The contributors of this collection included giants like Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate. These contributors and writers were confronted with very similar paradigms for progress as their more familiar agrarian way of life became much less commonplace. This transition necessitated that they, too, examine notions of progress and the appropriate responses to cultural winds. It prompted them to ask, So what is progress?

One of the essays, Lyle Lanier’s “The Philosophy of Progress,” begins by giving us a definition of the word itself. I love the way Lanier positions this for us: “Progress is both a slogan and a philosophy, a device for social control and a belief in the reality of a process of cosmic development toward some far-off divine event.” Thus references to progress and Lanier’s “far-off divine event” can be likened to Marx’s opiate of the people. That is, it pacifies us. It suggests that we give no more consideration to the subject at hand because change is progress and progress is good and who can be against that. By now we’re familiar with presidential hopefuls rallying us with promises of progress. We’re conditioned to understand progress as equal parts “future,” “favorable,” and “change.”

This essay also reminds us that “progress” is not the same as “change.” Just because we may experience the benefits of greater modernity, machinery, and technology, this doesn’t necessarily translate as actual progress. Referencing Wilhelm Windelband, Lanier claims that the problems of progress actually coincide with THE problem of civilization itself, which asks this question: “whether and [to what extent] … the change in human relations of human life has served to further man’s true happiness?” So, yes, there has been change, but the only indication of progress is to what extent we have developed what Windelband calls “true happiness.” Granted, this is a very subjective term. The context of the essay would suggest that “true happiness” is most notably attached to traditional social moorings. This sentiment is very closely associated with discipline and restraint as each relates to the drive for ever-increasing production and consumption and the “generally accelerated tempo of social change served to popularize the doctrine of progress.” Conceding to such a drive for technological and medical advancement may not be the best prescription for true happiness, though it does satisfy our growing need for immediate gratification. And, it must be noted, the accessibility of immediate gratification fits nicely with future favorable change. We’ve grown to expect both “more” and “easier.” Some refer to this as entitlement.

So here is what it comes down to: comfort. We all want to be comfortable. We hold it in the highest esteem. We strive for it. We seek it. We work for it and sacrifice for it. Even though Springsteen’s take on progress is manipulative, he is using a currency we have all bought into — wittingly or not. His definition and use of “progress” allows us to keep doing what we’re doing in the hopes of one day — be it retirement, the next job, the proverbial ship, a relationship, whatever — experiencing Lanier’s divine far-off event. The opposite of comfort, in this case, is to truly wrestle with the weightier matters of identity, purpose, and clemency. This forces us beyond the political conversation with its tidy categories into the messier areas of the soul. And it’s hard. Furthermore, to understand progress as the improvement of man’s material and social welfare, Lanier adds, is to lose a significant aspect of our essence. Life has to be about more than just getting what we want, yet this is the promise of Springsteen’s progress. Lanier puts it this way: “Man henceforth would be concerned not so much with saving his soul as with making himself comfortable.”

In his protest, what is Bruce Springsteen really doing. What is he communicating about his worldview and the potential for humanity to take on the noble struggle of identity and basic rights. Different from championing humanity, I think he has actually cheapened the human condition. For Springsteen this actually is about a concert and North Carolina House Bill 2. He actually believes that the well-being of these “freedom fighters” is at stake in the HB 2 decision and he mistakenly believes that the best thing that can happen is for everyone to get whatever they want. His goal is, in Lanier terms, simple social welfare. The truth is there are far greater things and ideas way beyond the typical understanding of “progress.” There is maturity in the hard “no.” The truth is that there are literal souls at stake.

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