It ain’t no secret
The secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in your American skin
–Bruce Springsteen, “American Skin (41 Shots)” Rock & Roll Fantasies
It is a depressing rule for students of American political discourse that the more one happens to know about a given subject, the more amazing one finds the brazen ignorance that passes for public debate on it. I felt myself to be unshockable on this point, having published two editions of a critical history of the punditocracy (Sound & Fury). But I have also written a short book on Bruce Springsteen (It Ain’t No Sin to Be Glad You’re Alive). And never have I witnessed anything quite as ridiculous as the attempts by dozens of know-nothing pundits to piggyback on the campaign by the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association to tar the singer with the brush of inciting cop hatred and embracing radical chic by performing his new song “American Skin (41 Shots).”
Patrick Lynch, president of the PBA, publicly attacked Springsteen for allegedly “trying to fatten his wallet by reopening the wounds of this tragic case” and for suggesting that the killing of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo was a case of racial profiling. One might argue that the PBA’s campaign raised a few semilegitimate, slow-news-day questions for a working journalist:
(1) Had Lynch actually heard the song performed? Simple answer–no.
(2) Did Springsteen write the song to “fatten his wallet”? (Lynch picked a particularly unfortunate symbol here, given that Diallo died trying to show cops his wallet.) In fact, Springsteen does not stand to make any money on the song; all 200,000 tickets to his ten remaining shows sold out months before the song was released. What’s more, he has no new records, videos or anything else to promote.
(3) Did the Diallo family consider the song exploitative? Amadou’s parents, Saikou and Kadiatou Diallo, asked to meet Springsteen “to greet him and thank him for the song” after one of his shows. They hugged him, shook his hand and “blessed” him, Saikou Diallo said.
(4) Was Lynch speaking for all cops, or was he mouthing off on his own dime? This question is the toughest to answer, as it would require a serious inquiry into the attitudes of a representative sampling of tens of thousands of police. Nobody attempted this. True, much of the brass supported Lynch, though this turned out to be of questionable political value. Bob Lucente, president of the state’s Fraternal Order of Police, called Springsteen “a fucking dirtbag” and “a floating fag,” whatever that is. He was quickly forced to apologize and was asked to resign from the force. Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir joined in too, though New York Governor George Pataki refused, citing his love for the artist. George Molé, a police lieutenant, wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times attacking Springsteen, while another one named Michael Gorman wrote in to support him. And yes, the cop next to me Monday night booed obnoxiously during the song’s performance at Madison Square Garden, but he cheered all the other songs. And I haven’t been able to identify a single cop trying to get rid of any tickets. So the only sensible answer to question four is, We have no idea.