It’s hard to even think straight about this. Recently, two of the highest grossing touring bands in the country—one of which is a band I truly love—both pulled the plug on concerts in North Carolina on the grounds that a recently-passed state law placing explicit restrictions on public bathroom occupancy was so egregious that they felt compelled to act any way they could within their power to oppose and protest.
Solidarity and the absurdity of power
I can think of two motivations for Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen to cancel their shows. Either they find North Carolina to be so odious that they can’t even stand to touch its soil, or they’re making a power play to whack the North Carolina legislature into more agreeable shape. Both motives are senseless. On the one hand, finding North Carolina so odious could only be the product of a deep sense of solidarity with the people whom this law restricts. It is a total disintegration of solidarity, though, to express it by not being present. Surely showing up and encouraging your comrades is a far deeper gesture of solidarity. The Freedom Riders didn’t boycott the segregated south. They hopped on the bus and joined those they felt so akin to. And they probably had to buy lunch on the way. Solidarity makes a nonsense excuse for a boycott. Because a boycott is a power play at heart.
At this point of clear disagreement with the bands, one might expect a theological treatise in defense of the state law the bands oppose, but this is not the place for that. I will only observe that the transgender phenomenon, rooted in the broader culture of American sexuality, seems to me the result of taking liberty to its furthest individual limits. Each single person, in their choices, which is to say in their minds which are the seat of choice, is presumed in control of every aspect of their identity such that not even something as once unequivocal as biology has any sway anymore. No circumstance must be received. The one single mind now has absolute will toward self-definition. My mind is actually boggled, then, to read that with a complete lack of irony, these two bands homogenize and write off an entire state—nearly 10 million people—in the name of this atomized individualism. It’s hard to even take it with a straight face. It is here that the absurdity of power plays begins to unravel.
What’s really going on in this situation is that there are two laws in our country—the law of the government and the law of the economy (of which the entertainment industry is a lucrative part). In North Carolina, those two sides are at war. And war has collateral damage, especially so because war tends to draw out the most dehumanizing tactics from all sides. Who is bearing the brunt of these cancellations, war tactics in this struggle for power?
Total agreement need only apply
It’s the people who run businesses around the venues who will lose out on serving food and drink to concert goers. It’s hotels that won’t fill rooms. But, most of all, it’s fans who have bought plane tickets and prepaid lodging (not to mention who likely paid exorbitant markups and service fees for their tickets which Ticketmaster, Stubhub, et al gobble up as part of their privileged stranglehold on the blistering online ticket market and which they surely won’t leap at the ‘moral obligation’ to repay). Of all the ways to take a stand, these two bands chose the bluntest, loudest, most divisive and destructive instrument at their disposal. Perhaps especially galling about the whole thing is the implicit (or in Pearl Jam’s case explicit) stance that these fans and businesses owe the artists the benefit of the doubt as they pursue their integrity. Here we see people, in all their diverse humanity, used as mere tools with which to make a point. ‘Thanks in advance for understanding’ must be based on the presumption that not understanding, much less disagreeing, are unimaginable. All good soldiers in the culture war have to accept the financial fallout of the activism of those few with clout even if they agree with the band.
The justification would likely follow, though, that Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen hope that by taking a stand, they will inspire North Carolina voters to democratically solve the dispute by pressuring and voting their legislature into shape. If that’s the case, then this is a power play aimed at the NC state legislature that really just smacks around ordinary citizens. The absurdity of power is that it will always justify its means with its ends. The terror of power is that there will always be further ends and when there are no more further ends, either there are no more people or there is no more freedom. Aggression in the face of disagreement is the very root of totalitarianism.
At issue here, in these few paragraphs, is not the rightness or wrongness of either the beliefs of the bands or the legislators. That’s an important debate to have, but it’s also an impossible debate to have in the current environment. Not on a large scale, anyway. Not on the scale of state boycotts and, yes, state laws. In order to have that debate, people would have to learn just how deep the roots of both systems of belief run (and run into each other). Such groundwork for productive talk takes patience and generosity. Instead, what you tend to end up seeing is something like two massive trees trying to do battle by only snapping off the others’ outermost branches. It’s easier and more visceral to just pummel one another in the public square. Coalitions and counter coalitions all duking it out in the marketplace, in the voting booth, in public opinion, and by any means available. Boycotts and counter boycotts, propaganda and counter propaganda, shouting down and shouting down. It’s hard to look at both sides of this divide and not see them throwing fits about the human abuses on the other side while tying themselves in linguistic and epistemological knots to justify their own. What I find so maddeningly obvious and so frustratingly ignored is the shortsighted stupidity of these kinds of power plays especially when the goal is some kind of civil or even rational society.