What Are We Talkin’ Bout?

There’s been much ballyhoo about Tracy Chapman appearing at the Grammys to perform her hit “Fast Car” with Luke Combs. As I said on Mastodon, I feel like people simultaneously are making both too much and too little of it. Does it matter that it was a bit of a unifying experience in the moment, and should we ponder that fact? Of course, but it’s complicated.

(Inexplicably, as near as I can tell there still is no official posting of the performance, despite the Grammys having a YouTube channel. They did take the time to show Taylor Swift reacting, though, because I guess that’s what matters?)

To be clear, I don’t want to take anything away from what happened. Chapman, who basically is retired from music, joined Combs, who had a hit song with her hit song, for a performance in which Combs was suitably deferential in his stage presence even while the two singers matched each other’s energy and commitment to the song. It’s true that it impacted people across America’s political spectrum.

“Fast Car” is expansive enough in its emotional and class consciousness to work outside of Chapman’s own performance of it, and despite the early controversy there’s nothing somehow wrong with the fact that Combs covered it, let alone that he covered it to great success. It’s not the point of it all, but it doesn’t hurt that Chapman owns both the writing and the publishing rights to the song, and so the royalties from his cover substantially have benefitted her. Combs’ success was hers, too.

Where I get stuck, though, is this idea that what happened Sunday night presents “an opportunity”, because for it to be such it would require willingness on both sides, and as much as it’s true that there are people on both sides who reflexively demonize their political opponents it’s true that there are far more people on my side who are willing to openly and inquisitively interrogate grievances to try to find the solutions that in the end actually would benefit people on both sides.

The other side simply cannot make that claim, because on the whole they simply aren’t interested in interrogating anyone’s grievances: not ours, and not even their own.

As I said, my side has its own who at this point are committed to little more than reflexive demonization. The other side could present a valid grievance but some on mine would reject it out of hand just for its origins. (Naomi Klein has some really terrific things to say about this in Doppelganger.) Nonetheless, writ large, we are more open to mutual interrogation of grievances than are they.

What the performance and this sort of reaction to it make me think about more than anything else is the fact that if we truly addressed the class divide and economic disparities that are intrinsic and innate to neoliberal capitalism, people on all sides would live in a country where there really was enough to go around, and many of the grievances of the right, should they continue to make them, would be shown either to have been addressed or completely to be hollow.

Many of our solutions would benefit everyone except billionaires and viciously extractive corporations. Few if any of their solutions would do the same. Many of us are open to including them in the class war, but their side mainly is interested only in the culture war to defend the status quo against interlopers even if the status quo isn’t even all that especially great for their side, either.

It’s also true, as Klein says in Doppelganger, that liberal politicians have failed to address systemic inequities and injustices for so long that such grievances “are being fully absorbed by the hard right and turned into dark doppelgangers of themselves”, becoming “discombobulated conspiracies” instead of “critiques of capitalism”. Had liberals in America done more actually to address class grievances, perhaps we wouldn’t have lost so much ground to delusion.

In the Mirror World, conspiracy theories detract attention from the billionaires who fund the networks of misinformation and away from the economic policies—deregulation, privatization, austerity—that have stratified wealth so cataclysmically in the neoliberal era. They rile up anger about the Davos elites, at Big Tech and Big Pharma—but the rage never seems to reach those targets. Instead it gets diverted into culture wars about anti-racist education, all-gender bathrooms, and Great Replacement panic directed at Black people, nonwhite immigrants, and Jews. Meanwhile, the billionaires who bankroll the whole charade are safe in the knowledge that the fury coursing through our culture isn’t coming for them. Neither Steve Bannon nor Tucker Carlson invented this play.

Over the centuries, anti-Jewish conspiracy has played a very specific purpose for elite power: it acts as a buffer, a shock absorber. Before popular rage could reach the kings, queens, tsars, and old landed money, the conspiracies absorbed it, directing anger to the middle managers—to the court Jew, to the scheming Jew, possibly with horns hidden under his skullcap. To Shylock.

This is why anti-Semitism is sometimes referred to as “the socialism of fools,” a phrase coined by the Austrian democrat Ferdinand Kronawetter and popularized by Social Democrats in Germany in the 1890s. Where a socialist analysis, grounded in material realities, explains that capitalism is a system guided by internal logics that require dispossession and exploitation, peddlers of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories offer juicy tales of satanic evildoers acting outside the normal boundaries of societies and economies. And if they exist outside these structures, then they can simply be excised from the body politic—run out of town or, per Lindqvist and Peck, exterminated like brutes.

The above represents that to which the Republican Party has pledged fealty. It doesn’t matter whether or not everyone on the right literally agrees with it or if some merely are using the fascist bandwagon to hitch a ride to power or if some merely have been duped after progressive solutions to their grievances were abandoned by liberals. How do you cross this divide merely by responding similarly to the same song about emotional and class desperation? Don’t give me what amounts to thoughts and prayers: give me a plan. Tell me how it happens.

I’m belaboring the point here. In the end, while I do think it’s worth exploring the ways in which people across the political spectrum responded to this song, and to the duet, in strongly similar ways, I’m not going to hold my breath for a similar appreciation from their side for “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution”.