What Bruce Springsteen tells us about Community
Blinded by the Light is not a great film but I enjoyed it for several reasons. It is loosely based on the Bildungsroman “Greetings from Bury Park,” by Sarfraz Manzoor, chronicling the turmoil of a teenage British-Pakistani boy growing up in Luton in the 1980s and his unlikely love affair with the music of Bruce Springsteen. And that book was commissioned, in part, thanks to a piece I published by Sarfraz — From Lyllapur to Luton — in Prospect magazine in December 2001, just after 9/11. The film also has a walk-on part by my nephew Leo Shirley!
But I like the film even more because of what it tells us, intentionally or unintentionally, about our modern ambivalence about the idea of community. Everybody in politics likes community in theory, one of the commonest anxieties about the modern world is that communities are weaker than they used to be. Rising loneliness, deaths of despair, mental illness are all, with some justice, blamed on weaker communities.
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Yet so many of the things that contribute to thinner communities are actively chosen by us: smaller families, greater mobility (also encouraged by mass residential higher education) within and between countries, individual autonomy and the right to be ourselves. We actively choose wider but shallower networks. And modern politics celebrates inclusiveness yet any meaningful community must have boundaries and must therefore exclude.
Our hypocrisy over community is the central theme of Blinded by the Light. The film celebrates the beleaguered Pakistani community of Luton. The film is also a showcase for the music of Bruce Springsteen who famously celebrates the battered blue collar communities of post-industrial America. I am no expert on Springsteen lyrics but most of the songs in the film also seemed to be celebrating escaping from such places. That is certainly what Javed, the Sarfraz character, draws from Springsteen — he is a symbol of American freedom and escape from the claustrophobic and authoritarian world of his Pakistani community.
We want to have our cake and eat it not just on Brexit but on community too. We want security, familiarity and belonging, all the warm things we associate with settled communities, but we also want freedom, individual autonomy, ambition and social mobility which weaken settled communities by encouraging people to leave them — particularly the most able.
Sarfraz Manzoor is a successful journalist who now lives in London and Blinded by the Light is ultimately a celebration of his escape. Perhaps this then is the central challenge of post-Brexit British politics or perhaps politics in all rich countries. How can the Sarfrazes follow their dreams and leave for the big city without making those who stay feel that they have been left behind and diminished, how can the stayers have the same opportunity to live successful and fulfilled lives as the leavers?
To adapt the famous quote from the Leveller-supporting Thomas Rainsborough at the Putney Debates in 1647 during the English civil war: “The most settled hee that is in England hath a life to lead as the most mobile hee.”
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