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How an American protest song matters to fight for democracy in India
19 Sep 2023 1:00 AM GMT (Updated:2023-09-19 02:06:52.0)
The song, Rich men north of Richmond, is no great shakes in terms of musical quality or lyrical appeal, but its lines capture the angst of an ordinary worker
A working man’s protest song in the US released in August swiftly rose to the top of the charts, propelled by partisan politics and the Republicans’ use of the song as a political anthem sung at their rallies and meetings.
The song, Rich men north of Richmond, is no great shakes, in terms of musical quality or lyrical appeal, but its lines capture the angst of an ordinary worker, who feels overworked, underpaid, overtaxed, preyed on by overbearing politicians and exploited by welfare cheats, who misappropriate his hard-earned wages taken away by the government as taxes.
A song of angst
So, why should we, in India, bother about rich men in any geographical direction in relation to a place most Indians would struggle to identify as the capital of the state of Virginia? Because it has lessons for Indian politics on what moves people, how misguided resentment can be and what possibly can be done to channel resentment where it could change things for the better.
The song, by Oliver Anthony*, goes like this:
Well, I’ve been selling my soul / Working all day / Overtime hours / For bullshit pay / So I can sit out here / And waste my life away / Drag back home / And drown my troubles away / It's a damn shame / What the world's gotten to / For people like me / And people like you / Wish I could just wake up / And it not be true / But it is / Oh, it is
Livin' in the new world / With an old soul / These rich men north of Richmond / Lord, knows they all / Just wanna have total control / Wanna know what you think / Wanna know what you do / And they don't think you know / But I know that you do
Cause your dollar ain't shit / And it's taxed to no end / 'Cause of rich men / North of Richmond
I wish politicians / Would look out for miners / And not just minors on an island somewhere
Lord, we got folks in the street / Ain't got nothin' to eat / And the obese milkin' welfare / But God if you're five foot three /And you're three hundred pounds / Taxes ought not to pay / For your bags of fudge rounds
Young men are putting themselves / Six feet in the ground / 'Cause all this damn country does / Is keep on kicking them down
Lord, it's a damn shame / What the world's gotten to / For people like me / And people like you / Wish I could just wake up / And it not be true / But it is / Oh, it is
Conspiracy theories, 'godless traitors' and Trump
The significant place to the north of Richmond is Washington DC, and the rich men, who seek to control ordinary, working people are politicians. The currency not buying much and taxes being overmuch are standard complaints against the government. Young men working themselves to death, having to sell their souls and work overtime are standard protest themes against the system. What gives Oliver Anthony’s song a right-wing character is that it picks on two Republican grouses.
One is against people on welfare. Republicans complain that Democrats’ liberal handouts to the poor have created a class of parasites, who shirk work and mooch off government payments meant for the needy. By asking why people like him should pay for squat, obese people’s greed for fudge rounds, Anthony pays obeisance to the Republicans’ refrain on Welfare Queens.
The reference to ‘minors on islands’ is a bit more oblique. A right-wing conspiracy theory holds that America is controlled by a deep state comprising paedophiles and Satan worshippers, who secretly imprisoned a bunch of young children in a basement beneath a pizzeria. Someone who believed in this theory came armed and determined to free the helpless children. He staged an assault on the pizzeria, only to be baffled by the building’s non-cooperative refusal to have even a basement, leave alone children in the basement. This so-called QAnon conspiracy theory evolved to hold that Donald Trump was sent by God to deliver America from these godless traitors.
Conservative politics wrapped up in popular culture
The QAnon conspiracy and the welfare queen meme have been ingrained into popular culture, regardless of their relationship with reality. The liberal-democratic stream of American politics has been unable to discredit these ridiculous claims of a loose alliance of Christian revanchism, gun fetish, white supremacy, climate-change denial, anti-abortion zealotry and political conservatism.
Permeation of much of the mainstream public discourse with what should have remained the delusions of the fringe is responsible for a working man’s angst taking a reactionary form that reinforces conservative politics in the US. Even as Anthony denies he endorses the Republicans, his song sings a different note. Not that the Democrats represent any radical agenda of reform or redemption. But the space for the development of democracy remains a lot more open under the Democrats than under the Republicans.
This is the reality in India as well. The massive popularity of chauvinistic fantasy delivered as popular cinema, revisionist history disseminated by countless numbers of WhatsApp groups, the notion that the prime minister washing the feet of a few Valmikis compensates for the daily oppression of Dalits across the land with theological sanction, the myth of a 14 per cent minority posing a threat to the cultural integrity and physical security India’s Hindu majority, deliberate blurring of the lines between science and traditional belief, between history and folklore, and between myth and reality, a thesis of stasis in Independent India before 2014, the notion that dissent is anti-national, belief in deliverance by a superhero — these are all elements of conservative politics that seeks to thwart any genuine advance towards democracy beyond the formal rituals.
So long as popular sensibility remains conditioned by such tropes, it is easy to believe that demonetisation deserves an A plus for trying, that what happened to migrant workers during COVID was cruel providence and that economic growth since 2014 has been faster than in the previous 10 years, and, eventually, that India should belong to the Hindus and non-Hindus do not belong here.
Resisting the agenda of Hindu majoritarianism calls for cultural conditioning, not just political manoeuvres for electoral success. If this work is neglected, popular angst could well find outlets that strengthen the forces of reaction and impede those of progress – in effect, helping the Rich Men North of Richmond.
*I thank the Malayalam podcast Dilli Dali for drawing attention to the song.
(TK Arun is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.)
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