"We Didn't Start The Fire" (1989), #BlackLivesMatter, #ICantBreathe, Abdication, Anti-Racism, Baby Boom Generation, Baby Boomers, Billy Joel, Colorblind Racism, Denial, Derrick Rose, Die-Ins, Irresponsibility, Jesus, Pontius Pilate, Protests, Racism, Social Justice, Structural Racism, Systemic Racism, Verizon Center, Whiteness
As the rest of this sentence goes, “we poured gasoline and kerosene all over it.” And by “we,” I mean everyone who has been or remains in denial of the role poverty, greed and systemic racism plays in our lives. Every. Single. Moment. Every. Single. Day.
As an eclectic music lover, as a historian and as an educator, there are few songs I hate more than Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” Well, maybe Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend” (1990) or anything by Chicago after Peter Cetera quit the group in ’85. The song was released in the fall of ’89, during my junior year at Pitt, when I’d become a history major. Every time I heard the song, I wanted to strangle Joel with it. This is the same man who wrote “Just The Way You Are” (1977) and “New York State of Mind” (1976), right? First, he wasn’t even singing in most of the song. “Einstein, James Dean, Brooklyn’s got a winning team?” Wow, I bet the coked-up songwriters for Thompson Twins wasn’t booked that weekend Joel wrote these lyrics, no?
There’s one big beef I have with the song more than any other, one that’s relevant even a quarter century later. The issue of denying responsibility. Yeah, those poor White Baby Boomers, how terrible it must’ve been for so much to happen in your lives, with so little that you could do about it, too! It’s true, though. Whether it was “JFK” being “blown away,” or the “Russians in Afghanistan,” the song is about fucked-up shit that happened between the late-1940s and when the Baby Boomers approached middle-age by the end of the 80s.
The problem was and remains the reality that they’ve been putting fuel on this fire that’s allegedly been “always burning since the world was turning.” I mean, who voted for Nixon in ’72 or Reagan in ’80 or ’84? Who’s blindly supported every Israeli policy for as long as they’ve been able to vote, policies that have helped incite terrorism? Who’s been in constant denial of American violence and racism as a generation, despite contributing to it their whole lives? The very same generation whom Billy Joel and his idiotic lyrics represents, that’s who!
So now in 2014, with America and the world the way it is, with daily protests now over grand jury denials of indictments for police killing unarmed Blacks, with Gaza and Nigeria and Kenya and Ukraine, with wealth so heavily concentrated in so few hands, what do these “We Didn’t Start The Fire” types have to say now? “Trayvon, Michael Brown, Garner in a chokehold?” “Hawking, Gaza, twerking from Azalea?” As if we wee Americans can abdicate responsibility for their deaths, like Pontius Pilate did in effectively condemning Jesus to crucifixion, but washed his hands of his role in the process. Who’s been front and center in supporting a police state, in advocating policies that criminalize Black and Brown bodies for taking a breath, in turning the American Dream of a middle class into a get-rich-quick scheme? Hmm, let me think about this one…
Outside of the small minority of Whites who are truly upset about and are actively involved in protests against this latest round of American injustice, many Whites have expressed how enraged they are. About die-ins in front of the Verizon Center before a Washington Wizards game. About delays in getting to their destination because the Beltway or the Lincoln Tunnel or some other thoroughfare’s been blocked by protestors with “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe” signs. For this very-much-not-silent majority, these protests and the outrage and yearning for social justice they represent are major inconveniences.
Well, that’s too effing bad! You spend your life in denial, in assuming that anything racial isn’t your fault. You deserve inconvenience, you deserve to get smacked in the face with reality while drinking your beer at a basketball game, expecting Black players to stay in their entertainer role. You don’t want to think about the real world and your role in maintaining stereotypes and oppression in it? Oh well! Grow a pair! Not of balls, though. Grow a pair of lobes! Because none of us wide-awake, “Black Lives Matter” types are going anywhere.