The most controversial thing to come out of Sunday’s Super Bowl wasn’t the lopsided score, or some halftime accident exposing our precious children to the horrors of the partially nude female form, or even the fact that Peyton Manning’s habit of choking in playoff games* is suddenly something we’re allowed to talk about. No, the biggest controversy belongs to Coca-Cola, who had the audacity to produce an ad where a bunch of people sang “America the Beautiful.” Yeah, the nerve of those guys…wait, what? People got bent out of shape over that? Oh, right, the problem was that some of the singers weren’t singing in English (see also). Oh, and a couple of the people in the ad were gay, making this the first Super Bowl ad to include a gay family. Ever. In the year 2014. But I digress.
Here’s the ad:
Nice, right? Well, if you think so then you are What Is Wrong With America, at least as imagined by some of the less appealing parts of it.
First there was the immediate outpouring of venom from Twitter cranks and, let’s be honest, there was probably some sociopath on Twitter who complained about the Budweiser ad where the horse and the dog got married or whatever:
What I really want to know is, where’s the outrage over Budweiser shoving interspecies relationships down America’s throat?
— DWD (@fasteddie9318) February 4, 2014
Oh, right. Anyway, Twitter wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the fact that some segment of the population or another needs to complain about everything, but it’s still worth highlighting some of the best Twitter gripes about that Coca-Cola ad (many of the best ones have been deleted, so you’ll find them at that Deadspin link above):
Yeah, it’s disrespectful to sing a, um, song, in another, uh language? Really?
This is fucking America! #fuckcoke
— kyle odea (@kodea22) February 3, 2014
Well, points for brevity, I guess.
Pepsi: The Cola of Xenophobes and Racists!
A commercial where immigrants sing and take our taxes. Thanks.
— Andrew ACE Emanuels⛵ (@andrew_emanuels) February 3, 2014
OK, that’s not fair. I’m almost positive that there were no taxes involved in that commercial.
If this nasty reaction to the commercial were confined to Twitter, it wouldn’t be that much of a story today, but of course when the right-wing outrage machine smells an opportunity to churn the marks into a froth, you can bet it will leap into the fray. Allen West was a little obsessed with the ad, writing not one, but two posts about it. Apparently we’re on the “road to perdition” because a multi-national cola corporation made a commercial where some people sing a song about America in other languages, did you know? He quotes Teddy Roosevelt, who once said that “[e]very immigrant who comes here should be required within five years to learn English or leave the country.” Of course, Teddy Roosevelt also liked to write things like this:
The expansion of the peoples of white, or European, blood during the past four centuries which should never be lost sight of, especially by those who denounce such expansion on moral grounds. On the whole, the movement has been fraught with lasting benefit to most of the peoples already dwelling in the lands over which the expansion took place.
so maybe he’s not the authority to whom we should be appealing for wisdom here. But even if we agree that Teddy was right, and that it is important for immigrants to learn English, there’s nothing there that says those immigrants couldn’t or shouldn’t continue to celebrate the cultures and, yes, the languages of their ancestors. It is possible to be bilingual, you know, although maybe Allen doesn’t know that seeing as how he “didn’t recognize” any of the other languages used in the song. Allen is worried that America is becoming “balkanized,” which is an interesting choice of terminology that has a specific historical context. See, the people of the Balkans self-segregated into all those tiny little ethnic enclaves at the end of the 19th century, and again in the 1990s, not because the people of each one of those enclaves spoke a different language, but because they couldn’t abide living in the same political entity with anybody who didn’t speak their language. The road to balkanization runs through an intolerance of Other, the same impulse that drives a political leader to tell immigrants to his country to “speak our language or get out.” A nation that celebrates the diversity of cultures that make up the whole is actually doing the precise opposite of balkanizing.
I’m picking on Allen West, but he wasn’t the only person on the right to express dismay or outrage over this ad. Michael Patrick Leahy at Breitbart.com decided that Coca-Cola had rejected God and the Constitution (no, seriously), particularly for choosing to include a gay couple in an ad featuring a song that was written by a lesbian. He then wrote this (emphasis mine):
The old “America the Beautiful” is beautiful because of the blessings God had heaped on it and because its government offers “liberty in law,” while aspiring for togetherness. Coca Cola’s America is beautiful because of the differences in its people. When the company used such an iconic song, one often sung in churches on the 4th of July that represents the old “E Pluribus Unum” view of how American society is integrated, to push multiculturalism down our throats, it’s no wonder conservatives were outraged.
Yes, a thinking human being citied E Pluribus Unum in an argument for why no language but English should ever be heard throughout the length and breadth of America. Let that sink in for a second, kind of marinate in it, if you will. I’ll wait. Fox News’ Todd Starnes was also quite offended, as was his Fox fellow traveler Eric Bolling, and too-crazy-for-Fox-News Glenn Beck is worried that the ad “divides” us, though, again, the people who are dividing us are the people who are setting conditions on full citizenship, not the people who take America as it comes.
I don’t want to make it seem like all conservatism was up in arms about this thing. The reaction was much more mixed than that, with eventheconservative Heritage Foundation giving the ad a thumbs up. Erick Erickson, who usually leads these kinds of mobs, tweeted this, and you’ll note that he agrees with me on one point in particular:
People, the Coke ad was well done. This is so crazy that there is outrage over it. E Pluribus Unum isn’t in English either.
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) February 3, 2014
which kind of makes me worry about myself.
You know, I can’t mock these guys nearly as well as Stephen Colbert did last night, so I’ll stop trying and instead ask: why? What is so threatening about an advertisement for cola that acknowledges that, hey, some people out there speak languages other than English, but they can still be Americans? Oh, don’t get me wrong, I know why prominent right-wingers are all over this story. Allen West’s next paycheck depends on him getting outraged over this stuff. Todd Starnes works for a network that wouldn’t have anything to fill up its 24-hour newscycle if it weren’t for stories like this. But the thing is, these guys are riding the wave, not making it. If they didn’t realize that this kind of talk would resonate with their audience, then they’d be going another direction. At the risk of trying your patience, here’s another Twitter exchange, one that I had personally:
BREAKING: Coca-Cola apologizes to Americans for giving them too much credit.
— DWD (@fasteddie9318) February 3, 2014
@fasteddie9318 . Very shallow tweet.
— scottc (@sctfcheney) February 3, 2014
@fasteddie9318 10:1 say you think printing voting ballots in multiple languages is a good thing.
— scottc (@sctfcheney) February 3, 2014
I responded, as I am wont to do with people like this, with my usual:
@sctfcheney الله أكبر!
— DWD (@fasteddie9318) February 3, 2014
I like to think the sight of Arabic makes their heads explode. But the response “10:1 say you think printing voting ballots in multiple languages is a good thing” is worth exploring. Instead of being flippant, I could have responded “well, yes, I actually do happen to believe that everyone who is eligible to vote ought to have the opportunity to vote, and since we as a nation have rightly determined that literacy tests are a deplorable tool used to disenfranchise at-risk minorities, I actually don’t see the harm in printing ballots in whatever language(s) are useful.” But this guy thinks that the “accusation” that I think ballots should be printed in other languages is somehow going to win him the argument (such as it was), that it damns my whole point of view, and for the life of me I don’t understand how. I don’t know who “scottc” is, but I know that he’s Allen West’s audience.
The reason why the idea of multi-culturalism, of Americans whose native tongue is something other than English, is so threatening is, I think, fear. Not just fear of the Other, or the unknown, which is present in every culture at nearly every point in history, although that’s part of it. It’s also not just fear of the New, of one way of life replacing another, more familiar one, which is also always lurking in the background. It’s not even just fear of attack, which would be an understandable, if maybe a little dated, condition brought on by the shock of 9/11 and the warnings and foiled plots that have filled our newscasts ever since and which, since our would-be attackers are Muslims and frequently come from the other side of the world, dovetails nicely with fear of the Other. Those are all there, but there’s a more immediate fear at play here as well, and that’s fear of scarcity, of loss, of being without.
The people who sit at the top of the economic pyramid in this country have done a very good job of convincing the masses at the bottom that resentment or envy of the wealthy, or even just an awareness that inequality is stifling equal opportunity for many of us, is unworthy of us as a nation, that it even resembles the ethos of Nazi Germany, while encouraging a fruitless competition for scraps between the poor and (shrinking) middle classes of all ethnic, religious, and linguistic stripes. Poverty and scarcity breed competition, and in any competition people take sides, like “American” against “Other” or “English-speakers” against “speakers of other languages.” That’s what’s at work here. There’s so much scarcity right now, so many people living on a razor’s edge between barely getting by and losing everything, that the fear of the other team, the folks we think we’re competing against for whatever small bit of security that’s out there to be had, manifests in a major way even over something as silly as a Super Bowl ad for a soft drink that seems to offer aid and comfort to “the opposition” (by, in this case, simply acknowledging that they exist and are as American as anyone else). The people who are paid handsomely to manipulate those fears, like Allen West, Todd Starnes, and the people at Breitbart, know just what buttons to push when they get an opening like this.
This ad was a celebration of what makes America strong and great, not a sign that we’re “on the road to perdition” or whatever hyperbolic nonsense you may prefer. It’s our willingness to incorporate diversity, to invite people from all over the world to make their homes here without having to conform to some narrow definition of what it means to be an American, that makes America, well, America. We may anticipate that new arrivals will learn English, and they probably should, because most of our national business is done in English, but we must never demand that they lose touch with the culture of their ancestors, or we risk becoming a different, and lesser, nation. If you thought that Coca-Cola ad was disrespectful or a sign of a nation in decline, well, I’m sorry, but this:
is what America is, and that’s not going to change to accommodate your fear. Brenda Woods, an anchor on local Atlanta network WXIA, summed it up quite nicely:
“The quote on the Statue of Liberty doesn’t say ‘give me your English-speaking only, Christianity-believing, heterosexual masses.’ It says ‘give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses tempest-tost,'” she continued. “Have we forgotten that every one of us ‘Americans’ except for Native Americans, are descendants of foreigners? That the English language is from England?”
I don’t think we’ve forgotten, so much as we’re too overwhelmed with more basic fears to pay attention to our loftier ideals. Hopefully, times will get better, we’ll be able to stop fearing scarcity and competition, and we’ll be able to recapture those ideals.
* Look, I know the guy won one Super Bowl, but he posted QB ratings of 71.9, 39.6, and 79.1 in Indy’s three playoff games that season, then in the Super Bowl he benefited from playing against the worst QB to start in a Super Bowl in a very long time. Oh, and Dominic Rhodes, not Manning, should have been the MVP of that game.