Last year, the Super Bowl was greatly enhanced by the “God Made a Farmer” commercial by Dodge Ram trucks. The year before that, it was “Halftime in America” from Chrysler. This year, however, was a controversial ad by Coke, presenting the song “America the Beautiful” in multiple languages while showing various people in cultural dress and customs. It was, of course, artistic. But it was also worrisome, possibly even offensive.
I posted my first reaction to Facebook, saying: "America the Beautiful" should always be sung in English. Period.
At the heart of the matter are two "isms"–Nationalism and Multiculturalism. I always tell my history students to pay special attention to "isms".
Nationalism is generally considered to be pride in one’s country. It’s carries a sense of national identity, and is expressed in national symbols like the Washington Monument, documents such as the Gettysburg address, and songs, like "American the Beautiful".
Multiculturalism, on the other hand, is the uncritical acceptance of a variety of cultures, regardless of the success or merits of each. For example, I once had a student studying law enforcement tell me that he would not interfere with a Muslim father’s "right" to kill his daughter under Islamic law, because the practice is their religious belief. (I would venture to say that in that scenario, the daughter might disavow it was *her* belief….) To embrace any and all cultures who wish to join your culture without critical consideration for whether they might line up with the values of the host culture poses a danger to the continuation of the host culture. In this case, the host culture is American, and our core values being democracy (including the Rule of Law) and freedom (including the rights of the individual).
I would content that you cannot have a strong sense of Nationalism when there is unabashed acceptance of multiculturalism. To uncritically embrace sub-cultures within our American culture that hold values, beliefs, or practices at odds with these core principles is to risk American culture’s demise from within. European countries such as England and France have done exactly this, and I believe we are already seeing the potential outcomes play out in Europe right now. The question to ask might be whether Coke was simply reflecting reality–that we have abandoned our nationalism for multiculturalism.
It’s also true that American is comprised of people from many cultures, and that–as one of my Facebook commentators put it–American was "built on the backs" of people from various cultures. I, like perhaps many of our readers, am a self-described ethnic mutt. My Scandinavian, German, and Scotch-Irish great-great-great-great grandparents came to American with their own ethnic customs and languages. Yet, here I am, along with my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, speaking and reading in English. This is because my ancestors (like most American immigrants until very recently) considered it a priority to adapt to their new country. They were proud to be considered "American." Today–and perhaps Coke was only reflecting the reality of our times–the country is attempting to adapt to the immigrants instead.
Some have argued that we have no "official" language in the United States. While this may be true, it is also true that all our founding documents were produced in English. The business of the Revolution was conducted in English. And even today, legislative bills and executive orders and military commands are all produced in English. So it’s safe to say that the official business of the country is done…in English. It follows, then, that the symbols of Nationalism–that is, pride in our country—can reasonable by expected to be done in English. This most certainly includes the National Anthem, and also songs with great meaning to nationalistic pride such as "America the Beautiful."
So the bigger questions, then, raised by this ad are: What does it mean to be an American in 2014? Do we have any one national identity? How can we restore national pride in the face of multiculturalism? These questions, along with many pressing economic issues, will have to be answered soundly if American is to survive. Indeed, it may not be much of a stretch to say that these questions reach at the heart of Western Civilization and its tradition of freedom and democracy.
I would like to thank Coke for one thing. They have produced a terrific conversation-starter for my class later this semester when we discuss Nationalism.