By Dennis Riley
Coca Cola is not normally thought of as a company that sets people’s teeth on edge with bold or provocative commercials. But Coke’s February 2 Super Bowl ad seemed to have teeth on edge, noses out of joint, and knickers in a twist, all at once. It is hard to know if frenetic activity on Twitter and Facebook really mean widespread concern about something, but the activity was there and so was the commentary from the usual suspects. My turn.
The commercial itself reminded me of all those earnest young folks teaching the world to sing before they shared a Coke. That was 1971 for those of you without a lifetime membership in the Old Farts Club. As the controversy heated up I realized there was a huge difference. In 1971, those beautifully scrubbed faces of so many hues were gathered together on a hillside in Italy, they were wearing their “quaint” native costumes, they were singing an innocuous song written for Coca Cola, they were singing in English – or faking it – and, most of all, they were heading back to their native countries as soon as the filming was done. In the 2014 commercial, they were still pretty attractive people, but they were in dozens of parts of the U.S., they were singing an iconic American song, they were singing it in English – or Arabic, or Spanish, or one of four or five more languages I didn’t catch – and, this time, most of all, they were in their home country. Whether or not it was their native country didn’t seem to matter to them or to the Coca Cola Corporation.
But the reaction and counter reaction took me far from the commercial and landed me smack in the land of irony. Much of the vitriol aimed at that commercial was aimed at the affront caused by singing America the Beautiful in any language other than English. Most of that, in all probability, was driven by anti-immigrant sentiment. The fact that the song itself was written by a Jewish immigrant whose first language was most certainly not English – Russian or Yiddish given his background – is ironic enough. The fact that he wrote it as a tribute to his adopted and adoptive country just compounds that irony. Irving Berlin – Isaiah Belin when he first saw the Statue of Liberty – wrote a lot of other music, from Alexander’s Ragtime Band to White Christmas, but America the Beautiful was always at the top of his own list of favorites because it was a love letter to his country. If you’ll let me count the second generation, there wouldn’t be much to the Great American Songbook without immigration, much of it Jewish. Think Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins, and Harold Arlen, just for starters.
The list of immigrants and the sons and daughters of immigrants who changed this country is far too long to recite here and sampling from it is sort of like thanking some folks in your Oscar acceptance speech. Still, I’ll plunge on with just a few names. Joe DiMaggio, I.M. Pei, Joseph Pulitzer, Felix Frankfurter, John Muir, Madeline Albright, and Mother Francis X. Cabrini. OK, Joe was born in the San Francisco Bay area shortly after his father came to the United States, but a baseball fan is a baseball fan. The rest were born elsewhere and came here to accomplish incredible things. The beat still goes on as Satya Nadella – native of India, graduate of UW Milwaukee – takes over at Microsoft and Jan Koum – the Ukranian immigrant who 20 years ago was receiving food stamps – counts his billions from the sale of What’sAp to Facebook.
I am painfully aware that the history of immigration in this country is anything but uniformly rosy. After WWII the U.S. Government helped rocket scientist Werner von Braun cover up his Nazi past so that he could emigrate to the country and take over our fledgling rocket program. (And provide the model for Dr. Strangelove.) He brought a number of his “team” with him and we helped them cover up whatever connection they might have had to Hitler as well. The Irish were good for building the railroad tracks that would reach Promontory Point from the East, just as the Chinese were good for laying the tracks that would reach that spot in Utah from the West. After that point we weren’t so welcoming to either group. We filled store windows and newspaper ads with No Irish Need Apply, and went a step further with the Chinese Exclusion Act which banned further Chinese immigration. We made a self-appointed anthropologist rich with his book Are Italians Black or White? We vilified Catholics and though we may have hummed Irving Berlin’s tunes, there were plenty of hotels in the country that would have refused him a room.
In the end, we welcomed some folks we shouldn’t have and we mistreated many we should have welcomed. But our history is still one of remarkable immigrant success and we ought to begin right now the process of building on that success. Immigration reform is integral to economic growth and to social justice. People are already here doing things from changing diapers and hanging drywall to running convenience stores and starting software companies. We need to recognize their contributions, celebrate their diverse backgrounds, and pave the way for the next generation of immigrants.
Hell. Maybe we ought to buy each one of them a Coke.
Enough out of me.