Between & Beyond: Coke

During the recent Super Bowl, Coca-Cola ran an ad in which the song “America The Beautiful” was sung in several different languages. The next day, a bunch of blogs reported on the fact that a heinous flood of response showed up on Twitter after the commercial aired. I guess one should not use Twitter as an entirely accurate barometer of the cultural climate, but it’s hard not to be shocked and dismayed that this kind of response could be present at all in 2014. Either way, many tweets started with something like, “I’m not racist, but…” and then, of course, continued on to express something incredibly racist. The craziest part of all this for me though was the fact that many of the tweets contained a sentiment of protest. Many were fed up with Coca-Cola claiming they were done with this once great American company after this unspeakable act of multiculturalism.

I found this notion to be the most frustrating of all. Over the years, I have come across many reasons to hate Coca-Cola, but none of them have been racist. This notion, this narrative that we tell ourselves about corporations being American is becoming increasingly untrue, and really may have never been true because it’s always been so hard to pin down what is exactly American in the first place. But I am still astounded by the way people choose to organize their thought, placing fellow human beings as the enemy and calculated systems of control and extortion as part of some sort of American pantheon.

I’m not into Coca-Cola first and foremost because it’s just gross. The overconsumption of soda is linked to all kinds of health problems including diabetes and obesity. These two ailments reached epidemic status in America a long while ago. To perpetuate the unhealthy habits of Americans might be considered un-American, but such debates about self-destructive behavior leads to the infinite recursive chicken or egg blame game. So, let’s forget that for the most part. I don’t think Coca-Cola is to blame for a lack of self-control in its customers.

But here’s the thing: High-fructose corn syrup goes beyond the realm of health concerns and into the realm of geopolitics. Coca-Cola is a multinational corporation. So is Monsanto which one could and should assume is the main force behind the corn-related products we consume. How either of these companies can be considered “American” considering the neo-colonial practices of global corporations is beyond me. Coca-Cola operates on a franchise model. The syrup comes from a main source but independent bottling plants operate around the world. This allows the company to reap the benefits of cheap labor and resources in developing foreign countries.

The controversies surrounding these global operations are numerous and deplorable. In India, Coca-Cola plants have been robbing neighbors of drinking water and farming water by simply overusing the resource and causing droughts. Other issues have included a pollution of the water table due to improper management of wastewater from the plants. In Columbia, it was even worse. Workers at a bottling plant were smart enough to be unionized. The accusations have maintained that paramilitary groups were hired to intimidate and break up the unions, which led to the deaths of five workers and a fire that burned down the union building.

So, there are plenty of reasons to protest and boycott Coca-Cola. The problem is that highlighting the diversity of America is not one of them. Granted, it’s merely an empty marketing gesture that backfired, but it becomes a strange example of our lost way in the world of symbolic façade. Coke tried to put on some kind of compassionate multicultural mask. A slice of the public (hopefully narrow) became upset because it ran counter to their preconceived notions regarding what America truly is. Those notions are founded on some kind of non-deliberate PR campaign launched by the American power structure. Meaning, it’s a myth that has infected our perspective like a virus, but I don’t think anyone deliberately wrote it. It’s something the power structure tells itself to justify itself. It’s a myth about how America belongs to white wealthy heritage and everyone else has been getting in the way. And, if you look down at your forearms and see white skin, well, by god, you should be wealthy and powerful too, but unfortunately, all these other people have been getting in your way: immigrants and terrorists and whatnot. This is ironic considering the common slander against social programs is naming them entitlement programs, when racism and xenophobia is largely built on this sense of white entitlement.

The ultimate irony and disease of this perspective is that the wealthy and powerful have always depended on the exploitation of the other in order to create their wealth and power. They turn around and call themselves “self-made men” and rugged individualist entrepreneurs, neglecting the interconnectedness of reality. To be truly American is to consider the native tribes who haunt this country, to consider the Africans who built the wealth of the South, to consider the Chinese who built the Pacific railroads, to consider the Irish and Italian and Jewish immigrants who built the city that became the financial capital of the world. America has always been a story we tell ourselves. Some tell it better than others.