Robert B. Simpson: The pause that outrages

February 9, 2014 

You have to wonder if Coca-Cola did it with malice aforethought. After all, this is a marketing-savvy company, a worldwide business behemoth that has not achieved its status by being dumb. Nor by hiring dumb advertising agencies. And you know what they say: There's no such thing as bad publicity. (If nobody ever actually said that, they should have.) So one might suspect that Coke ran their "America the Beautiful" commercial during the Super Bowl in order to stir up controversy. And publicity.

Regardless of its underlying purpose, the commercial drew the ire of the usual odd mix who consider themselves "True 'Muricans," ready to be outraged at any suggestion that this country might not conform in every respect to their ideas of what it is supposed to be. That is, white, heterosexual, supposedly Christian citizens, speaking an often grammatically ignorant but certifiably American brand of English. Hidden by the supposed anonymity offered by social media, they always come out from under their rocks to hurl venom at whatever annoys them, so it's usually best to ignore them. But it's a little unsettling to realize that there are so many people in this country who have such strange ideas about what their country is made of. You have to wonder how we have stayed afloat so long.

Some were infuriated that "America the Beautiful" was sung in different languages. It should be sung in English, they insisted. Some said American, but I assume they really meant English. Well, I love the English language, one of the richest and most inclusive languages in the world. Much of its richness comes from the fact that it has borrowed from every other language available. In any five minutes of conversation, you are likely using words taken from Arabic, German, French, or other, lesser known, languages. That's what our language is, a hodge-podge (old French), a veritable smorgasbord (Swedish) of flexible, highly nuanced communication elements.

It may be that the angry ones don't mind that we speak a mixture that incorporates bits of other languages so much as it bothers them that the singing in the commercial is presumably done by people who think they actually belong here, so they should be singing in English. Large numbers of these often inarticulate protesters said just that, or some variation of it: "Sing it in English or get out." "If you're going to live here, speak English." A surprising number raged against foreigners sullying "God Bless America," which is not the song they were singing. Even more puzzling was how many were incensed that people were using other languages to sing "our national anthem." Well, if you don't know the difference between "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America," and if you don't know that "America the Beautiful" is not our national anthem, maybe you should leave the defense of our national symbols to those more aware.

I suppose it would come as a huge shock to these folks to learn that great globs of our early citizens spoke German for generations. Nobody got bent out of shape about it. Cincinnati was a mostly German-speaking city for a long time. One or our presidents, born in this country, spoke a different language as a child, and learned English as a second language. Whole settlements in the Southwest were Spanish-speakers. I could go on, but the people who need to know this are not listening and would likely not be convinced if they were.

It's a shame that, in a country that has stood from its earliest days for freedom, live-and-let-live, and solid individuality, there are such numbers of people today who have a shrunken, sour, twisted outlook. Who think one of our most beautiful musical symbols ought to be reserved for just those of us who are the right kind of people, their kind.

Well, I don't consider myself to be their kind, nor do I want to be. Because if this is the type of citizens we're producing, we're shrinking in spirit instead of growing. But then, maybe this country will survive even such as these. After all, it survived all those folks who, unable to converse in the purity of our American (English) language, spoke German and French and Spanish and Dutch. And Cherokee and Choctaw and Chippewa.Und so weiter. Oops, sorry, I mean and so forth.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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