The Coca-Cola-ization of ‘God Bless America’

coca cola

“Whoever controls the information, controls the imagination.”

–George Orwell

“Logic will get you from A to B.  Imagination will take you everywhere.”

–Albert Einstein

“Imagine there’s no countries… It isn’t hard to do….
Nothing to kill or die for…. And no religion too….
Imagine all the people… living life in peace”

–John Lennon

  1. Preludes

“’We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Jefferson wrote in his Declaration of War (better known as “The Declaration of Independence”).  He continued: “…that all men are created equal.”  (Notice he did not write “all men and all women are created equal.”  In thousands of years of “human civilization,” no one had ever thought so!)  He went on to list the “inalien”-babble-babble “rights” that “all men” were “endowed” with; viz.: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Of course, everyone in “the People’s Congress” knew what “life” was, but what, exactly, did the best “writer” among them mean by “liberty”?  Or, even more puzzling, what did he imply by “the pursuit of happiness”?  Was there universal agreement about such matters?  Did anyone demur?  Not even Patrick Henry, who had set the stage for revolution a year earlier, declaring “Give me liberty, or give me death!”

No one questioned Jefferson’s prose.  He was considered one of the smartest men in the assembly–highly educated in the Law!  Also, at 33, he was one of the richest men in the colonies (with almost as many slaves as George Washingtonmore to do his bidding and keep the plantation humming)–thanks to his own inheritance and his marriage to his smart, attractive, wealthy wife, Martha.  Older, probably wiser, men like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin helped hone the language of the final draft (they’re rarely credited) and the document passed unanimously.  The cannons fired in celebrations, the flags were raised…and the war began….

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine would write a few years later, while surveying the spoils and carnage at Valley Forge.  “The summer soldier, and sunshine patriot, will in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country.  But, he who serves it now, deserves the love and honor of men and women.”

Great words!  Beautiful words!  Poetic words that I learned by heart in my early teens.

A little later, in my mid-teens, I began to wonder: “Why?”

Also: “Why is the textbook, we’re required to read in my 12th-grade “Social Studies” class in Miami Beach,  Florida… why is it titled, ‘Communism vs. Democracy’?  Shouldn’t we keep the genres consistent?  Shouldn’t the book be called, ‘Communism vs. Capitalism’?  Or–based on all the implications I’d already read in the book–‘Totalitarianism vs. Democracy’?”  I did not ask my “Social Studies” teacher….  He did not encourage such questions!

Had I ventured a bit further down Education’s “Yellow-Brick Road,” I might have tidied my question with a little quote by Albert E.:

“A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space.”
If the teacher had not gawked by then, I would have continued:

“He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.”

And, Albert’s crucial denoument:

“Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

In fact, I had a growing and gnawing awareness of Einstein’s “prison” of “delusion” from a much earlier time….

  1. Changing “facts” and hidden “truths”

“If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.” –Albert Einstein

     I was 11…. We had just seen an amusing and touching movie called “Calamity Jane.”  I felt I had learned a little about the way “big people” loved.  I liked Calamity’s transformation from roughneck-rebel character, wearing funny, masculine cowboy clothes, to a sweet woman.  And Doris Day’s rendition of “Once I Had a Secret Love” kept playing in my head.

Now, Mom was treating my younger brother and sister and me to a favorite neighborhood Deli meal of corned beef, rye bread, French fries and either Coke or Pepsi.  (A small glass of Coke was 15 cents, and Pepsi was 12!  That day we splurged–Cokes all around!)

It was a pleasant evening, and we could walk through our middle-class neighborhood, up the big hill (especially “big” for children!), walking back to “home-sweet-home.”  There was no thought about “safety.”  I had learned about “our friend, the policeman” in the first-grade.  Occasionally, we would hear the horse clopping on the street, and the cop in the saddle would nod his smiling greeting.

I was surprised, a few days later, when my friend, Alan, started talking down “Coca-Cola.”

“It’s got cocaine in it!” he averred.  “And all kinds of stuff!”

“What’s cocaine?” I wondered….

“It’ll make you high,” he averred again.

“You mean ‘taller’?  It’ll make me taller?”

He laughed.  “If you wanna be taller, get some stilts!”  He looked at me with the hauteur of one who was 6 months older!  “Look,” he said, amicably, “it’s got all kinds of junk in it…and we don’t even know what’s in it!  The formula’s locked away!  It’s at Fort Knox or someplace like that!”

“I heard it has a lot of sugar,” our friend, Judy, chimed in.

“What’s wrong with sugar?” I wondered.  “Isn’t that in ice-cream?… My father puts it in his coffee!”

“It’ll make you fat!” Alan said.

“It can give you cancer!” Judy averred.  Her father was a doctor.  We stared in awe….

But… I didn’t understand!

How could we live in a world like that?  A world where someone could sing like Doris Day about her “secret love” and a world where we couldn’t trust our government to tell us the truth about what we were eating and drinking?

It would be a few more years before I discovered Socrates:

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new!”

Such views were anathema to his fellow Athenians who sentenced the barefoot, “hippy”-street-philosopher to death.  Socrates took the sentencing cum grano salis.  Perhaps he’d meet Achilles in the underworld! he told his friends–those who wanted to help him flee….

“Hope springs eternal in the human heart,” the poet, Pope, would write millennia later….

  1. Where Are We Now?

Some 14 weeks into my 26-weeks’ visit to Japan, I heard about “another mass-shooting in Texas.”  Another one?  The reporting on You Tube was matter-of-fact, almost blasé.

I reflected on my first week’s revelation: walking back and main streets of a middle-class suburb of Tokyo–the world’s most populous city–I felt safe and at-ease.  I could barely speak the language, but I felt courtesy, even respect, from those who nodded to me–young and old.

I could detect curiosity in the eyes above the still ubiquitous Covid-preventing face-masks; but it was always polite curiosity.

Quite a difference from decades before–when I had taught English at a Japanese college (later, a university) in Sapporo.  Walking down a familiar street one day, a little later than usual, I passed boys from the junior high-school, playing in the schoolyard.  One of them sighted me, and he pointed at me and called to his companions: Gaijin-ga! 

     “Gaijin” (foreigner) was understandable.  But the “ga!” was exclamatory–not meant in a unique way, but in a very peculiar way!  Soon, scores of young teens were standing at the linked fence, staring, and pointing and wondering: What a world! 

     Since those days, Japan has accelerated through its “Roaring 90s” when it had a decade of phenomenal economic growth and world-wide attention, to a much slower pace of growth, an aging and declining population and growing awareness of its own vulnerability in a rapidly changing Asia.  (North Korea is nuclear and China challenges US hegemony in the Pacific and Asia.  After the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan swore off nuclear weapons over 7 decades ago.  The U.S. maintains a “defense force” on the southern island of Okinawa, but, on the world stage, Japan consistently advocates for peace.

A short time after the most recent “Texas mass-shooting,” I was surprised to read of the number of deaths by gunfire in 2017: in the U.S. there had been 15,000; in Japan, there had been 3!  (A little later, I would learn that the U.S. had surpassed its dismal 2017 annual record by May of 2023!)

At the airport in Tokyo, I had noted the police scattered here and there at different stations, surveying the arriving passengers–Japanese and foreigners.  No hostility, no threats; just careful scrutinizing.  And all the officers had holstered pistols.  No sight of an automatic rifle.

Firearms are outlawed in Japan.

I thought fleetingly, regrettably, of an article I had posted at a couple of fine sites 4 years earlier: “Republicrats: Begin Anew!  Fix Infrastructure!  Work Together on Two Crises Now: The Porous US Border and Archaic Gun Laws!”  Had our politicians and mass-media mouthpieces lost the arts of inquiry and debate?

  1. What Next?

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely,

according to my conscience, above all other liberties.”

–John Milton

 

So….  The master poet of Paradise Lost had answered Jefferson’s conundrum about “liberty” centuries before the lawyer had proposed it!

One of the great shocks of my mid-teens was the President’s assassination.  My children-of-immigrants’ parents–my Sicilian-Catholic father was cynical about the US political system and politicians and newsmen (they were almost always “men” back then); my Ukrainian-Jewish mom had been an ardent fan of F.D.R. in her teens but had changed with time and circumstances and had voted for Nixon.  I was too young to vote, and I didn’t know whom to trust anyway!

I came to like Kennedy better as his first term evolved and the Vietnam War unraveled.  I especially liked him after an interview he gave the foremost newsman of his time–Walter Cronkite.  In that interview, he had asserted that he did not think it necessary for American boys to do the fighting Asian boys should do!  He was determined to withdraw American forces from Vietnam as soon as possible.

I don’t believe there was any mention of that interview in the “Warren Report” that, theoretically, examined the “what” and “why” of what had happened on November, 22, 1963.

“A road not taken”!

Neither was there much ado, much probing, of “lone assassin” Oswald’s complaint that he was a “patsy,” i.e., that he had been “set up.”  Jack Ruby’s bullet found him before he had a chance to “spill the beans” about whom–or, what agency–had set him up.

A few years before those speculating days, I had read Jim Bishop’s excellent book, “The Day Lincoln Was Shot.”  I recalled that Boothe, jumping off the balcony where he had just exploded Lincoln’s brains, landing on stage, had pompously and theatrically declared to the baffled and terrified Ford’s Theater audience: “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Thus, always to tyrants!”)

What a difference!  A famous actor’s proud declamation after his heinous act vs. a confused, young man’s confession; viz., “I’m a patsy!”  (I’ve been used!)

I don’t believe anyone has reflected much on the discrepancies and curiosities during the past 60 years of undisclosed documents….

(One of the few to break the mold has been our national/international anti-war hero, Oliver Stone–journalist, commentator, movie director.  Another intrepid inquirer was the journalist, Dorothy Kilgallen.  We learn more about her courage and persistence day by day.  The mysterious circumstances of her premature death still need to be examined.  As does the death of Marilyn Monroe…and too many others!)

So many questions…and so little time!  Time may be our ally… Time may be our adversary…. Time is what we work against…or work with.

I was appalled during the Kavanaugh hearing to choose a new Supreme Court Justice.  A confused, and confusing, female “witness” testified before Congress about Kavanaugh’s questionable behavior towards females during his high-school days!  After a male colleague of Hawaii’s Senator Hirano objected to the “witness’s” cloudy memory, Ms. Hirano haughtily declared: “Men should sit down and shut up!”

Did I hear that correctly?  What was the first article of our Constitution again?  Freedom of speech?  Or was it, “Sit down and shut up!”?

  1. Where does this end?

Back to the beginning….  When “I was young and easy under the apple boughs, and happy as the day was long, the night above the dingle starry….”

Back to the pristine days when one could wonder at the magnificence of a Shakespearean sonnet, a Dylan Thomas poem, a van Gogh painting, a deaf, “9th Symphony” composer.  One could wonder, one could ask questions and explore…and. the best teachers, the best guides, were happy to explore the world with such seekers.

Can we get beyond the “mind-forged manacles” of our present molded and moldy world?

My parents were high-school graduates who had learned the basic skills–“reading, writing, arithmetic” — and, also, they felt they had a right to question–their teachers, political leaders, religious leaders, et. al.  Back then, in a public high school, students studied “rhetoric,” the ancient art of oratory, such as Cicero had mastered).  They could join debate teams, and argue persuasively (or not) before their teachers, classmates, family, et. al.

In the early ‘50’s, on our big-box-very-small-screen-black-and-white TV, we’d watch stout, but hardy, Kate Smith, perform Irving Berlin’s 1938 classic, “God Bless America!”  (With the “war-spirit” stomping across Europe, Berlin had revised a manuscript he had ferreted away, hopeful in the mounting crisis that he could inspire gratitude, light and courage in his countrymen to avoid the scourge of war, to cherish the blessings of peace.

Decades later, “the 2nd American anthem” would be banned from the NBA’s televised play-offs!  I needed to digest that!  It was okay for the kids to watch grown men dribble basketballs around a court, making millions of dollars for such consummate dribbling, but, God forbid they should hear a song with the words “God bless” in it!

And, a few years down the Beatles’ “long and winding road,” we have teachers’ unions assuring our compliant news media that teachers know what is best for their students when they present “drag-queen shows” to fourth and fifth graders; furthermore: “bigoted” or “ignorant” or “religious” parents have no right to complain!

And, one phrase echoes through the labyrinths of absurdities!  The phrase of a silly mayor who insisted that the BLM riots in cities across the U.S., the riots incinerating cities, destroying livelihoods for thousands–blacks and whites and whomever–killing scores of innocents were, in fact, merely a “summer of love.”

And I recalled the first time I’d heard and read that phrase, back in 1967.  One of the semi-credible “news” sources back then–Time or Newsweek– had a picture of “hippies”–young people “with flowers in their hair,” heading for a music festival in Woodstock, Vermont.

The following year, the “summer of love” would be stained by the blood of innocents–victims of a crazed hippy cult-leader named Charles Manson, whose manic, dribbling followers scribbled “Kill the pigs!” across the walls of their victims’ homes, in the blood of the victims–young and old–whom they had tortured, mutilated, and killed….

  1. Being True To One Another, Giving Praise and Truthful Witness

Contemplating his own raucous and divided times, poet and critic Mathew Arnold–one of Britain’s best–spent some 20 years writing and re-writing his most famous poem, “Dover Beach.”  (For serious artists, meaning, impressions [as in “Impressionism”], rhythms [of words, brush-strokes, music], timing [including the best time to interact with peers and audience] –all are consciously and sub-consciously worthy of consideration.)

How would the imperial wars between the European super-powers end?  More revolutions and interventions in the colonies, more royalty guillotined?  The rhythm of the waves on England’s “Dover Beach” evokes in Arnold a sound great Sophocles must have heard, striding along the Aegean Sea a couple of thousand years before:

  “… the turbid ebb and flow
  Of human misery…”

How shall we transient beings respond–then and now?

“The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full…”

   Arnold laments….  But, centuries of religious wars, scientific and commercial “advancements,” and the “Sea of Faith” has been waning and draining.

Arnold’s considered solution is simple, timeless and profound:

 “Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

     I.e.: Begin where we are, with those with whom we’re interacting.  Recognize the delusions, and seek to rectify.  Understand: “recognition” is the first step in cognition.  Recognize differences, and seek to reconcile.  Recognize wounds and seek to heal.  In Martin Buber’s words, recognize and respect: “I And Thou.”

Show respect for those caught up in “a land of dreams.”  To those of different generations, time-zones, races, genders: recognize the difficulties–the “confused alarms of struggle and flight” — and, “let us be true” –to ourselves, to those we “love,” to those we would teach, and from whom we would learn.

In my teaching days–at a high school in Massachusetts, a junior high in San Francisco, colleges in Georgia and Japan, universities in Florida and Japan, and voluntary prison work in Florida, I relished the opportunity to teach a little etymology to those who wondered about the meaning of it all.

I’d write the word “education” on the blackboard.  (Yeah–chalk and blackboards way back then!)  “The root of the word is ducere — pronounced do-kerr-ay,” I’d explain.  “Meaning, ‘to lead–like aqueduct, etc. And ‘e’ or ‘ex’ means out.  So, ‘education’ means ‘to lead out…’ To lead out of darkness, out of ignorance…to greater understanding.  That’s the challenge.  Can we assist others and ourselves to meet that challenge?”

Artists have been grappling with these problems since Jacob wrestled with the Angel: Sophocles in his dramas, Robert Frost in his homespun poems:

     “Men work together, I told him from the heart,

      Whether they work together or apart.”

 Auden put it precisely and beautifully in his poem honoring Yeats in war-torn Ireland:

   In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
   Teach the free man how to praise.

     “Teach the free man how to praise.”   The best poems, the best words, the best works of Art resound in our minds and hearts and can guide us through the labyrinths of deception….

Aristotle put it in a nutshell: “Literature is a form of art whose purpose is to describe, represent, or comment upon a value, event, or experience through the imaginative use of language.”

Too-often emulated, too-rarely matched, Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran wrote in “The Prophet”… some of the best thoughts about inquiring, teaching, learning and sharing:

On Giving   Kahlil Gibran – 1883-1931

Then said a rich man, Speak to us of Giving.
And he answered:      You give but little when you give of your possessions.
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give….

There are those who give little of the much which they have—
and they give it for recognition
and their hidden desire makes their gifts unwholesome….

There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward….

And there are those who give and know not pain in giving,
nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue;
They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space….

 It is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked, through understanding….

See first that you yourself deserve to be a giver, and an instrument of giving.
For, in truth, it is life that gives unto life….

Gary Corseri has taught in US public schools and prisons, and at US and Japanese universities. His prose and poems have appeared at Countercurrents, Counterpunch, Village Voice, The New York Times, Redbook Magazine, and hundreds of other periodicals and websites.  His dramas have been produced on Atlanta-PBS and elsewhere, and he has performed his work at the Carter Presidential Library and Museum.  His books include novels, and the poetry volume, “Random Descent” (Anhinga Press).  He can be contacted at [email protected].

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