Coca Cola and American Exceptionalism

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Some happy Americans partaking in a favorite American pastime – drinking Coke out of a glass bottle.

Every once in a while, an embarrassing controversy arises on America’s airwaves. It usually starts on social media, makes its way into the headlines, and soon enough, commentators and politicians are adding to the noise. This time around, the controversy was sparked by Coca Cola’s “It’s Beautiful” ad, which premiered during the Superbowl and by now probably has tens of millions of views across the internet. For those of you who haven’t yet seen this touching piece of marketing, the controversy is that the ad features “America the Beautiful” being sung in seven different languages.

But here I am, contributing to this controversy by having and voicing an opinion about it. Don’t worry: I have no interest in trying to get you to either boycott Coke or go out and buy a few cases of it. This post has nothing to do with America’s favorite soft drink, and everything to do with a popular cultural myth. (For the record, I prefer Coke over Pepsi and beer over Coke).

The root of this controversy is the widely held belief in American Exceptionalism – that the United States is set apart from all other nations, superior to them all, and on a global scale, viewed as an example of political and cultural righteousness. The language of Exceptionalism pervades our political rhetoric, but most serious academics scoff at it as a kind of American mythology. Both sides of the Coke controversy are representing two aspects of Exceptionalism – which is why no one is right here. Except Coke, who is getting all of this free publicity.

One of the tweets that surfaced after the ad premiered, criticizing it, said something along the lines of “Being an American is an honor.” I actually laughed out loud at this one. While being an American could be considered a privilege, it is certainly not an honor, especially for those of us who just happened to be born here. Native born, English-speaking Americans did nothing to earn their citizenship. The United States, like many other countries, is a place where some people are born and others move to. It is not an accomplishment.

But the other side of American exceptionalism, which is also the other side of this controversy, is also problematic. Coke’s sentiment here is really tempting – I’m proud to be an American, and I’d rather live in a country that’s diverse than one that’s not. But just because people speak a variety of languages, honor their ethnic customs, and drink Coke doesn’t mean that the United States is inherently better than any other country. Our nation’s diversity is just one of those things that makes us different from others, just like another country’s ethnic homogeneity makes them different from us. Like people, every nation is unique, and, as with people, uniqueness does not indicate superiority.

America is different, just like Somalia, India, and the Philippines. And America is beautiful, just like Somalia, India, and the Philippines. We have neither right nor reason to think that we’re somehow inherently better than them.