A Country Without a Heart
In 1972, Kurt Vonnegut covered the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach for Harper’s Magazine and wrote an essay about the experience, “In a Manner That Must Shame God Himself.”
According to Charles Shields, who wrote “And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life,” the title of the essay came from a flyer Vonnegut noticed that a group of Native Americans from various tribes were distributing at the convention. Part of the flyer read: “We come today in such a manner that must shame God himself. For a country that allows a complete body of people to exist in conditions which are at variance with the ideals of this country, conditions which daily commit injustices and inhumanity, must surely be filled with hate, greed, and unconcern.”
The same could be said about present-day America. In fact, during his reporting almost 50 years ago, Vonnegut, a master of irony, made another keen observation that applies today: “If I were a visitor from another planet, I would say … the two real political parties in America are the Winners and the Losers. The people do not acknowledge this. They claim membership in two imaginary parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, instead. Both imaginary parties are bossed by Winners. When Republicans battle Democrats, this much is certain: Winners will win.”
Vonnegut suggested that the “Winners’ scheme … for lasting world peace” was simple: “Ignore agony.”
Martin Luther King Jr. brought agony to the attention of the world. On Sunday, King’s words from a sermon he gave on Feb. 4, 1968, “The Drum Major Instinct,” were used for a Ram truck commercial during Super Bowl 52.
If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. … [B]y giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great. … You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.
Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff. … And I got to drive this car because it’s something about this car that makes my car a little better than my neighbor’s car. … And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America.
King explained the perils of consumerism: “It is the drum major impulse [a desire to be out front, lead the parade, be first] and longing that runs the gamut of human life. And so we see it everywhere, this quest for recognition. And we join things, overjoin really, that we think that we will find that recognition in.”
Co-opting a legacy tends to be the wrong thing to do. But co-opting the legacy of King, a human rights icon, as a car salesman, that appropriation is about as low as it goes. And criticism of the commercial reflected the tone-deafness of the whole idea.
Dodge’s exploitative Super Bowl ad took the substance of Dr. King’s speech – which warned against excessive materialism – and turned it inside out to advance its brand.
— Public Citizen (@Public_Citizen) February 5, 2018
Did you seriously just appropriate Martin Luther King to sell some pickup trucks?
— Tommy Fleetwood Politics Appreciator (@willbardwell) February 5, 2018
How did they recognize black history month in the ad? What history about us did you see?
— whatUdoing (@idamaepeep) February 5, 2018
MLK wanted equal rights and for me to buy a Dodge Ram #SuperBowl
— Ja’han Jones (@_Jahan) February 5, 2018
Not sure MLK’s dream was to drive a Dodge Ram.
— ItsTheReal (@itsthereal) February 5, 2018
Black people cant kneel and play football but MLK should be used to sell trucks during the super bowl. Unbelievable.
— Akilah Hughes (@AkilahObviously) February 5, 2018
Despite the blowback, the Martin Luther King Jr. estate approved the final product from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles U.S., the parent company of Ram, before it aired. “Once the final creative was presented for approval, it was reviewed to ensure it met our standard integrity clearances,” Eric D. Tidwell, the managing director of Intellectual Properties Management, the licenser of the estate, said in a statement, according to The New York Times. “We found that the overall message of the ad embodied Dr. King’s philosophy that true greatness is achieved by serving others.”
Fiat Chrysler defended the polarizing commercial after it aired. “It is 50 years to the day that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave such a tremendous speech about the value of service. Ram was honored to have the privilege of working with the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. to celebrate those words during the largest TV viewing event annually. We worked closely with the representatives of the Martin Luther King Jr. estate to receive the necessary approvals and estate representatives were a very important part of the creative process every step of the way.”
The goal was to celebrate King during Black History Month, and the ad may have been produced with the best of intentions. But in the history of bad ideas, no amount of explanation can deny that this commercial went against everything King stood for and was a colossal fail.
The winner in every NFL game is corporate America. Professional sports are an extended advertising campaign and investment venture.
In America, the almighty dollar rules. Having a social conscience is not part of the business model for most companies. But as the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow, more people and communities are suffering. Some people make more money in a year than others make in a lifetime, while still others must work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. According to the AFL-CIO labor union, leaders of S&P 500 companies made 347 times more than average workers in 2016, “up from 41-to-1 in 1983,” Bloomberg reports. A 2017 Economic Policy Institute report found that in 2016 “CEOs in America’s largest firms made an average of $15.6 million in compensation, or 271 times the annual average pay of the typical worker.”
All of that wealth is translating into iniquity, not a better or more just country. Extreme poverty has returned to the United States, with over 12 percent of Americans, or 43 million people, living below the poverty threshold. In 2016, according to the USDA, over 12 percent of U.S. households, or 16 million people, were food insecure. “Millions of working Americans don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” National Geographic reports.
Martin Luther King fought to end the three evils of racism, poverty and militarism. But America has exacerbated them and created a state of perpetual inequality. That oppression is why NFL players took a knee over the past 18 months—to raise awareness of social injustice and police brutality. Even if fewer NFL players are making public protests (no players from the Philadelphia Eagles or New England Patriots took a knee during the playing of the national anthem for Super Bowl 52), the NFL player protests still matter.
As NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian, the struggle for equal rights continues, and the message needs to be heard:
[L]et’s stop gunning down unarmed blacks, stop giving substandard education to black children, stop creating legal obstacles to keep minorities from voting, stop passing laws that punish blacks more than whites for doing the same crime. Instead, promote equal job opportunities so we can prosper and affordable health care to prevent us from dying younger than whites. Bottom line: We want our children to have the same shot at a happy, healthy, successful life that white kids have. Sappy patriotic songs and deliberately inaccurate textbooks proclaim we already have it, but hundreds of studies by the U.S. government, the United Nations and best institutions in America say we don’t. And every African-American who walks out onto the street every day knows we don’t. The goal then is to wake those who don’t know that out of their cozy slumber.
That is why the Ram truck Super Bowl commercial with a Martin Luther King sermon presented such a disconnect.
Fifty years ago, King sounded the alarm. “The Drum Major Instinct” sermon—the same sermon Ram used to sell trucks—offered a prescient warning about the growing U.S. empire and America Inc.:
But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. “I must be first.” “I must be supreme.” “Our nation must rule the world.” And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.
God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now. God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.
But God has a way of even putting nations in their place. The God that I worship has a way of saying, “Don’t play with me.” He has a way of saying, as the God of the Old Testament used to say to the Hebrews, “Don’t play with me, Israel. Don’t play with me, Babylon. Be still and know that I’m God. And if you don’t stop your reckless course, I’ll rise up and break the backbone of your power.” And that can happen to America. Every now and then I go back and read Gibbons’ ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.’ And when I come and look at America, I say to myself, the parallels are frightening. And we have perverted the drum major instinct.
America is in trouble. The status quo is not working for many citizens. It’s time for the “haves”—businesses and individuals with resources to burn—to start thinking about how they can help the “have nots” through service and love. People and businesses can do well and do good, but the clock is ticking.
Our current predicament can be summed up by a poem Vonnegut wrote in “A Man Without a Country”:
The crucified planet Earth,
should it find a voice
and a sense of irony,
might now well say
of our abuse of it,
“Forgive them, Father,
They know not what they do.”
The irony would be
that we know what
we are doing.
When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
from the floor of the Grand Canyon,
“It is done.”
People did not like it here.
The for-profit-at-any-cost mentality is killing America. Our country is at its breaking point. All oppressed people in America need to put all their differences aside and come together to demand equal rights from the oppressors—so we can create a new America from our old America.
True “resistance” starts with an anti-war foundation. As Glen Ford from Black Agenda Report explains: War is the “means of imperial survival and justification for its continued existence: the how and the why of empire.”
No anti-war, no justice. Anything less than fighting to reel in the U.S. war machine is political theater.
America and Americans need to stop playing. Winning has nothing to do with money, cars or material things. The true measure of success is positive action. Anyone who cares can start by selling peace for free.
Or we may look back at Martin Luther King selling Ram trucks during the Super Bowl as the tipping point for the U.S. empire.