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.
The problem is, King’s words about public service were taken out of context. The parts where he condemned capitalism and railed against materialism were left out. Here’s what King really thought about car commercials, from the same “Drum Major” sermon.
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.
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.
Let’s be honest. This commercial was done for one reason: money. It is the same reason the King estate sold the rights of King’s speech. The same reason Ram ran the ad to sell more trucks. The same reason multiple companies paid $5 million to NBC for 30 seconds of airtime in front of 100 million Super Bowl viewers. The same reason NBC made $500 million on advertising. And the same reason total ad spending over 52 years of Super Bowls is $5.4 billion.
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.