Thursday, April 24, 2008

I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony


Once, in a small idyllic town in the Rocky Mountains, I built a mini-mountain of Coca-Cola cans in the office where I worked. The Co’ Cola mountain, three cans high, filled a book shelf. Once the mountain grew too large, I’d collapse the cans, then bag them for recycling. You like Coke? students often asked, ironically, and the answer, of course, was that I did. I drank two or more cans a day. Sucked in those high-fructose-corn-syrup calories as if without them the sky would go gray, the hems of my pants would unravel, my spine would curve under every one of life’s burdens.

Hyperbolic, sure, but as a child I learned to love Coca-Cola. Via marketing, I was weaned on the idea that to give the world a Coke was to give the world peace. That famous ad campaign inspired an impressionable altar boy with a tendency toward sentimental utopian ideals. And even if as an adult I no longer believed in or even yearned for utopias, or thought much about the relationship between Coca-Cola and world peace, I was already hooked on the good feelings I got from inside that little twelve ounce can.

Sparkles. Taste. Caffeine. Harmony. Sugar. Peace.

Meanwhile, a few students on campus at the University of Montana were arguing – with gusto – that the university’s administration ought to abandon an exclusive contract that made Coca-Cola UM’s go-to soft-drink provider. The reason? Intimations that Coca-Cola had something to do with the violent repression (possibly including murder) of union organizers in Colombia. At the time, I was teaching a course in which we explored Colombia’s recent and doleful history, and I could find nothing that showed a direct link between my drinking Coke and the deaths of Colombian union workers. In fact, much of what the students had to say seemed fuzzy, loose with facts. Moreover, Colombia is a complicated country; there is blood-guilt to be shared among all who tote guns, be they leftist guerillas or rightwing paramilitaries or government forces funded in part by the United States under Clinton or Bush. In truth, my responsibility for Colombian violence has more to do with my taxes than my Coca-Cola habit.

But I gave up Coke eventually, for health reasons. High fructose corn syrup, the primary sweetener in Coke, is like long-term poison for diabetics, and given that diabetes runs in my family, and that I have blood-sugar problems already, it seemed wise to abandon Coca-Cola. So I did. About that same time, Coca-Cola came out with a new product, Coke Zero, which has no sugar, no high fructose corn syrup, no nothing. I think, basically, that it tastes like watered down Coke. My red castle of cans became a black castle of cans.

But now I’ve been reading about the Chinese government’s response to protests in and about occupied Tibet, how the Chinese recently tried to trade weapons with Robert Mugabe’s violent and illegitimate government in Zimbabwe. And I know how China has generally worked to support the government in Sudan, which continues to allow the genocide of people in Darfur. And the Chinese government is about to stage the Olympic games. And Coca-Cola is the top sponsor of the Olympic Games in Beijing.

I’m troubled by these connections. At the same time, I’m impressed by the protest of a Japanese manufacturer of iron shots, who will not allow his work to be used in the shot put event at these Olympics. It is a small protest, really, his, but a worthwhile one.

Coca-Cola argues in an op-ed piece published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that its role in sponsoring the Olympics is legitimate, that the Olympics ought to be immune from politics, that we all ought to take a chill pill and stop worrying about people dying or being unjustly imprisoned until after the games. Coca-Cola argues that we ought to stop worrying about its role as a sponsor for these Olympics and concentrate on the company’s good works intended to make the world a better place, to bring that perfect harmony a bunch of baby boomers on a hilltop sang about in 1971, and which a six-year-old boy listened to, believing.

But if I still believe in the hope of perfect harmony, of friendship, my course is clear. I’m not buying Coca-Cola’s arguments, and I’m not buying Coke Zero. Mine is a small protest, one that means far less than that of the Japanese manufacturer of shot puts. I’ve no illusions that one person’s boycott of Coca-Cola products changes anything. But I’m going ahead with it anyway.

I think, as the song says, it’s what the world wants today.

3 comments:

man of few words said...

You were an alter boy?

Downs said...

Actually, an altar boy. I might also have been an alter boy. Is that like a changeling? Or a boy with an alter ego? Was Batman's Robin an alter boy? Thank God I wasn't an altered boy.

I had alter egos. Especially on Halloween when I might dress as the Lone Ranger or the Phantom Rider. Phantom Rider."The World's Most Mysterious Western Hero." He used to be called the Ghost Rider. All in white, with a cape and a horse and a six shooter. He haunted the old American West in the pages of Marvel Comics.

I hope you don't mind that I riffed on the typo. All in fun. Thanks for noticing the blog.

man of few words said...

It's all good. Is there anything more depressing than a 'man of few words' who can't spell? I think not.