Over the past year and a half in graduate school I’ve developed a much better appreciation of how cultural artifacts and ideas (whether conveyed through books, digital resources, material objects, symbols, and/or oral communication) feed off each other and give life to a social system. The “things” we typically utilize on a regular basis–television, the internet, Starbucks coffee, restaurants, sneakers, our homes, the buildings where we go to school and work, etc.–are cultural artifacts that can tell us much about political power structures, social meanings, and how people in a society construct a reality for themselves. I’ve learned that you really can’t take anything at “face value” without asking how and why an artifact or idea conveys meaning to people, nor can you look at an artifact or idea without asking about the larger context in which the artifact or idea was created. For scholars (especially those in fields like history, anthropology, sociology, literature, and cultural studies), the notion of artifacts and ideas whose meanings are socially constructed is probably not new or ground-breaking. Nevertheless, I would argue that one of the many reasons why the humanities is such an important facet of scholarly study (and why more people need to take the humanities seriously) is that the humanities requires people to ask questions about the very nature of truth, justice, citizenship, and power in society, challenging us to consider not only the possibilities but also the limitations that society puts on us in our capacity for growth as humans.
Even though I’ve watched tons of Super Bowls in the past, I finally realized with this most recent match that the game itself is a valuable cultural artifact that provides insights into American values and society. Indeed, I believe Super Bowl Sunday is perhaps the most “American” of days in the entire calendar, even more so than Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. With the profusion of cable/satellite television, Netflix, and the internet, it’s simply amazing to imagine 111 million people in the United States–roughly one out of every three Americans–sitting down on a couch to engage themselves in one common televised spectacle. What other event on America’s commemorative landscape captures the collective attention of so many people besides the Super Bowl?
The Super Bowl this year was significant to me because it strongly reinforced the fact that this one silly game is perhaps the strongest conveyor of America’s civil religion to rest of the world. To be sure, some scholars assert that there is no such thing as a “civil religion,” but I like Richard T. Hughes’s definition of civil religion, which he describes as the “myths that America lives by . . . by which we affirm the meaning of the United States.” Ritual expressions of patriotism such as the National Anthem, the raising of American flag, and the creation of national monuments and cemeteries, I would argue, all fall under the category of “civil religion” because they purport to tell us through symbols what it means to be an American and instill a nearly religious faith in what we perceive to be “the American way.” Myths function in much the same way in that they purport to tell us stories about the past and who we are today. Wildly one-sided and simplified stories about the Founding Fathers, American wars, or abstract notions of “progress” can also fall into this notion of mythologized civil religion.
So how does the Super Bowl convey ideas about America’s civil religion? For one, the game itself broadcasts to the world the values that bring 111 million Americans to their TVs: sex, violence, commercialism, materialism, and above all, American exceptionalism. We see sexualized images of women throughout the game, we put aside serious concerns about the long term effects of football concussions while watching men smash their heads into each other, we laugh at silly commercials that cost millions to produce, and we wrap it all in the American flag. We see videos of servicemen and women saying hello to their loved ones back home (although we don’t take time to think about why they’ve been placed thousands of miles away from home, because we’ve got a Bruno Mars song to catch), we see American flags waving all over the stadium, we see businesses making an attempt to connect commerce with patriotism, and we get angry when Coca-Cola makes a multilingual commercial that offends our cultural sensibilities. By using the flag for these symbolic purposes, we argue that the Super Bowl is America. This is what we stand for, this is who we are, this is why we are exceptional people. Football is our game.
The winner for the biggest expression of American Exceptionalism and civil religion this year goes to Chrysler. In a much publicized commercial that featured music star Bob Dylan, the commercial asks a silly, but serious question: “Is there anything more American than America?”
The video goes on to create its own mythic story about automobile production and “progress” in America, making references to the “authenticity” and “originality” of America automotive ingenuity. “Detroit made cars, and cars made America.” Without American cars, we just aren’t America anymore! When you spend your money on American goods, you show American pride and even patriotism. As the video description states:
When it’s made here, it’s made with the one thing you can’t import from anywhere else, American pride. The all-new 2015 Chrysler 200. America’s Import.
Sex, violence, commercialism, materialism, American exceptionalism: America’s civil religion, or at least a part of it.
On a somewhat-related sidenote, I have to laugh at all the criticism Bob Dylan has received for appearing in this commercial. Countless friends have remarked that he’s a “sellout,” a “phony,” a has-been that’s given into corporate interests. This line of thinking is humorous to me because we as a society have asked for these types of commercials. So many people talk about watching the Super Bowl because “I want to watch the commercials.” For a few hours on Super Bowl Sunday, we gladly ask America’s corporate powers to become theatrical entertainers so that we can laugh, find new things to buy, have something to talk about on Monday, pat ourselves on the back, and vaguely thank those in the service for giving us our freedom and this blessed game. To meet “the people’s” criteria, companies like Chrysler exploit the symbolism of the American flag and hire entertainers like Bob Dylan because that’s what we’ve asked for. If you were in Dylan’s shoes, would you really turn down all that money for just two minutes of work?
Bob Dylan has more punk, rock n’roll, and soul in his left pinky finger than most of us have in our entire bodies. He sure as hell doesn’t care what we think about his commercial, and his bank account isn’t losing money for every retweet or status update complaining about him. At the end of the day, are we really angry with Bob Dylan, or are we actually angry with ourselves? Is Bob Dylan the sellout, or are we (myself included) the actual sellouts?