Threatened Species

So, I'm hitting the elliptical at Planet Fitness on Tuesday, presidential caucus day in Iowa, watching CNN on the personalized flat-screen TV bolted to my exercise contraption, and there's Republican candidate Rick Santorum in Sioux City taking a question from a bald, middle-aged, white guy with glasses. A guy like me.

“How do we get off this crazy train?” the man asks. I like that: crazy train. Seems fresh, desperate, very 2012. Is our Iowan referring to the frenetic, corrupted US electoral process? Not exactly; he continues: “We've got so much foreign influence in this country now. I'm looking at a Coke can that's got a polar bear on it. Where do we go from here?”

Double take. What in the world? I lose my one-two, one-two rhythm, feel that old twinge in the lower back. Santorum responds with a riff not about railroads or soft drinks, not about the dizzying pace of globalization and the end of every last thing we once held precious, but about entitlements and supplemental security income and the scandal of so many kids covered by Medicaid, blah, blah, blah. I change the channel to “SportsCenter” and learn only later that Santorum's ramble included a reference to black people on welfare.

So, that's the story; that's the controversy for the day. Then, Santorum nearly wins Iowa despite or because of his remark, and it's off to New Hampshire! But the question, the captivating question – it's worthy of deconstruction even as our attention shifts to the next contest and the next – what exactly did the semiotician of Sioux City, riding his personal crazy train, mean by calling out the Coca-Cola polar bear? How does that image on that product signify the perils of foreign influence?

Coca-Cola, of course, is an iconic American company and perhaps the world's most recognizable brand after the Kardashians. It employs about 140,000 people worldwide, half of those in the US. During the recent recession, Coca-Cola patriotically cut prices to keep its delicious, high-caloric beverage flowing down the American gullet. Coke is primarily made out of carbonated water and – wait for it – corn syrup! Corn from Iowa!

So, it's no wonder, I suppose, that this Iowan of a certain age (who looks disturbingly like me) is so distraught at finding a foreign animal printed on, perhaps influencing, a can of the all-American soda made sweet by high-fructose corn syrup. Good God, is nothing sacred? What's next, a duck-billed platypus on my Mountain Dew?

Let's forget that it's a limited-edition Coke can featuring a clan of polar bears with family values (mom, dad, cuddly kids) out the Arctic wazoo, and let's forget that Coca-Cola has featured these thirsty bears for decades in their holiday ads. Let's misremember, too, that thousands of polar bears live in Alaska, and that Alaska is indeed a part of this country.

Still more strategic forgetting: the polar bear is an officially recognized threatened species, its habitat in peril, most scientists agree, from climate change resulting from mankind's addiction to burning fossil fuels. That's a bummer, so forget it.

But remember this: to our man in Iowa, at this point in history, a polar bear on a Coke can seems weird and threatening. It says that nothing's the same no more and all that stuff from Away is coming over Here. It says that liberal elitists crying about global warming and drowning polar bears want to make us change our incandescent light bulbs. It says that I'm holding the same bear-emblazoned Coke as folks in Bangalore and Vladivostok and Cape Town, and that was okay until they started to want the same lifestyle that I took for granted and now seems to be slip, slipping away.

Please, someone, stop the crazy train. Stop the future, if you must.

Sioux City, Iowa, sits nearly plunk in the center of North America. It gets its name from the Native Americans who lived there for thousands of years before French and Spanish fur traders arrived. Then the natives were bum-rushed from their lands. Then corn became king and history restarted with a white man holding a Coke, proudly and high.

Those were good days for a lot of people, but now they're going, going, almost gone. The complaint of our distressed Iowan to a typically clueless presidential candidate is nothing less than a howl from the heart of the heartland, from the pulmonary trunk of the American tree. Where, oh where, do we go from here?