Column
May 3, 2017

Talking it out over a beer

By Brett Yates

Out of all the political debates you’ve ever had over drinks at a bar, how many of them, in retrospect, do you think were worth your time?

The new Heineken commercial (titled “Worlds Apart”) that’s been making the rounds on social media is about political differences and the possibility of overcoming them. The trendiest genre of TV/YouTube ad is now the “real-life social experiment” featuring non-actors—which, on its lowest level, means gathering a group of cosmopolitan sophisticates for a fancy-looking dinner party and then, once they’ve already praised the fine cuisine, revealing that all the food was actually catered by Pizza Hut; and, on its highest level, involves schemes designed to entrap vulnerable women into implicitly revealing their insecurities and self-loathing, for which the only balm (as it turns out) can be Dove soap. These ads show us our prejudices and fears in a new light and then point the way to a world (embodied by some particular product) in which we might transcend them.
The Heineken ad may be the best of all, because the sin of which the non-actors on screen are guilty is one with which nearly all of us are afflicted: that of having political positions. The participants begin by introducing themselves to the audience, one by one, but not to one another: a feminist, a male chauvinist, an environmentalist, a climate change denier, a transphobe, a transgender woman. The opposites, who have never met, are then paired for a set of unity-building exercises, held in some kind of sterile Nazi torture chamber with buzzers and loudspeaker instructions: they answer a short personal questionnaire together, which reveals the commonalities they share on a non-political level, and they assemble a few boxes of IKEA-style furniture that, once built, form a bar and barstools. Next, they watch each other’s earlier introductory videos—which, filmed in isolation, put forth their perspectives at their most rigid and oppositional—and, finally, are asked whether they want to leave the Nazi torture chamber (like crybaby ideologues) or stay and discuss their differences over a Heineken with their partners, as broadminded adults. They all choose to stay.

In some sense, the ad deserves admiration. Beer commercials have possibly tended too much toward lightheartedness, yielding only the simple idea that consuming adult beverages is fun; for serious-minded people, however, this “fun” may not register as a worthy counterargument to the countless lives destroyed by alcohol. The Heineken ad, instead, points to the beerhall’s capacity for social unification, where alcohol serves as a necessary lubricant for the rough but important business of getting to know one’s neighbors. From this perspective, beer is not mindless pleasure: beer is society, culture, exchange, cooperation, and democracy. We’re not wasting time at the bar; we’re creating community.

But what sort of community? The true finale of the Heineken commercial is left up to us to imagine. Do the people with the “correct” positions ultimately sway their opponents? Some of us might hope so, but if we follow the narrative logic of the video, the more strongly suggested ending is compromise, not persuasion. It’s a beer commercial, not a coffee commercial: the participants’ “extremism” will be mellowed by the tranquilizing effects of the Heineken, and the interlocutors will find common ground somewhere in the center, or else will allow themselves to be disarmed and ultimately depoliticized by the “core humanity” of their opponent. Is the destruction of our planet really so significant, compared to the essential decency of our fellow man, whatever he may believe?

The media have widely praised the Heineken ad specifically as an antidote to the idiotic political posturing of Pepsi, which, in April, debuted a commercial in which the model and TV personality Kendall Jenner runs away from a fashion shoot to join a sort of whitewashed Black Lives Matter protest in the streets. A brutal police crackdown seems imminent, until Kendall hands one of the officers a Pepsi. Both ads are about unity amid political unrest, but the Pepsi ad is—in its pandering, self-interested, toothless way—more progressive in its (fake) politics: youth protest movements are unambiguously celebrated, and the only “lesson” that these righteous revolutionaries have to learn is that, sometimes, seemingly villainous figures from the “establishment” may secretly be on their side, too. The sympathetic police officer actually represents the ruthless capitalist executives of multinational soft drink corporations: they want you Millennials to know that, despite all appearances, they stand in solidarity with you and your radical politics, as long as those politics don’t prevent you from buying soda.

The Heineken ad, by contrast, doesn’t choose sides. It retreats from the polarized climate of 2017 to a slightly less terrifying moment in history—2009, perhaps, when Barack Obama held his famed “Beer Summit” at the White House, where the racially profiled Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge Police came together, following Gates’s wrongful arrest, to hash out their differences over a few bottles of Budweiser. The event became a symbol of Obama’s optimistic centrism, which ultimately led to two presidential terms defined by thoughtful across-the-aisle engagement and a commitment to conciliation and consensus. But from the beginning, the Republicans in Washington had no intention whatsoever of working with Obama to achieve mutually desired goals, and the unwillingness of our courtly, decorous 44th president to recognize this essential fact was, from the perspective of the Left, his most significant flaw: the correct course would have been to accept a state of unresolvable enmity and then work to defeat these people.

If you’re an environmentalist, what do you do with someone who doesn’t believe in global warming? Do you engage him or her in civilized, empathetic debate, with an open mind and a willingness to reevaluate your own convictions, or do you forgo this chance at communion and instead spend your energy trying to ensure that this person’s voice does not determine public policy? Do you stay and have that beer or not?

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