BY JONATHAN VALANIA So, the National Constitution Center went and did a dumb thing. They went and told 14-year-old Ayla Potamkin [pictured below, far right] that her love-letter-in-song to America would be featured in last week’s Liberty Medal award ceremony. More accurately, they told her rich-man father, he of the Potamkin auto dealer empire. Or even more accurately, her rich-man father’s proxies, consigliere-to-the-powerful Ed Rendell and advertising exec Elliott Curson, no doubt completing the circle of some unspoken quid pro quo started years ago, presumably when Rendell was still a political actor. But, to be clear, that’s just speculation.
The song is called “America” and it’s all about how awesome America is, and how lucky Ayla is to be living in the USA, which is so awesome. Although you wouldn’t know it unless she told you, the song was inspired by the tragic shooting of Malala Yousafzai, I guess in much the same way that Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” was inspired by the tragic sinking of the Titanic. Ayla is only 14, and far be it from me to discourage a young person from daring to dream of pop stardom, so I’ll put on my kid gloves along with my music critic hat and say that as solipsistic auto-tuned odes to how frickin’ awesome America is go, the song’s not bad. At the very least, it could sell a lot of six-packs and pick-up trucks. Who knows, maybe she’ll grow up to be the next Taylor Swift, because Lord knows we’ll need a new one sooner or later. I wish her luck.
(Let me be clear: Ayla is a minor and shouldn’t be expected to know better. My ire is not directed at her, rather it is directed at all the grown-ups in this silly saga who SHOULD know better.)
To accompany the song, the NCC commissioned local advertising honcho Elliott Curson to create a video [SEE BELOW] for the song, full of rippling stars and stripes, the Liberty Bell, the Statue Of Liberty, American soldiers, amber waves of grain, and an (by Pakistani cultural standards) immodestly-clad, cornsilk-haired, blue-eyed ingenue — you know, images that totally encapsulate the life experience of a young Muslim woman like Malala, and how she defied the Taliban and stood up for the right of young girls in the Swat Valley of Pakistan to get an education. And then got shot in the face by Taliban assassins on her school bus and left for dead. Eureka! You nailed it again, Curson! It’s Miller time!
(Here’s a better idea for a Liberty Medal award ceremony tribute video, instead “America, F*ck Yeah!” how about a collection of taped testimonials from world leaders, humanitarians and human rights activists attesting to the extraordinary courage, incredible suffering and triumph of the will that is Malala’s story. Am I right? Of course I am. And I’m not even an advertising whiz!)
Well, when Malala’s advisors saw the video shortly before the ceremony, they had a hard time seeing how the song and the video had anything to do with Malala and was at best culturally tone deaf and at worst obnoxiously self-serving and jingoistic — like going to accept the Nobel Peace Prize (which Malala also won this year) and having to sit through some bronzed Nordic teen named Sven sing “HOORAY FOR SWEDEN!” Sensing how poorly this would play on the world stage for any number of cultural, religious and geopolitical reasons that should have been patently obvious to the people that hand out Liberty Medals to people all over the world, Malala’s handlers asked that the song and the video be dropped from the ceremony, and the NCC, after what was no doubt some heated internal discussion, wisely acceded to the wishes of their honored guest. Because, hindsight being 20/20, the video and the song should have never been greenlighted for the ceremony in the first place.
And that would be the end of it, right?
But no, somebody who clearly has an agenda (I’m going to go out on a limb and guess it was someone who’s last name rhymes with ‘person’, or someone who was hoping to use this ginned-up nontroversy to launch a young singer’s career, perhaps those people are one in the same, perhaps not) leaked the details of these internal deliberations to the Philadelphia Inquirer which then turned it into a front page story that must’ve given Sean Hannity a red-white-and-blue outrage boner a mile long. Now, I understand that this far into the era of newspaper extinction, dying metropolitan dailies can’t be as picky as they used to be about what they put on the front page, but Lord do I pine for the days when this would have been a page 3 of the LOCAL section story, back when newspapers didn’t have beg people to read them with pandering clickbait like this. The story was written by Jeff Gammage and includes this passage:
But some familiar with the circumstances questioned how an institution devoted to the U.S. Constitution would allow a paean to America to be excised from its own ceremony – held in view of Independence Hall, in the city known as the cradle of liberty. Among its efforts, the center trumpets freedom of speech as a hallmark of the Constitution.
Good grief Charlie Brown, since when did freedom of speech equal hollering USA! USA! USA! in the burning theater of international relations? Are we really that insecure as a nation and that we have to fill every silence with self-congratulating odes to how great we are? Specifically every silence of a ceremony honoring the courage of a young Muslim woman from Pakistan. And then react to an appeal to cultural sensitivity and good taste like it’s a direct challenge to the Constitution of the United States? Apparently, in this crazy mixed up Fox & Friends world we live in, yes.
(And by the way, Mr. Gammage, you missed the actual news in this story which is that there was a massive security breach at the Liberty Medal Award ceremony, and, need I remind anyone, people ARE trying to kill Malala. I know for a fact there was a security breach because I accidentally blundered my way through at least three layers of security simply by saying “Where is the media check-in table?” and getting pushed through to the next checkpoint. When I finally got to the supposedly-secure press area, the flack said “How did you get in here?” grabbing me by the arm and dragging me off to the metal detectors. “Um, I walked.” I elected not to write about this in our initial coverage of the ceremony because, after careful consideration, I decided this event was about paying tribute to the courage of Malala, not about giving the NCC a black eye. But apparently I was wrong and the event was really about a little rich girl having all her hopes and dreams dashed by Malala, and now her daddy is going to have to go out and buy her a whole new set of hopes and dreams. Tragic, just tragic.)
Following up on the story, Inquirer metro columnist Kevin Riordan chimed in with an inane Bill O’ Reilly-esque blog post on Philly.com titled CENSORING A SONG ABOUT FREEDOM that I will quote in full here because it won’t make sense in part:
Seems a song was stricken from the program at the Philadelphia tribute to Nobel winner Malala Yousafzai because it sounded much, much too patriotic — too unapologetically ‘pro-America’ — to some of her advisers’ ears.
I got this.
To Ayla, the budding pop songstress whose video performance was censored by the National Constitution Center (only in America), I suggest making a few simple edits.
First to go: That shameless refrain, ‘I’m so lucky to live in America.’
The simple insertion of ‘unlucky’ does the trick!
Also, Ayla, you must correct ‘America…where the hopes are free’ to ‘America…where hopelessness is me.’
Substitute ‘unsafe’ in the line ‘where the kids are safe.’
Erase ‘can’ from ‘where I can be me’ and replace it with ‘can’t.’
And by all means, toss ‘it matters what I say in the USA’ into the memory hole, and insert ‘it doesn’t matter what I say in the USA.’
Shame on you, Kevin Riordan. I would expect this kind of pseudo-patriotic pandering from the Sarah Palins of the world, but big city metro columnists are supposed to rise above the mindless sound and fury of the moment and exercise some of that accrued wisdom that qualifies them to be columnists in the first place, and explain to readers that in this situation cultural context is EVERYTHING. While we’re re-writing the lyrics, let me do the same to point out how that song must sound to Malala, and for that matter just about everyone who doesn’t live in the USA:
Sure, you got shot in the face, but me?
I’m lucky to live in America. Me, Malala, ME!
All YOUR hopes and dreams coming true for ME!
Hooray for me and America! You’re welcome, Malala!
“She’s the one I did it for, mostly” Ayla was quoted as saying in the Inquirer. Emphasis on the ‘mostly.’ That’s the sad part here. The tragedy and triumph of Malala’s story is being hijacked by the self-serving, politically-connected handlers of a privileged 14-year-old from Colorado and anyone who disagrees don’t love America. And Malala emerges somehow tarnished by what was supposed to be a moment of triumph.
Let us end this scolding with a telling comparison. Since this non-story broke on Wednesday, Malala has donated the $50,000 she will receive along with the Nobel Peace Prize to build a school in Gaza to replace the one blown to smithereens by the Israeli Defense Forces over the summer. Best I can tell, Ayla’s father and whoever funded the video, presumably the NCC, spent roughly that same amount to build up the ego of a pretty blonde teenager who wants for nothing. Because that’s the American way. USA! USA! USA!