There is a lot of hand wringing about the recent downgrade of the US debt, an unprecedented event, which some say, is the beginning of the end of the amazing run of the United States of America. What Ho! puts the American phenomenon, predictions about its decline and fall and other world sentiments about the land of the brave and the home of the free in perspective in this month’s Op-Ed.
Of the man-made phenomena in the last two hundred plus years, one that has to bubble towards the top of a ranking order has to be the rise of the American state. Built on principles of individual liberty and exercise of free will, America has shown the way and led a graceful transition of the Western hemisphere out of an old world ruled by kings, queens, despots and dictators. Along the way, it proved that an economic system built around free markets, merely another form of free will, can be world beating. The free flow of people, thoughts and money in and out of America has led to a renaissance in science, technology, economics and art, which has benefited the entire world.
The extraordinary founding fathers who designed this extraordinary system set out to simply give full expression to the positive and energizing aspects of human existence, a luxury they were not afforded by the masters they escaped from. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness” may appear simple and obvious today to those of us who have seen or experienced it. Obvious and simple – it was not, two hundred years ago. The birth and rise of America is an unquestionable triumph of the sublime and beautiful aspects of human existence. Something the entire world should marvel and take pride in. After all, mistakes of entire generations past precipitated the necessity for an America to emerge. The American phenomenon truly belongs to the entire world.
Peoples around the world have little comprehension of the historical struggles of America and the demons it has cast out, in its rise to eminence. America has battled corruption, slavery, racism, sexism, phobias in its relatively young existence and emerged stronger after each tussle, giving rise to hope and optimism in that process. It is an undeniable fact that America was built by and made up of Christians, who have worked comfortably with their beliefs and not let these stand in the way of their guiding principles. It is more a testament to the triumph of reason, good judgement and principles and less to the Christian beliefs themselves. It is difficult to understand a system, its evolution and its struggles. It is easier to cast aspersions by filtered viewing of the demons that are yet to be cast out. Unsurprisingly, most people take the easy route.
Today, the view of America is tinged with many emotions – a little admiration, largely envious resentment and and even some outright hatred. While hundreds of thousands of people are busy emigrating their way to a hopeful life in America, thousands others are busy giving vent to their hatred and planning acts of violence against it. Millions others are busy simply observing and opining, some more animatedly than others. America’s recent economic troubles have provided plenty of fodder for all. There has been anger and resentment against America for a good part of the last five decades. Historically, this resentment was fueled by socialist and communist idealogues, whose discomfort with the brash, freewheeling, individualistic American system stemmed from their reluctance and inability to understand its success. Ostriches with heads buried in the sand, they resisted until they were no more.
Today’s anger and resentment against America no longer feeds off a conflict in ideology. It is shifting to something more personal and capricious. Even peoples in economies like India or Mexico or Brazil, which continue to benefit from borrowing American principles of free will and free markets, are surprisingly resentful. Why? This is surprising because one would expect these peoples to become increasingly familiar with and thus more understanding of American strengths and foibles, as they try to emulate it. Resentment of America seems to derive its energy from several perceptions-
1. Americans are arrogant. They wage unjustified wars for personal gain. They operate with no regard for the rest of the world. They take sides and are not fair.
2. Americans are lazy and stupid. They know little about the rest of the world. They live off the work of immigrants.Their elections are flawed and so are their leaders
3. Americans are materialistic. They place mammon above all, have no culture or soul. They are a bad influence on the rest of us
As with perceptions, there is a little truth, some misunderstanding and large amounts of bias in all of the above. For every bad apple in the American basket, there are several others that restore the balance. Let us not pretend that America does not have its foibles. Rather, let us learn by observing how it corrects itself. Therein lies the strength and secret of endurance of the system. Unfortunate perceptions have prompted reactions to America’s recent misfortunes (9/11, sub-prime debacle, recession, etc.) ranging from schadenfreude ridden “chickens coming to roost, this is comeuppance, and the end of arrogant America” to well meaning “hope they get their act together”. It is said that you know you are down when the least qualified stop by to give you unsolicited advice. If that’s true, America is truly well and down.
Evolution is a series of mis-steps, punctuated by a-ha moments. The Americans, like anyone else, are evolving and discovering. The last decade has been a period of mis-steps and discovery for America. Election of George Bush, in hindsight, appears to have done more damage than good. If 9/11 had not happened, his presidency could well have been uneventful, even provided some comic respite and shorter by 4 years. it is pointless to speculate how the wheels within the wheels could have turned. Good news is that we all learnt some lessons. Bad news is that we cannot get that time back and some mistakes have to be undone. Yet others cannot be undone. Most important point is that America demonstrated a remarkable will to go down the learning and correcting path by electing Obama. Again, reason and good judgement triumphed over ideology, giving rise to hope and optimism.
The world will have find a way to let go of George Bush, Iraq and the rest of the baggage that America itself is anxious to dispose. If there is anything to be learnt from the last ten years, it is that the best can make mistakes, and often they do not seek or need others’ permission to make mistakes. In front of us, is an emerging world order with China, India and Brazil rising to the fore and making their presence felt. America may lead this new world order or maybe not. Everything that rises eventually fades. The time for America to fade away will come inevitably and surely. Let us hope that the sublime and beautiful aspects of human existence are respected and protected by the new leaders when they come. That’s the kind of world, I hope, our children and theirs will make their own mis-steps and discoveries.