America has been loathed, admired, and feared before, but today it is being pitied
From the distance of thousands of miles, it has been both breath-taking and distressing to watch the United States of America haemorrhage its prestige in what seems like a few blinks of the eye.
Just as Covid-19 scans victims for physical vulnerabilities, striking at weakness with deadly force, the global coronavirus crisis is a pitiless stress test of bodies politic.
Predictable duds have been exposed: Russia, Brazil, India. But no one expected the comprehensive dismantling of the US, along with any lingering dreams of a better world that it continued to represent.
Tom McTague put it well in The Atlantic: “It is hard to escape the feeling that this is a uniquely humiliating moment for America. As citizens of the world the US created, we are accustomed to listening to those who loathe America, admire America, and fear America (sometimes all at the same time). But feeling pity for America? That one is new.”
Earlier this week, even the irredeemably middlebrow status-quoist, Thomas Friedman, complained in The New York Times: “When people ask me about my mood these days, I tell them that I feel like I’m a reporter for The Pompeii Daily News in AD79, and I’m sitting in the foothills of Mount Vesuvius and someone just walked up and asked: ‘Hey, do you feel a rumbling?’ Do I ever.”
Friedman was writing about masks, the latest absurd debacle in the only country where essential pandemic protection has become politically polarized. Several constituencies -- including Georgia under Governor Brian Kemp -- have gone so far as to ban measures to make them mandatory. While there are undeniable long-term geopolitical trends underlying the decline in American power, these dangerous shenanigans have accelerated negative perceptions. They are why the US is rapidly transforming from seat of complex international aspirations to laughing stock.
One person who epitomizes what America means to many South Asians is Razib Khan, the brilliant 43-year-old Dhaka-born geneticist, and prolific public intellectual, whose parents (originally from Comilla) moved to the US in time for his schooling.
Khan told me: “On the ‘inside’ there is a feeling of collapse, incomprehension, and disbelief. For Americans, the ‘American dream’ is dying, and I think the rest of the world is thinking the same thing.”
Of course, as the tumultuous Black Lives Matter movement has underlined, the “American dream” barely papered over tremendous inequalities, injustices, and historical crimes. But it nonetheless wrought extraordinary impact, not least on millions of migrants from the sub-continent.
America’s ideals have been lastingly impactful. I recall goosebumps in the 4th standard (in the dog days of 1970s India) when I read about “the pursuit of happiness.” Around that time, I found a compilation of Norman Rockwell’s classic Saturday Evening Post covers of idealized Americana, and lost my heart to the world they evoked.
However, “Norman Rockwell’s America only existed in his imagination,” says Daisy Rockwell, the artist’s 51-year-old grand-daughter, and leading contemporary translator of Urdu and Hindi into English (most recently of Zameen/A Promised Land by Khadija Mastur).
The younger Rockwell told me her grandfather’s paintings were: “A reflection of the country’s better angels, and of his own inner fantasies about a utopian America. He himself turned away from that fantasy during the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s, and painted some very powerful and famous works about racial violence and segregation.”
About our current moment, she says: “It makes us realize how much of this country was really just a house of cards. Trump has ushered in a Kali Yug, as it were, but despite his horrible personality, he is really just a manifestation of what ails us. It is a moment of reckoning, and no one knows how it will turn out. South Asians are welcome to pity us, and then they should take heed of what aspects of our system have failed, because so much of it has been emulated around the world.”
In his superb The Most Dangerous Place: A History of the United States in South Asia, the historian Srinath Raghavan pointed out: “The sub-continent has always been a useful vantage point from which to view the transformation of the United States from ‘colony to superpower.’ And it will remain so.”
Curious to see what he thinks about the current unravelling, I wrote to Raghavan. He replied, characteristically clinically: “It’s important to distinguish between dominance and hegemony. The US remains dominant by virtue of its economic size, military power, technological capabilities, and institutions of knowledge production. To achieve hegemony, you need more than that -- you need a willingness to shoulder the burdens of leadership and an ability to lead by example. On both these counts, the US has slipped considerably over the past two decades, especially under Trump. So, hegemony has waned but dominance remains and will likely remain for decades to come.”
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.