Friday, December 3, 2010

A national conceit

Of all the conceits perpetrated by this country's media, the term 'the American people' infuriates me the most.

I am not certain if Barack Obama contrived to use it when he visited India a few weeks ago. I do know however that the phrase slips by most people I know, both here in the United States and back home. It does not bother them at all. The phrase is after all in common circulation, employed by affiliates of every political persuasion. At the end of the recent election cycle, combatants as always made nice and humbly accepted that the American people had spoken, and that their verdict would be respected. The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg criticized the selective usage of the phrase to depict the will of what he branded, "in practical terms, the slice of the scaled-down midterm electorate that went one way in 2008 and the other in 2010".

I am more struck by the remarkable arrogance in the implied assertion that "the American people" are worthy of a collective title -- a cynical ideology that, by promising the mythical prize of inclusion, ingeniously transcends racial and socio-economic divides. My outsider status within this country no doubt impacts my response, seeing that I am constantly made aware of my visa status. At the same time I am not alone in my otherness within this historically troubled society. Minority groups constantly negotiate their position relative to each other and to whites in what is arguably the most powerful nation in history.

Any casual student of the rise and fall of empires would estimate that the mean period of complete domination once used to be around a few hundred years. Given the extent of its cross-cultural influence, it is difficult to predict how long America might continue to remain a serious force.

England is the other recent colonial power that persists in glorifying its nationhood, except newspapers like The Sun are usually given to moaning about the good old days. As a future political giant India has shoved the propaganda of patriotism down its citizens' throats with a remarkable degree of efficiency, given the disparate conditions of language and religion. God knows, the mainstream Hindi film industry makes enough 'wholesome' movies. Yet, next to the United States, countries like India and Brazil seem emasculated. Much has been made of the economic rise of these two countries but at the risk of oversimplifying, for all practical purposes China is the new windmill that cannot be conquered whereas India is merely Sancho Panza to America's Don Quixote. New Delhi Television's 'We The People' seems comically inadequate when you compare it to the perpetual construction of American greatness.

Smooth transfers of power serve as a reminder of the moral superiority of civilized discourse, and as an opportunity to convince skeptical American voters of the noble intentions behind drilling democratic values into strategically crucial regions. Regrettably, in the twisted conception of contemporary conservatism true patriots support unpopular wars; the Left prolongs those wars for fear of being labeled elitist pussies. It would be naive to make an issue out of the hypocrisy of America's lack of interest in politically irrelevant regions like Burma or Sri Lanka. Nevertheless there is injustice, even irony, in the circumstance of a nation that routinely subjects racially-charged slurs to self-censorship, yet is inclined to wield a phrase that is equally inappropriate like a gleeful phallus.

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