Vagaries of ‘Anything-can-happen’ world


 “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics”, Plato warned, “is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” The rise of dangerously populist leaders across the world is the result of voters’ apathy and increasingly low voter turnout. Only 56 % of the voting age population  in the US voted in the 2016 presidential elections. The US trails most developed countries in voter turnout. As far as young voters are concerned, the US has one of the lowest voters’ participation.

Virginia University  Professor  John Holbein says that democracy in the US would be transformed if youth voter turnout is the same as older citizens. Issues like climate change and public education would receive greater attention. And leaders will be held accountable for poor governance. The great world power has, sadly, become what Foreign Policy journal calls “America the mediocre.”

Salman Rushdie characterizes the present moment as an “Age of Anything-Can-Happen.” Shocked by what is happening in Trump’s America, he has warned, “Today, I say, beware America. Don’t believe that it can’t happen here.”

The US has all along prided itself as a society  which has realized everything that other countries have dreamt of—justice, plenty, rule of law, wealth and freedom. Even Martin Luther King’s historic “I have a dream” speech in 1963 was rooted in the American dream. After his election, Trump said, “the American dream is back.” What Trump has given to Americans is shattered dream.

 Many American leaders and a large number of immigrants are never tired of using the hallowed phrase but the US never achieved a dream of a social order in which every man and every woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable. Indeed, US became what French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillad calls a land of “utopia achieved.”

 Black Americans are dying of Covid-19 at three times the rate of White people. The race divide is also a class divide. The US is the only significant Western country which has no universal health insurance. A land of the free for all, the US is a health care outlier. No wonder, the number of Black people dying of the pandemic in Washington is six times that of the Whites. This disparity is five times in Michigan and Missouri and three times in New York, Illinois and Louisiana.

President Obama often  saw injustice in the growing divide between Main Street and the Wall Street.  Globally, being poor is in itself a crime. Poverty is treated as a criminal offence. In the US, poor people of colour are over-represented among jail inmates. In the land of ‘American Dream, the  poor get prison. The Blacks happen to be poorer than the poor.

With truth-defying president in the White House, truth has become stranger than fiction. The ‘ugly’ American has become ‘ignorant’ as well. Remember Sera Palin, the Conservatives’ superstar? During her vice-presidential campaign, she admitted that “everything I have ever needed, I learnt on the basketball court”. She also claimed that “Alaska’s proximity to  Russia gave her foreign policy experience.” 

But why blame Palin? Gerard Araud, former French ambassador to US, wrote about Trump’s durbar: “You have an old king, a bit whimsical, unpredictable, uninformed and he wants to show it.”

A few years ago, Japanese high school students , on a short-term exchange programme in the Mid East America, were shocked to hear their American counterparts asking them, “ Japan, what part of China is that ? Is your mother a Geisha? Is your father a ninja? Do you have McDonald’s in Japan?”

Geography is no longer taught in many schools. When the D-Day came with the Normandy invasion in June 1944, Americans were scrambling for geography books. When Osama bin Laden was held responsible for 9/11, demand for maps of Afghanistan skyrocketed.

It is this ignorance which has led many to believe that Coca Cola, Big Mac and Western pop command the moral high ground of human civilization. As journalist Thomas Friedman says, the US wants the world to follow US lead with a “Pepsi on every lip, Microsoft Windows in every computer and enlargement of both our values and our Pizza Huts.”

  There are many countries where Rushdie’s phrase would be apt. Today there are many world leaders who set a trap in the hope that reality will be naïve enough to fall into it. There is a growing disjunction between the rhetoric about liberty and realities.

The US has the best universities and scientific institutions. Yet,  public education is in a shambles. While China has risen, the West  is in visible decline. Edmund Phelps, Nobel Prize winner in Economics, says that the West’s decline is “due to a loss of innovation that happened a long time ago. It was not visible for a while “because Europe transferred technology from the US.” But the growth of productivity in the US has been falling for several decades. Consequently, Europe is living on borrowed time.

America’s decline is not unrelated to the decline in American democracy. Here is a country where 99 % is pitted against 1 %. Inequality matters. It slows economic growth, undermines health and erodes social order. Plutocracy and democracy don’t mix. As American Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we can’t have both.” This is the tragedy of America.

This is also India’s tragedy. Indian democracy today is a pale shadow of its earlier self. The poor, the Dalits, the Adivasis and the minorities carry the burden of being at the wrong side of the divide. They too are criminalized at every turn.

Many believe India is now composed of  only heroes and villains. With binary story-telling , sucked dry of fact, Indian politics threatens to become partisan docudrama. You can’t win dazzled admiration through new fangled PR stunts. India dreams big. Many believe the pandemic has come as a God-send opportunity for India to become a world leader. Many nationalist leaders believe China would be torn apart and India would rise as a world power. Perhaps the reason they call it the Indian dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.

India is facing a strange paradox. Indians are good at creating maps of desires and aspirations. They are super confident of building  a great future.  Maybe a future  immersed in a kind of amber, stuck in time. One may say, why bother about future when we are living in a heroic eternity.

Ash Narain Roy
Ash Narain Roy
Ash Narain Roy did his Ph.D. in Latin American Studies , Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. He was a Visiting Scholar at El Colegio de Mexico, Mexico City for over four years in the 1980s. He later worked as Assistant Editor, Hindustan Times, Delhi. He is author of several books including The Third World in the Age of Globalisation which analyses Latin America's peculiar traits which distinguishes it from Asia and Africa. He is currently Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi


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