And whenever I become conscious
That America is barbarous
I ask myself
Why am I an American?
After awhile I realise and then smile.
Do I have any other option?
– Vishnu Nagar in Amrikikaran
Unlike the heavenly kingdoms of antiquity or the imagined communities of the post-colonial world, the United States of America is a manufactured nation. Neither the fatherland of some self-proclaimed superior race nor a motherland that had been freed from the yoke of foreign masters, it was initially just a geographical entity, which then became a political unit through brutal processes of both assimilation and extermination.
For immigrants from the Old World, the continent-sized country across the Atlantic was the Promised Land, where resources were plentiful, competition with the indigenous people had been eliminated, restrictions on economic advancement were almost non-existent, and the ambitious and the adventurous could not only realise their dreams but also extend the frontiers of their imaginations within a few years. The rewards of integration were so high and the costs of forgetting one’s roots so little that the mystical ‘melting pot’ was potent enough to transform all cultural metals into a single shiny alloy.
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 changed the situation to some extent. The US became selective in accepting immigrants. Doors were left ajar, but entry was tightly monitored. The cultures of the Old World were fractious, and the new immigrants needed to be transformed into new beings before they could be absorbed.
By the time of the World War II, entry had been practically sealed off for new immigrants. Knocking on the doors could still earn settlement rights for some, but admission henceforth would mostly be by invitation only. It was assumed that new immigrants would be under pressure to adopt American values on their own, and that the oath of allegiance was enough to earn their loyalty.
What really gave new meaning to the term Americanisation was the almost half-century-long Cold War. The word came to mean not just a process but signified an entire gamut of relationships; and ‘America’ gradually became a dominant new culture, a new way of life. At the forefront of the process was Hollywood, which inspired derivatives all over Southasia – Bollywood, Kollywood, Tollywood, et al. Aiding the process were also new methods and streams of knowledge production, norms of behaviour, political beliefs, art movements, morals, laws, customs, institutions, and even emotions and styles. Rudyard Kipling’s ‘brave new world’ had begun.
Even the USSR, while it existed, was merely the ‘other’ that reinforced the self-image of the USA being ‘one nation under god’, as stated in the oath of allegiance. Coca-colonisation, as the process of cultural domination was called, was a benevolent term for the economic and military might that backed the Americanisation of the world: Those who did not desire to be so shaped had to accept it under duress.
Globalisation has released Americans from the pressure of maintaining a large empire. Now it is possible to be an American in attitude, beliefs, culture and lifestyle without leaving one’s own country. The whole world is now one, and practically every member of the middle classes in most countries of the planet is an American. This is the Americanisation that poets like the Hindi litterateur Vishnu Nagar find unacceptable but inescapable. It is a new religion with its own dogmas and priesthood that denounces non-believers and deals with apostates even more sternly.
The motto of the French Revolution was to establish liberty, equality and fraternity in society. In the American Declaration of Independence, however, life was paramount, liberty was secondary, and the main intention of both conditions was to create a culture where the pursuit of their own happiness would be the main goal of all individuals. The world had earlier seen individualism as an aberration, but in the US it was institutionalised as the very purpose of human existence.
The quest for happiness can, however, also be interpreted positively. Happiness is a state of well-being characterised by emotions ranging from satisfaction to intense joy. True happiness lies not in acquisition but in contentment, even in renunciation. To appropriate is to suffer torment; release from worries lies in living a life of simplicity and sincerity. As the Buddha and other sages pointed out, if one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows as surely as a shadow follows a human being. The pursuit of pleasure, on the other hand, can only be banal, as Americanisation has shown it to be.
It does not take very much to meet basic needs, which can easily be met through the cooperative endeavours of individuals in any society. Competition for resources to satisfy wants creates the conditions for suspicion, rage, animosity and antagonism. The primitive urge to overpower some and control the rest unleashes the destructive forces of domination and resistance. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) had argued that life in the state of nature was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. But with a Leviathan at the helm of global affairs, life has now become disconsolate, deprived, revengeful and agonisingly unpredictable. The state of war of all against all that we now see is no longer just a transitory stage; it has become institutionalised as the permanent condition of existence.
The Americans of the mind residing in all corners of the world have begun to perceive ‘life, liberty and pursuit of happiness’ in the manner that their ideological idols have interpreted it. Militarisation of society has been established as the most effective means of protecting life. The US alone spends more on its armed forces than all its cronies and competitors put together, accounting for around 40 percent of the total military spending in the world. Liberty has come to mean the freedom to borrow from future generations. With a public debt of over USD 14 trillion, nearly as much as its GDP, the sole superpower is the biggest debtor in the world, and on the verge of turning a defaulter. And what about the noble pursuit of happiness? Well, that gives absolute freedom to bomb Afghanistan into the Stone Age, demolish Iraq, blow up Libya, and demonise Iran – all in the pursuit of securing control over the largest proven oil reserves in the world. It also means maintaining pressure on China, patronising India and chastising Pakistan now and again to maintain its hegemony.
The US model is intrinsically non-replicable: any attempt at imitation on a large scale will be considered aggression and automatically invite immediate retribution. Americans know that the planet’s carrying capacity is too limited for too many others to have lifestyles that consume equally high levels of per capita food, water and energy, and contribute as much to land, air and water pollution. The United Nations system, and the Bretton Woods institutions of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation have been designed to maintain the post-World War II global order. All that the aspiring countries can hope for is to become a dependable partner of the USA’s war-and-consumption machine.
The People’s Republic of China is the biggest lender. A faltering US economy will have grave consequences for China, a country that has ensured its prosperity by choosing to become the supplier of cheap goods to the largest consuming society. The European Union realised early on that the sturdy American defence umbrella was essential for its continued peace and prosperity. Even the ‘cheese-eating wimps’ of France have little option other than to line behind their masters when it comes to decisions such as bombing Tripoli or threatening Tehran.
In such a scenario, Pakistan cannot be faulted for sending the chief of its intelligence services to mend fences with the generals and spooks at the Pentagon. India will be forced to buy more American defence and nuclear products and increase its trade with the US. In Nepal, filling out forms for the Diversity Visa lottery is a national obsession, and the upper-middle classes take pride in shopping at American-style malls. The intelligentsia all over Southasia has been Americanised almost to the last man, without most of them having left their home countries even once. Lamentation is pointless; as Vishnu Nagar advises, Southasians will have to learn to accept the inescapable with a smile.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Republica daily of Kathmandu.