In a comment on my musings on “An entirely avoidable tragedy”, Jack Stack wrote
You are quick to point out issues (again) with the US. Yep, Iraq, but at the same time, we’ve done quite a bit for literally every nation since we became a nation. We can debate the merits of capitalism, democracy, etc or we can understand that India is still a young country that has needs – similar to many other countries.
I can appreciate Jack’s point of view. I stand entirely justifiably accused of pointing a finger at the US for much of the avoidable tragedies of the world. Only powerful nations are capable of great harm and one has to merely observe the world with a little bit of care to realize how much of the blame for the present state of the world rests at the feet of the mighty.
I am an equal opportunity offender. I do not discriminate. If I see something rotten in the state of Denmark, I say it. When I see something rotten in my motherland (India, and there is a heck of a lot of rotten stuff here), I say it. It may offend patriotic Indians but that is an occupational hazard of being a patriot. So also, despite all my love for many things that the US is responsible for, when I note the horrors that US foreign policy inflicts on the weak, I am offended. I am offended not as an Indian or as an American (having lived for over 20 years in the US, I am well aware of how much American is in me), but as a human. Living in a place far away (in every sense of the term) from one’s land of birth should cure anyone of the myopia common to most people which imprisons them within a parochial chauvinism. It is to that myopic viewpoint that I will address myself in this bit.
Why, some have asked me, do I always appear to criticize India and many things Indian? The reason is simple: I was born in India and I have very strong emotional attachments to the land of my ancestors. In some sense, you may even say that I love this place—however much I would like to say that this place is not very lovable. I care about what happens in here, I care about how the people of India live, I care about how India affects the world, I care about how India is perceived by others. I care about India in the same sense that I care about my friends and family. That immediately gives me the right to tell them where they screwed up and the responsibility to help them with their misfortunes. I will be fairly content to see a stranger screw up perhaps, but I will be damned if I will stand by and watch impassively my best friend behave like an idiot.
With maturity comes the realization that one is not just an Indian, or an Indian with a bit of American thrown in, but that one is a member of the extended human family. For convenience and tradition, that great family has been fragmented into so many warring groups. But in the end, we all are pretty much members of one big unhappy family. Some of us have more money, or are more educated, or have different pigmentation. But seen from a sufficiently far remove, we are fairly indistinguishable. We have the same hopes and aspirations, fears and longings, desires and dreams. Our station in life is dictated by a random draw that was made by forces beyond our imagination even, leave alone our control.
Each of us is like the turtle on top of a ten-foot pole: it did not get there by itself. Someone else put it up there. Can we really take any justifiable pride in being where we are? Do we inherit some merit because someone who lived in the same geographic area centuries ago did something great? What does it mean to say that a certain discovery was made by Einstein and therefore the average Jew feels somehow privileged for being a Jew? Or that the Buddha was born in the Indian subcontinent and gained enlightened in Bodh Gaya and therefore all present day residents of that land have reason to be proud of that fact?
As I see it, fundamentally, I neither inherit merit nor blame for what others who I claim kinship with have done or not done. But if one must, for whatever reason, inherit stuff, I think that one must expand one’s kinship relationship to include the whole of humanity and become responsible for the entire bundle—the good and the bad. What I am objecting to is two-fold: first, the notion of defining one’s kinship restrictively. Saying that I am an American and I will take pride in only American stuff. Second, selectively defining what one would like to inherit. I am an American and I am proud of all the great stuff that Americans have done. I reject that sort of parochial myopic hubris.
Now back to the point that Jack raised. He wrote, “ … we’ve done quite a bit for literally every nation since we became a nation.” True. Let’s inquire into that, shall we? The US is a powerful nation. How did it become so powerful? By the ingenuity of a fairly hardworking people together with a good deal of natural resources. And let’s not forget a great deal of slave labor. And a lot of foreign capital from its European ancestors. Of course, during the great wars (and following the wars), the US did a fair bit for its European allies. The Marshall Plan comes to mind. The US helped Europe’s reconstruction and in doing so also helped itself immeasurably.
The US has been the epicenter of practically all major inventions and innovations spanning every known technology from telecommunications to modern electronic computers. Europe used to be the center of the universe but that center shifted to the US early last century. US was the birthplace of great modern institutions, from public libraries to national parks. The US constitution is one of the more enlightened documents ever penned by fallible human hands. One cannot talk of the modern world without reference to the US.
Moving on, the US is the nation which invented the true weapons of mass destruction, from the nuclear bombs to deadly chemical and biological weapons. The US is the greatest manufacturer and exporter of weapons the world has ever known. It has been the only nation to have used nuclear weapons, not once but twice on enemy civilians. It has also used its own citizens for experiments involving radiation and chemical weapons. The US has initiated more conflict in more foreign nations than any other single country. It routinely helps with instigating conflict and then supplying arms to both sides of the conflict. Where it is not directly involved in the start of the conflict, it profits handsomely from the continuance of the conflict. Case in point: the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan.
The British, on their way out, made sure that Indian independence will come at a cost to be paid for over many decades. Those worthies (sic) that took over the control of the country let the problem get out of hand. The birth of the Kashmir problem had a British midwife and Nehru nursed it with extreme care and raised it as a bastard child paradoxically claimed by two parents. Pakistan is the clear violator of international norms in this conflict. If it had been in the interest of the US for this costly conflict to end, it would have ended. But one of the primary reasons this conflict continues is that the US profits from it. Every so often the US rewards the terrorist state of Pakistan with billion-dollar free military aid so that Pakistan would continue to bleed India directly, and indirectly India would have to buy billion-dollar worth of sophisticated weapons from the US to balance the weapons that Pakistan gets for free from the US.
Around the world, the US destabilizes often legitimately elected governments, and props up heinous dictators, whilst all the while lecturing others very loudly about democracy. It bombs pharmaceutical factories to distract attention from the sexual shenanigans of its president. Or kills a hundred thousand uninvolved civilians out of a fit of rage arising from having three thousand killed on its soil by people who the US helped create. No country is safe from the doctrine of pre-emptive first strike that the US has enunciated lately.
Besides being the most powerful nation on the earth, it is also the most indebted nation on earth. The world lends the US two billion dollars every day through various means. Though slavery is abolished in the US since many years, the products of slave labor continue to enrich the lives of those who live in the US. Chinese products flood the market. So also the “slave labor” that is engaged in producing labor-intensive goods in underdeveloped third world countries which have to export primary goods partly to pay for the weapons that the US exports.
Practically anyone who has even a passing interest in world affairs realizes the double standards that the US employs. Unfortunately, the majority of Americans are ignorant of the effects of the US foreign policy. Proof: the Americans twice elected a bunch of war-mongering neo-conservatives and gave them practically unlimited powers to wreak havoc on the world.
Powerful and irresponsible, US foreign policy condemns the world to a state of perpetual war. The US spends more on weapons of mass destruction than the combined expenditure of the next seven war-mongering states. That needless waste of global resources diverts resources from the abjectly poor of the world and millions die every year in far off lands because of the greed for power of the few who direct the US policy. That is why I claim that natural disasters like the recent tsunami cannot hold a candle to the destructive power of humans.
No man is an island, as the poet meditated and said that we are all connected. Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. So also, we cannot but bear responsibility for the inhumanity we humans impose on others both human and non-human.
[This is a repost. I had originally posted it sometime before January 2005 but for some reason its status changed to “draft” from “published”. One commentator took offense at my pointing fingers at the US in a recent post. So I searched for this article and could not find it. Even tried the “Way Back Machine.” Finally I did a google desktop search (thanks Google!) and found it. So I am reposting it.]