The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 8, 2002

US self-righteousness and the flip side
Shelley Walia

Granta 77: What We Think of America
edited by Ian Jack Spring. Granta Books, London. Pages 258. £8.99

Granta 77: What We Think of AmericaARIEL Dorfman, the playwright from Chile, watches a three-year-old American brat ruining a languid Chilean afternoon by the side of a pool in Jahuel. While the son shrieks and laughs, the mother sleeps in her bikini under a eucalyptus tree. The writer watches the sun set slowly on the slopes of the Andes while his girlfriend lies besides him, the promise of a quiet time shattered by this boy. As he looks at the toddler, he explains his fury: "If he had been brown-skinned and yelped in Spanish, I’d probably have forgiven him; who was I to deny him the right to be exasperating in his own land? Instead, he reminded me of who I had been, of my deep and recently forsaken allegiance to the United States and John Wayne, of my ten joyful years in Manhattan, of the Yankee identity which I was trying so hard to repudiate."

To him the mother and child signify the "many ways in which the US had dominated Latin America: its ownership of mines and fields and banks and ships, its proconsuls in Mexico and Buenos Aires and Bogoti, its invasions of Nicaragua and Cuba and Guatemala, its training of torturers, its coups in Brazil and Bolivia and Honduras… and the horror of Vietnam." Dorfman realises the insensitivity of the American nation, its "inability to grasp how intrusive bodies and loud mouths and naïve incomprehension grated on the world." With this flashing through his mind, he unresponsively lets time pass by as the kid slips into the icy water and begins to drown. He feels that the child had it coming to him (like America after 9/11) and it was none of his business to retrieve him. He rouses himself out of this inaction, rescues the boy and deposits him with his mother. He soon finds out that they both were at the same Louis Armstrong concert in Santiago. This common experience causes him to recognise how easy it is to move from Yankee-bashing to warming up to American culture.


This is one of the twenty-four experiences and opinions of writers such as Ariel Dorfman, Doris Lessing, Amit Chaudhuri, Michael Ignatieff, David Malouf, Harold Pinter and Ahdaf Soueif: these are some of the more celebrated names that figure in this collection of writings in the current issue of Granta. Most of them write as dissidents. How can a writer be unbiased or non-partisan? You cannot be free of ideology that somewhere or the other seeps into your thoughts as you convey them. But there are the complacent lot that have an inbuilt trait of resistance to thought. Imagine a qualified engineer in the West asking me to write a pro-American article which is unbiased? Such individuals survive through pro-establishment views and love for the status quo, forgetting how remarkable the American society is because of the inbuilt feature of dissent, a democratic right to put across your views freely.

Some of the more remarkable pieces on America, which Pinter says is a ‘fully-fledged monster…it knows only one language—bombs and death’ are by such writers who do not mince their words while airing their views on American duplicitous politics. What do we assume each time America is mentioned: horror, antipathy, jealousy, rage, wonder, hope? World opinion largely is of the view that what happened on September 11 was ‘good’ because Americans ‘now know what it’s like to be vulnerable’. But the writings of these eminent scholars and creative writers are not about this attack; they are about America’s penetration into the non-American lives "and to what effect, for good and bad and both."

Except for North Korea and Burma, there is no place on earth that does not come under American influence. The ambiguity of good and evil that lies at its core, the abomination and adulation of all that it has given to the world is one way of looking at a culture that sets high standards of freedom and tolerance and yet goes on to create diametrically opposite conditions in its international involvements. As Ramachandra Guha argues in this issue: "The truth about America is that it is at once deeply democratic and instinctively imperialist." Anti-Americanism in India, especially among the intellectuals, disparages the American notions of individuality, social mobility and the public scrutiny of corrupt officials.

The austere socialism of the Nehurivan era was a consequence of this antagonism towards America, which has now been replaced by consumer capitalism leading to ‘emulation’ of America rather than Britain. And in return India wants her to recognise it as a leader in South Asia. But as is amply visible, America continues to favour Pakistan in spite of its claims of fighting terrorism. The arrogance in America’s disrespect for the rulings of the International Court of Justice or its disregard for the global biodiversity treaty, its unwillingness to sign the ban on the production of landmines when it is so worried about weapons of destruction in Iraq all go to show the blatant hypocrisy of a country that talks the loudest about human rights. America only signs and honours those treatises which "it can both draft and impose on other countries, such as the agreement on Intellectual Property Rights."

Michael Ignatieff on the other hand finds America "the only country whose promises to itself continue to command the faith of people like me, who are not its citizens." It is fine to applaud the country, but what about its government and its agencies that play havoc with national sovereignty and the sanctity of non-interference?