M Rajivlochan looks back at the works of non-fiction that were predominantly US-centric
The George Patton character, in the eponymous film, exhorts American soldiers to kill enemy soldiers and thus help them make the supreme sacrifice for their country. Making others sacrifice for a cause, without doing any on one’s own has been a persistent trait with Americans. They take their own safety and security very seriously.
Preempt all threats. If in the process others suffer, that is just their ill luck. This is a trait which has made them the most powerful country on earth, riding roughshod over all others. As a result, what concerns the security of America becomes the concern of everyone else. That is the only way to explain why a government report, full of tedious and badly edited interviews and very US-centric ideas, ended up being one of the most widely read piece of non-fiction in 2004. This was the Report of National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. Created as an independent, bipartisan commission by legislation of the US Congress in late 2002, the 9-11 Commission was chartered to prepare a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, including preparedness for and the immediate response to the attacks. Interestingly, not once does this report mention that America’s cannibalistic streak – the desire to masticate all other nations and people for selfish ends – breeds world wide opposition.
The American way of life and how it is threatened by other peoples of the world concerns Who Are We: the Challenges to America’s National Identity by Samuel P Huntington. More and more people from Mexico, China, Philippines, India and Cuba reach the shores of the US and try to retain their own cultural traits without merging with the WASP culture.
The American melting pot is thus becoming more of a multi-layered pizza and Huntington finds it quite threatening. He is unable to comprehend that the American values which he so wants to save could best survive were they to become the base of the pizza, giving a reason for all other ingredients to exist with their respective flavours and colours.
Boiling everything into a singular glop in the melting pot may not be the way of the 21st century. However, this simple point may be understood by a future-looking historian, while a past-oriented political scientist, such as Huntington is, only flounders around in the ethnic complexity that is coming up in America.
A similar confusion prevails in yet another widely read US prescription for the world order. This time by Professor Francis Fukuyama in his State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century. Fukuyama urges Americans to go ahead and help other states develop "responsible government institutions".
The tremendous destruction in Iraq caused by a similar US effort goes substantially un-remarked. After all, that is the price that others pay for ensuring American security.
US security concerns, this time with India in mind, were mentioned in the gentle narrative presented by Strobe Talbott in his Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb. Unlike the brimstone and fire spewing professors the politician emphasises dialogue. He recalls the manner in which his numerous talks with the Indian Foreign Minister helped improve Indo-American relations after three decades of freeze. That happened because the Americans were willing, for once, to understand and appreciate India’s concerns.
Another politician, whose book over-shadowed many others, was Bill Clinton. Considered one of the most intelligent of American presidents, Clinton’s autobiography, My Life, was immediately picked up by many who wished to get an insight into the man who scandalised the world with his personal behaviour. "Politics is a contact sport", he says, and explains in excruciatingly great detail how he was able to become President and what it feels to be one. With this one book, over 1,000 pages long, Clinton has ensured that the public now has one of the most complete and detailed autobiography written by any public person. While Clinton exposes so much, P C Alexander hides a lot. His Through the Corridors of Power — An Insider’s Story, gives little insight into the working of our government or politicians. Above all, he manages to hide well the details of how he was able to ensure that his bureaucratic fortunes waxed while that of his political masters waned.
A much more engrossing autobiographical narrative is in the Chronicle of an Impossible Election: The Election Commission and the 2002 Jammu & Kashmir Assembly Elections by James Michael Lyngdoh. It is about a people who wanted an election but were scared to contest and vote.
They had been betrayed so many times by their own leaders and those from the national capital that it required the special effort of a very special man to enable them to fulfil their democratic desires. This book is about how a dedicated bureaucrat, unafraid of saying and doing the right thing, committed to the Indian constitution without any ifs and buts intervening can help the growth of democracy in India.
Strengthening democracy underpins the dialogue that Mani Shankar Aiyar has with the ghost of Arun Shourie in his Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist. Even while being unfair to Arun Shourie’s arguments regarding the role played by communally minded Muslim and Congress leadership in undermining Indian democracy, Aiyar makes a powerful point: that the only way India can survive is by providing all communities space for living with dignity and equality in our multi-cultural society.
Looking at history and society with a long face seems unacceptable to Gautam Bhatia who retells the history of the twentieth century in his own inimitable way in his Comic Century: An Unreliable History of the 20th Century. Strictly for those who already know history and like to laugh, this book tells of how Gandhi gate-crashed the Round Table Conference wearing only a pancha, Neils Bohr split the atom with a knife and Pablo Picasso insisted that the natural existentialist never used contemporary reality as a cover for social and political change.