4 min read.Updated: 27 Sep 2021, 01:14 AM ISTManu Joseph
Its influence shows little sign of decline even though it need not be such a bad thing if it happens
In the horror film Get Out, a secret fellowship of Caucasians lures talented African-Americans into their custody, often by saying all the right things to them. And then they transplant the brains of wealthy Whites into their victims, who start behaving like affluent Whites. While watching it, I thought this film could be about how American newspapers lure Indian opinion writers and transplant America inside them, after which they start writing like Americans.
Every Indian who watches Get Out may think it is about how the minds of their peers are rebooted to imitate Americans: The startup guy who did engineering as his parents insisted, married their pick of spouse, and produced ‘we-two-ours-two’ kids, and now suddenly want to “disrupt", that venture capitalist who indulges in a mission Asians almost never used to have—saving the world. That economist who knows the castes of his friends and foes but now talks of “Clash of Civilizations" as though it is some new thought. That writer who has started saying, “I am so stoked." And Indians who never read a single Indian newspaper but subscribe to The New York Times.
It is so easy for the US to co-opt the most refined, educated, talented and affluent sections (all of these are mutually exclusive) of the developing world, and make them comical imitators of some American ideal. But for many years now, we have been hearing that the US is in decline. The recent fiasco of its hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan has served as further evidence of its decay. And that it is not as influential politically, that not many nations are scared of it, that it has its own economic problems, that China has eroded its clout, and that, all things considered, America is not the great place it used to be. If US politics is ever united, it is in conveying the dirge that the country is sinking.
But that is not the sense you get when you are outside the US, and perhaps outside the paywalls of its self-flagellating liberal media. In all important ways, the US is an extraordinary nation. They talk a lot about what is wrong with them (because they talk a lot about everything), but they identify and solve their economic problems with exceptional speed. Their science is stronger than before; their financial industry thrives, their entertainment, which is honest because it is primarily for domestic consumption, still enthralls the world. A high proportion of the developing world’s young wish to live there. The chief aim of upper middle-class Indian schooling is to deposit children and a chunk of their parents’ wealth in America in the name of higher education. And what is called ‘global literature’ or ‘global cinema’ is what America’s artistic establishment considers cutely foreign but still familiar. If anything, America is growing more influential. Chiefly because of its flaws. All its bumbles and wounds and all that chest-beating make it more real and humbler than Rambo’s America.
The decline of America is more humanities lament than fact. But the decline itself, if it happens, may not be a bad thing for the rest of the world.
Before American, there was British dominance. I am not old enough to remember the isles’ political dominance, but as a literature student, I could not escape its cultural dominance. My first realization that books can be bad too was when I was formally introduced to British literature. Among the big injustices of colonialism has to be the veneration of mediocre aristocratic writers and “thinkers".
By the 1990s, the American hold over contemporary culture was complete, but abstract things were still influenced by the British, like the moral supremacy of secularism, and the unhinged idea of socialism, and the intellectual inferiority of nationalism. Liberation from British cultural torture freed the thinking of a new generation of influential Indians. That indeed is what it took for many Indians to understand there was more than one right ideology, more than one right way for a nation to be, and that many virtuous ‘isms’ were merely thought experiments.
The decline of a global cultural force clears the minds of locals. And the decline of America may free Indians from overestimating American things at the cost of all that is Indian. But American colonialism does not derive most of its power from overrated antics. Rather, its power comes from truly exquisite creations. Like the way they make tech and films and TV series and music. Even journalism. This need not be a good thing, because they are inadvertent tools of co-option. Upscale Indians try to imitate all that is good and American, and it just does not work so well here.
Take one of America’s powerful exports: modern activism. The singular evangelical idea of what is moral and that you can torment an elected government that does not agree with you through anarchy is not dangerous for US activists because its human rights movement is legally empowered. In India, given our grey zones of law, it is not the same. Blind imitation of American activism, thus, could easily ruin the lives of idealistic youngsters. Think of what happened to fans of democracy in Hong Kong.
A decline of America will also reduce the migration of Indians to that nation. I am not concerned about the comically-conceited idea of “brain drain". In fact, the movement of the privileged has given opportunities to those from more modest families here. But if no Indian ever wants to flee India, that will increase their stake in the country. When we know we cannot flee, we stop mouthing grand philosophies and ideologies about nationhood, and instead do banal things like cleaning the air and water and the roads.
Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’
Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.
Never miss a story! Stay connected and informed with Mint.
our App Now!!