Raza Habib Raja
So finally the time, which I had never wanted to come, has come. I will be leaving USA within a matter of days. We all have tendency to reflect back, whenever some important phase of our lives is ending. I am no exception and the only difference is that I am putting my thoughts on paper.
I came here and like many who have come here, fell in love with this arguably the greatest place to live. I was doubly fortunate to have come here as a student and study at one of the best educational institutions. Cornell’s campus is stunning and the city of Ithaca along with its gorges, lakes and waterfalls, is out of this world.
When 17th June arrives, the prospective date of my departure, I will have lived in USA for exactly one year and ten months. It is a long time though perhaps still not long enough to fully understand a complex and highly diversified country.
In fact the sheer expanse and immense diversity ( to which I have not even been properly exposed) , makes it so difficult to articulate a single narrative about this country. It is a country where so many ethnicities live and cultural variation is enormous. By no stretch of imagination, can you compare Texas with New York and even within these two obviously different states; there is enormous variation with respect to culture and ethnic mix.
Henry James had once said that America is not a country. America is like a world. There is so much truth to this statement. It is not that USA is the most powerful country which the world respects, emulates and at times even fears. It is because, it is like a world scaled down to fit in the geographical and political confines of a county. A single country ( i.e. USA) displays the same diversity as of the entire globe.
However, we can still make some broad inferences because after all one constitution exists all over USA. Moreover, USA is after all a sovereign state with definite boundaries and an overarching culture, which to the rest of the world is “American”.
When I came here, to a certain extent ( and to some of my friends a large extent), I was already harboring a soft corner for USA. This soft corner was present because unlike many of my countrymen, I did not think USA as a foe but as someone with whom we shared a complicated but largely beneficial relationship. But most importantly, I wholeheartedly believed that Islamic militants were our common enemies and while it was natural to argue over the right way to fight with them, nevertheless we needed to fight them.
However, this point of view of mine is of course not shared by majority of my country’s population. Survey after survey has shown that Pakistanis hate USA despite the fact that their country has received literally billions of dollars in aid.
These surveys are easily available online and literally every American can access them. And yet despite the hatred which my countrymen harbor for USA, I never heard a remark from any American against Pakistan. And you have to factor in the fact that Osama Bin Laden was found hiding in Pakistan. In fact the media also did not criticize Pakistan the way it should have, given the fact that 9/11 has left a permanent imprint on the collective US psyche.
When I arrived, the Osama Bin Laden’s assassination was barely a few months old and yet media had completely forgotten about it. In USA, I have continued to learn that foreign policy and what happens in the foreign lands, is seldom a concern unless US lives are directly at stake. Osama Bin Laden was an issue immediately after 9/11 but Americans largely forgot about him. Yes due to the lingering memories of 9/11, there were some celebrations but the episode then quickly faded into background as more pressing domestic issues took the center stage.
Despite the enormous power, which USA’s foreign policy has on the events of the world, it does not appear to be the very pressing concern for the USA’s own population. Hence, there appears to be a disconnect between population and the official US stance towards various issues. USA is a global power with a population which is excessively inward looking and concerned with domestic politics. Of course the exception is when US gets dragged into actual conflict and occupation such as Iraq, Vietnam and Afghanistan. Then the population gets involved mainly due to its concern for its own soldiers.
Most of times the average American is not even well informed about many global issues and about his own government’s stance. This disconnect has allowed Washington to pursue policies which have been based not on the “will of the people” but on realpolitik concerns. And on the “plus” side, has resulted in a population which remains remarkably tolerant of Pakistanis living in their midst despite the fact that anti American sentiments run extremely high in Pakistan.
I also witnessed a highly politically correct culture which actually works concomitantly with freedom of speech and in fact limits the potential negative excesses of the latter. Throughout my stay, I witnessed that while Americans love freedom but at the same time they also understand that such freedom comes with a responsibility. The most sensitive area of course is race and understandably due to legacy of slavery. Likewise, gender and religion ( of minorities) are also politically correct areas.
To a certain extent this is understandable due to the strong immigrant culture of USA. It is a melting pot and a multicultural society where ethnicity is becoming more and more important factor politically. In fact, the ethnicity virtually decided the 2012 Presidential elections. Despite a flagging economy, Obama was able to win because Republican Party has largely become a white party which is unable to connect with Blacks, Latinos and various other religious and ethnic groups.
However this culture of political correctness entails advantages as well as disadvantages. The advantage is that it helps social cohesion and inculcates respect of diversity. And on the flip side it has also heightened obsession with political correctness. At times, things which should be said clearly, are not said because a particular community may end up feeling hurt. Excessive political correctness has actually raised the communal, religious and ethnic sensitivity and has resulted in over carefulness. Prominent politicians are afraid of making gaffes particularly in front of media. One careless word or remark can put the entire campaign into serious jeopardy.
A times, this sensitivity can also be manipulated to seek advantage in court cases ( OJ Simpson) and also for fending off criticism. In USA, even legitimate criticism on both Islamic militancy as well as Israel’s aggression can easily be painted as Islamophobia and anti-Semitism respectively. Consequently, many a times, certain things despite being obvious are not even admitted let alone discussed.
I have developed a high respect of American Bills of Right, its constitution and democracy in these two years. Coming from a dysfunctional state, it is amazing to see how democracy actually works in a highly diversified and complex environment. Of course, US has the advantage of around 250 years of evolution behind it and this factor has to be incorporated in any analysis which is seeking comparative analysis.
With respect to American democracy, there are still loopholes which need to be rectified. I think that sometimes powerful lobbies are able to take advantage, of the representative nature of the democracy. The clearest example is the defeat of the bill seeking amendments in gun ownership. Despite the obvious danger which easy access to the guns pose, the NRA was able to get the bill defeated in the Senate. What made this even more ironical was the fact that almost all the opinion polls were showing support for the proposed amendments ( regarding background checks). Despite this the Senators voted against the bill. They were able to do so mainly because in a representative democracy like US, a single issue seldom becomes the sole issue. In the interim period between elections, Senators can vote against a popular bill and yet get reelected in the elections as voters eventually elect due to party affiliations and an overall assessment. Moreover, in US Senate, states are equally represented despite enormous population differences and consequently some less populated states are able to affect the policy discourse at the national level in a disproportionate way.
But despite these loopholes, American democracy is better than the most and it has been awesome experience to see it in action along with basic rule of law.
There is a chance that I may be back for my PhD in politics and that too within months ( as I have secured admission) so therefore I can not , as yet, say a final good bye. But since life is unpredictable, and often things are not fully under our control, there is also a chance that I may not come. In either case, these two years have been the most beautiful and wonderful years of my life.
Yes, USA is the most wonderful country in the world. And coming from a repressed society, I can appreciate it much more than many US citizens who take their privileges and freedom for granted.