The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Contradictions in the American mind

Remember Robert McNamara, one of the best and brightest of American whizkids of the immediate post-World War II generation' John F. Kennedy picked McNamara as his defence secretary. The formidable academic persona set his heart to bully the Vietnamese into serfdom, or what, according to the official US lexicon, was freedom and democracy. In the process, McNamara razed down fields and factories and Napalmed village after village, even as his ground troops indulged in My Lai- type of grisly killings. These horrifying deeds apparently did not matter, saving Vietnam for democracy did. McNamara learned the lesson of his life within a short spell of three to four years: Vietnam was no easy picking and there were other definitions of freedom and democracy than what the Americans have taught themselves to believe in.

The Tet offensive rendered into a shambles the US war strategy. McNamara, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, resigned from his post. Like the Indian emperor, Asoka the Great, who turned other-worldly following the bloodbath caused by his Kalinga expedition, McNamara too grew penitent and waited to migrate from mass extermination of lesser human beings to philanthropy. The American administration was kind and understanding. The World Bank is a fief of the US government and it was a mere formality to install McNamara as its president. McNamara spent his tenure in the Bank to give shape to 'the human face' of US-sponsored global development efforts; one consequence was his co-authorship of the structural adjustment programme, which has actually further impoverished hapless citizens in the poorer parts of the world.

Three-and-a-half decades later, a near-analogous situation. Paul Wolfowitz, the US deputy defence secretary, was the strategist behind the Iraq war, including presumably the fiction of Saddam Hussein's stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction. The American establishment thinks that it has won that war and Wolfowitz deserves a reward. Quite fortuitously, the slot of president of the World Bank has once more fallen vacant; Wolfowitz has been named to the post. As soon as his nomination was announced, the US deputy defence secretary, expansiveness personified, assured each and everybody that his goal as World Bank boss would be to promote the objectives of US foreign policy.

Since, as far as the American administration is concerned, foreign policy and defence policy are indistinguishable, the World Bank, it follows, will henceforth pursue, most aggressively, the US global war against terror, but by another name. For instance, the Bank will plot ceaselessly to harm Iran and Venezuela and shower bounty on good boys such as Saudi Arabia and Ivory Coast.

The point at issue is, however, somewhat different. To the US administration, it is all the same whether the position of the World Bank chief is availed of to give away a consolation prize or a victory trophy. Insensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of the rest of the world is supreme. The average American too, it must be said, is not bothered with happenings outside his own country; such things are left to the care of their president and his entourage.

Consider the case of another former American whizkid, Lawrence Summers. Roughly a dozen years ago, when Summers was the chief economist of the World Bank ' or was he then the US treasury's deputy secretary' ' it does not matter, these posts are interchangeable, he pronounced a theory about what to do with American industrial units with the worst pollution-creating record. It would be most unwise, he surmised, to let these units continue their operations in the US; that would aggravate the health risk for US citizens.

The lives of men and women whose per capita income is about the highest in the world should not be wasted away; the offending units must be removed from American soil. Summers hit upon the wonderful idea of offering these units as free gifts to poor under-developed countries. These countries hanker after foreign aid. Let the US be generous and offer them a free package of polluted industries. Once these industries are installed in the poorer countries, of course the health of some natives would deteriorate fast, some of them might even die. So what' Beggars cannot be choosers; the per capita income in the poorer nations is infinitesimally small compared to what it is in the US; the net loss to the world from the death of some relatively inefficient people in the underdeveloped countries would be much less than if the industries were kept going in the US. This is, Summers explained, economic optimization from the global point of view.

The Summers suggestion provoked a storm of protest in Asia, Africa and Latin America. But not so much either in the US or in west Europe. There was at most an indulgent comment from the fraternity Summers belonged to: boys were bound to be boys, Larry was up to one of his pranks.

The same Larry Summers is now up to a different kind of mischief. In his capacity as the president of Harvard University, he recently made the wisdom-laden observation that because women are innately inferior to men in their ability to perform at mathematics and science, their representation in these areas is poor. Outrage is reverberating across the US in the wake of this Summers remark. The women's libbers are up in arms; they have solid support, most understandably, from their male comperes.

Forced on the backfoot, the Harvard president has eaten his words and issued an abject apology. A sense of misgiving creeps in precisely here. Nobody succeeded in making Summers don sackcloth and ashes for his theory of exportation of pollutant industries to poorer lands. No groundswell of revulsion took place in the US against his proposition that reeked of ethnic chauvinism. Compassion, it appears, is only for the home species. What does not pollute American society does not excite American citizens.

But, then, it is a mixed-up society; reflexes and reactions to thoughts and events often take a queer course. Americans feel strongly about the right of self-defence; carrying arms is supposed to be an integral part of civil liberties enshrined in their constitution. Despite several attempts, no gun control statute could be legislated in the country. Anyone, irrespective of age and other specificities, can walk into a gun shop and pick lethal weapons, no licence is necessary. Inevitably, grisly incidents take place from time to time, for example, the one in Bemidji, Minnesota; a teenager shoots dead his grandfather and his companion, then drives to his school where he kills a security guard, a teacher and five classmates before taking his own life.

This is not the first time that such an incident has happened in the US. In fact, such a festival of gory deaths is part of American folklore. And yet, the same American society, deeply conscience-stricken, tries to keep technically alive a Florida woman, who has been brain-dead for the last fifteen years. Her other organs were sustained by tube-feeding throughout these years. The husband wanted an end to this farce, the parents objected vigorously; intervention by the judiciary became unavoidable. The husband won the legal battle and tube-feeding arrangements were about to be discontinued. At this juncture, the right-to-life lobby stirred itself: the US Congress hastily passed a law quashing the husband's jurisdiction in the matter, President George W. Bush promptly signed the piece of legislation. But the judiciary was still unreconciled and a legislative-judiciary confrontation clouded the picture, until the parents bowed to the inevitable.

Contradictions in the human mind, or, as some would particularize it, contradictions in the American mind. Americans do not mind handing a gun to a school boy so that he could merrily shoot down a dozen citizens. They, however, very much mind the formal surcease of the life of a brain-dead woman.

We have to take into account these contrarinesses and insensitivities in the American character. We have to, for the American nation is currently the world's overlord and is likely to remain so for some while.

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