America is the popular girl who peaked in high school: previously loved by the boys and feared by the girls. But in 2020 she graduates — and becomes pathetic.
The ‘Great America’
Jay Gatsby has it all. The flamboyant Rolls-Royce, the European-inspired mansion, and the decadent but fascinating parties we all secretly wish to attend; that is, of course, until Daisy chooses wealth over love and crushes not only his heart, but metaphorically the American dream.
And yet, one hundred years later that dream lives on inside millions of people globally — myself included.
For as long as I can remember, I have had what retrospect showed me is an infatuation with America. A firm believer in the fruits of hard-work and perseverance, the American ethos rang in my ears like a magnificent harmony in the ears of a blind person: democracy, rights, liberty, and equality.
And yet, it wasn’t always a flawless harmony. I condemned both its national and international atrocities, like the invasion of Iraq or their lack of public healthcare. But although the decisions themselves were not always correct, the commendable rhetoric, upheld by an iron fist by a succession of presidents, always made them reputable. Regardless of whether I loved or hated America at a particular moment, I always respected it.
By choosing it to pursue a university education, my own American Dream began to be carved. Then, 2020 came.
An unhealthy obsession
Horrific images of street prejudice flooded the internet. Millions thought that wearing a mask to save a life was an outrageous request. Then, the country’s President turned a debate into a bad reality show. At that moment, I realised that America was slowly falling from grace.
As if my own country had failed me, I felt betrayed by this diminishment of stature, and was not mild in my criticism. I vowed not to forget any names robbed of justice. I shared with anyone who was prepared to listen on what a terrible job Trump was doing.
But I began to question why I’m so invested in America, and why I feel personally attacked by all the decisions taken across the Atlantic. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was only one amongst a sea of patients suffering from one and the same condition affecting the Western world.
An obsession with America is a Western phenomenon. Culturally, we grew up with American TV shows and music. Politically, socially, and economically we not only observe America’s struggles, but feel them.
A black man is killed in Minneapolis and a tsunami of anti-racist demonstrations break out in London, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon and Sydney. Then, statues of George Washington, Winston Churchill, and Leopold II are simultaneously vandalised in the United States, Britain, and Belgium. As the prospect of a turbulent transition of power floats over the upcoming election, European leaders are anxious for their own security.
The ripple effect
Whenever a wave breaks in America, it floods over into the Western world.
What is interesting is that outside of America, national grievances rarely make the same international headlines. How come we’re not in the streets protesting about the Hindu nationalist riots that took place in February, which killed over 45 Muslims and are just one example of the anti-Muslim violence growing under the Bharatiya Janata Party? And why aren’t we seeing an Instagram post everyday about the 400 Chinese concentration camps incarcerating Uighurs, or about the ongoing Yemen civil war?
We react more strongly to injustices taking place in the United States than anywhere else in the world. But why?
At face value the answer might seem straightforward: America holds a hegemony over foreign affairs due to its economic, military, and nuclear superiority and has done so since the Cold War.
There is certainly historical truth in this argument. Having been less affected than other world powers, the United States emerged from WWII with unmatched industrial and atomic strength, and leveraged that power in peace negotiations to further strengthen its ‘leader of the free-world’ role.
However, America no longer stands alone at the top of the global power pyramid. Other countries can check its power, namely: China.
China the challenger?
China has developed long-range ballistic missiles which match US weapons, positioned in the South China Sea, and expanded economically through such infrastructural schemes as the Belt and Road Initiative. Although not closing the US-China power gap completely, this bridging is increasingly forcing the US to be mindful of the consequences of its international actions.
The moral purity acquired by the US in the post-war world is something that has been in steady decline since its involvement in Iraq and Vietnam, and more recently by Trump’s amity with Putin.
The false mirror
America’s hold over the Western world lies not in its hard power but in its soft power presence.
Being loosely regarded as the place where democracy and capitalism — the systems uniting most of the Western world — work in their purest form, it’s also the place where both the achievements and the flaws of these systems are most evident and exacerbated. The rich are richer, but the poor are poorer. The free are more liberated, but the repressed are more tyrannised. The best is better, the worst is worse.
The rest of the West looks at America through a deceptive carnival mirror, where a distorted image is being reflected.
Unlike with Russia and China — where we can blame their shortcomings on autocratic leadership, illiberalism, or any other contrasting practice to that found in the West — American problems signal more deeply-rooted and commonly shared institutional issues. American failures are harder to accept because they are our own failures; and we hate to see the progressive veil we all cover ourselves with slip away.
By identifying with and instinctively focusing on America, we place it on a pedestal. Effectively, zooming in with a magnifying glass makes us enraged when we come face-to-face with all its (and our) flaws.
The blurring effect
The magnifying glass held over America paradoxically and simultaneously blurs our vision when it comes to our own uncomfortable truths.
We criticise America for refusing to deal with its past; airbrushing such things as the brutality of the slave trade from its textbooks. And yet, when my friend asked her teacher why the British curriculum doesn’t teach students their colonialist history in India, the answer was: ‘because we’re ashamed of it’.
While everyone knows the name ‘George Floyd’, hardly anyone knows of ‘Pedro Matos Pinto; — a 14-year-old boy who was killed during a botched police operation. Brazil, a country which having had more slaves than any other in the world, is still structurally segregated and struggles with police brutality every day. What’s more, 75 per cent of those who struggle are black.
Nonetheless, we associate America with greatness and become enraged whenever it fails to fulfil this epithet. We associate Brazil with another set of epithets: brutality and misery. In the face of injustices, we become placid because they are expected.
It’s important for us to look at the US for the sake of introspection. However, we must also begin looking beyond it, since staring at a mirror for too has made us oblivious to our surroundings.
Given that I’ve spent the last couple of days researching America and writing an article about it, I’ll be the first to take my own advice.