The Twentieth Century will be American by Alfredo Valladao. Translated by John Howe. Published by Verso, London, UK. 1996. pp 224. Hbk: US$24.95.
It is bad enough when Americans indulge in jingoism and proclaim the non-existent virtue of their country. It is infinitely worse when non-Americans start drum-beating about it. Perhaps it is then time for some serious reflection.
The Brazilian writer, Alfredo Valladao, who currently resides in Paris where he writes for La Fohla de Sao Paulo, says that the next century belongs to America. His argument is that America is not only a military `superpower’ but that it alone has a global vision. Valladao says that the US has the three qualities needed for supreme power - unequal military force, the biggest and most dynamic economy on the planet, and a culture with universal ambitions.
One would have thought that someone like Valladao would be more realistic in his assessment. After all, he comes from Brazil, a vast country, which like its Latin American neighbours, is at the receiving end of American imperialism. South America has been reduced essentially to an American colony since the enunciation of the Monroe doctrine.
It is interesting to note how every American president feels that he must have a doctrine even if he cannot spell the word or explain what it means. Someone as ill-informed and ill-educated as Ronald Reagan also had a doctrine. The man was not even capable of stringing together a dozen word-sentence without cue cards, but then, it is America. An even more recent example was that Dan Quayle who cannot spell potato!
It is important, however, to examine the hypotheses advanced by Valladao about America’s `greatness.’ Perhaps he has overlooked Vietnam, Lebanon or Somalia. None of them had any significant military fire power. America’s debacle in Vietnam may be excused on the ground that it was so far away from home and the war was never popular at home. American boys simply refused to be drafted after Walter Cronkite declared from Saigon that America could not win the war!
So the Vietnam war was lost because Cronkite said it could not be won. Fair enough. What about Lebanon? There, Cronkite, or John Chancellor for that matter, did not say that the war could not be won. It took only a few truck bombers to send the mighty marines packing home.
Somalia is an even more illustrative case. It has no government to speak of. There are only a few rag-tag groups led by warring warlords battling for control of various pieces of territory.
When the American marines landed there in December 1992, they did so under the figleaf of the United Nations peacekeeping force. More revealing, the television cameras were there to record the entire event when the marines waded ashore, as if it were a hollywood movie. In less than a year after 18 US soldiers were killed, the brave Americans decided that they had had enough. They fled the war-torn country without a trace.
These examples have been cited to draw attention to the fact that America may have the weapons but it has no stomach for a fight nor to withstand any significant degrees of losses. American boys - and girls - would rather be having `fun’ than dying in some far off place. Dying is no fun since their belief is that you only live once, so you might as well enjoy it!
These simple examples belie Valladao’s claim that America alone has the military force and the will to use it, to lead the world. It is also interesting to note that America usually takes on the most defenceless countries - or at least those that are perceived by it as defenceless until it finds otherwise - for a fight.
Proponents of the `America is great’ theory may cite the example of Iraq. It should be borne in mind that Iraq was a rare case. One would be hard-pressed to find other rulers as stupid - and as totally devoid of any feelings for the plight of his people - as Saddam Husain. Besides, Saddam is almost certainly an American agent. For more than six months, he allowed the Americans to build their forces and he sat pretty in Baghdad deluding himself into believing that the US will not dare attack him because they cannot afford any casualties.
Iraq is like a soccer field where its lay totally exposed to aerial bombardment. This was not a real war since there was no shooting from the other side. It was a turkey-shoot in which the Iraqi conscripts were like sitting ducks. Saddam himself sent tens of thousands of his soldiers to a certain death by his insane policy. For him the only thing that mattered was his personal survival even it meant the total destruction of Iraq.
With regard to America’s economic muscle, Valladao has perhaps not seen the inner cities’ decay. Most urban centres in America are dying of rot and lack of repair. It was Oscar Wilde who in his inimitable style had said, `America is a country that has gone from barbarism to decadence without going through the intervening stage of civilization.’ One has yet to improve on this description of America.
America’s economic might is based not on its own ingenuity but on policies and practices that are so totally discriminatory as to be laughable. If selling hamburgers and coke around the world are signs of economic vitality, then America is an economic giant. But neither the junk-filled Macdonald’s hamburger nor the gas-filled coke are signs of greatness.
America - and the west in general - talks about free trade but imports from `third world’ countries are severely restricted. Even such hard-pressed countries as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, for instance, have to limit their export of textiles to the US. On the other hand, America insists that these countries, and indeed all others, must open their markets for American goods.These are not signs of a country that is confident of its own strength. These are signs of weakness. There are other signs of distress as well.Increasingly, America is becoming a society of unequals. The average American in less well-off today than he/she was in 1973. The top one percent of the population controls 42 percent of the country’s wealth. The inequality is so extreme that the richest one percent of American families have more wealth than the entire bottom 95 percent, according to Holly Sklar, a writer on socio-economic and political affairs (Z Magazine, May 1995).
America as a society is bristling with contradictions. There are numerous fault lines. The black/white divide, despite 30 years of legislation and affirmative action, has deepened. Racism is so deep in the American psyche that the system automatically views every black person as a thief, rapist, mugger or murderer. The 1993 beating of motorist Rodney King by Los Angeles police which was caught on an ameteur video camera reflected the ugly reality of life in America.There are other disturbing statistics as well. America’s 55 percent divorce rate is the highest in the world. More than 30 percent of all children are born illegitimate - second only to the northern Europeans in such exotic qualities.
Then one has to look at the prison population. America sends the highest number per capita of its population to prison. This is even higher than the figures for South Africa during the apartheid era. And that says much about life in America. Blacks constitute an overwhelming majority of the prison population - 42 percent - compared with their total population of some 20 percent at the most. The American justice system is deliberately loaded against the poorest segment of the population.
Blacks are not the only ones affected by such injustices. Even the white population is beginning to feel the inequalities. The phenomenal rise in the growth of white militias, while extremely inimical to blacks, is indicative of the hostility that is brewing against the federal government. These fault-lines, though not serious enough to lead to the break-up of America as a country, can be a serious problem in the event of America’s military engagement abroad. The militias have attracted a significant number of people from the armed forces as well.
Valladao, of course, papers over such problem areas. Sitting far away, for him the grass appears greener on the other side. This seems to be the problem with most people in the `third world’. They appear to have completely swallowed the propaganda about America’s greatness. New York is projected around the world as a great tourist attraction until one actually arrives there. The filthy sites that one encounters on the way from John F Kennedy airport to downtown Manhattan is an eye-opener.
Valladao obviously could not be oblivious of these facts. Why then does he indulge in drum-beating about the ‘mighty’ USA? There can be many reason, but the simple fact is that he is utterly wrong.
The one area where he has got it right is that America seems to behave with a global vision. Perhaps global reach may be a more appropriate term. Having plundered the resources of the world and prepared to fight to keep it that way, it is not surprising. But to say that this situation will continue and that America will come out on top, is to stretch the limits of credulity.
Gangsterism has never got anybody very far. It is not military muscle, nor indeed economic muscle that ultimately determines the greatness of a society. Moral values and a sense of justice and fairness determine greatness. Unfortunately, America lacks these vital qualities to an greater degree than others.America’s ‘greatness’ - if one may call it that - was from the second world war to the debacle of the Vietnam war. Eversince, it has been trying to shake off the Vietnam syndrome. The obscene slaughter perpetrated during the Gulf War failed to shake that off. America has not and is not likely to regain its self-confidence. A country that did not have the twentieth century all to itself cannot possibly have the twenty-first century either.
No amount of drum-beating can conceal this vital fact.
Muslimedia: April 1996-August 1996