Do dissenting liberals take the positive aspects of their country for granted?

June 15, 2006 | By | 2 Replies More

A few years ago, a play written by Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”, “Munich”), titled “Homebody/Kabul” was staged in America. It tells the tale of a frustrated British housewife, who tries to overcome the monotony that engulfs her everyday life by escaping into her perceptions of Afghanistan, a mystical land which she claims accounted for the ‘dawn of civilization’. Her perceptions of the country are based on travel book, which obviously presents a white-washed picture of the country. 

Though the play was staged after the 9/11 attacks, it was written well before it. Hence, there are no references to the attack, but there are plenty of references to the Taliban. Nevertheless, once the housewife (named ‘Ms. Homebody’) travels to Afghanistan, she disappears. Her husband and daughter, who follow her to Afghanistan in search of her, are shocked to find an Afghanistan completely different from the one their wife had talked to them about. It is a country steeped in poverty and utter misogyny.

Though I have read reviews of the play, it has not been staged anywhere in the vicinity of my country (India), and hence, I haven’t seen it. But I urge anybody lucky enough to be living in America make use of any opportunity you have to see the play (note that I said “lucky enough to be living in America”; an interesting precursor to what I’m about to say), as this play deals with tendency of many people (particularly liberals) to become cynical of their culture, and idealize other cultures in comparison, without understanding all aspects of the other culture they’re talking about.

Cynicism is an attitude which you wouldn’t find among most people in India. Almost all Indians are “proud” of their country, although one-third of its population lives in abject poverty.  Except for in the field of architecture, it has made no particular progress in any other field in the past 2000 years. Though they may claim that they are proud to live in a country which has “preserved” its traditions for thousands of years, the way I see it is, they are proud of the country simply because they were born here. In contrast, there is a minuscule minority (of which I believe I am a part of) which associates the country’s unchanging traditions with cultural stagnation, and is horrified at the state of the economically backward sections in the country, and more so, the apathy of rest of the population and the administration towards them.     

I’ve always insisted that you’ve never seen poverty until you visited a third-world country, and a walk through the roads in my city would be a perfect illustration of this. The sight of famished old and young people incapable of working, begging for a living, mostly ignored and left to die, is very common here. As is the “who cares” attitude towards them. When I also read statistics pointing out that half of the Indian population is uneducated and does not have access to electricity or running water, I conclude that this place has to be hell on earth.

Hence, when I read accounts of people dying to come to what they claim to be the MAGICAL and DAZZLING land of India, I often chuckle.  Such tourists are clearly ignorant of the country’s ground realities. However, there have been people who have actually visited the country, and seen the living conditions here, and STILL love the country. This leaves me thinking. They claim that the country’s art, music and food is rich, and that the country’s  cultural diversity is amazing. Each state in our country has a different language, and a completely different sub-culture, and yet, they come together to form one cohesive unit. Although sectarian conflicts do arise from time to time, India has largely been a model of harmony, and a near-perfect example of how different cultures can live together, while maintaining their separate identities. I am flabbergasted by these accounts, because all these perceptions seem fair to me. Thus, I often wonder whether I have been too harsh with my assessment of my country. Am I overlooking its positive points?

In criticizing the cultural aspects of a country, we often use another culture/country as  contrast.  The country that I often use to contrast with India is *gasp* USA! I admire the highly active liberal community in the U.S.  I also admire the vociferous and unyielding  anti-establishment movement there. As far as India is concerned, no matter HOW immoral the war is, I could never see half of the population opposing a war which  the country is participating, at least not in the next 500 years. When India carried out its nuclear tests about a decade ago, there was almost no opposition to it, and the few dissenting voices were muffled in the festive hysteria. Also, while I am aware that poverty exists in America, the poverty and ghettos featured on and harped-about on shows like Oprah would be considered as ‘paradise’ by some of the poor in India. America has a social security system which, if introduced in India (if it could be afforded in India), could save hundreds of millions of lives from starvation and disease.

And yet I always see many aspects of America being maligned on blogs, TV shows and films by no less than Americans themselves. I have also seen some cases where American citizens have proclaimed it to be the “worst country in the world” and left the country. This often makes me realize how much we tend to take the positive aspects of our country for granted. I realize that, at least I am born in a country where I can choose my own faith, my voice and my opinion. Things could have been a lot worse if I were born somewhere else.

And yet, while I strive to achieve this balance in perspective, I seldom achieve it, with the perceptions of my country constantly leaning towards the negative. I don’t know why this is so, but this is something which dissenters all across the world might want to keep in mind: To be fair towards your country even while criticizing it. I still feel it’s better to be a cynic than a blind patriot, but nothing beats a genuinely balanced perspective. If it’s ever possible to have one.


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Category: American Culture, Culture

About the Author ()

I am Sujay Prabhu, 22, living in Mumbai (Bombay), India. Among other things, I enjoy reading non-fiction, listening to podcasts, watching world cinema, watching plays, and trekking. I believe skepticism is a most vital trait, needed not only to dodge schemes of charlatans, but also to lead a fulfilling life. I live in a country where superstitions and useless rituals reign supreme, and 'miracle-men' make a fast buck spouting irrational philosophy, backing it up with laughable magic tricks to fool the masses about their 'powers'. The few people who study their surroundings, try to look beyond the obvious, and subject their own beliefs to scrutiny, are those that earn my admiration.

Comments (2)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    It seems to me that both extreme anti-national cynicism and nationalistic pride require a level of denial. And any kind of idealization of a country will always make that country's harsh realities fall short.

    I see the value in stopping to realize the assets that our country has. But we should never become complacent. As much as we have room for dialogue and disagreement in the United States, we also have a great deal of apathy and misinformation, too. Even if the US does enjoy a more anti-establishment movement, that movement still pales in comparison to the power of the real opposing party, which at the moment does little more than give confusing soundbites and shy away from true opposition.

    As long as we continue to find the present situation unsatisfactory, we move closer to actually changing it. Even if we had the "best nation on earth" that many social conservatives think we have, we would still have a vast amount of room for improvement.

  2. All human cultures are a mix of pros and cons. Human social experience will never be perfection for anyone in the reality of our imperfect and innumerably faceted world. But it is indeed human to strive TOWARDS what we see as hinting at near perfection. We have the capacity, the desire, the need, to strive for that which we see as better. We just don't all always agree on what it is that is better or how to go about establishing what is better. I have always considered myself very lucky to be born an American, living in a land of freedoms and wealths that many other peoples around the world do not enjoy the have the privilege of. Those freedoms and other benefits should not be taken for granted, but they need not be paid for and perpetuated by virtue of certain ways defined by particularly narrow mindsets. We each have something we can contribute back to society in terms of defining a problem or limitation in which we can be a part of productive and healthy progress.

    Personally I prefer living and traveling abroad, particularly in Europe as I very much enjoyed the years I spent there. America has its drawbacks, but I am lucky to have been born an American. Every day I think of negative issues that can be dissected, challenged, and reformed. For some of us, that is our natural mental nature, a prevalent aptitude for active consideration of such challenges.

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