Back in the mid-1960s, I loved everything American. This mindset developed after reading whatever American material I could lay my hands on including ‘Old Man and the Sea’ to dozens of Earl Stanley Gardner mysteries. To me, America was synonymous with modernity, spirit of inquiry, technological development and the ultimate destination for those who had a reasonable chance to get there. After my engineering degree, getting into a US graduate school was the extent to which I allowed myself to look into the future. Nothing else mattered.
It happened. I was accepted at a great college in America’s south-east. After a month of orientation with the new environs, I ventured out a bit. On a blind date, sought by me, I drew up a girl in her late teens who had not, till then, been to a movie alone or with her friends. I learned that she had graduated from a church-affiliated high school, and that date with me was her first attempt at breaking free from the moral straitjacket she had till then lived with.
Next quarter of an hour was even more enlightening vis-à-vis her moral compass. In all politeness, conviction written all over her face, she told me that, if one was not a Christian, they were heathen. I took it sitting down, for taking umbrage would have meant opportunity lost. Curiosity was taking hold of me for this was an altogether unexpected face of an American. I learned further that, upon getting wedded, a husband was to love his wife as Christ loved the church.
Husband had the god-given responsibility to provide for and protect his family. And such feminists as Gloria Steinem be blown, a wife was to submit herself graciously to servant under the leadership of her husband as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. This thing about husband being next to Christ in the pecking order, I realised was exactly what orthodox middle-class Indian families drilled into their young girls. This! In America?
She was raised in a culture that equated woman’s worth to her sexual purity. “Premarital sex contaminates a woman beyond restoration,” she said. Was it religious orthodoxy that went under the label of conservatism? Or the other way around? Within that one year and a half at grad school, I learned what Right and Left meant and what exactly liberal and conservative was in US politics. At that age, to all I would venture radical ideas hold greater appeal. In keeping with that, I evolved into a Democrat at heart. After I earned my degree in 1972, presidential election 1972 loomed large. I chose to volunteer with the local office of Democratic candidate Senator McGovern and pasted more ‘McGovern for President’ bumper stickers than any of my co-volunteers. However, McGovern was roundly drubbed by Republican Richard Nixon.
I did not get another opportunity to visit the US for nearly three decades. But, when my reconnect began, I realised conservative values of a near-extreme variety had somewhat mellowed. Times had changed so much that even some evangelists were writing pieces denunciating sexual purity. In more recent times, however, there were many in America who saw Obama and the Democratic Congress as a threat to the American way of life.
They were getting concerned about what they saw as a new avatar of multi-culturalism creeping up on what America meant to them. They were Right-wingers not all bigoted white supremacists but there were large groups who believed they had been shortchanged by the dominance of liberal politics in the US.
Under the presidency of Donald Trump, this lot feels a bit relieved. The pessimism of some years ago seems to have thawed somewhat. To many, the ‘good old American way of life’ seems like a place that can be returned to. No immigrants, no trade agreements where America supposedly gets the short end of the stick and bringing jobs to Americans and so on seem like good moves. So what is it then? Is it conservatism sans religious orthodoxy? I do not know.
America is getting more polarised, many say. But then polarised into which two or more thought systems? Polarisation may not be only about the stated and assumed ideological differences between Republicans and Democrats. It could be along some other socio-economic lines. What are those? Multi-culturalism and racial nationalism? Globalisation and isolationism? Tolerance and intolerance? Or, simply, rich and poor-rich getting richer and poor getting poorer? On each of those pairs, there can be endless debates. The fact remains though that none of those are binaries.
No one way is the right way. One has to finetune a certain calibrated move in one direction. And when that seems like disturbing the equilibrium, you move in the other direction. It is these switches that instil uncertainty and fear; any will inevitably be there.
The talk of a fearful collapse of all that America has stood for and labelling it as some kind of oh-so-feared-polarisation is just that: Talk.
(The writer is a political commentator)