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The world has a love-hate relationship with America and everything American. As a native-born US citizen living in India for the past 35 years, I benefit from the spontaneous respect and universal goodwill that people everywhere accord to citizens of my country, even in places where you might least expect it. I can still recall the astonishment I felt during my first visit to Moscow in 1989 at the genuine warmth and affectionate interest with which I was received by the Russian people. More surprising is the friendly goodwill of the Vietnamese toward the USA, which vigorously opposed their movement for national independence and wrought so much suffering and destruction on their people
The paradoxical response of foreigners to America was brought home again sharply by two incidents on my recent travel abroad. Attending an international conference on the problems of Africa last month, my pride as an American quickly diminished as a number of Nobel Peace laureates from different countries condemned the USA as one of the major sources of the world’s economic and environmental problems or at least for its failure to resolve them. No other country was specifically incriminated by any of the speakers. My sense of discomfort rose further when I heard the same refrain from two distinguished Americans, the son and daughter of President John F. Kennedy’s brother Robert, the former US Attorney General who was assassinated five years after JFK while running for the democratic presidential nomination in 1968. It struck me only after the fact that among participants from so many countries, Americans were the only ones who were willing to openly criticize their own governments and their own country, though surely the USA has no monopoly on any of the ills that presently threaten humanity. Of course, people in every country enjoy berating their own governments when they are at home. But the fact that these Americans were the only ones who also felt the self-confidence and independence to speak negatively about their country before an unsympathetic audience abroad made me wonder why.
The second incident occurred on my return from USA in September when I struck up a conversation with a 20 year old Chennai girl who had just spent a year working in USA as a software engineer and was coming back home to get married. In response to my inquiring how she felt about her experience living in America, she gave a broad smile and said it was so wonderful that she never even thought of coming back home. When I nodded my head in approval, she hastened to add, “Oh, I do not mean because of the high salary I am earning there. It is not the money that makes me love living in America. It is the way people treat me, the respect that I am given, the confidence they have in me and the encouragement I receive to develop my capacities.”
What is it that makes America at once such a powerful object of both attraction and vilification? Over the years I have heard countless explanations for this paradox. According to one, America is the wealthiest country. Therefore it is an object of envy and also has a greater responsibility than other countries for sharing its wealth. According to another, America is now the sole superpower. It is the guardian of freedom and democracy around the world. It is also the country that is bullying smaller nations in utter disregard of world public opinion. It is preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, but it is refusing to eliminate its own stockpiles. America is a strong advocate of free trade that has spurred rapid growth of the world economy, but globalization of markets causes great harm and havoc to vulnerable developing countries. America is the champion of freedom but it does nothing to support the freedom of oppressed peoples, such as the Palestinians.
The variations on these themes are endless, but they have never provided me with a fully satisfying explanation of why the whole world without exception is so fascinated with America and everything American – its consumerism, technology, cinema, music and lifestyle – yet at the same time so very critical of America’s very many and obvious problems and faults – its poverty, high crime rate and archaic gun laws, broken families, refusal to address the threat of global warming, addiction to junk food, and arrogant self-assertiveness.
It is easy to admire or to condemn. It is far less easy to understand and gain insight into the underlying reason for the world’s fascination with America. A recent book entitled A Study of American History by N. Asokan throws fresh and original light on this phenomenon. Though referred to as a history, it is much more an analysis of the underlying factors that have propelled America’s rise to world eminence. While this subject may appear of interest primarily to historians, economists and world leaders, this book offers insights that should interest every thinking and aspiring individual who seeks a better future for himself, his country and the world. Applying insights drawn from the writings of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, behind the energy and enterprise, violence and vulgarity that we associate with America, the author identifies a deeper truth of significance to all humanity – America is presently the vanguard of the world’s social and spiritual evolution. Americans are evolutionary pioneers.
At first the very idea of associating America with anything spiritual may seem absurd and even vulgar. It may be true that a larger percentage of Americans proclaim their faith in God than people in other economically-advanced countries, but surely it is not religious fervour or piety that strikes most people as quintessentially American or the source of its attraction to the rest of the world. In order to explain what possible relationship America could have to the world’s spiritual evolution, we will first have to examine what Sri Aurobindo means by the terms spirituality and evolution and the process by which the spirit is progressively manifesting in life on earth. This will form the subject matter of the subsequent articles in this series.
But first, it may be helpful to realize that both the fascination and condemnation of America date back long before America became a leading economic or military superpower in the world. In fact, it may surprise some that until very recent times America was largely looked down upon by the more civilized and cultured people’s of Europe as a safe haven for mindless brutes, religious and economic refugees, desperados and lost souls. Today American is admired as the world leader in science and technology, yet before World War II, almost all the Nobel prizes went to Europeans and barely a handful to Americans. It is only after 1950 that the vast majority of Nobel laureates have been people born or living in USA and at least in one year all the prizes went to Americans. While England was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, it is in America that the power of science and technology was most vigorously and effectively harnessed for economic growth. Even in the late 19th Century, American industry accounted for 34 percent of the world’s total manufactured goods compared to a mere 7 percent in Britain. America is admired today as a leader in education, with the finest university system in the world generating more than new 30,000 PhDs each year and the highest proportion of college-educated citizens in the world. Yet back in 1880, only one PhD was awarded in the entire USA. America’s rise to eminence is a recent phenomenon, but the origins of this achievement lay in the distant past.
One of the first global citizens to draw attention to America was the French civil servant Alexis Tocqueville who traveled to the USA in 1831 to examine America’s prison system and was deeply impressed by the energy, dynamism and freedom he discovered in America. His book Democracy in America, in which he described the quintessence of the American character, became a classic and remains an essential reading on America even today. There he prophesies America’s emergence as world leader more than 100 years before it became a reality. The French Revolution proclaimed to the world the ideals of freedom and equality for every individual human being. But four decades after that Revolution had reverted to a hierarchical class-based social structure in France, this Frenchman was amazed by the unprecedented degree of individual freedom and equality that had become a practical reality for people living in America. Ideals that inspired revolution in Europe had become facts on the other side of the Atlantic.
Some have attributed America’s achievements to its vast physical area and rich natural resources. Even after the breakup of the Soviet empire, Russia remains both larger and better naturally endowed, yet far less prosperous than America. Perhaps the only explanation for America’s achievements that is not seriously advocated by anyone is the claim that America’s greatness arises from its racial and ethnic origins or its inherent genetic superiority. This argument is obviously baseless, since 99 percent of present-day Americans trace their origins back to different countries and ethnic groups from all over the world. But most people who have lived in America will agree with the observation of the Chennai software engineer that in America they are able to develop and express more of their own inherent potential than in their countries of origin.
The secret of American prosperity lies not in any inherent superiority of its people but rather in the way it fosters the development and expression of each person’s individual capacities. Here is the point where material accomplishment and spiritual attainment meet. For according to Sri Aurobindo, the emergence and development of individuality is a crucial and significant step in the spiritual evolution of life on earth. Individuality is the means by which the Divine manifests its infinite potential in a finite world. The individual is the pioneer of the world’s spiritual evolution and America, more than any other country, respects, nurtures, encourages and celebrates individual uniqueness and individual accomplishment.
This article was originally published in | Consecration Magazine, Vol.2, Issue 6, Jan-Feb 2006, pg.9, Emergence of the Spiritual Individual Part 1