A City upon a Hill

Chronique Hebdo

Countries across the world have gone through different political and economic experiments trying all the while to find the right model that would suit them. Right now, it seems that there is a variety of political institutions but a single economic model has made other alternatives look ineffective.

Undeniably, as regards modern political institutions the most inspiring model which ensures a fair representation of authority and power with a system of checks and balances and a real independent judicial system which guarantees that the respect of law is not a joke is the American model. It is the most tested in the defence and respect of the rights of citizens – whatever be their creed, colour, race or religion – and a profound belief in individual freedom as laid down in its Constitution by its Founding Fathers at the time of Independence.

Much earlier, in 1630, John Winthrop, the future governor of the first colony, harboured lofty hopes for the new country he and his companions on the boat sailing to the vast continent were about to start building. ‘We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us,’ he prophesied.

And his prophecy came true. A shining city that will make people look up to it for inspiration. An obvious biblical connotation alluding to the Sermon on the Mount, probably. John Winthrop meant the new colony to be ‘A Model of Christian charity.’ A spiritual dream, though the Puritan idea of unlimited wealth for the rich as a blessing from God and a negative bias towards the poor who should not rebel, in between some charity trickling down to them, is far from perfect. An ideal limited to the new white settlers only. Grabbing of Natives’ lands, their extermination and the ‘peculiar’ institution of slavery had not yet started.

Nevertheless, the Puritan value of individual effort and hard work paid off and turned the country into a prosperous, dynamic forward-looking innovative economy. For the past three centuries, streaming into the El Dorado were thousands of people from Europe, first England and Germany, the Teutonic tribes most favoured racially, then Ireland, and later from Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain, a whole lot one President lumped up as ‘the riff-raff, flotsam and jetsam of southern Europe’ threatening to spoil the racial landscape, and untrustworthy scheming migrants from Eastern Europe, Jews, Russians, Poles with subversive ideas. The Promised Land of milk and honey, a land of opportunities. Whatever names they were called, lazy Catholic drunkards, riff-raffs and so on, the migrants integrated into mainstream society and built the strong pillars of its economy.

A unique experience of diversity in the West. Well, Al Capone is probably classified among ‘the riff-raff and flotsam of southern Europe’ as well as the Mafiosi gangsters in the 1950s, but there are the producers of western spaghetti films, a pool of talents in every field. They range from the cliché of the lazy Irish Catholics whence came the Kennedy family, Obama from the meeting of Ireland and Kenya, and now from the early German stock, Donald Trump. In between, Andy Warhol, Noam Chomsky (who would have been labelled ‘a bloody Communist’ in the 40s), Dos Pasos, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Louis Armstrong, Martin Luther King, Michael Jackson, Toni Morisson, Mark Zuckerberg and so many outstanding talents among artists and scientists in all domains.

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Which country has a Statue of Liberty with a poem that speaks to all the downtrodden of the earth? A Mother of Exiles holding up a torch.

…Give me your tired, your poor

your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

the wretched refuse of your teeming shores…

Jewish American poet of Portuguese origin Emma Lazarus was herself of migrant stock, and we guess it was quite natural for her to view the Statue, a gift from France, as a paragon of generosity and compassion for newcomers. A poet hailing from the early mainstream settlers would have written a different poem. This vision of the Statue of Liberty deeply associated with American identity may not be shared by all Americans.

Thousands of people fleeing poverty, instability, low performing economies, war and revolutions continued to look up to the City upon the Hill, packed up and flew there from Asia, Vietnam, Pakistan, the Middle East, Egypt, Arab countries, Iran, India, Africa, Central and South America. They all contributed to build the robust economy. Whatever be the circumstances, they choose to stay there because they have a better deal than in their own respective countries in terms of meritocracy, promotion, creativity, free enterprise, opportunities, research work in top high-tech sectors and science, and even politics. Sure, the US is an impressive country, open, optimistic, innovative, resilient and dynamic.

And yes, it has terrible flaws: unbridled capitalism, mass consumerism, an undesirable model exported everywhere, disregard for world environment, unequal educational system with loads of ignorant average Americans (a big chunk of them believe the world was created in six days!, a literal interpretation of the Bible), an unfair health care system and a disastrous ill-advised foreign policy in non-western countries specially in the Middle East. The ‘Make America Great Again’ was a handy pre-electoral slogan to win votes. Big powers have their own definition of ‘greatness’ and expect the rest of the world to go along with it. In an era of super-sophisticated communication, jingoism and chauvinism are incredibly rampant. America as well as France still bask in navel-gazing their self-worth. The invasion of Iraq, heir to ancient Mesopotamian civilization, cannot be forgiven; neither is the attack on Libya, a most cynical operation endorsed by the US and carried out by the UK and France. Chemical weapons in Vietnam and hydrogen bombs in Nagasaki and Hiroshima are still in our memory.

Other countries and cultures have their own criteria to define greatness. As a matter of fact, there are several models on the hill today. No country can claim to be a model for the rest of the world.

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The President elect cannot be blamed for cracking down on the three million undocumented migrants roaming around the US. Every government has the right and duty to make their country safe for their own citizens first, among whom the most needy voluntarily sign up to fight wars abroad while the most powerful avoid such sacrifices and actively lobby for tax cuts. Unsurprisingly, many Hispanics voted for him. Strangely, terrorism in the US, Europe, Asia and Africa is not considered worth analyzing in public endorsement of the candidate’s harsh position on migrants from Pakistan and the Middle East, as if it were a minor argument, a taboo subject.

Though it is agreed that not everyone is a potential terrorist, regular migrants who mean no harm have openly adopted a religious supremacist attitude in their host country, claiming more rights than local citizens and expecting other people to embrace the idea. No wonder Ku Klux Klan partisans congratulated the new President. The inner circle of the Republican Party opposes the presence of Stephen Bannon, a far-right wing white supremacist character as a close aide of Donald Trump. There is cause for concern. A clash of two supremacist groups is unlikely to happen because both of them will certainly keep a low profile.

The most positive point in Trump’s agenda is his anti-war stance and his desire to mend ties with Russia. The world does not need another Cold War atmosphere and an unnecessary arms race which benefits only the armament industry in Europe and the US, and draining colossal sums of money from poor countries like India and Pakistan. England, Germany and France treat Russia, a proud country, with distrust and contempt, unwisely antagonizing Putin.

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Shock and awe in India

Shock and awe operation in India is a success. Not even senior ministers in the Cabinet were informed of the measure to demonetise 500 and 1 000 rupee notes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi initiated the daring move in all secrecy. Overnight, 86% of cash in the world’s seventh economy was made worthless. The public was given four hours’ notice to exchange their cash for new notes. Despite irritation at queuing for hours in front of banks, the public supports the Prime Minister in his unbending will to fight against black money, which was one of his electoral promises. The immediate consequence is that cash holders of unaccounted sums will have to pay taxes. Illicit money pouring into the coffers of terror networks is also targeted.

How the government intends to deal with shrewdest tax evaders who have converted huge sums into gold and property abroad remains to be seen. Tax evasion money flowing back into state coffers will be most needed to invest in hospitals, schools and road infrastructure.

The Indian PM’s commitment to improve all sectors at every level makes his countrymen proud and gives Indians abroad something more to be proud of.

If anything, the extraordinary economic experiment is likely to be followed by governments in other developing countries in their fight against tax evasion. Pakistan is said to follow suit.

In some cases, political leaders who wade knee-deep in unaccounted wealth may find themselves in deep trouble. Commissions, bribery, tax evasion and corruption in general in big and small developing countries are a scourge that requires unrelentless efforts to fight against.

The greed of the political class in the corporate-politics nexus has tainted the reputation of many post-colonial countries and made their people hang their heads in shame. The rot has set in so much in the general mindset that it requires more than spectacular audacious move to wipe it away. Without a genuine desire to bring money in the mainstream economic circuit, use it to alleviate poverty, enhance public infrastructure and improve general living conditions, fraudulent practices are unlikely to disappear any time soon.

Nita Chicooree-Mercier

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