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OP-ED: 51 and counting

  • Published at 02:21 am January 22nd, 2021
us capitol
The ‘Field of Flags’ in front of the US Capitol ahead of the Biden inauguration REUTERS

What a difference a year makes

Just over a year ago in 2020, I settled down at my riverside desk in India’s smallest state to write my first opinion column for this excellent newspaper. Kristallnacht in New Delhi made the case that “what’s happening in India is undeniably similar to the ‘The Night of Broken Glass’ in Germany in November 1938, when the Hitler Youth led an extended assault on Jewish homes, hospitals, and schools, and alerted the world to the Nazi regime’s implacable motivations.”

That new year was already showing troubling signs, but then, all previous concerns were supplanted by the overwhelming reality of our collective pandemic predicament. My column on March 12 argued: “Everything has changed, at warp speed, and it’s already clear many fundamental aspects of our lives -- the way we interact, shop, work, study -- will have to be different now, with no return to ‘normality’ on the horizon.”

Fast-forward further dozens of columns, and I filed my 50th contribution to this space last week. It was about “the implications of the American carnage” that played out in the rag-tag insurrectionist assault on the US Capitol on January 6, by Trumpist irregulars seeking to overthrow the election results.

Here’s what’s worrying about that: It took just one year for Kristallnacht-type nihilistic political violence to leapfrog from “the world’s largest democracy” in India to “the world’s oldest democracy” in the US.

Rather unpredictably, it was the bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger who called it out most clearly in his fascinating public video address immediately after the attack.

He said: “I grew up in Austria. I am very aware of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. It was a night of rampage against the Jews carried out in 1938 by the Nazi equivalent of the Proud Boys. Wednesday was the Day of Broken Glass right here in the United States.”

The 73-year-old continued: “The mob did not just shatter the windows of the Capitol. They shattered the ideas we took for granted. They did not just break down the doors of the building that housed the American democracy. They trampled the very principles on which our country was founded.”

Schwarzenegger pointed out with palpable relief: “Our democracy held firm. Within hours, the Senate and the House of Representatives were doing the people’s business and certifying the election of President-elect Biden. What a great display of democracy.”

In fact, the entire rest of the world has been distinctly breathing easier after Trump’s departure, and the stirring inauguration of President Joe Biden -- the oldest man to ever take the oath of office -- and Kamala Harris, the first woman (and African-American, and Asian-American) to be vice-president in the US.

My 51st column must pause to acknowledge this moment of hope. Even if gathering storms have wreathed us in darkness for long years, while our societies have been continually buffeted by the worst impulses of human nature, we now see there’s the possibility of relief. Things can get better. 

While it is always unwise to expect great things from great power -- least of all the US -- some excesses can certainly be reversed. Thus, it was greatly encouraging to see Biden immediately sign executive orders to return his country to the Paris climate change accords, and the World Health Organization. The odious “Muslim ban” is also gone. 

Can these kinds of relatively virtuous impulses whip around to circle the globe in our direction, just as surely as less desirable trends and themes went the other way over the past year? 

It can happen, with conviction and commitment from the various constituencies in our countries, along with the additional factor of enlightened leadership.

Schwarzenegger put it rather succinctly in his video: “It means serving something larger than yourself. See, what we need right now from our elected representatives is a public servant’s heart. We need public servants that serve something larger than their own power or their own party. We need public servants who will serve higher ideals.”

It’s a big ask in our degraded times, with their inherent anxieties about systemic inequalities, and every single one of our societies seemingly overwhelmed by the headlong race to stockpile power and pelf. 

Earlier this month in America, under severe pressure, and after sustained damage that will take years to reckon with properly, the bulwarks of checks and balances did hold strong enough to allow something that approximates change for the better. Can it happen in South Asia? 

The answer to that question lies in how each country manages its post-pandemic economic, social, and cultural scenarios, and the emergent global order with the balance of power shifted to the East and away from the West. Interesting times, with plenty to decipher. 

Dear reader, like the Terminator himself, I’ll certainly be back. Watch this space, and thanks for reading! l

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.