This is the concluding part of a 5-part travelogue I did on my first trip to USA in 2002, first published in Imphal Free Press. Last week I did an account of my longest day on my onward journey from Amsterdam to Washington DC. This week it was the return trip from Seattle to Amsterdam therefore in the reverse direction of earth’s rotation, making this the shortest day in my life.
The opinion that the American Constitution would have very little value if it had not introduced the 1st Amendment is very widely held in America. Among others the amendment guarantees the American citizen some of the values generally considered as the essence of democratic freedom – freedom of expression and freedom of information to name just two. Indeed, America is a country where the meaning of freedom is pushed to new limits endlessly. Take the case of its political “lobbies” for instance. I did not understand what a political lobby as in America was when a staff writer of the Washington Post, Juliet Eilperin, whom I interacted with during a visit to the newspaper’s facilities in Washington DC as part of our tour, kept on referring to them as important sources to get a hint of the political mood in America’s corridors of power. Juliet covers the US Congress for her newspaper. In the beginning I thought the term meant what we generally understand it to be – pressure groups outside the political institutions who by the use of various campaign tactics or personal liaison, try to influence the governmental policies and the law making process. Hence the term failed to arouse any particular curiosity other than the normal. But as it turned out, there was a lot more to the lobbies in America than my understanding. I had till then naively imagined that the strength of an American political lobby, as for instance the famous Jewish lobby, depended on factors like proximity and personal liaison with politicians as well as to influential newspapers. For this reason, I had imagined that one of the reasons why the Jewish lobby was strong was because the New York Times, is owned by Americans of Jewish descent. But the importance and emphasis Juliet gave the political lobbies made me begin to suspect the limitation of my own understanding of the term and so I put the question directly: Who are the lobbies? The answer was astounding for me, and I suppose because I had no prior intimate knowledge of the shades and nuances of the operation of the American political system. She said in the US, lobbies were people who contributed huge sums of money to the campaign fund of individual politicians as well as parties at the time of elections. After the politicians they thus supported are elected, or after the party they funded comes to power, these lobbies try and influence the policies of the government and become part of the legislative process of the American system, indirectly. The answer threw up many subsidiary questions, the most obvious of which was, isn’t this the general understanding of corruption in politics, and is this understanding of corruption different in America? If so how? In India, everybody knows these kinds of contributions happen discreetly, and when they become open, they also are treated as ignominious scandals. I could think of the infamous Hawala Scandal, in which the diary of a businessman named numerous high profile politicians as recipient of huge sums of money from him, the Tehelka Defence Scam, in which a former BJP president, Bangaru Laxman, was taped clawing a bundle of notes handed out by journalists decoying as arms dealers, which the former later claimed was for the party fund etc.. Why are such funds given such wide legitimacy in America? Juliet said it was a little different. These contributions are made publicly and are absolutely tax paid white money. The contributors have to also declare their assets to make doubly sure there is no black money involved. But there is never any doubt which corporate house or houses, which millionaire or millionaires, are behind every successful politician.
Despite this openness, despite this lack of hypocrisy, there are many who still feel that the practice is a bad influence on American politics. However, any move to abolish the system is up against the famous 1st Amendment which guarantees every American the freedom of expression of his political beliefs. The interpretation is that contributing one’s tax-paid, hard earned money to political campaign, just as contributing one’s personal influence and clout to it, is an expression and exercise of this freedom. Such interpretations of rights however have driven the American political system towards a tricky corner where individual politicians have to be either very rich or else have to have the support of rich contributors. According to conservative estimates, to contest an American election today, the minimum expenditure is 5 million dollar (Rs 25 crores) per candidate and it can be as high as 25 million dollars (Rs 125 crores). So its either you have that money to bet with or else look for others who can bet on you. The issue is contentious in the US today. If it had been a case of a long list of voters contributing money for their candidate, maybe it would have been more in the spirit of the Constitutional guarantee of the freedom of expression, but in situations where multimillionaires and billionaires, as well as multi-million companies decide to donate several millions, the freedom become grotesque. But a mature democracy is quick to catch on public mood, and American politicians have shown this maturity. Much to the surprise of many, the US Congress has actually passed a Bill recently to put a ceiling on election donations. Imagine politicians in India doing the same and putting legislation to limit the money available free to them.
BASIC INSECURITY: Listening to the American radio or watching American TV in America is quite a different experience from doing the same from outside America. I suppose this will be true of any other place as well. The feel of the pulse on the ground tends to make one’s perspective different and more faithful to the truth. Understandably, many of the American TV companies, as for instance, the CNN, have a domestic and an international channel. After a hectic day’s assignment, I was listening to celebrity interviews on the CNN local channel one evening in San Francisco. Hollywood icon Martin Sheen was talking candidly about his drugs problem, and how the law caught up with him. He said on camera he is now on probation for drug abuse and that there would be no escape for him from a jail term if he were caught again. The law is indeed feared in the US by one and all, big and small, precisely because its arms are long and tough. You can actually be arrested for crossing the street where you should not be, just as for “tailing” a car on the freeways. “Tailing” is a term used for driving closer than 30 meters from the car immediately ahead on a freeway, and the practice is prohibited for it can result in serious multi-accidents should the car in front brake, considering on these freeways, in the fast lanes especially, everybody, including incredibly huge freight trucks, drive really fast. The driver of our chartered tourist bus, in San Antonio, Texas, pointed out one car ahead of us that was “tailing” and no sooner did we spot it, a green police car with whining siren shot ahead from behind and led the car away. Incidentally, one of our guides told us that the freeways crisscross the country. All freeways have numerical names, with odd numbers running north to south and even, east to west. The constructions of these were commissioned during the Cold War during President Dwight David Eisenhower’s tenure with a view to make it possible for Americans to quickly evacuate their cities in the event of nuclear attack warnings. I suppose the multilayered subway system in many American cities that operate more than a hundred meters underground, can also couple up as nuclear shelters, and maybe their planners actually had this as part of their briefs. But more interesting than the Martin Sheen interview was one of Morgan Freeman. The filmstar actually said he was afraid that once the saleability of his image and talent becomes exhausted, he would be out of a job. I felt Freeman’s confession can actually be treated as the testimony of a consumerist society. I was amazed by the sense of insecurity deep down even amongst the most prosperous in this prosperous nation. Take Michael Jackson, for instance. Can the one time unchallenged living legend of the pop world ever do another “Bad”? Unlikely. Not in America at least. He is a spent consumer commodity today. In such a society, you really have to be talented and hard-working, and more than all these, you really have to know how to sell your talent to ride the big waves. Sometimes the thought leaves you wondering what buys more quality time, the dollar or the rupee.
SHORTEST DAY: I left American soil at Seattle, the city near the Canadian border on the Pacific coast, home of Microsoft and Boeing. I was looking forward to doing a round the world trip, and considering the western coast of the US was my departure point, it would have been closer for me to return to India over the Pacific. But luck had other things in store. The KLM which was the airlines the organizers of the trip made ticketing arrangements with, did not have a transpacific flight to India. I found out too late that they could only take me upto to Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok or Sydney, and from there I would either have to change airlines or else fly back to Amsterdam and from there to either Delhi or Bombay. I decided not to take all the trouble and returned via Europe. I missed the experience of crossing the International Date Line and lose a day instantaneously, since I would be crossing west to East, an event I was looking forward to, but the return by the other way was no less exciting and I do not regret it at all now. I lost time here too, and I say as dramatically as I would have by crossing the International Date Line. August 23 the day I took off from Seattle and August 24, the day I landed in Amsterdam got fused together in a manner that dazed me literally. At Seattle I was a little worried when I for the first time seriously checked my Northwest-KLM ticket. It said the flight was to leave at 1300 and land at 0720 in Amsterdam. The ticket for the connecting KLM flight from Amsterdam showed 1145 as departure time. I had assumed I would be spending the night at Amsterdam, so I went to the Northwest-KLM counter at the Seattle to inquire if accommodation would be in Amsterdam city. The man at the counter understood my confusion and said I would be in Amsterdam only three hours so there would be no need to check into a hotel. He reminded me the flight duration is 10 hours and the time difference between Seattle and Amsterdam is 9 hours so that in effect I would be landing in Amsterdam the next day morning. Even after I swallowed and digested his explanation, the events that followed still left me stunned. At 1.20pm US West Time, we took off from Seattle. Our flight flew over central Canada, and the global positioning system displayed on the in-flight screen showed the plane heading north towards the Arctic Circle. The night before I did not have enough sleep, so I was a little tired and eagerly waited for it to get dark so that I could get some sleep. I was reading a book, as I did not have the inclination to watch the in-flight movie, about a retarded father fighting for the custody of his daughter. I could see a lot of people wiping tears on and off. I dozed off for a while and when I came around the same movie was still showing. After some time the sky outside indicated evening. It slowly became a flaming crimson. It was a beautiful Polar dusk and I was enjoying the sight. It remained like that for what I thought was longer than it normally should, and to my utter surprise, it brightened up. August 23 dusk changed into August 24 dawn without going through night. I was vaguely expecting this to happen as the sun at this time of the year would have crossed the second equinox and would be well into the northern hemisphere, shortening the length of night this half of the globe and even eliminating it altogether in place like Norway whose nickname, we had learnt in high school, was the “Land of the Midnight Sun.” We landed in Amsterdam on the morning of August 24 at 7.20 am. My wrist watch which was still on US West Time, informed me if I had remained in Seattle on the day, or else in San Francisco which is in the same time zone, it would still be August 23, 10.45pm, perhaps in the midst of a late dinner in some noisy, trendy, not too expensive restaurant with my wonderful new friends of three weeks.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author