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Uncle Sham and the ratings game


The personification of Uncle Sam, with his red, white and blue togs and a top hat, piercing eyes over a goatee, and a finger pointing at you over the caption "I Want YOU, " is not a particularly friendly one or endearing one. In fact, it is rather intimidating. It is said to have evolved from a 19th century meat packer named Sam Wilson who supplied rations for the US Army. The ration bags were marked, "from Uncle Sam", and soon the name became a metaphor for US government. Uncle Sam became an even more widely accepted image for the US during the World Wars when J M Flagg designed a poster broadly using Sam Wilson's visage to recruit soldiers.

You have to wonder how much this daunting portrayal of Uncle Sam, with his accusatory, pointing finger, has contributed to the "Ugly American" image across the world. Would the United States seem as overwhelming if the personification was a female, say Aunt Sally or Sister Sara, although the initials would not have been a perfect fit? What if the personification was by way of a lissome blonde with blue eyes instead of a hook-nosed, middle-aged male with a bony finger pointed at you? Would the world have loved US? I doubt it.

Universal dislike of America comes from what is seen as its bullying, exploitative policies. Personification of the country through an attractive female wouldn't have changed that. In truth, the US does what any other nation in its place would have done and has done throughout history - extend and exploit its power for betterment of its people, if need be at the expense of others. Great Britain did it. So did the Roman Empire. In their time, they were disliked by the exploited, even though they did some good and brought some order - usually for their own benefit. Big countries are easy to hate. India is not very well liked in its neighbourhood no matter what we think of ourselves. Dislike of the US also stems in part from envy. America's ability to exploit the world while sounding generous and virtuous is matchless. But the great thing is even many Americans recognise this fraudulent, two-faced behaviour. The contradiction starts with the country's origins. As one American mused a long time ago, "The United States is the finest country anyone ever stole. " Yeah, ask the Native Americans. Anti-American pathology surfaces frequently across the world in a myriad ways. If any incident anywhere in the world remotely involves the United States, rest assured the assumption is Americans are to blame. In fact, there is a whole school of thought which believes the US brought 9/11 upon itself for the reckless abandon with which Americans exploited the Middle East. Perhaps being a perpetual fall guy is a small price to pay for sucking up the world's resources?

Take the recent case of a US warship firing on an Indian fishing boat off Dubai resulting in the death of an Indian fisherman. Or the one where an Indian IT professional in Delaware committed suicide after allegedly murdering his reluctant American date.

Straightaway there was a presumption of guilt, or fault, of the Americans. A big, bad warship that shot a poor Indian fishing boat to pieces - never mind that the facts of the case are still to emerge clearly. A "degenerate" American society that drove an "innocent" Indian lad to violence.

But where security is concerned, here's the new deal: If an aircraft flies towards a tall building or a speedboat zips towards a warship, current operating procedure is that they will shoot down the threat first (after due warning) and then ask/answer questions. If the warship is Indian and the speedboat is American, the same protocol applies. Will the United States yell and scream about it and demand inquiry, compensation etc? Of course it will.

The rules of the game have changed. Simply put, if you are steaming ahead on a speedboat and see a warship in front of you, turn away (not try and go around). If you are flying a training aircraft and you head towards a tall building, change course.

Holding a white flag or a peace symbol is not going to save you from being shot if you breach a security perimeter. Proclamation of innocence or lack of motive is not going to save you. Not the best system, but tough luck. We live in rough times. Wish the Indian Coast Guard was as alert and "trigger happy" when a boat with 10 Pakistani jihadis sped to the Mumbai coast. Would have saved a lot of lives.

For airing these views on a recent television news programme, I was accused of sympathising more with a young American gunner (and the Pentagon) than with a poor Indian fisherman. My argument that the same thing would/should have happened with roles reversed (Indian warship, American fishing boat) made no impression. I took the knock cheerfully, marvelling at how readily a co-panelist's heart bled for the fisherman and how stonehearted I was in contrast. But even more compelling was how, across the world, journalists, anchors and politicians believe that anti-Americanism brings in ratings and votes. Oh, you big, bad, evil America - you are good for something at least.

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