By Shivaji Sengupta
I am writing this on January 3, the date marking the 43rd anniversary of my becoming a professional in America when, at age 29, I began my tenure in a small liberal arts college in New York City. January 3rd is also when I retired from that college after 42 years of continued service. That was last year.
- The year will be etched in everybody’s mind as the year of the pandemic. The Coronavirus crept in on us with devastating effect, deadlier than a stealth bomber. To date, 350,000 Americans are dead. Many more will by the time the vaccines take effect nationwide. In this milieu, we Americans have tried to make it in whatever way we could.
Let me begin with the personal. As a senior citizen well into my seventies, I realized that my wife and I fall in the “high risk” group. Quarantine, self-imposed lock-down, masks, social isolation (social distancing not being enough) — everything applied to us. So, there I was, at the mercy of a poisonous wind. I had to be home, often all alone. I decided I would read and write, try on a new career as a freelance journalist. I also decided I would offer my services to the local Democratic groups. 2020 being the presidential election year, I was anxious to volunteer my time to elect Joe Biden.
As the days went by, I saw from my window the sharply reduced flow of people on the streets. Saw framed on my television empty shopping malls and deserted stadiums.
As January evanesced into February, two events began to preoccupy the American people. One is, of course, Coronavirus, which lasted through the year and into 2021. The other was the impeachment of President Trump. On February 19, the House of Representatives, with a Democratic majority, formally brought the charge against Donald Trump of jeopardizing American interests (and security) by trying to “bribe” the newly elected Ukraine president to declare that Joe Biden, his rival in the 2020 election, had used his vice presidency in the Obama administration as a leverage in Ukraine for financial gain for his son, Hunter Biden. The bribe was some four-hundred-thousand dollars that Congress had allotted to that country which Trump was holding back unless the Ukrainian president complied. He didn’t. As it became public knowledge, Trump denied the charge, thereby committing perjury, a further impeachable offence.
Impeachment deeply divided an already divided country. I don’t think back then people, especially Democrats, quite realized the depth of support the president enjoyed among Republicans and ultra conservatives. Sixty million had voted for him in 2016. But because Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton, there was an untested assumption that the support was soft. There were many journalists of Democratic persuasion (myself included) who were against the impeachment effort. Impeachments have never removed a president from office in the United States. Rather, they have increased his popularity – witness the last case of presidential impeachment: Bill Clinton. But the House went ahead with its agenda. The president was formally impeached without a single Republican vote. Predictably, the Senate acquitted him with all but one Republican voting in his favor. That one vote was Mitt Romney’s, the 2012 presidential candidate and new Senator from Utah.
March and April were the months the pandemic took roots. Concurrent with the rest of the world, America was in the throes of suffering its worst epidemic since the Spanish Flu of 1918. Stock Market started falling, interest rates sank to near zero. Panic spread among many; but many did not react to the disease, openly denying it, and defying all precautionary measures. There wasn’t a cure yet, nor any way of stopping the spread.
Coronavirus unleashed on Americans a serious breakdown in health policy. As I sat alone in my house, ruminating about what was happening, the likes of which I had never seen before, watching the chaos and confusion the disease was creating, and the federal government’s absolute helplessness, I began to reflect about my days in India. I slowly realized the stark difference between the attitudes of Indians to the pandemic and my American fellow-citizens. Two aspects stood out that, I believe, had a serious effect on policymaking in the two countries.
As a person born in India, having spent my young adulthood there, I understood that in a major public crisis, the government takes over. Government means the central government in India. The public does not question its methods for protecting the people, in fact, expect it. And not just in India. Even in Western Europe the government has more power over individuals during times like this.
Not so here. Here, people are brought up with far more freedom than anywhere else in the world. Moreover, as a federal state, the U.S. gives almost complete autonomy to the states (except in defense and foreign policy). The federal government does not get involved in its internal matters like health and education. Yet, Coronavirus has shown that in each state the level of readiness to tackle a pandemic of this proportion varied widely. Those who were severely handicapped couldn’t – even wouldn’t – ask for federal assistance or acquiesce to Washington D.C.’s take-over Consequently, the federal government was ill prepared, had no plan, and even refused to take the type and proportion of action that countries in Asia temporarily. No state would. or Western Europe do. In America, freedom is individualistic. In Europe or in South Asia these days, freedom is public.
Which brings me back to the title of this column: how the personal becomes public through a panorama of events.
My purpose of beginning with a personal story is to impress upon my readers how personal events in one’s life begin to take public significance. The process begins with the individual – in this case, me – experiencing momentous events like a war or a pandemic. Soon, through a process of self-reflection, he or she begins to ask, “Where do I situate myself in this environmental, social, and ultimately, political milieu?” It is another way of asking, what can I do, old that I am, to help?
Personally, I started to “read” the situation (both literally and metaphorically), reflecting on my experiences of watching the impeachment procedures, protecting myself from COVID-19, writing and talking to others, eventually creating for myself a plethora of generalizations and theories that help me understand. I share my understanding by writing. Let me illustrate this through one more personal-public example: the presidential elections.
Those who have followed me through my columns in this and other newspapers know that I have a definite political bias regarding who should be our next president starting January 2021: Joe Biden. But voting for him was not enough (that was the bare minimum). In retirement, I began to see that I could make a contribution toward Biden’s election by joining the Democratic party, and helping by doing whatever the party asks me to do. And, yes, also by writing.
Thus, the pandemic, the impeachment and the presidential elections (and many more public events of 2020) form the panorama for me – a huge wide-angle perspective of what is happening in America. How do I fit in, joining others in a meaningful way?
The answer is this essay.
Shivaji Sengupta is a retired Professor of English at Boricua College,
New York City. He has a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature from
Columbia University. He has been a regular contributor to
The South Asian Times and to other
newspapers. He is a member of the
Brookhaven Town Democratic