The Bowl by Mayank Chhaya (No relevance to the post)
America is knee-deep in its quadrennial retelling of heroic sagas of epic parental sacrifice, unconditional familial love and inspirational success stories in the face of harrowing odds. By that I mean there is a presidential campaign underway.
Candidates pick and choose life stories like a greengrocer from a bushel of apples, polish them on their lapel and neatly arrange the best looking ones in the storefront.
So you might have an Ann Romney reminiscing about the less than subtly implied hardship of the Romneys’ early lives by shifting to a basement and eating tuna and pasta on an ironing board improvised as a dining table. Or, conversely, a Michelle Obama recalling her husband Barack Obama’s feeling proud over a coffee table he found in a dumpster or feeling content over a pair shoes half a size too small.
Even if I remind myself that these stories have to be viewed, experienced and judged in the specific American economic and cultural context, I cannot but feel amused by how radically different definitions of hardship can get from country to country. For at least hundreds of millions, if not a billion or two, outside America first having a house of any kind is a massive luxury. Then too have a house with a basement equipped with an ironing board on which a family of seven can fit and eat is in the realm of fantasy. When you add tuna and pasta to that, the whole experience becomes stratospheric.
Similarly, the idea that there exists a dumpster into which people actually throw a reusable coffee table, which in turn can be used to adorn an apartment is itself a luxury for a vast percentage of humanity. A pair of shoes, albeit half a size too small, too is too much for millions.
Illustrating and adorning political success stories with tales of oppressive hardships of their past seems like a uniquely American thing to me. I am not sure if they do that in Europe. I can tell you for sure that politicians do not do that in South Asia at all. In my long years of having reported on South Asian politics I do not recall a single instance of a politician welling up over his or her modest early life and engaging in soaring rhetoric about the importance of parental sacrifice and family love. It is all understood without being spoken about in exalted terms and considered largely exhibitionist and self-indulgent. There are no crying faces at political conventions or rallies other than when they are out of utter frustration at the terrible job these politicians are doing.
The current presidential election campaigning and its attendant theatrics are my fourth such experience. Each one of them has been embroidered with fairly gratuitous personal details. I grant that I may not be the best yardstick to measure the emotional content of those who aspire to lead and govern but even after discounting my austere and spare worldview I find this show rather trite. It is equally possible that I do not have it in me to understand the power of inspiration through personal stories.
Why is it that when politicians look back at their lives for the benefit of conventioneers or rally audiences they all sound so well edited? The transitions and crossfades and cuts are all placed perfectly. I know they are scripted to the last detail and finely stage-managed but what’s the point of that? What I comprehend even less is that those in the audience feel so moved by these well-rehearsed narrations prompted entirely by political expediency. I suppose the purpose is to make those whose votes politicians are seeking feel ennobled by their personal stories.
I do not know about you but I do not vote on the basis of whether the Romneys had to be happy with a diet of tuna and pasta or the Obamas had to have their coffee on a coffee table retrieved from dumpster. I know only the wearer knows where shoe pinches, especially if it is half a size too small but do not flaunt that experience to those who may not even have had the luxury of finding a shoe. I guess that is all I am saying.