March 6, 2016

BHOWMICK | Poverty of Aspirations

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There is a salient reason why the contumacious phrase “Make America Great Again” has become so popular. A lot of clubs that I am a part of on campus have crafted innocuous modifications of Trump’s catchphrase to inspire members and inject wit in agenda e-mails. The words “Make _______ Great Again” will definitely crop up on some organization’s Slope Day shirts by the end of semester. There is so much more to these words than mere rhetoric. Noam Chomsky’s cogent argument attributing Trump’s ascent to “deeply rooted — and potentially fatal feelings of fear and anger.”

There have been several theories attempting to demystify the emerging approbation for Trump’s jingoism. A compelling argument has been that the Trump appeal is a result of the slow death of white America. In other words, it’s a consequence of American society becoming increasingly diverse. This seems like a plausible claim at first, but what about the women supporting the Trump polemic? And is it absolutely inconceivable that a non-white American will not support the Donald at all? Chomsky points out that there are more structural and systemic forces which are responsible. He points to the paradox of life expectancy in America, wherein despite accumulating wealth and progress in medicine, America has lower average life expectancy than other developing nations. He makes the claim that poorly educated, middle aged white males in America seem to be at the greatest existential risk. Therefore, when Trump says, “Make America Great Again,” it is quite probable that the appeal lies in the interpretation that it is a call to restore the greatness of white American males. It is both a response to insecurity and a sense of hopelessness that encompasses the times we live in today.

There has been a lot of deliberation about whether American primacy is on the verge of decline in both informed academic circles and sensationalized media platforms. The phrase “Make America Great Again” is extremely insightful because as Shakespeare brought to our attention, “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” America has been bequeathed with the laudable title of the land where dreams come true for years. For a country which has always invoked the concept of the infallible “American Dream,” it is only innate that a sense of insecurity and a constant fear of losing the golden laurel will ensue. For the poorly educated, China is the enemy and international economics is a zero sum game. For several sections of the population, globalization and the growth of a multipolar world is hurting the “American Dream.” Now Trump is a brash, business magnate who is white and male and is uninhibited when it comes to belittling women and does not care for calculated and considerate engagement with the larger world America coexists with. There could not be a better candidate in American politics to champion the “American Dream” as we once knew it, the dream only those of a certain race, gender, religion and sexual orientation could harbor.

Before the international community points fingers at America for allowing the rise of the profligate demagogue, it must realize that developing countries have also contributed to this insecurity. The Western world coined the phrase, “the poverty of aspirations” to describe the fate of the developing world and domestically, to condemn underprivileged communities. However, now there are issues we are facing that place us all in peril irrespective of power and privilege dynamics. One such threat would be climate change. Another such threat would be the demographic constitution of America which only exacerbates the student debt and pensions crisis that cannot be held at bay forever. The tables are turning and we are coming to terms with the fact that the “American Dream” is not exclusively something that can happen only in the West. Conversely, the “poverty of aspirations” is not necessarily something that plagues only developing nations and underprivileged communities. We are at a threshold where power relations are changing and somehow do not make too much sense. It is only natural that some will lament for the old days and try to fight forces that are structural with anachronistic polemic instead of mitigating the harm that decades of policies have created.

The phrase, “Make America Great Again” is interesting and almost unnecessary depending on what our definition of great is. If greatness is defined by power wielded by a few, and democracy and fundamental rights being reserved only for  one section of the population, this war-cry makes sense. On the other hand, if we define greatness by humility, inclusiveness, tolerance and an awareness of the world around us, America has come a long way and there is no need for a pandemic upheaval.

Aditi Bhowmick is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Abstruse Musings appears alternate Mondays this semester. She may be reached at ab738@cornell.edu.

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