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The potholes in America: the lie of the First World-Third World imaginary

The day I saw the Capitol news, shock definitely made up a big part of my reaction. Not the shock that such a heinous thing could happen, but that this happened in the United States of America. A few years ago, I called my mum and she asked me, “How is Northfield?” I told her that I was actually coming back after seeing a friend in the Cities and the drive was great, etc.. And with complete awe and delight in her voice, she said, “Oh the roads in America must be so smooth, like you’re gliding.” When I did tell her that, in fact, Northfield is full of potholes, and there’s actually not a big difference between the U.S. and India, she straight-up refused to believe me. What I mean to share is that at the core of it all, we are not so different. I grew up in the Third World, and my entire life, I have looked up to the United States as the gold standard. Nothing compares to it; the shine of the First World is blindingly bright. 

So bright, in fact, that we turn our eyes away from the ugly parts of the First World. The parts that don’t fit the star-spangled vision are better left ignored. These power dynamics are so ingrained in the way we perceive nation states that an attack on this view is too jarring for us to bear. These dynamics are how we see the world. This is why the attack on the Capitol, and if I dare, these past four years, have been so hard to accept. Why it is painful to see a gross breach of the building that is essentially synonymous with democracy, is because this is America. These things don’t happen here. Crazy men in horn-embedded fur hats don’t break through layers of security and malign the integrity of the United States of America. Those things happen in the Third World “shithole countries.” Those countries where the US happily sends its troops to spread democracy and the ideals of a cultured society. 

What these growing tensions can teach us is that this First World–Third World hierarchy holds no value in truth, except the economic prowess to be able to sweep the gunk under the carpet. It is easy to label others as “others,” and distance ourselves from those faraway places where people march and protest for freedom every day. These hierarchies are created to keep up the facade of a narrative that we eat up unquestioningly. We are powerless because we follow a story that leads nowhere. When we believe in the “gliding roads” despite hitting the potholes, there’s no reason to fix the roads up at all. There’s no reason to fight for a better world. This is why I feel hopeful after the Capitol riot. There’s nowhere left to hide because the disgust has overflowed into the streets; there’s nothing left to do but fix it ourselves.

In recent years, there’s a rising right-wing in not only the U.S., but Europe too. From Germany’s AfD Party to the Netherlands and France, there’s barely anywhere without a rising right wing. Far-right governments abound in the East as well. From Bangladesh’s comfortably established dictatorship to India’s disguised one. We are facing a pandemic that is bigger than COVID. I know it feels hard to accept, but this pandemic has far bigger consequences on the way we live, the way we see each other as fellow humans, than wearing masks and sitting 6 feet apart. A war of this magnitude is won only when there is clarity in purpose. That clarity will be achieved only when we realize these these shortfalls, vulnerabilities, and men with horned headwear were always there. We just didn’t see them. These similarities among First, Third, Second, Fourth, whatever worlds were always there and will always be there. The first thing we need to do before proceeding any further, then, is realize the false rhetoric we’ve been raised on and the clarity that follows will bring with it the passion and hope to build a world where we wouldn’t rely on lies for safety.

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