As an Indian who has lived in England before moving to the United States, I cannot but notice the sharp contrast in the two experiences. No matter how one looks at it, America is a land of extremes. Extreme riches co-exist with deep widespread poverty. Large opulent homes house the fast disappearing nuclear families while the homeless raid the downtown streets at night to find shelter under the canopies of shuttered shops and offices.
The British Prime Ministers may be the best ally that any modern American president ever had. However, the bonding between the two nations ends right there. Anybody looking for the healing touch of British moderation is bound to be disappointed in America. With the sole exception of the English weather which at best of times is more depressing than the English wine (and no immigrant of the sub-continental variety fails to notice that), the whole British experience is a story of moderation. America in sharp contrast conducts itself generally in a manner that defies notions of everyday life that every immigrant takes for granted in Britain.
The events of September 11 have only helped to make matters worse. Unfortunately, there is hardly an aspect of life in America which is not haunted by the spectre of 9/11, particularly so for the dark-skinned immigrant. Perhaps the only outstanding exception to the rule is the recent economic downturn affecting all across America and more particularly in the Silicon Valley in California, once the mighty symbol of the technology boom.
Over the last year, the San Francisco Bay Area and the adjoining Silicon Valley have become breeding grounds for despair, unabashed corporate greed and disillusionment. For once September 11 is not being blamed. For the residents of the valley, 2002 clearly brought in focus the systemic problems that have been simmering for years.
I was visiting the Silicon Valley last week and spent the holiday season to mix around with a host of Indians who helped build the dotcom phenomena and who now wring their hands in sheer desperation. The entire dream has turned sour. Only a few years back the captains of the high-tech juggernaut were building lifestyles of latter-day aristocracy all over the Bay area in places like Santa Cruz, Fremont, Los Gatos, San Josť, and Palo Alto. No more.
Hundreds of office buildings built with the technology-obsessed in mind today lie empty. Scores of development projects now abandoned lie frozen in time. One very observant techy pointed out to me that it was not entirely coincidental that the sole American member of the Taliban was a Bay Area native, John Walker Lindh.
The symbolism of this misguided and frustrated son of a company lawyer who worked for the now bankrupt Pacific Gas and Electric Company joining the Taliban can hardly be lost on anyone who has come face-to-face with the palpable frustration enveloping the Valley these days.
A sharp visible contrast between the rich and the poor across America is a familiar sight that none can fail to notice. However, the social divisions have become highly pronounced lately by the near collapse of the welfare state in America and its inability, camouflaged in the name of free competition, to foster an equitable environment for its citizens.
This problem got further compounded by creating systemic bottlenecks, which turned a blind eye to the reckless and greedy business practices that enabled monsters like Enron to flourish and finally flounder. Unfortunately, the workers of northern California, many of them first generation immigrants, have had to pay a heavy price; thousands have lost their jobs, and millions have been negatively affected.
Today, the downward spiral has brought an area once flush with funds to its proverbial knees. The litany of bankruptcies in the area has taken its toll on cities and towns more than one hundred miles from the center of Silicon Valley. Perhaps it was good that Britain never had anything like a Silicon Valley, at least not on that scale and hopefully it will spare Britain the pains too. Three cheers to British moderation!
Published in Hindustan Times. Writer lives in US.