Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Monday, Sep 05, 2005
Columns - American Periscope
A super-power all at sea?
The reporter had made a good choice of location. For, even those who do not know much about India know Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India, and what it stands for. When jobs in the US are lost to outsourcing, the culprit is usually a firm in Bangalore.
Recent magazine reports in the US have glossy photographs of call centre employees playing table-tennis in company recreation rooms, and professional women shopping in high-end malls around the city. Expatriates interviewed comment on the wonderful bars. Clearly, it is the image of a Bangalore that has taken off in the minds of the average American and the kind of report that shows not everybody on the train is in for a joy ride is a rude shock.
Developing economies have their extremes. As you drive into town from the airport in Mumbai or Cape Town, you are greeted by unsightly slums. It is perhaps better to have all the warts up front and in your face rather than hidden away.
But children with torn clothes, pot-bellies, and flies bothering their face are images that charities love to use to loosen your hold on your purse strings. I'm sure the advertising consultants to the charities have instructed them to run these ads precisely at 6 p.m. or so, just when families in the developed world are sitting down to a nice homely dinner, so that they will feel guilty enough to interrupt their meal and write that cheque. The handlers of the US President, Mr George W. Bush, love images and symbolism.
On May 2, 2003, he landed on an aircraft-carrier in a pilot's gear to announce that major combat operations in Iraq were over. A strategically placed banner proclaimed `Mission Accomplished.' (No matter that the war in Iraq seems to be never ending.)
The images of death and destruction in New Orleans that Hurricane Katrina left in its wake have had reporters and news presenters scrambling for an apt metaphor to describe the scale of the catastrophe.
Images of people wandering aimlessly around town without food, wading across submerged streets appealing to reporters for help, sewer water flooding residences, are usually associated with the poor world. Not this time. And reporters were struggling with how best to present it.
Officials and commentators reporting on the events that followed the calamity groped for comparisons. At first, one heard frequent references to the tsunami. `This is our tsunami,' said some. Others perhaps felt the metaphor was not severe enough. `It is like Hiroshima,' said another commentator. Ironically, it was only three weeks earlier that the world memorialised the 140,000 civilians who died in Hiroshima, when the US dropped the atom bomb. There was no hand of God there.
Within a day of the disaster striking, television cameras covered the widespread looting of stores. We began to see images of people breaking into stores and rushing out clutching goods, or wheeling out whole cabinets and shopping carts of stolen items. Some even stole guns from Wal-Mart outlets and shots were heard in town. Four days after the disaster, with the looting only worsening, the authorities decided to shift police effort from rescuing people to the deteriorating law and order situation.
The reporters were back searching for metaphors. Surprisingly, nobody compared the looting to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
But `army trucks with soldiers in fatigues were now parading the streets like it is an African nation,' said one. Reports of beatings and rapes began to emerge from the convention centre where several thousands were housed. Television images showed people dead and left unattended. The television commentators were shocked. `This cannot be happening in America,' said one. `We have been seeing scenes like this in other parts of the world, not here.'
Finger-pointing began not long after. The victims complained to television reporters that even after four days, they were without food, water and electricity. Hospitals were reporting deaths due to lack of power.
Local Senators said they were doing all they could; the Federal Emergency Management Agency was trying to evacuate 25,000 people from New Orleans to Houston, 300 miles away. The President said he would provide all the funds needed. The Mayor of New Orleans put out an SOS saying he had run out of resources. Should other countries respond? World leaders sent in their condolences, but were diffident in offering help lest they be mistaken for sending clothes and cash to the richest nation in the world.
Time for more comparisons. `We helped Europe rebuild after the World War with a Marshall plan, and now we need others' help,' said some commentators. Papers quoted a resident wondering why we rush to help people in other countries and send soldiers but cannot help our own.
What is to happen to New Orleans? Can it be rebuilt into a `New New' Orleans? Or is the damage too severe to make reconstruction possible and the State has to be abandoned? One expert on the radio drew a comparison to Dresden and Tokyo. If those towns were fire bombed during the War and risen to ever-greater heights, so can New Orleans, he optimistically proclaimed.
(The author is professor of international business and strategic management at Suffolk University, Boston, US. His Internet address is email@example.com)
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