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On The Dusty Soil

July 2024
3min read

Life would be a great deal simpler, of course, if people who want to do their duty by one another and by their common country could more easily see just what that duty may involve. The faith that can move mountains may be a common heritage, but the mountains will not be moved unless the faith can be put to work in the most effective way. We need to know, not merely what we want to do but how we can best go about doing it.

A brooding examination of this problem is contained in Arthur Goodfriend’s book, The Twisted Image . Mr. Goodfriend spent a good many years in India, as an official of the United States Information Service, and he remarks that our valiant attempt to present democracy’s argument to the people of the world’s new nations goes along a path that is all strewn with booby traps.

Democracy is engaged with Communism in a struggle for the minds of men all over the world—in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere. We believe firmly that democracy has far more to offer and that its advantages will be self-evident if we just present its case fairly, openly, and thoroughly. So far we are on solid ground; the questions we have trouble answering are the simple ones—whom do we present this case to, and how do we present it?

President Eisenhower once said that what is involved is “a contest for the beliefs, the convictions, the very innermost soul of the human being,” and when he wrote the charter for the agency which was set up to carry on this contest he instructed it “to submit evidence to peoples of other nations by means of communications techniques that the objectives and policies of the United States are in harmony with and will advance their legitimate aspirations for freedom, progress, and peace.”

This says it admirably. What bothers Mr. Goodfriend is the fact that in India we too often use the wrong arguments and address them to the wrong people. One difficulty apparently has been that although we have been most anxious to open Indian minds to American viewpoints we have not always done very well at opening our own minds to Indian viewpoints. We tend, as Mr. Goodfriend sees it, to speak to the elite, to the educated, to the relatively fortunate who already know a good deal about the modern world which India is entering and who have a fair understanding of what we are all about; doing so, we risk bypassing the immense majority altogether, even though it is that majority which may eventually determine where India goes. Trying to show that American democracy means a more abundant life, we are likely to picture ourselves as a nation of gadget-worshippers, materialists whose possessions are perhaps to be coveted but whose spiritual aspirations are wholly incomprehensible.

The United States Information Service, Mr. Goodfriend says, “aimed at the pinnacle of India’s population; communism burrowed at the base. … While we dealt with those presently in power, communism aimed at the successors to the present regime.” The case in India was like that in Asia and Africa: “Everywhere we faced insurgency situations where the battlefield was the bush, the paddy field and the village, and where all the power America could muster was useless except as it applied to the peasantry on whose understanding and loyalty victory or defeat depended.”

The key, Mr. Goodfriend suggests, may be simple humility. He does not think we are going to get very far with the Indians, or with any other colonial people struggling as the Indians are struggling against ignorance, poverty, and injustice, by arguing with them or by showing them what democracy has done for us; perhaps what we need is to get down into the arena and, as friendly equals, show what democracy—and we—can do for them.

Too often, as Mr. Goodfriend remembers things, we have simply tried to dazzle them. To present exhibits of common American household appliances like dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, and garbage disposals may indeed show that the happy people of America have at their service a large number of useful labor-saving devices, whose existence doubtless proves that democracy and abundance go hand in hand; the trouble is that this kind of language goes clear over the village Indian’s head. How can it fail to do so? A garbage disposal, for instance, costs more than his entire year’s income, and since he knows nothing about machinery it is incomprehensible to boot.

The Twisted Image , by Arthur Goodfriend. St. Martin’s Press. 264 pp. $5.95.

Before he left India Mr. Goodfriend asked an Indian holy man who has spent his life working with the villagers what message he ought to take back to the American people. The holy man considered, and then quoted a verse from Rabindranath Tagore:

“Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads. Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut? Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee! He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the pathmaker is breaking stones. He is with them in sun and in shower, and His garment is covered with dust. Put off thy holy mantle and even like Him come down on the dusty soil!”

The holy man paused, and then said: “That is my message to America. Come down on the dusty soil.”

When you stop to think about it, this is an essential element in the democratic tradition.

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