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Identity and America January 11, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, india, rant.
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I came across this article by the Indian Consul-general in San Francisco, where he writes about “What it means to be American”. I was quite surprised to see a title as presumptuous as that in an Indian portal. It was quite interesting to read – not that any of that is new – they stand out from what we read in American newspapers, blogs and magazines. Nevertheless, when it all comes into one article, it made for a good reading. I am ripping apart his paragraphs and putting them in a more readable and commentable manner.

a) Respect for the individual and not for any collective entity based on class, religion or sectarian identity.

b) The business of America is business and that the most important freedom is freedom from the government. To be a true American is to distrust the government. The state can be an umpire of our rights, not the arbiter of our fates.

c) The spirit of America is to oppose taxes. Taxes are a necessary evil, no doubt, but if we are true to the first principles, we must oppose any growth in government and above all any new taxes.

d) The right to carry arms makes us distinctive. To be American is to defend the right to defend oneself. Guns define American identity — a point that I had heard made aggressively earlier, which I have described in an earlier column — Guns and Roses.

e) Extremism in the cause of liberty is no vice and moderation in the defense of freedom no virtue — a quote from the arch conservative Senator Goldwater.

Point e. is more of rhetoric and I would not really comment on that.

Point a. has been something I have lived with and agreed with for several years now – my stay in this country hasnt significantly changed that – perhaps some reinforcement.

Point d. seemed absolutely preposterous until quite recently. It seems so even today. But I dont have a defence for the fundamental argument in its favor : Say you are at home with your family. An armed burglar breaks in. If you had a licensed gun, you could protect your life and that of your family. But if the state/government banned firearms, you don’t have one. The burglar comes in and shoots your spouse and child, you are seriously injured. Who is responsible for this ? America translates gun control to – “You dont have the right to self-defence, you have to lay down your life and that of your family for the sake of an ‘orderly’ society.” In other words, in the larger interest of the society, you have to make that big a sacrifice. I cant come to terms with Point d. and may never will. But I wont have a strong rebuttal to the argument above either. Let me know if you have one.

Point C. is getting more and more reasonable by the day.

Point B. is the big one – which I consider as the single biggest contribution of America to my political science education – the relationship between the citizen and the state. For most of my life, I thought that liberty means freedom from slavery/foreign rule etc., that its the freedom from the state is something I can comprehend better now. I have written about it before.

Any of this ‘acculturation’ is not an attempt to be anything other than what I am. We travel, we make homes in different places, within our country and outside and we learn new things – some stay on for the duration of our stay and some forever thereafter. Infact, we adapt to the point that enables us to survive and have a good time – nothing more, nothing less. It happened in Assam too, except not as much as perhaps in a foreign country.

I am of the firm belief that intrinsically the place you grow up is really what we fundamentally are. For the same reason, I disapprove of first generation immigrants who want to bring up their children in a totally Indian way. While the actual reason for settling here is that of a more comfortable life and better economic opportunity (nothing wrong with it per se), it often gets cloaked in alibis like better opportunities for children. And as the children to grow up, they are expected to learn only Bharatnatyam, play the tabla and not the violin, be good at mathematics and science and not American history, play with other Indian kids ( if they are allowed to play at all ). I think its extremely selfish on the part of some of the parents who insist so. If that is what they seek, it can be better accomplished back home without ruining your children’s life, leaving them confused and eventually having them hate everything that India stands for.

Perhaps a little simplistic, but essence is what I am getting at.

P.S: Meanwhile the article itself attacted very poorly expressed comments. I think in terms of meaningful discourse, the Outlook magazine comments section is less of a waste of time.

P.P.S : CNBC reporter asks why :

I would like to guess but will pass. I don’t know whats more worrying, whether they do or they do not. Actually, it is my submission that only 5 per cent of self-exiles actually ask questions. To the credit of this 5 per cent, as I have seen in some cases, they can go through considerable heartburn. The other 90 per cent I would argue, do not even pose these questions. Of course there are many who steadfastly maintain Indian citizenship. We would all know some of them.

I always wonder why Indians (sure, maybe many Chinese do as well) find it so simple to switch nationalities ? Or is it that it does not matter when you are in the flow, student to H1B (or equivalent) to Green Card to citizen. Where is the time or energy to ponder where you really belong ?

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