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Home > News > Columnists > B S Prakash

What it means to be an American?

January 10, 2007

This was the topic of a talk one evening by a not so well known professor at a well known think-tank in my city and naturally I went to listen. Why, naturally? Because, the title was arresting and one hoped to learn something on a question that is not as straight forward as it first looks.

Recently with the population of the US touching the 300 million mark, there has been much analysis on American society and its constituents. The people who now make up the 300 million are different in some significant ways from those who were in the 200 million in 1967, let alone the first 100 million in 1915.

Is the growth because of immigrants, if so legal or illegal; which segments of the American population are growing, which are stagnating or declining; are there essential attributes to be regarded as an American; is America today a cohesive society or a mere aggregation? All interesting issues.

Besides, there has been a great deal of contentious debate in the last year about illegal immigration, crossing 12 million, mainly from Mexico. How should America tackle this? I had thought I would get to hear about some of these issues. Besides, I am a sucker for lectures: listening to them and for giving them too, whenever an opportunity presents itself.

Questions of national identity are always fascinating. It is easier for some countries and people to say who they essentially are than for others. For instance, it was fairly simple at one time to answer 'Who was German?' as Germanness was a reasonably well understood attribute -- one language, one 'volk', one motherland even when split into two, one culture -- Goethe, Beethoven, Hegel, and a consciousness of being German forged through centuries.

The same cohesive identity might be true of Koreans. Today, however, for almost every country there are issues of diversity, ethnicity, migration and immigration which create complexity.

India takes the prize for complexity, as we all know. All that bewildering diversity and puzzling plurality. To explore 'the idea of India' requires a tome and any thesis will result in many argumentative Indians. I will come up with my own take on this issue another day.

The USA too is an immense land of great variety, many people, many races etc. So what are the attributes of an average American? This is what I was looking forward to hear as I set forth.

When I reached the venue, an impressive building in the centre of the city, there was already a small crowd waiting outside. This was a bit surprising. In my experience not too many people came for such sessions. Looking at the crowd I also noticed that there were two distinct types among those standing outside: typical Californians with their carefree air waited with nonchalance, talking or listening to their I-pods and they seemed to constitute the majority; and there were others, foreign looking like me and some also appearing a bit anxious.

We all hung around together. As the doors opened and we trooped inside, this mystery got solved. I realised that there were actually two events that evening in the building: the lecture on the meaning of being American which had taken me there, and another event -- a workshop on 'how to lose weight and gain happiness' being taught by a Chinese master. This was billed as the 'Body-Mind balance workshop' by Oriental master Lee.

True to form, most in the crowd who looked Californian headed to hear the Chinese healer. Apparently they knew who they were and hence 'American identity' held no mysteries to them, but the esoteric mysteries of the Orient and in this case the double whammy of 'losing weight and gaining happiness' had an appeal for them.

Our group went to the second smaller hall and when we settled down seemed to consist mainly of foreigners. It was soon evident to me that many had come under the mistaken notion that they would learn a trick or two which might help them in the immigration process, on the path to becoming truly American. As soon as some realised that what was in store was a socio-political discourse by a messianic-looking professor and not instructions by a slick immigration lawyer, they disappeared. Those of us remaining bore the full brunt of the eloquence of the professor on American identity.

From my point of view, the lecturer began promisingly and pedantically. The professor started with history but in a selective manner. He did not mention the original inhabitants of the continent of America at all -- the subject of the native 'Indians of America' is a bit sensitive and difficult to handle. But he proceeded to make the bold assertion that except for the ancestors of the African Americans who were brought in as slaves, America was essentially a nation of immigrants who came in voluntarily.

He asked the audience whether there were any naturalised American citizens, or in other words foreigners who had got citizenship. Some hands went up. He then made them describe the ceremony when they got citizenship and made the audience realise that the essence of it was swearing allegiance to the American constitution. Not to the Bible, or the Dictionary as the embodiment of the English language, he explained, but to the Constitution. America accepts people irrespective of race, religion or language, he pointed out.

He then proceeded to give us a spirited and eloquent account of the Declaration of Independence, the principles of the constitution and the truths which are held to be 'self evident' according to the founding fathers. These are the famous words regarding 'truth, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' as the inalienable rights of all human beings.

So far all very noble, understandable and admirable.

However, with some sleight of rhetoric, that I am still unable to recollect, he then shifted his point to arguing that what all this amounts to is a philosophy of unbridled individualism. Respect for the individual and not for any collective entity based on class, religion or sectarian identity, he said. All right, I thought.

Again in anther leap of logic, he started thundering that the business of America is business and that the most important freedom is freedom from the government. As he gained in vehemence, he seemed to lose in coherence. Every individual is for himself and has an obligation to promote his or her own interests and every body else is secondary, he kept saying with great emphasis. Here is a gist of some of his points and since the words resounded with so much emphasis that it got stuck in my mind:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

And some more in this vein. All linked somehow to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'.

We came out suitably confused and chastened. Others in the audience, of Chinese, Vietnamese or Mexican origin were looking bewildered. Believers in family, community and aspects beyond the individual, the pursuit of happiness defined so narrowly seemed to have shaken them. The associate of the professor gave us all free pamphlets, against new taxes, against gun control, against free medical care and much else.

As we stepped into the cold night, the other lecture also ended and true-blooded Americans, the blondes and the redheads with their Californian looks and twangy accents were also coming out.

'I am going on a tofu diet, instead of the carbohydrate-counting,' a pretty girl was saying. 'We must start the tai-chi: the balance on the heels is the key,' her companion was explaining.

'I think Yoga is gentler on the system than the Chinese exercises,' an elderly lady also walking out tried to tell these two.

"What were you guys listening to?" the young couple asked someone from our group eyeing us with curiosity. They knew that we were not in the class on losing weight or gaining happiness.

'A talk on "What it means to be American," some one in front of me said with some embarrassment. They were amused.

'Whatever' they said as they disappeared into the night giggling and happily holding hands. They were least interested.

"Whatever" I thought, best describes the spirit of being truly American.

B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

B S Prakash