Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Tocqueville to H1B's: Allure of America

The July 4th celebrations just wound down across America from 'sea to shining sea'. I watched the fireworks at Lake George, NY on July 2nd. Today the telecast from NYC and DC was spell binding. Just as John Adams had wished Americans celebrated July 4th with pomp and fireworks. Incidentally FeTNA, an umbrella organization of the numerous Tamil associations across US, held its annual celebration, as usual, around July 4th. Without getting into the merits of what they celebrate, the fact to be appreciated is that such celebrations by ethnic communities is a beautiful American character. I've often listened to immigrants jeeringly say "after all this is a country of immigrants". The subtext is a certain haughtiness that America lacks history or 'native' culture. Nothing quite gets my goat as that comment.

I was at the Library of Congress and was thrilled to walk through the cavernous halls. The roof was replete with quotes from western literature, names of giants in every discipline were engraved on pillars. Goethe, Faust, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Newton, Linnaeus etc find mention. Of course one could scoff at this and say "after all, America, with its recent history lacks the tradition of having such geniuses as its 'sons of soil'". Far from it. I see this celebration of geniuses from every imaginable corner as America's own is the quintessential American character. America has named satellites after S.Chandrasekhar (Nobel laureate) and Kalpana Chawla (died in Shuttle disaster). Both immigrants. No other country in the world, to my knowledge, says if you have a PhD you will be labelled as "National Essential Worker" and gives a permanent residency within 6 months. No other country in the world gives children of immigrants, legal and illegal, citizenship by virtue of being born in USA.

If I say "given a chance most of the world would emigrate here" many would consider it repulsive. US has a lottery scheme of allotting 55,000 green card on a lottery basis for ensuring 'diversity'. Last year the number of applicants were 15 MILLION. In recent years a small percentage of Indians return to India, for many reasons of their own. Yet the inflow continues unabated. But for the shameful green card mess more Indians would eagerly apply for H1B's.

The allure of America is not only in recent years. This country has drawn immigrants for nearly 300 years in wave after wave and has forged its own character that is quite unique and could be unhesitatingly called "American Culture".

Alexis de Tocqueville , French visitor, wanted to study America and write about. His masterly commentary "Democracy in America" (Pub 1835) is still read with interest for 180 years. Born just after the French revolution Tocqueville was enamored by the country across the Atlantic. He created an excuse to come to America, to study Prison systems in America, and wrote his book after a year of going around America. Tocqueville wrote a book that was largely laudatory about America but very much alive to America's original sin, slavery.

Many have visited the famed Smithsonian museums in Washington DC. How many would know that they were established by a British Scientist who bequeathed his wealth to create an institution in America, not his own England. For 150+ years that institution has lived true to goals of its founder and we benefit from it.

Given the propensity of today's intellectuals to rant against America it is easily forgotten that it was to America that intellectuals, fleeing Nazism and fascism and later communism, came. America cheerfully hugged Albert Einstein and the many Jewish scientists who fled Hitler. While this is mostly well known little is known of literary intellectuals who fled and found a home in Los Angeles. Economist recently reviewed a biography of Heinrich Mann, brother of Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann. Both Mann's had fled Nazi Germany. German literary giants, like Bertolt Brecht along with Mann, created a movement in US for 'Exile Literature' .

The other most famous exile was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who fled the Gulags of USSR. Safely ensconced in picturesque Vermont he scolded America for its consumerism. It is to USA that Nabokov too came. He later taught in Cornell University.

Andrew Grove, legendary CEO of Intel, escaped Nazis first and then the Communists. Grove's immigration from Hungary is the stuff of magical lore. Grove, said of his 20 years in Hungary, "by the time I was twenty, I had lived through a Hungarian Fascist dictatorship, German military occupation, the Nazi's 'final solution', the siege of Budapest by the Soviet Red Army....". Grove arrived in USA in 1957, as the wiki entry says, "with little money and unable to speak English". The rest of Grove's story is, as the cliche goes, 'history'.

No other social program of India has lifted so many thousands of family into prosperity as the American H1B program. The thousands who came to US came, mostly, with a few hundred dollars and two suitcases. Of those two suitcases only one would carry clothes, the other would be for utensils, Indian spices, cooking notes etc. With this spartan possession many of those who came have stayed, become citizens, raised families, created wealth for themselves and for their families and for America too. America has welcomed and hugged H1B's. Many H1B's, like many other immigrants, do not appreciate the deeper intellectual traditions of this great country nor do they make efforts to school themselves in the history of USA. Visiting Smithsonian's and reading a smattering most immigrants do not even know one tenth of America. Many do not even give credence to what made America the super power that it is today. The genius of America, unlike European countries, is in allowing the immigrants to take their own times across generations to assimilate. As always the first generation tries to hold on to vestiges of what they know and cherish of 'back home'. The subsequent generations assimilate without hassles and contribute to the quintessential "American Dream".

Whether its the millions applying for lottery or scientists and literature giants fleeing persecution or the educated thousands who come searching for greener pastures America has an allure for many a human being across the globe.

Culture is not just some fabled ancient literature or the ability to claim antiquity. Emma Lazarus, whose sonnet adorns the Statue of Liberty, wrote acidly "Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp". That America makes it possible for so many to come, earn, live freely, and pursue their happiness is the best form of culture.

This July 4 I'd like to celebrate the idea of America.

1 comment:

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