American Exceptionalism and a Thousand Year Itch

Partha Chakraborty-

Partha Chakraborty

Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain, and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own.

Flag Day was established at the suggestion of US Senators who needed an excuse to go back home early, so said comedian Jimmy Kimmel as he heralded six new US Citizens, yours truly included, with “illegal Chinese fireworks” and a shower of ticker-tape. Beyond a deliberate show of the ridiculous, the sentiment behind is real. A nation born of people who previously had little connection to it; for the people who swear by its principles of inclusion, welcome and opportunity for all; and by the people who will do whatever necessary to make their individual and collective dream a reality is a force to reckon with. That is the core of American Exceptionalism even in these days of crazy talk, and crazier behavior; and that is why I chose to be “Just American’d”.

Below is a love letter to the country I chose to call myself part of on the day we celebrate that the Experiment in self-rule, democracy, and supremacy on the individual.

People who cross the chasm into the unknown are the chosen ones, most are chosen only by themselves. Even a tired and starving refugee at the door has taken the initiative to cross the high seas or hey walked, and made possible to walk, the Rio Grande of despair for cities on the hill.  Immigrants and refugees may appear a flotsam, but they did choose to mortgage their current, history and homestead, as a down-payment for an unknown future possibly thousands of miles away. They, truly, are the dreamers. A newcomer from South Asia or the Middle East, just as from anywhere else, faces a rupture from behind, and a million reasons to not to feel like they belong to their new domain – even a domain they chose themselves.

I am one of them, I should know.

All of us carry a thousand-year itch – a tapestry that weaves under our skin so that we instinctively think alike or act differently together. Even assuming we were all fed the gospels of the West by the spoonful – movies, music, and, despairingly, fast food – lands ahoy are foreign to us. It is not like anything we touched, smelled or seen up close before. It is not the same value system, same institutional knowledge, same roads that we could previously walk with our eyes barely open. No matter if we land in the camaraderie of Ithaca, NY, or we are blinded by the scorched earth in Arizona, let it be acknowledged that we are aliens of our own choosing.

A thousand-year itch works the other way too. If you are a child of the Empire where the Sun never set before, you could be wary of the new alien next door when it is dark outside – tales of retribution are what gospels are made of. If your ideas of liberté face-masked figurines of my people traipsing down your promenade, fraternité may be hard to call upon. When a coal mine closes in the wilds of Appalachia, roughnecks emerging in soot from down under quite likely will have trouble accepting as brothers those new faces still picking fruits at below subsistence wages. It takes time for us to expand boundaries of trust and camaraderie, likewise for our hosts and new neighbors.

This is not a value judgment and it works both ways – that is just the way it is and has always been across history and across borders – geographic and cultural.

Both US and Europe ask newcomers to change, as does every other accepting country. There is a critical difference though. When grand edifices along Champs-Élysées beckon a tourist with their beauty, they bring their own itch in the face, without even knowing, meeting the thousand-year-itch of the wanderer. When skyscrapers on Fifth block the sky, we only see a history that goes back a quarter that, not even. What is more, we see others making a similar – and equally difficult, at times more violent, at times more inhuman – voyage. We read stories of them facing the same contempt at home, new and old, and somehow, we find them getting past the hump. Newcomers may talk about dreaming of a villa up a distant coast upon eventual return, most choose to stay back in tenements on Lower East till their last breath.

Self-selection motivates them to choose to be in the company of others similarly inclined, even if ex-ante they had nothing in common but for their common embrace of the shared unknown.

If that is not exceptional, what is?

Exceptional because this land, our land, is a land of carpetbaggers, of seemingly rootless people, of people lost and found only by themselves, of eternal itinerants of Lazarus, huddled masses of every generation. Exceptional because dreamers who dare the unknown are so, in and by themselves. Exceptionalism is also because “We the People” are tied to each other by an invisible hand that is rooted in our evolutionary instincts infinitely longer lasting than a mere (few) thousand years’ collective memory. Exceptional, if only because it is organic, self-correcting and self-fulfilling in its whole; designed to never warrant, nor engender hopefully, a tyranny of origin, of ancestry, of religion or of any other identity whatsoever.

Exceptional because you do not have to belong for generations to be American. You can appear on its doors, oath to the Founding Principles, live within her laws for a few years – and you’re it!! If the country were not founded by heretics and apostates of whatever hue, if this country were not designed to welcome the riff-raff and twice-born, if the society – overtime – did not strive to overcome initial frustrations about newbies, would this still be a nation? The ringing answer is “No”, America would not deserve the flag it salutes now.

We are not chosen by history; we are chosen by ourselves. And that is why a newcomer here is less susceptible, by design, to heretics of doom.  The first truth that is self-evident to us is that everybody is chasing something – even minimal existence here takes effort, and that is true for everyone. Equally. And the story goes from there – coexistence, competition, cooperation, fellow feeling and, finally, family. It is a delicate balance that is joyful if only most play to the tune, it is radically discordant else.

The existing system is copious and capable enough to accommodate most of our individual peccadillos, we rarely find a need to heed to voices in the shadows. Since our everyday existence takes so much of our time, and the downside of losing peace is so high, we simply cannot afford to have them in force – the vocal majority flushes them out quite efficiently. It is a stable equilibrium with enough countervailing forces to bring it to tether. Put simply, we just do not have time for nonsense. It is exceptional because the mundane saves the mandate.

America does not have grandiose gates of imposing beauty for people to walk in, America is not supposed have walls in the first place. America does not have a points-based system that lends itself to manipulation. America is not even trying too hard to rope you in. Many people wait a decade or more before the process takes its course to citizenship – I came in as a student a full twenty-three years before was granted the privileges of citizenship.

Yet, crowds pour in. It keeps the nation young, vibrant, entrepreneurial bubbling with fresh ideas. We know there may be brickbats at first, but somehow – somehow – we are convinced the tide is going to turn in our favor, and that we too will get to define the next chapter of America the Beautiful. It ain’t perfect; just like life, it is a work in progress, refreshingly so.

That is indeed exceptional. It is only possible because Land of the Free was also free of a Thousand Year Itch.  This Fourth, let us take a vow that we will remain that way.