Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness: lessons to add to US naturalization test

As we look forward to yet another year, I was musing on the year gone by. During the past year, I had the privilege of “using” my acquired passport to make a business trip across the pond to Switzerland, sans a visa: a big deal for those born with third world passports but something westerners take for granted as a birth right.

A friend, the other day asked if I felt any different about living in America as a naturalized citizen this year, and I began reflecting on what really makes Americans Tick.
The naturalization test focuses on several aspects of civics and American history that most kids here would have learnt by rote in middle school. To prepare for the “test,” USCIS provides a handy “guide” with about 100 questions and suggested answers. The modern American society, however, is much more complex and dynamic than any test can prepare one for. The concept of Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness that America’s founding fathers envisioned is being redefined, perhaps by every generation.
My two cents, shaped in part by the topics American mainstream media seems to focus on over and over
 
Middle class America
Americans like to believe they are a classless society, but like most other societies, there is a marked distinction between the rich and poor with a middle class sandwiched in between. If Americans believe their cities, unlike those in “third world” countries, aren’t bustling beggars in street corners, ask them about panhandlers with street signs. That’s one extreme end of the society; bottom of pyramid if you will. The other extreme is the mulit-million dollar mansions that dot Anytown USA.

The point at which the middle class begins at the bottom and ends towards upper class is a topic politicians love to bring up during elections (of course without providing answers)

Fascination with Economy: whatever the term means!

The term economy is used very loosely by media pundits, analysts and others fascinated by a number of “economic measures.” There is almost a constant focus on stock market, monthly labor market report, ISM manufacturing index, housing market, crude oil price  etc etc. ADP payroll report, and the monthly “Fed” FOMC meeting where they supposedly discuss heavy sounding fiscal topics like GDP, inflation, deflation, interest rates, Quantitative easing

There is enough in the news and media to entertain us but very little to help make educated decisions: if you listen to the “economic analysis” in the media, it is never the right time to invest in stocks, buy a house, Switch jobs, or have babies and start a family. But Americans do all this, all the time.
 
Politics: A nation deeply polarized by two parties (nothing new in any democracy!)

One is either a Republican or Democrat, with extremists and centrists on both sides sandwiching the Centrists. Generally speaking,
  • Democrats have socialistic or leftist leanings and believe that the role of government includes social and “welfare” net – social security, medicare, medicade, and now “obamacare”. They generally oppose unregulated business and finance, and favors progressive income taxes.
  • Republicans (a.ka GoP), on the other hand are rightist leaning, more socially conservative and economically libertarian and believe in minimalist government and governance. In a sense, the GoP believes capitalism is the panacea for all social problems.
Although Democrats are Left leaning, Americans can’t openly profess to being far left since any alignment to Communism or socialism is a big no no.  Interesting titbit: US naturalizationapplication still asks

“9. Have you ever been a member of or in any way associated (either directly or indirectly) with:
a.    The Communist Party?”
 
Even though both parties disagree on most aspects of governance, one thing that both Republicans and Democrats DO agree on is the larger role of America in global politics, including the military machine, which beats me: how can “big” government military be a sacred cow if Republicans dislike the idea of big government?  Is it because big military equals big spending equals big military contracts equals capitalism?  Of course, most Americans are unsure how we will pay for all this!
 
Gay marriage and right

Growing up in India in the eighties and early nineties, the term Gay wasn’t associated with sexuality, but rather used as a benign verb (as in “happy and gay”). Of course, Americans like most westerners continue to be deeply divided over their collective views on Gay, gay marriage and the role of LGBT community in the society.
This is a hot button topic if there was any. Just recently A&E media did a complete flip-flop after the Duck Commander Phil Robertson the hugely popular TV series “Duck Dynasty” made remarks on homosexuals

The catholic belt in America is certainly unwilling to come out in the open (pardon the pun) in support of Gays. And as of end of 2013, most states in the US still don’t recognize the union of two people who are not Man and Woman. This said, influential opinion makers in America – politicians, media and sports superstars and to a lesser extent corporate honchos – continue to “come out” and it is perhaps a matter of time before social opinion changes. And as if charity doesn’t just begin at home, Americans want to export their values on gay rights before they firm up at home: media loves highlighting suppression of gay rights in rest of the world – Russia, or Middle East and India (with the recent Supreme Court verdict)
Make no mistake; Gay rights are not just about freedom of sexuality. The real fight is for fiscal benefits and tax rights: are gay spouses entitled to the same benefits as that of heterosexual couple? Of course, there are several other angles here including Immigration rights: are gay spouses/ partners entitled to a visa to visit/immigrate?


Immigration reform

Immigration policy gets muddled when mixed with highly charged opinions on racial and economic protectionism. America that was much more whiter – Caucasian – even a generation ago, is finding itself browning and yellowing thanks to the legal and illegal migration of people of Hispanic and Asian origin. John or Jane Doe Americans, who take immense pride in their Italian, Irish or African heritage from several generations ago, are coming to terms with neighbors’ fresh of their boat, clinging to their Indian, Mexican and Chinese heritage and values. Not an easy situation to be in.
As of 2013, Even a “black” president in his second term, born to a black immigrant and Caucasian American native who takes prides in his himself on his  an international perspective has found it hard to change the perspectives (ref my review of Obama's Biography: Dreamsfrom My Father)

Bottomline: Most first-generation immigrants, self-included, have their favorite stories on immigration snafus or dealing with checkpoint Charlie at the border or embassy. The laws continue to be highly nebulous, and enforcement of policies more so. The only beneficiaries: immigration attorneys
 
This surely is not the last word on these hot-button topics shaping and influencing our views on life, liberty in our pursuit of happiness in 2014.

Happy New Year!