On being an American

The Fourth of July is a great opportunity to reflect on what it means to be an American. And what more patriotic place to start our reflection than a movie called Stripes1? In the film, Bill Murray’s character gives a pep talk to his fellow Army recruits:

“We’re all very different people. We’re not Watusi. We’re not Spartans. We’re Americans, with a capital ‘A’, huh? You know what that means? Do ya? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse. We’re the underdog. We’re mutts!”

American FlagThat tongue-in-cheek speech has always resonated with me because of the kernel of truth in it. To a large degree, America was founded and initially populated by people who didn’t fit in anywhere else. The Pilgrims and their spiritual brethren came here because they wanted to worship and express beliefs in religions that were outside the mainstream (and frequently outside the law in their native European countries). Others with strong streaks of individualism came here seeking riches or adventure — things that were increasingly tough to find in the more developed and more tightly governed nations they left behind. These were the individuals who would develop into everything from cowboys to industrialists.

When it came time to form a government after the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers rejected much of what existed in other 18th century governments. Instead they chose elements from governments that had existed millennia earlier, or elements that had never existed in practice (and could only be found in marginalized political theory). In other words, they took ideas that had been rejected, ignored or banned by the rulers of their day.

And what was one of the core critical beliefs upon which they founded the new government? The belief that every person — whether Boston Brahmin2 or “mutt” — was entitled to individual freedom and the right to determine their own fate. The freedom to be yourself remains just as central to 21st century America. Ours is a country where everyone has the right to be different, to be rebellious or to live their life a little bit off the beaten track.

I was lucky enough to be born here3. My wife Priya was born in another country (India), but chose to immigrate to the U.S. to pursue her dreams. Our stories are repeated 307 million times over, yet every story is still unique.

The Fourth of July is a great opportunity to reflect on what it means to be an American. My personal viewpoint may be a little different than most, but the bottom line is that I am able to have and publicly express that opinion because I am an American. Now go celebrate the Fourth of July, because it’s your right as a mutt!

Notes:

  1. Director Ivan Reitman originally thought up the idea for Stripes as “Cheech and Chong Join the Army”. Cheech and Chong, however, didn’t buy in to that idea. Source: Stripes Special Edition DVD, 2006. []
  2. The “Brahmin” may have been the cream of the social scene in young America, but apparently they couldn’t spell. []
  3. Where else could five of my schools friends and I have started a successful computer business ... at age 16? []

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