Full circle

Full circle
Ordering a cheesesteak can be daunting and some might say...requires bravery, Photo Credit: Corbis

America, that charming country and society of immigrants, reinvented itself with the election of Obama

Shobhana Sridhar
March 14 , 2014
03 Min Read

Reports suggest that somewhere between one and two million people crowded into Washington DC for the inauguration of Barack Obama, more than doubling the population of this staid little city of broad, empty avenues. After eight years, America was ready to begin again at year zero. For a country that wears its history lightly (the past, however troubled, is swiftly incorporated into a national myth of irrepressible progress), the Bush years have been unusually wearying, eroding the optimism and confidence that Americans seem always to have assumed is their birthright.

But by electing Obama, America has once again reinvented itself, and those of us who have succumbed to America-fatigue ought to consider rekindling our fondness for this vast and various country. Obama is celebrated in the US as its first African-American president. On its own, this is historic enough but he is also perhaps the world’s first truly cosmopolitan leader — polymorphous and protean, his background makes him, like a character in the best fiction, at once intensely particular and universal. 

The 2008 election showcased America’s most admirable quality: its openness, paradoxical in a country long accused of self-absorption. America is famously a society of immigrants, its composite culture shaped and reshaped by successive swathes of outsiders. Nowhere is this more evident than New York, a city that doesn’t so much absorb newcomers as suck them into its vortex. You become a New Yorker as soon as you stride purposefully into the miasmic maw of the subway, resisting the temptation to gawp skyward.

For the visitor, once the embassy gauntlet has been run, America’s genial indifference to strangers is a boon. Never feeling too closely watched, too foreign, too conspicuous, the stranger is free to make what he will of America. The visitor is seduced by the prospect of forging his own path. Naturally, the shibboleth America most cherishes about itself is the open road — freedom and possibility in the beguiling form of a rented convertible and a stretch of tarmac. 

Even 20 years ago R.K. Narayan was able to write that, “America and India are profoundly different in attitude and philosophy... Indian philosophy stresses austerity... America’s emphasis, on the other hand, is on material acquisition and the limitless pursuit of prosperity.” Since those words were written, Indian consumerism has become almost American in its cupidity, while in America it is the morning after the night before. The lower prices and cheaper, more attractive packages mean that this is as good a time as any for Indian tourists to be travelling to America. 

These are a reminder of America’s manifold charms: the awesome beauty of the Grand Canyon; the manufactured kitsch of Las Vegas; New York’s Museum of Modern Artthe Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Philly cheesesteaks; Napa Valley wineries; the raffish pleasures of Mardi Gras; the rather more wholesome appeal of Disneyland; California’s looming redwoods; Chicago’s downtown skyscrapers. 

So pervasive is America, so large the shadow it casts, so prosaic is America that it is easy to forget its poetry. Easy to forget Sunset Boulevard, Route 66, New York’s snaggle-toothed skyline at night, the vividness of its egg-yolk yellow taxicabs, the sound of jazz in New Orleans and everywhere an implacable faith in the individual. Once, America was the repository of people’s dreams, where people fled to escape ancient hatreds, to remake society. We shouldn’t forget and we shouldn’t allow America to forget its place in our collective imagination.

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