Saturday, March 12, 2011

The False Dream

I have never been one to speak of the "American Dream." I was always a bit skeptical of the concept, and thought it silly to collectively define ourselves by some "dream." The phrase is often utilized by politicians on the make and other demagogues. If someone is talking about the American Dream, you can generally expect it to be accompanied by flag-waving, cheap sentimentality and appeals to questionable historicism.

As I understand it, the "Dream" is simply the belief that each generation of Americans will enjoy a richer, more prosperous life than their parents--bigger, better, more. And that is supposed to be good thing--never mind the social, cultural, moral, financial and ecological wreckage resulting from 65 years of unrestrained consumerism. And yet, I am not convinced that this was necessarily the "dream" of our forebears. We Americans have always been money-crazy, to be sure (if you have any doubts, just brush up on your de Tocqueville.) But I think earlier generations simply wanted to make a good life for themselves. And they wanted their children to have a good life as well. The idea that each succeeding generation must be more prosperous and comfortable than the one before is very much a child of the 20th-century, I think. The hard times of the Depression years and the sacrifices during the Second World War gave way to a new era, one where, buoyed by incredible technical advances, America found itself at the top of the world. Americans seemed ready and eager to make up for lost time, hence the "Dream."

My parents fell in with most everyone else during that time. My dad and mother started off with absolutely nothing, and with no resources to fall back upon. But they knew how to work hard, and my dad knew how to put things together. In 1953, they built the big house -(for that day.) In 1963, they bought the first Cadillac--which they used to go on our first vacation. But having known poverty, they were never comfortable with any type of outward show of wealth. We always kept chickens, milked cows and had a big garden. My mother spent the summers working in the garden and canning. My dad always seemed to have a bunch of hay on the ground. Growing up, I suppose my "dream" was a summer not spent in the hayfield. About 1960 or 61, pursuit of the American Dream meant that my dad bought a Yellow Jacket ski boat for my brother who was in high school at the time. This was back in the day when such boats were still wooden, and I will have to say that it was a sharp looking outfit. Very young at the time, I vaguely remember being on the lake in the boat a couple of times at best. But one of those times stands out in my memory, for on that occasion I watched as my nearly 50-year old father tried his hand at water-skiing. Of all the images I have of my dad, this is one that clearly does not fit! Pursuit of the American Dream can put you in odd places. Looking back, I can see where I bought into it at times, myself. (I will, ahem, skip over the ridiculous places it took me.)

But at its core, the Dream is rotten. And now, in some quarters, there is a growing recognition of its basic emptiness. I recently watched an interview with Suze Orman, the colorful financial advisor on television. She is not someone I normally follow, but she was hawking her new book on MSNBC's Morning Joe, which is hands-down the best news show going, and the only television I watch with regularity. Ms. Orman had some wise things to say about how the American Dream--which she labels a false dream--has been redefined since 2008. What she describes as the "new dream" is something I could live with. I highly recommend the interview, here. (Unfortunately, the first 5 minutes of this segment are devoted to the latest idiocy out of the mouth of Newt Gingrich. Scroll forward if possible.)


Reader John said...

Very good. I don't watch Morning Joe or much else, but Orman is on the right track. However, it's only one little step, and I got the feeling she's trying to speak the new reality into being rather than merely noting what has, in fact, come to pass.
One of the things that must change, I think, is that the suburbs must disappear. They make us dependent on oil without, in their current configuration, allowing us to produce what a farm can produce.
Farms make sense; walkable cities and neighborhoods make sense; suburbs are senseless parts of the old American Dream.

Milton T. Burton said...

This is a very fine post, one concerning a subject I have been wrestling with myself here lately. Of course, Walker Percy maintained that the American Dream was a delusion from the beginning, and I think he was right. Mencken described human life as a "perpetual seeking yet never finding." I wonder if the majority of our countrymen will ever realize and acknowledge this?