November 27, 2010
What is the American Dream, anyway?
This is sort of a Thanksgiving post.
In his New York Times column this week, Bob Herbert asserts that “However you want to define the American dream, there is not much of it that’s left anymore.”
This is something I’ve thought a lot about for months now, and I still can’t decide whether I agree. With the essentials of Herbert’s column, or with the notion that the American dream is over.
I agree that however you look at it, we are in deep, deep trouble, and that we need a clear and realistic view of what kind of trouble if we’re ever going to address it effectively. But it does matter very much how we define the American dream when we’re questioning whether not there’s any of it left or whether it’s worth reviving. A lot of Herbert’s conception of the American dream has to do with economic security and standard of living. And I’m not saying those things aren’t important benchmarks of a country’s well-being, or that we don’t have severe problems in these areas right now. I don’t disagree that “the U.S. needs to develop a full-employment economy that provides jobs for all who want to work at pay that enables the workers and their families to enjoy a decent standard of living.” But I’m not convinced at all that that’s what the real promise of America consists of, or should, or ever did. Everything he says is true, is real, is a big problem, but I’m just not sure any of it defines the essential crisis that we’re in.
Here is what the American dream means to me: that America is a place of ever-renewable hope and individual opportunity. Where we have confidence in our Constitutional protections as the inviolable law of the land. Where we know that we are our government, and it is answerable to us. Where we can trust that every single one of us will be treated fairly and equally, whether seeking employment or education or redress in the courts, without regard to our color, religion, gender, sexuality, disability, or wealth. Where we defend the rights of others as our own.
Of course my version of the American dream is as unreal and elusive as Herbert’s. It has never actually been the case for probably the majority of Americans. It has always and only ever been an ideal, an aspiration, which we’ve lived up to with progressive but extremely inconsistent degrees of success. A dream. There has never been a golden age of fairness and prosperity for all that was stolen from us.
What I see is that we don’t just lack any confidence or trust in our leaders and faith that we matter to our government; we don’t believe in each other. We don’t see each other as contributors to the solutions we need. We don’t only lack a clear and accurate view of what our problems are; we don’t even have a common vision to work and share and sacrifice for.
We need to pull together somehow, for ourselves and for each other. I’m just not sure how.