The American Dream: what does that mean, exactly?

800px-J20_corporate_flag_dcWhen I was working on my undergraduate degree, I got stuck in a speech class with some shiny-eyed young women who were Republican, conservative and were quite proud to carry on every single value their parents taught them without any thought to how it fit into their futures and even less thought as to whether or not those values actually served or improved their parents’ lives.  A popular argument they kept raising was, “It’s the American dream…” These girls believed in the dream. They thought of it as a documented fact. But when asked to elucidate it, the smarter of them got a fuzzy look on her face and stammered out, “If you work hard enough you’ll succeed!”

I didn’t ask if her parents were both hardworking AND successful. I did gather, from comments made in class that her parents were divorced and struggling, and I did get the impression they were very hard working. But it was clear that those girls’ families had not achieved that so-called dream, yet the girs believed in it, had faith in it, like it was their Jesus about to come again.

And here’s what I have to tell you: There never was an American dream. It is a popular illusion, a vague idea about two cars per driveway and a TV per household.

The Library of Congress offers this on the subject: “The term was first used by James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America which was written in 1931. He states: “The American Dream is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

So, according to Truslow, the American dream is nothing more – and nothing less – than equal opportunity. And it is equal opportunity, but there is no promise of equal outcome. Considering that he wrote this during the Great Depression, this is still astonishingly optimistic and amazingly gender inclusive for the time. He wrote this when most North Americans had nothing but the land they’d grabbed.

Without getting into a complex capitalistic argument, I want to say this: quit quoting “the American dream.” First of all, Martin Luther King’s dream was much more interesting and productive. And second of all, I actually believe his dream existed and has real meaning.

I am absolutely loyal to my country, but I don’t think its mythologies are serving anyone particularly well these days. George Washington never did chop that cherry tree, and Abraham Lincoln is the guy who said “You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

This is the age where citizens need to start claiming all of their rights and responsibilities far and beyond just voting, rather than snoozing on about an illusory dream.