02 August 2008

The Death of the American Dream

Write an essay on this subject and I will publish it here...

LUND--It is getting onwards towards late up here in Ultima Thule. That's what the Romans called it, this place of ice-gnawing savages far, far out of the reach of the civilized world. Now the local Nazi wannabees like the term. I suppose it does sound cool and Conan. No darkies would dare live in a place called sumpin' like that or whatever their twisted little brains might imagine. But I don't care much about them Nazzees anyhoo. What we're talking about tonight ladies and gentlemen and gentlefolk of all persuasions is THE AMERICAN DREAM. I have been reading the collection of Hunter Thompson's letters and his never finished book of that title. The damn thing is that book is the summation of everything he wrote. It is the question. It is a life work and fitting that it was never summed up in a book simply titled that. The question is too big.

But it is a question worth asking. What is the American dream? As I see it it was the greatest experiment in freedom and democracy ever to take place and, in ways, resulted in the best and most free society ever to exist in the history of humankind. But somewhere along the way we have lost our way. I hesitate to write more as I have been too influenced as of late with Mr. Thompson's inimitable style which is not my own and should never be imitated despite the temptation to do such.

I was debating this tonight with my Swede. Her idea, and I apologize if I misquote her, is that the American dream is the ability to, with ones gun and personal strength and fortitude, defend one's family and personal belongings, to kill whoever it is that might take those away, be it Indians, Cattle Barons, Evil Railroad men or garden variety thugs, perverts and serial killers. And then to be LEFT ALONE. If one wants to also protect and or help one's neighbors then that is fine and good but one is under no such obligation. And that, pretty much is the American dream... According to a Swede. And I can't all in all disagree but I don't think that is all.

So what is the American dream? How was it killed? Was it? Or did it just die of neglect? I want your opinions.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the "Swede" is making a Hollywood judgment,that is a judgment based not just on insufficient evidence, but on evidence drawn from a most superficial source - Hollywood. While I would not go so far as to say that only Americans can identify what was, or is the American dream, it seems clear that most of us do have some idea of what it was, and perhaps still is.

First of, the American dream was not just an American dream. We are a melting pot nation, made up of English, French, Germans, Irish, Chinese, and even Swedes. Our dream was the dream they could not fulfill in their own countries. It was a dream to limit the power of government, through checks and balances, and to permit freedom of choice, if those choices did not harm others. The methods developed by our American ancestors for limiting the power of leadership have been exported around the world.

Other than that, the American dream was to raise a family in peace and some prosperity, to not have to see our children suffer from disease or hunger. We wanted to be able to talk freely against our government, which was another mechanism for limiting its power, we wanted to be free to worship the god of our choice, and to have freedom of the press -- yet another way of limiting the influence of government.

These dreams were an important step, but you do raise the question of what killed them, or, worded differently, are our American dreams dead? I would imagine that the American dreams are not dead, but it will take some considerable threat to make us reunite. What has brought this about was aunique strength we had -- individualism -- became all consuming and self-indulgent. Once selfish, it is hard to find a saintly path to sacrifice for others and for ideas bigger than ourselves.

11:48 PM  
Anonymous talytr said...

Your anonymous commenter defined it pretty acurately.

I had to laugh at the obsession over guns, I remember your swede stating at one point that she thought American politeness stemmed from always fearing that the American next to you could shoot you down. So sad that Hollywood has influenced even the intelligent of other countries. Richard Bushman in The Refinement of America examined the development of manners in America and stated that they developed in a land of strangers as a means of identifying intent, background, education, etc.

But on to the American Dream, as your anonymous commenter stated, individualism is synonymous with American identity, and the American Dream is an individual dream. We always identify ourselves by our dreams, the bartender that mixed your martini is actually a photographer...the window washer of the high rise is putting his son through medical school... the clerk at the corner market is a blogger... We don't embrace a unilateral American identity, but have learned to respect the multiple cultures that thrive in our borders. The concept of citizenship extends to whatever community we choose--church, city where we live or city where we work, on-line, neighborhood, and most Americans are actively involved in chosen community.

The great experiment that is our system of government is a learning process, much like the maturation process, and one cannot in good conscience define Americans by our administrations. We have proved time and time again that we will act with independence if a cause is right (Underground Railroad, and the current Ferrocarril Subterráneo).

Perhaps the world does not recognize that our collective Dream is an honoring of individual dreams, but the people who apply for visas every year do.

7:17 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Ah T.,
I knew I could count on you to weigh in on this question. I was rather certain as well that the anonymous comment was not yours, both because it was anonymous and that, though well written, lacks your particular verbal flourish and élan. No offense to anonymous, by the way.

But both of you may have missed the crux of the Swede's argument in the hyperbole of guns and EVIL CATTLE BARONS. Her point, I think she would agree, has been more or less made by both your responses interestingly enough. Her point, or among her points, was that Americans take care of themselves and/or their immediate own. That once the problem has been dealt with through personal fortitude the most we want is to be LEFT ALONE to pursue our own gains and fortune and freedom without regard to, shall we say, the collective whole.

I, and I think both commentators, agree with this albeit with reservations.

As for our politeness and gun ownership, the two do, I think, have a link. T., you are quite correct as to the reasons, ie: living in a land of strangers in a strange environment we announce who we are and where we come from but to some degree I think we do, or did this anyway, in order to know AND to assure the other's friendliness or lack thereof. It is a means of getting to know one another in a strange and ofttimes savage land and a method of risk assessment.

One problem, as I see it, is that we have abdicated much of our wish for that personal freedom without having matured, or whatever one may wish to call it, into a society that cares for the collective. We identify with the rugged individualist but feel we are owed the tender care of a mommy-state, to save our whales and eat them too. What this has resulted in is often a collection of misanthropic adolescents who want to feel good about themselves regardless of the cost, even if that cost comes at the expense of their own liberty.

Please keep commenting. This could shape up into an interesting debate.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Here, In My Head said...

I think if we look at the very basic "definition" of The American Dream we can discover why it might be dying. In origin, it was the ability for a person, native or foreigner, to work hard, at the factory, farm, or business of choice, and be able to provide for their children. To give the next generation all that we did not have. For many, it was the ability to give our children the chance at a higher education. Or simply to work hard enough so that once the children were raised and of adult age and living on their own, to retire and enjoy the country we live in.

This idea of giving the next generation a better life than our own has survived to some extent. Most parents do everything in their power to ensure that their children can go to college and pursue their individual dreams. Many parents continue to finance their children even after college so that they can explore their own individual arts and endeavors. People work hard everyday to bring home a paycheck, to own their own home, provide for their families and then retire when it’s time.

Somewhere along the way, however, it became less about having the basic tools for providing for the next generation and more about prosperity and wealth, material possessions. One may ask themselves today, in my generation, what more could we provide for our children that we don’t currently have?

Furthermore, I do believe that the life of the American Dream is linked to our economy. To work hard, to own a home and provide for your children in that home is the crux of the American Dream. Today, this country is losing millions of jobs that are outsourced, manufacturing plants are closing, and without a higher degree of education, it is nearly impossible to get a job. To get a higher education degree is increasing more difficult as the tuition of even state colleges continue to go up every year. One has the option of getting loans for college, but even now, in the news this Monday, companies that finance college education have had to cancel their loans because they are unable to back them up, leaving thousands of students without funding a month before school starts. When they do get a government-backed loan, they exit college largely in debt. They need a job within six months to begin paying off that loan and well paying jobs are becoming more and more difficult to find.

Returning to the hard working individual, it used to be in this country that people found a job and stayed at that company until they retired. This is no longer the case. Even if they did, cost-of-living wage increases are declining every year. People are not making enough to support the increases in fuel cost or even the price of food. Employees are no longer treated as the company’s best asset. Companies are rescinding their retirement benefit packages, forcing people to work much longer than they had hoped. More people today work beyond the age of 60 than ever before in this country because they cannot afford to retire. The money they paid into social security provides very little if at all.

To own a home in which you can live and raise your children. Millions of people are losing their homes every year now as foreclosures claim victims of bad mortgages.

And so, today, the basics of The American Dream become harder and harder for the middle-class American to obtain. So when one does obtain it, they do everything in their power, including guns, to protect it, as there are many forces that would attempt to destroy it: a bad economy, a corrupt mortgage company, the thief who would break into your home to steal your possessions and sell it for a drug fix, the pervert who would attempt to get close to your children and destroy their lives, and the list goes on.

All this said, I do not believe The American Dream is completely dead. Regardless of all the things that come into our paths that could destroy us, we still get up everyday and go to work, and work hard so that we can have a family and enjoy some comforts, to send our children to college and then our children work hard after college to pay off that debt and get settled into our careers of choice so that someday we too can raise a family. We still work hard to define ourselves by our individual goals and dreams and do what we can to make those dreams happen. It just takes a lot more work today than it did in the past. But as long as we are able, we are willing.

1:29 PM  
Anonymous talytr said...

The elephant in the room, of course is capitalism, and how this fresh-faced country so steeped in democratic virtue became in the course of two centuries the paradigm of the excesses of capitalism.

How did this country evolve from a nation based on equality (and yes, yes, I know all the arguments having to do with race, land ownership, etc. related to the founding fathers' interpretation of equality) to a country with an extrememly marked--although seldom acknowledged--class divide...an oligarchy where the court's fools weigh in on grave affairs, and the peasants have no regard for "the collective whole"? How, how?

But the other elephant in the room is the significant global changes in the dissemination and acceptance of ideas due to transportation and technology. Cultural predilections ingrained for centuries are far more likely to successfully weather these changes and maintain a national identity (which really is more of a 19th century phenomena, we would be far more accurate to call it a regional identity) than a land of strangers who share only the ideal of individual success. But... I think you and your Swede fail to appreciate (or perhaps simply to state) that Americans would be as inclined to take up arms to defend their neighbor's American Dream as they would to defend their own...

I'm sure you have read the ideas of America's greatest capitalst--Bill Gates--related to a 'new capitalism' that recognizes that social responsibility is critical to national success...yet another step in the maturation of a people.

4:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where did I, anonymous, lead you to think that I agreed with the "Swede's" self-interest model as being the AMERICAN MODEL. First of all, the Swedish model is not a self-sacrificing model; their behavior is not saintly in its altruism. Give me some examples of their "universal" altruism; recognize that they are basically a capitalistic country. That does not mean Marxist, it means business based. Second, I challenge you to find any country -- any healthy society -- on the face of the earth where protecting kin is not a priority for most citizens. In this, Americans are like all others. Treating kin preferentially is a human trait, not just an American one. Why do you call that selfish?

I tire of Europeans criticising Americans when they base that criticism on only a superficial reading of the complexity of American life. It is worse, when these prejudices are said to be the thoughts of an intellect. It is tiresome when Europeans ignore the mote in their own eyes and criticise the one in the eye of Americans

10:57 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Well ANONYMOUS, the Swede really needs to comment herself in order to clarify these points so I will not speak for her. As for myself, I too am tired of ofttimes hypocritically self-congratulatory European "selflessness" in comparison to Americans though I don't really think this is her point. Sweden is quite obviously a business-based, capitalist society and not a Marxist one. Right around this area are many large, multi-national, Swedish corporations that provide much of the tax base that funds the Swedish system: Sony-Ericsson, Astra Zeneca, Tetra-Pac and quite a few others not to mention the Swedish involvement in the international arms trade (Saab, Bofors, etc.).

Where, however, do I call protecting kin selfish? You are also assuming, in many ways, criticisms that are not necessarily present. I anyway, would argue that the Swedish and American systems are different but are so in many ways due to historical and geographical reasons--that those who would argue that the US ought to model themselves on the Scandinavian countries would first have to consider the fact that Sweden is a large country of only 9 million, fairly homogeneous people, isolated up on the North side of the planet and with no natural enemies to speak of other than Danes, bears and moose. These and other factors provide hem with an ability to run a society in a certain manner. America's vast land, large heterogeneous population natural resources and dangers make it an entirely different place altogether.

But the original question remains once we have established the essence of the American Dream. Is it still with us?

2:11 AM  
Anonymous Jake said...

I would like you to send my royalty check with regards to the second paragraph of your last post directly to the Farmer's and Savings Bank in Loudonville. Thank you...come again.

10:59 AM  

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