Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The American Dream at 241

Is the American Dream Really Dead? is the title of a recent article (in the US edition of The Guardian) by Carol Graham, author of Happiness for All? Unequal Hopes and Lives in Pursuit of the American Dream (Princeton University Press, 2017)Her contention is that both the facts and our attitudes about what we used to call “the American Dream” have changed. The facts are familiar enough by now: "While 90% of the children born in 1940 ended up in higher ranks of the income distribution than their parents, only 40% of those born in 1980 have done so." But the attitudinal shift may be even more significant: "in 2016, only 38% of Americans thought their children would be better off than they are." Maybe even more amazing in terms of attitude: "Poor people in the US were 20 times less likely to believe hard work would get them ahead than were the poor in Latin America, even though the latter are significantly worse off in material terms." In short, her research leads her to "find strong evidence that the American dream is in tatters, at least."

Just as our popular culture has tended to trivialize our national holiday into little more than an occasion for hot dogs and fireworks, we likewise may tend at times to reduce "the American Dream" to its merely material and consumerist components. But for James Truslow Adams, who coined the now familiar term, it was "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” (The Epic of America, 1931).

When I was in elementary school, in addition to memorizing lots of poems and the answers to catechism questions, we also had to memorize the Preamble to the United States Constitution. My guess is that students do a lot less memorizing today - to their loss. And they probably don't memorize the Preamble any more - to their loss and to our entire society's loss.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. 

I have highlighted certain words in that once universally familiar text. Those words are all about us - not as isolated libertarian individuals forever fearful of each other and of society as enemies of our supposed freedom, but as a society (albeit imperfect) of authentically free persons united as a community in pursuit of the common good - a society that extends as well to future generations to whom we are also obligated as we are obligated in the present to one another.

Needless to say, that is about as opposite as one can get from the dominant ideology of our current ruling Party. No wonder our society seems so sadly fragmented on its 241st birthday!

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