In one of my rather random internet travels, I found a brief article on how Time magazine often composes different covers (and thus different cover stories) for the United States versus literally every other country. One example is found in the different covers featuring “Made in China”, for the rest of the world, and the United States’ version “The History of the American Dream.” More aptly, the subtitle to the US cover was “Is it Dying?” This last one struck me. As the Chinese market takes over the electronic industry, the American Dream - that promise of a land of opportunity - could be dying.
Jon Meacham’s article based upon the cover, entitled “Keeping the Dream Alive”, was enlightening. Meacham begins with a brief background on the now-common phrase “the American Dream.” Though first used in 1931 by James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America, the American dream was no new idea. It had been around since our founding fathers, or before that with the first settlers of the unknown continent. The idea of America as a land of a new beginning, to rewrite the wrongs of the past and move toward an amazing new future, has been around for centuries. While America has been through much - many wars and depressions, much cultural, social and economic pressure - throughout it all we’ve still prospered and from Meacham’s viewpoint the American Dream lived.
But now has this dream died? Has the chance to rise from the ashes and have that iconic white picket fence been relegated to a dusty shelf of years gone-by? While 90% of Americans identify themselves as middle-class, specialists argue that middle-class may be better defined now by aspiration rather than actual possessions. Meacham summarizes our present problem in a few words:
“The unemployment rate is dispiritingly high. The nation’s long-term fiscal health is at risk, and the American political system… shows no sign of reaching solutions… It is more difficult now than in the past for many people to achieve middle-class status because prices for certain key goods — health care, college and housing — have gone up faster than income… Americans are making less now than they were when Bill Clinton was in the White House.” (Meacham, Keep the Dream Alive)
Then come the devastating words, “The American dream may be slipping away.”, along with the hopeful words, “We have overcome such challenges before.” Meacham argues that the way to restore and refurbish our dying dream is to know the history behind it. While I certainly agree that understanding where you have been is very helpful, I do not think it is the full answer to the problem of the dying American Dream. I believe that along with a history lesson should come a good lesson on perspective. I submit the points below as a brief synopsis on this perspective:
It was through vigorous toil and blood, sweat and tear that the untamed expanse of the once mysterious western continent was tamed. It was at the loss of life and limb that the resources held within this vast continent where loosed and allowed to propel a country to superpower status while at the same time showing the world as a whole a new standard of freedom and enterprise. Many sacrifices were made and many challenges overcome to establish what some have called the American Dream.
If you were to speak with those early settlers and pioneers, I don’t believe they would speak of dreams. I think they would talk of work, strain, and danger. I believe that the idea of dream would have been foreign to the people who established the foundations for what was to rise up in the American continent. Even great industrialists like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Ford would have not reflected on the idea of a dream, but more likely, they would have referred to hard work and vision. It is not that these leaders were not dreamers. But instead they were too engrossed in the daily toil of building their visions to be stuck dreaming while work was to be done.
Picture via Business Insider
White picket fences and shiny new cars were not the American Dream to our forefathers. Their “dream”, or rather their toil, was the freedom to work in pursuit of the happiness so desired. Their labor was to provide freedom for their posterity to have a country where people would be at liberty to live as they choose and pursue their endeavors as they saw fit, with an understanding that one should be proud of their honest labor regardless of the “dream” it produced.
If the American Dream is in fact dying, what is to be lost? Is it the visions of picket fences or the proclamation of joining the “middle class”? Does the death of the American Dream mean a discontinuance of the entitlement mentality that pervades society in the United States? Does it mean that we can no longer expect that we will have that which is entitled to us because of our citizenship? If this is the case, I would suggest that the death of the American Dream is not such a bad thing.
Remember that the American Dream was never to be dreamed by those living in America. The dream was for those who lived outside the fortunate borders of this great country. The American Dream was the life that those on the outside saw Americans living. Those living in America lived the American Life. That would be a life that endures hardship, has hope in a bright future, raises standards so that all might experience a better tomorrow and WORKS so that our posterity will have the opportunity to live the American Life after we have expired.
So as a matter of perspective, if by having the American Dream die, the citizens of the United States can be resurrected to that same honor of freedom and responsibility to fellow citizen that moved the people of the Continental United States to risk all and sacrifice even life in pursuit of an idea, I say bring on the twilight. The American Life is so much more than white picket fences or a middle class title. It is in the pursuit that we live, the dream can go to hell.