The following is the first part of a roundtable discussion on the American Dream. The participants are BL1Y (BL1Y), Shadow Hand (SH), Philadelphia Lawyer (PL) and Dr. Rob Dobrenski (Dr. Rob). In Part I we will be discussing just what the American Dream is. Part II will discuss how we got here, and Part III will look at where we are going.
The conversation took place over e-mail and has been edited for readability, and to remove maybe one or two poorly digested ideas.
BL1Y: Let's start at the start, since the American Dream is a term that gets used in a lot of different contexts, from Republican political stumps to Democratic political stumps, it would be useful to figure out just what we mean when we refer to the "American Dream," and whether it is a single coherent idea, or something that means different things to different people.
So, just what is the American Dream anyways?
SH: Steve McQueen once said “I worked hard, and if you work hard you get the goodies.” That’s what most people think the American Dream is. If you work hard, you’ll get rewarded for it. And that my friends, is a fallacy. The American Dream is about freedom, so maybe the more appropriate quote would be from P.J. O’Rourke: “America wasn't founded so that we could all be better. America was founded so we could all be anything we damned well pleased.” That’s what my parents were thinking about when they left the Soviet Union. They didn’t think they would come here and become millionaires overnight. They came here because the option was available.
Is it still relevant? Is the dream dead? Yes, and no. It all depends on your mindset. I would say that as an immigrant I have an advantage over someone born here. I was raised with my parents constantly reminding me that had they stayed in Russia I would have been drafted and subjected to the cruelest basic training program this side of Hell. I read about journalists getting killed in Russia for criticizing the government and realize I could never survive in an environment like that. But who knows, maybe if I was raised in that environment I would adapt to it. I’m grateful I don’t have to find out.
Now I could easily say that yes the Dream is dead, talk about how the Constitution is being dragged through shit on a daily basis, how the Dream has been perverted and how we have become a Nation of middle-men…and it would all be true, to a degree. But the truth is my life is exponentially better here than it would be in Russia. You see, I can’t be cynical about the Dream because then all the sacrifices my parents made to escape the Iron Curtain would have been in vain. Like I said, it’s all about your mindset.
PL: The American Dream is freedom to be left alone, to succeed or fail on your own. It's the promise that with effort, or luck, or both, you can find an unmolested happiness. And when I say unmolested, I mean in the sense you aren't bogged down with endless barbed wires of mindless regulation and compulsion to participate in programs a government deems beneficial for you... that you can make a living on your own terms, responsible for yourself. It's as much the freedom to fail, and perhaps die early as a result of your bad choices, as it is freedom to prosper.
But it's not just liberation from a heavy-handed state. It's liberation from the tyranny of uncontrollable, stifling forces that would subjugate society to their small-minded ends. And by that I mean, it's freedom from the chains of this silly corporate McWorld we've created. Many of us - hell, most us – have no choice but to work for mega-corporations/organizations/firms. These companies enjoy crony contracts with the government that give them marketplace power far exceeding what they'd have in a true free market. And with that power, they suck in everything around them like giant black holes, commoditizing and monetizing all interactions in our lives. Chopping every transaction into a form of tradable economic units, placing the majority of the country on a treadmill to nowhere, making many of us debt serfs from cradle to grave.
Consider the average upper middle class neighborhood. Most everybody works for some monster corporation, hospital network, law firm, or financial company. Their piss gets tested once a year, their comments in the workplace are constrained by zero tolerance policy handbooks, their social media's monitored by some creep in HR doing a monthly sweep to ensure against "brand damage," and their retirements are tied up in some company pension or 401k. They shop at big boxes like Wal Mart, Target, and Coach, buy what they're told is desirable in endless marketing messages they're bombarded with every day, and watch news created by the a handful of networks all owned by the same five or six multibillion dollar conglomerates. Once a month they walk to the mailbox and make a mortgage payment to a bank so enormous it doesn't even know where their note is located.
Is this the American Dream? No. That's a society squeezed between corporate and government taskmasters. If the Founding Fathers those Tea Party idiots flog so frequently were alive, they'd choke back gallons of vomit viewing the mass of blissfully incurious, told-what-to-do robots we've become.
So no, you won't find the American Dream on Main Street. Main Street's brain dead - a shitpen where the herd sleeps. And it's been that way for years. The American Dream is elsewhere - with the entrepreneurs. With the kids starting the new businesses and hoping to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. With the guy leaving his corporate job to do what a thing a he has a passion for because he realizes the money is never going to be enough, and the shit you can buy with it
- the accrual of rapidly depreciating material Main Street mistakes as the Dream - is but a temporary junkie's fix, a fill-in for the fact that we are not doing That Which Interests, Fulfills, or Enriches Us.
And that - that right there - that is the American Dream. The promise that you can forge your own way, carve your own road. That you can be your own man. You might not make a fortune in it. You might not even succeed. But You Can Try, and though the forces all around you are doing their damnedest to corral you into robotry, to put you "back in line," you have a choice.* You can still say, "Nope. Fuck that. I'm going to strike out on my own and see where it goes."
* "Get Back in the Line," Davies, Lola, Powerman an the Moneygoround (1971). See also: "Get Back in Line," Kilmister, The World is Yours (2010).
BL1Y: I agree with Phila about what the American Dream ought to be, but I don't think that's what it actually is for many people, and certainly not how it is portrayed in popular media.
I'd always understood the American Dream to be achieving a level of success at least one solid notch higher than you parents. If your parents didn't graduate from high school, you will, and maybe even go to junior college. If your parents were first generation college grads with degrees in useful fields like engineering or computer science, you'd take more of a luxury fluff degree, like English or political science, and then tack a JD on at the end.
If your dad worked a blue collar job, you'll work a white collar one. If he sat in a cube farm all his life, you'll be a middle manager with an office and a shared secretary. If he bought 5 year old used cars and drove them for another 15, you'll buy new, maybe even lease.
By nature, we humans are terrible at figuring out the value of things in a vacuum. But, put them in context, let us compare them to the value of other similar things, and we do okay. Very often, we use our parents are the baseline, and the aim of the American Dream is to improve upon that starting point in enough ways to feel like you did something with your life.
Trouble starts with how the Dream is to be interpreted by children of upper-middle class families. For instance, both of my parents went to college, and my mom has a master's degree. They work for the government and make very nice salaries, especially for their low cost of living. To get into the next higher life achievement category, I'd likely need to become at least an of counsel or junior partner at a large law firm with a McMansion and a stock nouveau riche sports car. Odds on attaining that, even coming out of a top law school, are slim.
Like many people with similar backgrounds to my own, I started to realize what my parents hadn't attained: meaningful careers. They go to work, schedule meetings, shuffle some papers around, attend the meeting, shuffle more papers around, fill out a time sheet, and go home. Google Maps is more than a decade away from being able to plot the route from what my parents do to any end product or tangible result. The work itself doesn't matter to them, they just want the paycheck, some security, and to know that if they take a shorter lunch break they'll be free to leave 15 minutes early.
I think this is why you see so many lawyers and other highly educated people taking bizarre career changes. Why would you give up making a fat paycheck arguing motions in bankruptcy proceedings for finance firms to sell cupcakes and live near the poverty line? Because when you hand the cupcake to the customer, you see the smile on their face and know how your work affects other people. From the moment the bell on your door jingles until they begin regretting eating all that fat and calories, you are their favorite person in the world.
You know you might surpass your parents' income in a normal professional career, but not by enough to get a sense of fulfillment from that alone. So, you abandon the trajectory they had laid out for the American Dream, and you set off in a completely new direction. And this is where I agree with Phila. For some people the meaningfulness in their career will be having a direct impact on the world, but for others it will mean breaking free of the institutions and regulations that our parents accepted as a permanent fixture and achieving the autonomy and dignity they never enjoyed.
Dr. Rob: I've always wondered why anyone who wasn't a gun-toting, Constitution clutching, ignorant Tea Partier actually called it the "American" Dream. I'm not an economics expert, nor do I know much about foreign countries or other cultures, but surely there are plenty of nations that allow for the freedoms and opportunities that can be had here. The word "American" in this context usually is just some bullshit jingoism that allows us to be falsely believe that the United States is the greatest country in the world.
For way too many Americans, the dream is simply what we were told growing up by people who were told the same thing when they were growing up: get some semblance of an education, marry, buy a house in the suburbs, have 2 children, work a pointless job, save for retirement, retire, watch your grandkids grow up, die. It's usually around the "work a pointless job" link in the series that people come to see me, that they realize that this dream is more of a chimera. The people who really achieve the dream are the ones who are a hybrid of the cupcake salesman and Zuckerberg: having meaning in what you do on a daily basis and just enough resources to be able to enjoy at least some of things life has to offer. To be brutally frank, I have that. Now that doesn't always translate into happiness; hell, I'm cranky and misanthropic more often than not, but when I really weigh out what I have going on as it relates to what others would truly like out of life, I have to acknowledge that I'm in the top 1%. This is not gloating, I was simply fortunate enough to be blessed with a slightly above average IQ and a parent who inculcated in me the fact that something in the healing professions was the path toward enjoying life. It also helped that I suck at math and science and economics and languages and engineering and law and business and finance.
BL1Y: I should probably take umbrage with Rob's disparagement of Constitution clutchers, given that I had my copy within reach when I read his e-mail, but I imagine he's referring to people who haven't cracked the spine on theirs. We could debate whether America is the greatest country in the world, or simply the greatest contemporary country in the world, but that's a whole other conversation.
I wonder though if there is some positive psychological value to the American Dream. Most of us don't like feeling that we're hypocrites, or assholes, or are taking advantage of others, and the idea that everyone has a fair shake to make it in life makes it easier to feel good about the society we live in, and with our own successes. I don't have to feel bad about being part of a country with more pay day loan shops than schools, because I've bought into the American mythology. It squeezes out other thoughts and let's me have a default state of liking my country, and liking that I'm part of it.
It also works to provide a feeling of personal fairness in life. The American Dream relies on the premise that we live in a meritocracy. Sure, some people have better connections, or family wealth, and get a head start, but the idea is that if you work hard you can at least achieve a good outcome, even if you never become wealthy. Compared to the alternative, that whatever you do in life won't matter because it's all just random crap, or worse, that evil corporate interests are actively plotting to keep you down, the American Dream is pretty comforting.
Not saying that the Dream necessarily reflects reality in America, and I think it's pretty obvious for a certain amount of the population it does not. But, as far as a story you can tell yourself to help you sleep at night, I don't think it's all that bad. Sure, some people will end up making some stupid life decisions chasing a hand-me-down dream that doesn't fit, but they don't seem too much worse off than most of the people I know who believe that the world (or at least America) is a cruel, conniving, antagonistic place. If given the choice between wearing a big dumb grin or a tinfoil hat, I'll take the grin please.
Dr. Rob: Go ahead and take the grin, but you damn as fuck better well acknowledge that it's based, at least in part, on delusional thinking. And that's fine. We need a modicum of healthy denial in our lives to stay sane. All you have to do is open a newspaper or click on CNN.com to see a colossal amount of misery in both this country and the world. So you either put down the paper, or say "thank God that's not me," or even feel empathy for a few moments for the suffering of others. But then you move on. You could think about your impending death all day long, but that wouldn't necessarily serve you well. So you drop it and go about your day. You almost have to think of Manifest Destiny as a realized dream, lest you feel shame at being an American.
But the current level of arrogance and blind patriotism, the kind that Palin and Limbaugh prey upon, is what makes the American Dream so silly. It allows you to sleep at night, but only because you can mentally wave an American flag and say that we don't keep our citizens behind fences with machine guns. But we all know there's homelessness, poverty, mental illness, physical disease, racism, homophobia and plenty of other ills that will make a so-called level playing field very, very hard for a lot of people. That's not fairness, that's a misguided belief that people can overcome any obstacle. It's also not true. Some do it and they end up writing a memoir or go on Oprah or have a movie made about them, but that's a fraction of a percentage of those who have the deck stacked against them. The vast majority start with nothing and end with nothing. The resources, both internal and external, are simply not there.
Example: a kid born in the slums of Toledo (where I did my graduate studies, so know I'm not making this up), has an I.Q. of 72. His parents are addicts and he ends up in a group home after the state sees his parents as unfit. Now some asshole in middle class America is going to say, "rise above your biology and environment, boy. Work hard and you can achieve anything. That's the American way!"
Is that so? What the fuck is a kid with an I.Q. of 72 going to do without a colossal amount of help? Where would he even start, by getting straight A's and a scholarship to college? In fact, if he even knew where to start or could seek out appropriate help, his I.Q. wouldn't be 72 now, would it?
You can claim that this kid is an outlier, that America isn't really like that, but you'd be either wrong or lying. That shit is everywhere and these people have almost no chance. Virtually none. The ones who escape that life generally have a phenomenal amount of luck, incredibly high God-given intelligence, or both. They are not the norm. So you can't ever say to these kids coming out of the womb, with every possible negative box checked, "break out your Constitution, son! This is the land of opportunity."
SH: Dr. Rob brought up an interesting point. Any one think that the "American Dream" as we know it is nothing more than a marketing ploy? (Or maybe someone did and I haven't been paying attention.) When Tea Baggers scream "I want my country back!" when people talk about "going back to a simpler time," I assume they're talking about the 1950s. The "Leave it to Beaver" years. When a man walked into his suburban home after a hard day's work to a home-cooked meal. Think of the time though. The Cold War was heating up, everyone was afraid the Russians would drop the bomb at any moment. People were narking on their neighbors afraid they were Soviet spies. It seems a society living in a constant state of paranoid, suspicious alertness could use a break. The American Dream marketing campaign as we know it was born of the Cold War. People needed motivation to fight the Russians. America had to prove that its way of life was superior to that of the Soviets. The idea that if you work hard you get the girl, the house in the suburbs, the kids, the home-cooked meal, etc., all comes from the Cold War.
BL1Y: Before the history nerds go ape shit, the concept of the American Dream dates back to the 1700s. But, what I think Shadow Hand means is that its current form is a Cold War relic. Where Americans used to dream of liberty, as Phila described, now they dream of following one of a handful of life scripts.
[At this point imagine the other panelists all nod in agreement and golf clap in response to BL1Y's brilliant synthesis of the ideas.
Stay tuned for Part II, which will be posted whenever it's posted.]