Wednesday, September 02, 2009

#72 The American Dream 10/08

I had started an on-line opinion poll and discovered after all the
preliminaries that it was about the American Dream. Did I believe that I
had reached that dream or that I still could? Did I believe my children
would have more chance of attaining it than I had? Did I believe everybody
in the country could get there?

I found myself at a loss. How could I answer these questions if I wasn’t
even sure what the American Dream was? The way I hear it talked about, it
has everything to do with materialism--a house in the suburbs with a lawn
and a white picket fence; a new car every two years; rising success at a
white collar job; luxury cruises and five-star-hotel vacations.

I’ve never had any of these things, don’t want them, and wouldn’t wish them
on anybody I love. The house in the suburbs seems too isolated from
community. The series of new cars is planned obsolescence at its worst, and
a recipe for global disaster. The career focus obscures the question of
what gives life meaning. The pampered vacation, which those who do the
pampering could never afford, highlights the ugly inequalities of our
system. If this is the American Dream, I would be happier if we all woke

But the survey doesn’t give me the option of saying this, or asking
clarifying questions. It has, however, piqued my curiosity, so I do little
research. One source calls the American Dream a “belief in the freedom that
allows all citizens and residents of the United States to achieve their
goals in life through hard work.” The idea is that, without the rigid
European class structure, anybody can get ahead if they want to.

I see two flaws here. One is that it’s hard to set goals outside of one’s
cultural context, and if material wealth and winning out over others are
relentlessly rammed home as the ultimate in achievement, then any other goal
falls short. The second is that, like it or not, we still have a class
structure. Just look at how legally-sanctioned discriminatory lending
policies made it almost impossible for hard-working Black Americans to build
wealth till well after World War II, and how economic disparities are
greater now in our country than ever before.

I could stop here, but I would rather be a believer than a cynic, so I
investigate further. I find that the term was first used by James Truslow
Adams in 1931. He says that 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."

Well now. I’ve been in a cranky and contentious mode, but do I want to
argue with this? Divested of all the trappings of materialism, I would have
to say that this is a worthy dream, and one that I do believe in. But I
couldn’t cast it so narrowly. I would want it not only for myself, my
family and my fellow Americans, but for all humanity. Now, THAT would be a
Dream worth working for.


The Sox, down in the series,
come back to force game seven.
Our visitors,
a Pole and two Scots,
are clueless.

I remember a season
picking apples
on crisp October days
long ago,
resting over lunch
and hearing a radio
far far away.
It was too far
to make out words,
yet the rhythm, the cadence
called forth knowledge
deep in my bones—
unmistakably a ball game.

throws out its lure
over the years
across the land,
an old song that is always new,
leisure and tension entwined
in the taut expectancy of each pitch.

Not caring,
I am still drawn in
every time.

Is the purpose of the game
to round the bases
score a run
make an out?
(all words
almost too familiar to explain--
the translation is halting,
like telling an alien
how to breathe)

Or is it a context
for being alive
with others
on a long summer evening
or a crisp October day?


Blogger wollstonecraft said...

Hello Pamela, I'm commenting on your lovely essay from the perspective of living with the constant possibility of sudden homelessness, mainly resulting from a medical crisis. The last thing I want is a "dream." I want income, I want to be able to support a dignified life for myself, and I want to make a contribution. At the end of my life, I'd like to know that my little corner of the world is a bit of a nicer place for my having occupied it.

My compliments on a very nice blog! Best, Patty Quinn

2:54 PM  

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